Last July, I set off for France to walk part of the Camino de Santiago with my good friend, Abi. After endless changes of mind, Abi settled on the Via Turonensis and I tried to find a suitably flat and easy to access section of the route for us to explore. Had I been on my own, I would have chosen a hillier terrain but Abi had not done any sport since leaving high school ten years ago. This trip was not about getting her into shape. It was about us, two childhood friends spending time together.
So it was that on the 14th of July, I found myself at the foot of Saint Jean d’Angély’s abbey with Abi and our two backpacks – mine rugged and its colours faded from years of use, hers unscathed and still its original fluorescent blue. We glanced at the abbey before looking at each other, both of us grinning and impatient to have the monument to our backs. We took our first step, the grand building overlooking us as we departed the sleepy town.
When our stomach grumbled, we spread our kitchen in the forum of a deserted village, feeling we had hiked far. In truth we had barely done 10 kilometres but the scenery had already been quite varied. After the town, we had entered a forest, exited it between wheat fields, seen vineyards in the distance and been shadowed by sunflowers fields. We didn’t know it yet, but those and the chalk under our feet would become our daily views under an endless blue sky and burning sun. But on that morning we were lucky, the clouds were grey, the air was cool. The Camino was easing us gently into its arms.
Our stomach satiated we went on at an easy pace, our bodies and mind still fresh and fuelled by the novelty of the experience. I forgot the time and was happy to keep on until dinner when we could set up camp and fall asleep under the stars. This wasn’t the case for Abi. She became worried as the hours went by. She wanted to find shelter for the night but there were none in sight. According to our guidebook, we were halfway through an official stage and there were no accommodations available near us. We did spot a few signs advertising B&Bs but they all remained out of reach.
“What about wild camping?” I had broached the subject several times in our planning stages but Abi had remained reticent at the idea. “I’ve spotted several good spots already and the village is deserted,” I added before she could reply.
“Let’s go on. I don’t want to retrace our steps.”
I agreed and let her mull over my proposition. I had mentioned it earlier today and although she hadn’t refused, she hadn’t agreed either. We carried on silently for another five minutes and stopped by the council offices to refill our bottles at the water pump. Just behind the main building was a large field of grass with picnic tables, tennis courts, and a pétanque area.
“This looks good. Should we rest here for a while? There’s even tables for dinner.”
“This would be nice to wild camp. I can even set the tarp like a tent here.” It was not ideal as it was far from sheltered from view, but I knew Abi would be reassured by the familiarity of the environment and the pretend safety of the buildings around. I looked at her pleadingly.
“Okay.” She smiled, resolved to the idea of wild camping and almost eager to try on this new experience.
I nodded and we opened our bags, ready to unpack for the night.
We cooked and ate dinner before I set up the tarp. She was intrigued at how I would manage to turn a flat sheet into a tent and observed the proceedings carefully.
“Tadam,” I exclaimed as I hammered the last peg into the ground. “Want to try it?”
She hesitantly crawled inside. “This is actually quite big!”
“We can even cram the bags between us,” I added. And that was it. She was happy with the idea of wild camping. We laid down our sleeping mats and bags, slid in, opened our books and within minutes we were asleep.
We awoke to the distinctive stereo thumb, thumb, thumb of a tennis ball hitting the ground. I emerged from the tarp half awake, the sunlight blinding me for a moment, and looked towards the tennis court. Two early risers were enjoying a game, unconcerned by our camp a few metres from them. Abi got out of the tarp and for a moment we enjoyed a private match.
When we finally took to the roads the sun was already high in the sky, the clouds having deserted us at some point in the night. Our bodies found their rhythm, slowly getting accustomed to this new life, and we fell quiet. I paid more attention to our surroundings and what had appeared very familiar at first sight, grew stranger. I had been raised in France but not this part of the country. My territories lie in the north where the red brick rules over white stone, and where vineyards grow on slopes and not flat terrain. If I closed my eyes, the smell of freshly cut straw sent me back to a time when I would join my uncle in his tractor for the harvest. But when I raised my eyelids, I was blinded by a sun too bright, too hot. In this moment, I felt like going back north and slowly meander from my home to the south to discover my birth country in its entirety and get to truly know it.
