Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Day 12 - Estaing to Espeyrac

We spent last night in a four person room with two Australian roommates. We all got up around 6:40am, at which point we discovered that the laundry we washed last night had yet to dry. We put it in the dryer, and while downstairs discovered that breakfast was being delivered to the Gite from down the street. Sean went foraging, and we soon had a breakfast of coffee, orange juice, baguettes and jams. We ate in the communal room downstairs, which soon became a bit chaotic due to everyone re-packing their bags. This was the first Gite in France where we had been asked to leave our backpacks downstairs to reduce the likelihood of bedbugs.
We said goodbye to our Australian roommates, and the couple from Calgary we had met at breakfast, and headed out around 7:30. Thankfully this morning was cloudy, which gave us some relief during the steep climb out of Estaing. Some of the climb out of the valley was along paved roads, but periodically the path would divert to cut across the switchbacks, and these sections were pretty steep.

We have been noticing that although the maps suggest there are days with sections of trail that descend or are relatively flat, in reality it feels like we spend most of our days climbing. While this is tiring at times, especially when it is hot, it does provide wonderful views over the countryside, or river valleys.

On the edge of the trail to Golinac we passed a series of 20 crosses, many of which were accompanied by their own plaques. The crosses ranged from stone to metal, and each one was unique. In the past few days we have been noticing the diversity in design of road-side monuments and crosses, which show styles ranging from ancient Celtic looking stone monuments, to many different metal designs, to post-modern artistic expressions. We were also wondering who commissions these crosses - if it is private citizens, parishes, communities, historical societies, or a combination.

When we reached Golinac we found a very nice rest stop with a gorgeous view over the valley. There was a variety store on the way in to town, and a restaurant beside the church which also sold ice cream, but otherwise Golinac was a fairly small town. We visited the church, and then continued on our way.
All morning the clouds had been looking more and more ominous, and the humidity had been rising, and shortly after we left Golinhac the skies opened up and it really started to pour! Unfortunately we were high up and out in the open, and the tree we chose to shelter under wasn't really up to the task. We found a chestnut tree for shelter next, and it was much more robust. The shower lasted about half an hour at full force, and then tapered off, leaving the world smelling wonderfully fresh and invigorating.

Luckily for us, most of the walk down into the village of Espeyrac was on paved roads, and we had a nice view out over the valley. We arrived at the hotel, checked into our room, and sat downstairs talking to an Australian couple for a bit. We stocked up on granola bars from the tiny variety store in town, and after dinner walked around town again and enjoyed the views of the sun setting through the mist that had rolled into the valley.

Practical Information: 
Distance: 22.8 km
Cumulative ascent: 971 m
Cumulative descent: 898 m
Max Temperature: 21˚C
Accommodations: Hotel de la Vallee

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Day 11 - Bonneval Abbey to Estaing

Today began very early, when the abbey bells woke us up at 5:00am. We got up and went to Vigils in the church at 5:30, which was sung by six nuns. The church was very simple, and it had amazing acoustics! It was a magical experience to sit in the church and watch the sun rise through the windows behind the alter. The entire abbey had such an air of peace and quiet, it was difficult to leave. Though I have to admit to being somewhat unnerved at having to remain completely silent throughout our stay and the services.
We were given breakfast by ourselves in the abbey, which was the usual baguettes and jam, but it was accompanied by the most amazing drinking chocolate I have ever tasted!  After this we began the hike back out of the valley.  The fantastic views and the cool morning air made walking quite enjoyable,and we took the feeling of peace from the abbey with us. 

We reached Espalion around 9:30, and stopped to mail some chocolate to my grandmother (who supported our camino), and to have a welcome coffee. Then we headed out of town along the Lot river, which was considerably higher and faster moving than it was yesterday afternoon. We passed a parking lot which said it provided floodable parking spots, and along the wall of the adjacent buildings were flood markers, the most recent of which (2003) was above the top of the doors - a good 10 ft above street level.
On the way out of town we passed a very friendly donkey who liked his ears being rubbed. Then we crossed through a bit of construction, and almost immediately afterwards came upon the Eglise St-Pierre in Bessuejouls. This was an old Romanesque church with a chapel located up the tower, which was reached by a very narrow winding staircase. It was extremely beautiful and well worth the climb!

