St Mary of the Immaculate Conception Williamstown Parish
I survived ‘Survivor France’ and I lived to tell the tale! Maybe if you want some danger and adventure (and some stories to share) then this could be the one for you! In fact, I don’t see why priests should get fixated on walking through Spain especially to Santiago de Compostella when arguably prettier pilgrimage walks exist through France! There are four main pilgrimage walks in France, usually culminating at the French/ Spanish border at St Jean Pied de Port in France: Arles, Tours, Le Puy en Velay and Vezelay. From these routes many long distance walkers go on to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Le Puy en Velay is the best I think.
By Wednesday 11th September on my 10th day of walking on the Vezelay – Bourges route, I wanted to beat constant 28 – 32-degree afternoon heat of that particular week, and also needed to wash socks, jocks etc. Accordingly, I pushed hard to end early as only 24.5 km to La Souterraine. It was a mini castle “Chateau Lazat” but no dearer than normal accommodation round about. Left at 7:45am – arrived 3pm. Found for a change a little hotel open and I asked the waiter where “Chateau Lazat” was in this town of La Souterraine! He came back 5- 10 minutes later and said: “It is 10 kilometres away”!! He must have seen the shocked look on my face and he said: “You could hitchhike!” Now as I was going some distance off my intended beaten track when the town was originally listed in Booking. com as “La Souterraine”, I then gritted my teeth and I marched 3 ½ kms on, and as I was walking on the outskirts of this other town, I said “Bonjour Monsieur” to a guy raking leaves across the road from his parent’s place in a little town called “Bussiers Madeleine”. He not only replied ‘Bonjour Monsieur” but walked very directly across the road towards me and said some things in French, but soon realised the stranger mostly spoke English. He said to me in broken English: “Do you want some water”? (I happened to be out of water by then) and after he showed me into his front garden and was about to sit me down he said: “Would you like some coffee”? I needed that hospitality more than anything. I got more than hospitality! When I had said something to his biscuit request he insisted I keep the whole pack of biscuits, and he not only brought me one bottle of water but 3 small bottles. I journey more happily on my way.
September 14th: after about 18 kilometres I ran out of water as it was much hotter than expected for that time of year. Added to this there was nothing open in what looked like a big village to me, Le Chatenet-en-Dognon, but like many French villages more than half the homes seem to be unoccupied. I was surprised that nothing was open and as I got to the end of the village I noticed these twin males of about 25 years of age: “L’eau, s’Il vous plait?” One of the young French men not only gave me water but brought one jumbo bottle plus filled my medium bottle and said in reasonable English: “It is hot; you should pour some of this water over your hat.” That extra water and the water to cool me over the hat made a big difference that afternoon. Just nearing accommodation only another 10 kilometres down the road and at a particular time when I was saying to myself, I wonder how many dogs have barked at me today (there were many) and an older strong Labrador (with a mongrel streak) jumped through an opening in its fence and came straight at me with teeth bared. In preservation for my life like a French fencer, as he came at me, I lunged at him striking my professional steel capped walking stick right into his mouth. He came at me a second time but seemed reluctant to experience ‘the stick in the mouth’ trick again! I slowly backed up the road towards my intended destination as he was still intent on giving me a nasty taste of his type of French medicine, but luckily the Australian this time was just too illusive! There are many dogs on farms and in little villages along the way – so you have to have your wits about you at times. Now after 600 kms of walking, my steam train is still on its tracks but who knows what is around the corner as several people I pass are having serious problems with shin soreness or blisters. One lady I passed two days ago had decided to terminate her journey as she had 4 blisters on each foot – ouch!
Wednesday 25th September: I travelled 33 kilometres from quite a large town in Mussidan to the former once thriving town of Sainte Foy-la-Grande on that magnificent river, La Dordogna. It had been raining and the boots were starting to have a good amount of mud on them. Little did I know in the late afternoon that I would, due to mainly rain, encounter a lucky escape from serious injury. In my Dutch Association of St James travel booklet, it stated: ‘Careful, steep and dangerous descent’!!Actually a video could only fully describe the difficulty. Indeed, the descent of 200- 300 metres before one entered the town of Saint Foy-la-Grande was more than doubly difficult as not only had it been raining steadily, but the rain combined with the type of rock meant one was aquaplaining when stepping on the rocky surface which formed half of the total of the downhill surface. Twice I sailed into mid-air but luckily my backpack and shorts were the main victims of the physical shaking of one’s senses and hurt pride!
Saturday 5th October: This is a day I am not sure whether I should remember or forget! As it was going to be 35 kilometres to the very pretty and rather extraordinary medieval village of Sauveterre-de- Bearn, I made what I thought at the time was the wise decision to go only 31 km to Barraute-Camu – a smallish village just before Sauveterre. After about 13 km there was a major town Orthex with a rather beautiful 13thcentury bridge to cross. I decided with the beautiful setting to have an early lunch. Unfortunately, 10 kilometres down the track there had been a great deal of rain and I was soon up to my ankles in mud as there were two small streams to cross. After 30 kilometres I was now approaching my intended destination of Barraute-Camu but 10 minutes later found out that the crossing of a river called ‘Le Gave d’Oloron on my map was no crossing at all!! I now had to find a way of crossing this very steadily flowing river – 100 metres wide! As I studied the map further, the only way was to go another 4 kilometres up stream to the town I had not intended to go to in the first place, Sauveterre-de-Bearn. Here I am approaching dusk, walking the 35 kilometres I had not intended to walk, walking another kilometre over the bridge and town, with a walk back in the same direction over the other side of the river of 4 kms - along a major road with glaring car traffic lights the last 2 kms and trying not to be killed in the process!! After a shower, I had this magnificent meal of a bread baguette I had in my backpack from the day before. I found some jam inside the kitchen in my outhouse accommodation they had for guests. I was the only one there! I enjoyed my shower immensely and I really enjoyed the bread, butter and jam. It was like winning tattslotto! What a day though – doing 40 kms instead of 30 –mud up to my ankles –no bridge over river as I discovered to my amazement – headlights glaring in your face –all in all one of the main reasons I went to France – for surprise and adventure – I got it!
Monday 7th October: THE LAST DAY (!)I was able to raise my arms in triumph as I marched through the UNESCO Heritage Gates at that wonderful unique style village of St Jean Pied de Port. Tired but not defeated! 995 kilometres later…..Survivor France – I survived and in many ways I thrived. Viva La France!
Fr Greg Trythall – St Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish, Williamstown. Victoria.