We stopped for lunch in a bakery, the appearance and smell the same throughout France, and shared a frugal meal under the shade of the church opposite. As we were ready to depart, the owner came to bid us farewell.
“May God be with you,” she said as she pressed our hands hard between hers.
I was taken aback for a moment. I had dismissed the Camino as a religious pilgrimage because it wasn’t for me. I was after a good time with a friend on the trails of France. But the truth was, the people we met on the way were all on a pilgrimage, carrying a bible in their bag and stopping in churches for mass. As the baker’s wife released our hands, I made a mental note to remember that and to be more aware of the significance of this path I was treading.
We left under the shade of forest trees and ambled towards Saintes. The city welcomed with a pungent recycling centre but soon the streets became residential and opened up into large avenues leading to the city centre. We collected our stamps at the tourism office and set off to the pilgrim’s hostel. I was reluctant to go, wishing we could have finished the day in a field by the river, but for this trip I wasn’t the only one making decisions. We followed the signs through narrow lanes that led us to a big church. A small door at the back invited us through the vicarage and we found the entrance of the hostel tucked under a pillar. We peered in tentatively and were greeted by an older man waving us in energetically.
“Welcome! Have you come far?”
“Well, we started in Saint Jean d’Angély yesterday,” I tentatively answered as we crammed in the small entrance with our bags. On the early stages of a trip, I always find this question difficult to answer. I have the feeling that people expect me to have come far and are slightly disappointed by my meagre apology of “I’ve just started”. But the man at reception seemed not to mind.
“My name’s Didier. Let me show you around.” He rose from his chair and took us to the adjacent room. The hostel was located in an old outpost of the church. The modern polished bunk beds and table looked odd against the bulging stone walls, as if someone had placed them in a basement for storage. But to our eyes, especially Abi’s, this was perfect. We would have shelter for the night and a bed to rest our weary bodies in exchange for a few euros that would help keep the hostel open.
We set out early for the first time since we had began this walk, both of us wanting to make the most of the cool hours of the day but also to reached Pons, our next destination. This stage of the Camino was not set to be fun. According to our maps we would have to follow roads for a good part of the morning before joining a long straight chalk path parallel to an A-road for the rest of the day.
“Are we at Berneuil yet,” I moaned for the third time in fifteen minutes, my feet trailing through the dust. Abi handed me the map without even a glance in my direction. I grabbed it. “Thanks,” I mumbled. I didn’t open it. It would have required that I stop and look at the features around me to find our spot, but I was afraid that if I did I would not be able to start again. It wasn’t midday yet but the heat was already hammering us down. I slid the map in my pocket and resumed staring straight ahead, hoping that the next intersection would bring a sign proclaiming the entrance of the village.
A while later, a road crossed our trail with a sign perched at eye level pointing to Berneuil, one kilometre away. Our hearts sank. We had had vision of stopping in the bar our guide mentioned for a cold drink and a nap on the grass by the church. But all of this was one kilometre away from the Camino, in the blazing sun. We looked at each other, a mirror of disappointment. Under the sign stretched a small expanse of grass. Three young trees lining the tarmac provided some streaks of shade. I fell in one of them, Abi followed suit in another. Our lukewarm water would have to do.
Refreshed after a long nap, we set off for the afternoon, determined not to let the heat drag us down for the rest of the day. We took to singing at the top of our voices and made up a few songs to amuse ourselves and ignore the growing discomfort of our feet. But as we approached Pons, Abi had had enough of the constant pounding of our shoes against asphalt and chalk. I cheered and encouraged her until we finally reached the pilgrim’s hostel, where we were able to enjoy a cold drink and release our feet from the tyranny of the ground.
The following day we fell back to the same pattern, singing at the top of our voices to battle the heat, and drenching our heads with water every time we reached the end of one of our bottles. When we fell silent, I would immerse myself in our surroundings, tracking a bee heading for a sunflower and trying to spot the crickets we could hear so distinctively but never see. I would dance a little jig as we passed stone markers and deposit my offer of rock alongside the ones from previous pilgrims.