After this the path began an extremely steep climb up a red clay track. This was pretty tough going, and not made any easier by the lack of breeze, but at least it wasn't raining. I think this climb would have been extremely difficult if the trail was transformed into a river of mud. Again, despite the heat, one finds things to be grateful for on the Camino.
After another 6.3 km of relatively easy walking through rural areas, including meadows full of spring flowers and flowing grasses, we stopped at a very nice picnic and rest area outside Tredou. There was an interesting church there, and outside a covered area which provided some shade, a water fountain, and a public washroom.

After a brief break in Beauregard, we easily made the 2.5 km walk along the road to Verrieres. This was an extremely beautiful village, and it had a cafe in a lovely shaded garden, where we stopped for ice cream. Resting here as well was a family at another table in the garden which had four small children and were walking the Camino with two donkeys, which were tethered outside.
After Verrieres it was a fairly easy walk along the road and through a small forested stretch into Estaing. This town is very impressive to someone from North America, because it is dominated by the Estaing residence, which looks like a fortified castle. The rest of the town has narrow cobblestone streets, slate roofs, and an old Roman bridge. Very picaresque. As the guidebook says, it has been voted one of the most beautiful towns in France. Although the guidebook says this about many towns, it might well be right about this one!

After checking into our gite we walked around the town, visited the church, and took a tour of the Estaing residence.  The building is slowly being renovated, and there are plaques explaining which decade various sections date from.  The history of the building and the family were both very interesting.

After our tour of the residence we had dinner at a small restaurant downtown, and then wandered around the town as the sun set and the lights came on.  It was a very beautiful place, and a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Practical Information:
Cumulative ascent:
Cumulative descent:
Max Temperature: 24˚C
Accommodations: Gite d'Etape Saint Christophe

Monday, 29 May 2017

Day 10 - Espalion to Bonneval Abbey

This morning we shared a wonderful breakfast of bread, croissants, homemade jams, a special cake, and strawberries just picked from the garden. We parted ways with Mattias around 8:30, and set out to photograph and explore some of Espalion while we waited for the tourist office to open so we could ask for directions to Bonneval Abbey.

We had decided that today we would take a short detour off the GR65 to visit the Abbey, which was founded in 1147. It has had a spotted history, falling under English control during the Hundred Year's War and being pillaged during the War of Religion. Today it is home to a community of 35 Cistercian nuns which is essentially self-sufficient, partially due to the chocolate they produce.
We had printed off a map of the route to the Abbey, but it wasn't clear which street we should take out of Espalion. We asked in the tourist office, and they suggested we follow the rue Segala, which appears to be the shortest route, and should go to the town of Ferrandez. This road led us steeply up through a modern subdivision with wonderful landscaping and beautiful homes. However, we soon found a locked gate blocking our path, and a sign marking the way forward as private property. A very nice man who was out mowing his lawn directed us to the correct route, which is up the rue Falgac, and is actually very well marked with blue blazes all the way up to the Abbey.

As we climbed we were treated to spectacular views over Espalion, as we walked through a modern subdivision. The path eventually turned from paved road to gravel track, and then to a very thin overgrown footpath. At one point it seemed to go through someone's backyard, and at another point we passed a granary that looked a lot like a castle, and also turned out to be private property. 

Towards the end of the walk the path led between thick privet-like hedges, so we got the sense that we were walking through a green tunnel. When the path again left the road during the final stretch before the Abbey it became really magical. It felt like we were walking along the steep forested river bank into J.R. Tolkien's Rivendell.

When we got to the Abbey it was incredibly beautiful, quiet, and peaceful, despite having quite a lot of visitors. We waited outside the gates in the shade of a tree for the gift shop to open, which is where we were supposed to check in. The abbey is set on the side of a steep forested valley, removed from the world. If you look down the valley you can catch a glimpse of farmed fields in the distance, but its feels very remote. It was a wonderful place to sit, and Sean spent some time photographing the wildflowers, bees, and lizards that were nearby.

The accommodations in the abbey are simple but nice, and they request that visitors are as quiet as possible, maintaining silence in the courtyards and halls. At 6:30 we shared a meal with another visitor from Lille, France who had spent a week in the Abbey. She spoke a little English, and helped explain how the abbey works. It was a nice meal of soup, salad with eggs and a very tasty dressing, pasta, bread and cheese, and baked apples for desert. We all helped clean up, and then returned to our rooms for the evening. The only sounds are those of the birds and insects, and it is wonderfully peaceful here. I would highly recommend taking this detour if you have the chance!

Practical Information: 
Distance: 7 km
Cumulative ascent:
Cumulative descent:
Max Temperature: 26˚C
Accommodations: Bonneval Abbey

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Day 9 - St Chely d'Aubrac to Espalion

As soon as we stepped out of our room this morning we could tell today was going to be hot. We had a quick buffet breakfast and then headed over the Pont Pelerin and began the climb out of the valley. Although the climb was steady and long, it wasn't generally too steep and most of it was on paved road or gravel tracks, and shaded by beech trees.

After Lestrade, which had a charming looking gite in the middle of nowhere, we began to climb again along a rocky forested path. On our way up we passed a group of about 60 school children, all of whom were very polite, and most of whom seemed very happy. By this point it was very hot, so we stopped at a small cafe with a fantastic view and breeze for a piece of tarte aux fruits and a glass of lemonade with grenadine syrup.
Somewhat refreshed we began the descent into .the village of St Come d'Olt. This village has been voted one of the most beautiful in France, and I think it probably lives up to the designation. It is famous for the twisted spire on its Gothic style village church, as well as for its many well preserved medieval buildings.

We stopped inside the church, and it was truly amazing! It was cool and silent inside, and the light streaming through the stained glass windows behind the alter made the whole space inside glow.
It seemed like there were many photographic opportunities in Saint Comb d'Olt, and it would have been nice to spend more time there. However, we reluctantly crossed the bridge over the river Lot, and headed out of town along the road. As we wound our way along beside the river we passed quite a few families having picnics on the banks of the river and enjoying the cool water.
Once we left the village we found it pretty tough going due to the heat, the road walking, and the lack of breeze. The walk was quite beautiful, but I think we might have enjoyed the majestic views a bit more if it hadn't been 32 degrees. Just before we entered the town of Espalion, we stopped to visit an old Romanesque church. It was also very beautiful, with stone pillars, a rounded roof and windows, and the remains of a painted ceiling.
The walk into Espalion was along a multi-use path beside the river. There were people out biking, fishing, walking, picnicing, and generally enjoying the afternoon. At one point the path turned into a treed esplanade, with benches of retired folk watching the people go by and the teenagers jumping into the river. 

As we approached the city we got a spectacular view of the old 14th century bridge and castle of Calmont d'Olt. We managed to find our gite, but thought it didn't open until 4:30, so decided to walk around the town. We had an artisanal ice cream in a cafe and visited the church, which was also lit up to be very beautiful inside. The organist was practicing while we looked around, which was an extra treat.
We still had another hour to wait, but decided to sit in the shade outside the gite, and discovered that with a reservation it was actually possible to check in early. However, when we found our room of five, it was already occupied by three people who were extremely displeased to have anyone in the room with them. We decided to see if we could find alternate accommodations, and managed to secure a charming little attic room in a B&B instead.  To our surprise, just before dinner Mattias, a fellow pilgrim from Switzerland whom we have been bumping into since we started, showed up at the same chambre d'hotes we were staying at. 

We shared a fantastic meal with him and the owner of the accommodations, who is a collector of many different things, including stories. He spoke some English, and Mattias translated, and we were treated to demonstrations of some of his treasures, as well as an explanation of how modern scuba diving gear had been invented in Espalion from coal miner's equipment. In addition, he also extensively demonstrated his historical stereoscope photographs for us, which allow people to see images taken in the early 1900s in 3D! It was very interesting, and showed once again how when plans go awry on the Camino things have a way of working out.

Practical Information:
Distance: 24.3 km
Cumulative ascent: app. 710 m
Cumulative descent: 769 m
Max Temperature: 28˚C
Accommodations: J & B Morin

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Day 8 - Nasbinal to St Chely d'Aubrac

We awoke at 6:15 this morning after an evening of enjoying the cooling mountain air throughout the night, which was a welcome relief from yesterday's heat. After the usual breakfast of coffee, juice, baguettes and jam we headed out of Nasbinals around 7:30am. It was another gorgeous day, and as the path left town we again found ourselves in the vast, open, rugged landscape of the Aubrac plateau. The first section of the trail was shaded by a mature beech grove, which was very beautiful and provided some welcome respite from the heat. 
The rolling hills of the plateau were divided up with many stone walls, and we also spotted several cow herder's huts set amid fields dotted with white, yellow, purple, and pink spring flowers.