It was a relief to finally reached the edges of a forest. The fragrant smell of wood, dirt and decomposing leaves revived our spirit, while the shade under the canopy of trees propelled our bodies onwards. We laughed and almost ran on this new trail soft under our boots. The afternoon promised to be a delight and I was eager to enjoy the act of walking and let my thoughts roam free, far from the numbing effect of the heat.
“Do you remember when…” I found myself unable to finish my question as a fly found its way into my mouth. Abi looked at me questioningly for a second before swiping her hand in front of her face frantically. We had entered a cloud of black flies. I tried to wave them aside with my hand and hat, thinking we would soon pass through and be able to resume our reminiscing. But the insects seemed to be following us and I began to wish for the fire of the sun as I hurried on to rejoin the chalk path.
By the time we escaped the forest, I had forgotten what my query had been and was in no mood to talk. “Let’s find that hostel,” I grumbled before marching off, keen to shelter under a roof and wash the sweat away in an attempt to repulse the flies with the smell of soap.
“Are you the pilgrims?” The boy who couldn’t be older than six asked when he saw us enter his courtyard.
“Yes, we are. Is your mom around?” We had phoned earlier and were expected.
“She’s somewhere yes,” he answered but made no move to call for her. I smiled and dropped my bag to the ground. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Allysse and this is my friend Abi,” I said pointing in her direction. “What have you been up to?”
“With this ball and racket,” I remarked, spotting one near the wall.
“Do you have another racket?”
“Sure,” he replied excitedly and was off running inside the house.
I smiled, the black flies quite forgotten at the speed Matthieu had taken off as he realised he had a playmate for the first time in a while. When he reappeared, he was closely followed by his mother who showed us to our room, Matthieu trailing closely behind and monitoring our every move. It was only after we assured him we would come out to play after a shower that he left us alone. Half an hour later, I emerged in a world free from flies and joined Matthieu in the courtyard while Abi remained on the bed nursing her feet. We played games of tennis, football, and frisbee accompanied by the sun gently setting over the horizon.
We left early the following day, having learned that we needed to make the most of the soft morning sun. We were silent, both lost in our private worlds. I looked at the views and wondered again how it could feel so similar and yet so foreign. I longed for the green fields of England and the right of ways that let me cross fields and merge with a place as I couldn’t here, constricted to the roads and paths. I wanted to be back among the grass and mud of a countryside I had come to love, see the familiar bricks and pubs that were always there at the end of a walk. I didn’t understand this country I was hiking in, supposedly mine and yet still unwelcoming and sending me on hinge whenever I dwelled upon the matter. Was it still the memory of old ghosts haunting me? Or was there something else, a profound break and discontent between me and France? I let my thoughts wander along those questions but couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer. I felt I needed to give France another chance. I had been angry when I had left but this feeling was gone. Once again, I felt the urge to go back north and start ambling south to get to know France and its people.
My thoughts were stopped as we approached Mirambeau where we had planned to have our lunch. We settled in the shade of the church and fell into the routine of our meal, soon falling asleep while the sun turned into a burning beast.
Waking up from our slumber, we looked at each other and grinned. In a few hours we would cross the border of two regions. This had been something that had particularly been on Abi’s mind. The Camino had become increasingly difficult for her as blisters kept growing on her feet. She was pushing through the pain and every mile was like a victory, a proof that she could do it and make it beyond the pain. So this regional boundary was an important beacon, an assertion to herself and everyone else that we had made progress and that her suffering was not in vain. We walked on, the roads regularly shaded by patches of tree, making me forget about the heat, and in a shorter time than I realised, we were standing in front of the river Guirande which marked the border.
We stopped, dropped our bags and screamed with joy as we crossed the bridge dancing and jumping. We had made it to a whole other region. It didn’t matter that we had not began our journey at the start of the Charente-Maritime. It didn’t matter that we were not going as fast as the guide writers advised. We had walked almost a hundred kilometres in five days and we were crossing a border.
Our euphoria eroded as we distanced ourselves from the river and we saw the landscape being transformed. The trees that had provided shade and variety disappeared, overtaken by miles of vineyards. They stretched free as far as we could see, only interrupted by a few houses and villages in the distance.
“Hot…” I whispered to myself.
“It’s going to be hot…” I repeated, all excitement gone from my face.
“We’re almost there. Come on, let’s just walk,” Abi pressed me on. It was true, we weren’t far from the pilgrim’s hostel we had chosen for this day. There was just a long stretch of unshaded road to follow first. I dropped my gaze to the ground and went on, focusing on making progress.
I brought the bottle to my lips. The warm water flowed through my throat, hydrating my body but not relieving its warmth. Beads of sweat were dripping under my hat and landing on my eyes, taking with them chemicals from the sun cream. I blinked repeatedly, trying to chase the tears away but it only seemed to make things worse.
“I’ve had enough,” I screamed as I threw one of my walking stick in front of me. “I can’t see a thing and it’s too HOT.”
As soon as the words were out, I knew how stupid they were. “I’m sorry,” I uttered turning to Abi before she could react. “I’m just tired…” I offered as an apology.
“It’s okay. We’re almost there.”
I attempted a smile and picked up my stick from the ground. I knew she meant well but it didn’t matter that we were close. I was too hot and my eyes stung. I wanted to stop right here, fall asleep and wait for rain. But I held my tongue, there was no point in arguing. I took a step, lowered my head and trudged ahead to put some distance between Abi and me, and resumed my moaning and grunting far from her ears.
‘Saint-Palais’ the village sign announced.
I dropped to the ground at its sight, my bag still on my back. We had made it. I slid my arms free from the straps and rolled to the side under the shade of the sign. In a few minutes, I would be able to take a cold shower in the pilgrim’s hostel.
“Allysse, there’s a cemetery just there.” Abi was still standing. I followed her arm to where she was pointing. I could see the top of tombstones over a low wall. I brought myself up and without a word headed for the cemetery, leaving everything behind. I rushed through the entrance, using what felt like the last of my reserve and stumbled upon the gravel in front of the hose. I turned the water on and poured it over my head. The coolness sent a shiver of relief running through my body. Soon I was standing upright, a smile on my face.
“Let’s find that pilgrim’s hotel,” I said as Abi entered the cemetery.
“They said you need to go past the supermarket after the church,” Abi told me as she hang up.
“The supermarket,” I repeated raising an eyebrow. This village was too small for a supermarket. Besides we had been past the church two times already and there definitely wasn’t any supermarket nearby. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, it’s what they told me.” Abi was becoming impatient. We had been searching for the hostel for the last half hour and there wasn’t any signs of it, and after a phone call to the place, we were even more confused and lost.
“Pass me the guide,” I asked. I browsed the list of accommodation hoping this one would provide an address we could look up online. It did. I burst out laughing as I saw it. “We’re looking for a place in the Pyrénees. That’s why we can’t find it.”
“There,” I pointed to the postcode still laughing.
“I’m so stupid,” Abi commented in despair. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
I stopped laughing as I heard the strain in her voice. She had been looking forward to this hostel even more than me and I hadn’t realised. “Hey, it’s okay… There are other accommodations nearby, aren’t they?” I scanned the guide once more and called a couple of B&Bs. No one picked up. I tried again but still the phones rang endlessly. I frowned, trying to find an alternative to wild camping. I would have been fine with another night under the stars but I sensed Abi really wanted a bed and shower. I looked up, hoping that a sign would suddenly appear pointing me in the right direction. There was nothing but the lone tree under which we had found refuge. I stood still for a moment, mentally retracing our entrance through the village, and I suddenly remembered the old ladies we had seen gathered in a car park.
“Let’s go to the church!”
“What?” Abi demanded confused.