We reached the town of Aubrac around 10:30am, and could see the Festival of La Transhumance was in full swing. We saw quite a few weekend hikers in the hills this morning, many sporting high fashion, and most of them were headed in the direction of Aubrac. Once we reached the road outside of the town we saw many cars parked and people streaming into the town, and we passed a field filled with camper vans.

The approach to Aubrac was beautiful, providing a great view of the church and the stone buildings of the old town. We walked up into the town, visited the church, and then stopped at an outdoor patio with a view of the valley and the festivities to enjoy a fantastic piece of fruit tarte!

After a short break we walked down through the festival, past pens with cows and stands with cheese and other agricultural products, to a large white fair tent. There were lots of people, and live music produced by an accordion and special wind instrument. As we did this we realized we had mistakenly followed the GR6A, not the GR65, as had several other pilgrims, but the detour was certainly interesting!
We eventually decided to continue our hike, and headed out of town. The trail soon began a beautiful and at times very steep descent into a river valley. The views were fantastic, and at one point we passed just under the exposed tip of an old volcano! As we hiked we noticed that the rocks along the trail seemed to be a mixture of volcanic rock and granite.

Around noon we crossed a bridge over a small stream, where a group of young ladies were enjoying their lunches and dangling their feet in the river. This seemed like a good idea, so we continued up the trail, found a shady spot under the trees next to a mossy stone wall, and stopped to enjoy the last of our fruit and nut bread along with some Nutella.
After this the trail descended quite steeply along a rocky, tree-lined path into the valley and the town of St. Chely d'Aubrac. As we entered the town we heard the sound of many cowbells in the distance, but getting louder. The road into town was lined with spectators, so we stopped at the side, and soon a procession of decorated cows came of the road, accompanied by the sounds of bells and shouts of 'Vivent les vaches!'

As the procession passed we joined the throng of people at the end and followed it into the center of town. The cows were herded into a pen just outside of our accommodations! We watched the festivities for a while, then got checked into our room, which was in an old gendarmerie, had a shower and did the chores, and then headed back out to the festival.

There were stands set up all through town with agricultural products, and at the center there were demonstrations of cheese making, and judging. We walked through town admiring the produce, visited the church and the pilgrim bridge we will cross tomorrow morning on our way of town, bought a glass of local beer, and watched people dancing in the street. During our explorations we also found a new style of UNESCO makers for the Way of St James. 

We returned to the hotel where we were staying for a dinner of Aligot and sausage, salad, cheese, and fruit tart.  It was a fantastic meal with a view of the festivities in the heart of town.  Afterwards we walked down the road in fading light, and heard the sounds of the locals singing in the community center, outside of which they were holding a huge barbecue in celebration. A thoroughly enjoyable day!

Practical Information:
Distance: 16.7 km

Cumulative ascent: app. 536 m
Cumulative descent: app. 1469 m
Max Temperature: 27˚C
Accommodations: Les Coudercous

Day 7 - Aumont Aubrac to Nasbinals

We dubbed today Cow Day!  We left the chambre d'hotes around 7:30 this morning, after a delicious breakfast of coffee, bread, homemade jams, apricots, and homemade green madeleine pastries.  At first we walked through the outskirts of Aumont Aubrac, mostly on shaded paved roads.  It was a nice sunny day again, with a cool breeze.

The path wound through a forested area with a few grazing horses, and then we began the climb up onto the Aubrac plateau.

After a rather steep part, we came to the village of La Chaze de Payre, where we stopped and had an orange juice in the company of a very friendly dog.  Much of this stretch of the walk was on relatively busy roads and highways.  It is possible that these roads were extra busy due to the festival and the weekend, but nevertheless, it was the busiest and fastest stretch of traffic we have yet encountered on the trail.  A few kilometers after La Chaze we came to the Chapelle de Bastide, which is a tiny building situated at a crossroads.

We passed through the village of Lasbros, which looked very picturesque, and then continued a rather steep climb.  Once we arrived on the Aumont  plateau the landscape completely changed!  It was absolutely beautiful, and not like anything we expected to find in France.  There were rolling hills covered in blooming wildflowers, including narcissus, dandelions, buttercups, clover, and many others I don't know the names of.

The fields were divided by rock walls, and there were large boulders scattered across the landscape, together with thousands and thousands of smaller stones.  From the highest point on the plateau they looked like they had been sprinkled from the sky.