“Remember all the cars? There has to be a mass on,” I added before she could reply. “Let’s go.” I had no particular desire to go to a mass, but the freshness of the church would be welcome and Abi needed to clear her mind. A mass would be the perfect opportunity. She looked at me dubiously but I pushed her on. The doors of the church were wide open and we could hear the voice of the priest echoing through the building. We left our bags outside and quietly went in.
The ceremony carried on and I got lost in the architecture of the building. I could still discern stars on the faded paint of the ceiling. It had been a long time since I’d been in a fully painted church. As people started to get out, we joined the crowd. It wasn’t hard to strike a conversation as we were immediately recognised as pilgrims on the Camino.
“Were are you sleeping tonight,” one of the church goers queried.
“Probably somewhere in a field,” I replied before explaining our misadventure with the hostel and missed calls.
“The owners of one of those B&Bs are here,” she exclaimed. “Let me find them.”
“Hi,” I beamed enthusiastically as the owners approached. “I’m Allysse and this is Abi. Do you have a room available for us?”
“Of course,” the man announced as a matter of fact. “Come on, we’ll drive you there.”
I turned to Abi and smiled. We had a bed for the night.
“Thanks again for your hospitality,” we said as we waved off the B&Bs owners. They were on their way to an early walk and we could only approve. We watched their car disappear on the same road we were about to take. We lingered a while longer in the kitchen, drinking the last of our coffee before we couldn’t delay any longer.
“Just five kilometres to Etauliers and we can treat ourselves,” I commented to Abi in an attempt to motivate her. The night hadn’t soothed her feet this time and she was only packed and ready to go because we had no other choice. She nodded and I let her sit a while longer as I dried our dishes.
I looked behind me to see the small figure Abi cut into the distance. Our end point was only twenty kilometres away and I was hoping that adrenaline would carry us there but she was trailing behind, barely moving. I reminded myself that this was not a race but I was eager to leave the main road. It was Sunday and there was very little traffic but I missed seeing something else than tarmac. I sat on the pavement and waited for Abi to catch up.
“Break,” I asked as she approached. She shook her head. “If I stop I won’t go on.”
“Okay.” I got up and followed her quietly. I could see how her teeth were gritted against the pain. Words would be of no use, we just had to reach Etauliers.
A couple of hours later, I was sitting by the roadside again but this time the small figure of my friend was far ahead of me. I knew Etauliers was only three kilometres further but in that instant it seemed impossibly far. How could three kilometres be so long? The sun wasn’t even beating down on us yet so why did my bag suddenly felt like a dead weight upon my shoulders? I heaved myself upright and leaned against my walking sticks, putting as much weight as possible on them as I went on to catch up with Abi.
The first houses of Etauliers finally appeared in our line of vision at noon. Abi and I shared a look and knew instantly that this would be our finishing point for the day. It was early but it had taken us five hours to complete five kilometres. This was as far as our bodies could go that day. We headed straight for the supermarket, packed our arms with salads, crisps, and cold drinks, and proceeded to the nearest hotel. It was more expensive than our daily budget allowed for but none of us cared. There was a bath, air-con, and even a television in the room. So we paid, took the lift, and indulged in a long afternoons of naps, snacks, and bad television.
“Ready?” I asked with a glitter of excitement in my eyes.
“Ready,” Abi grinned at me.
The inactivity and hours of sleep the day before had done us good, and as we clasp our bags shut we were set for the last fifteen kilometres of our trip. That day we would reach the estuary of the Gironde river at Blaye and carry our bags for the last time. We left the hotel by the fire exit and sneaked out-of-town through its still quiet streets.
“There it is, the cycle track to the end. Let’s go!”
We almost broke into a run, but thought better of it. We still had fifteen kilometres to go and we were not going to be able to sustain a run for this long. Instead we took a hurried step, stopping every five kilometres to snack on the last of our biscuits and sweets. It was effortless to advance under the trees sheltering most of the track and without realising, we entered the outskirts of Blaye as the church bells called people to lunch. We rushed on, piercing through the suburban houses until finally the Vauban fortifications appeared before our eyes. We spared it a quick glance before heading to the end of the road. The tarmac ended, the grass ended, and there we were on the edge of the river bed, at the end of our journey.