Some of the fields had herds of cows already in them, but many were still empty.  This weekend is the Festival of La Transhumance, when the Aubrac cows are taken up onto the plateau to graze for the summer.  It is a very big festival, and we are lucky enough to be here right in the middle of it!  As we crossed a bridge, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we came upon a group of people waiting with cameras, and sure enough, a parade of cows came through shortly afterwards!

We stopped for a picnic at a nice shaded rest stop in the charming little village of Finieyrols.  It had a cafe with lots of people in it, as well as a picnic area with a water fountain and picnic table. As we continued to cross the plateau there was no shade, but we were lucky to have a nice cool breeze.  However, as we began the descent into Montgros, which at first we mistook for Nasbinals, the heat was getting pretty intense.  We were getting tired and hot, and attempted to stop at a Gite in Montgros for a cold drink.  The staff were not too pleasant, and proceeded to serve everyone except us 'Americans'.

We continued into the town of Nasbinals, which is very picturesque looking with its stone buildings, slate roofs, cobblestone streets, and central church.  It was very busy for the festival, but we managed to find our hotel and check in.  We visited the church, where the priest kindly gave us a stamp for our credencials, and then we enjoyed a picnic dinner of fresh bread, tomatoes, avocados, cheese, and local wine.

Practical Information:
Distance: 26.2 km

Cumulative ascent: app. 518 m

Cumulative descent: app. 413 m
Max Temperature: 27˚C
Accommodations: Hotel de France

Friday, 26 May 2017

Day 6 - Lajo to Aumont Aubrac

The village of Lajo was very small, and our stay there was very peaceful.  However, one thing to note is that we had no cell service while there and could not connect to the internet.  The owner of the place we stayed in said that there is often no service in this sector (not just that town), sometimes for months at a time.  While this was a minor irritation in terms of writing this blog, it was a bit more of a problem for making reservations.  Rachel was absolutely wonderful to us, and phoned ahead to book our next set of accommodations for the busy weekend, but a lack of connectivity has been something we have struggled with since we arrived.

Anyway, we began today with a walk down a connecting trail, which joined up to GR4, and that took us back to GR65.  It was a lovely walk down a forested track, and once again the weather was great.

At first we were a little concerned about getting lost, but everything was well marked.  One of the things we have noticed is that GR65 and the Chemin Compostelle are marked very clearly and very well here.  The yellow arrows that are spray painted along the trail in Spain do not exist.  Instead, there are more discrete markings, and they are farther apart, but whenever there is a question about which way to go the correct option is clearly marked.

The first large town we came to was St Alban sur Limagnole.  This was a very nice looking town, and one of the larger ones we passed through.  There was a lovey church in the middle, and a very nice looking gite opposite.  If you have a chance to stay there, I think this town might have a lot to offer.  We stopped in a bakery and bought some cookies and some bread with dried fruit baked into it.  This was very tasty!

Our guidebook suggested that the walk today should be mostly downhill, but it seemed like a disproportionate amount of uphill for that description to be considered accurate.  Also, it was the first quite hot day we have had.  We passed through the charming village of Les Estrets, and then stopped around 2pm for a picnic in the shade of an abandoned fieldstone building in the hamlet of Bigose.  We enjoyed our baked goods and the shade enormously.

As we continued to climb later in the afternoon we came across a stretch of pine forest with a unique pilgrim shelter at the side of the trail.

 We started to see quite a few cows

And we watched a very welcome breeze blowing through wheat fields and looking like waves!

We finally arrived in Aumont Aubrac around 3pm, and received a very warm welcome from the proprietors of the Le 24 chambre d'hotes.  We were offered water, and a drink made from berry cordial or mint cordial and water. The lady spoke fluent English, having taught French in the US for quite some years, and she was happy to tell us about the history of the region and the house, and her experiences as a former pilgrim on the way.  It was very interesting indeed.  We were also given the use of a wonderful grassy courtyard out behind the hotel, and provided with a detailed list of places eat.

We explored the town, visited the church, and eventually headed to Les Prunieres restaurant, which serves local delicacies.  We of course ordered Aligot, which is a regional dish made of mashed potatoes, garlic, butter, and Aubrac cheese.  Apparently it is a peasant dish, traditionally prepared and eaten by the cow herders when they were up on the plateau.  It was indeed delicious!

Practical Information:
Distance: 25.7 km
Cumulative ascent:app. 478 m
Cumulative descent: 829 m
Max Temperature: 26˚C
Accommodations: Le 24