Part 3 - Saintes to Bayonne

Hey everyone! It's been a while! I decided to mix these two sections of the trail into one big blog firstly because Saintes to Bordeaux was only around three days; and secondly because, honestly, not a whole lot has happened!

As you all know from my last blog I had a run in with a local driver as I arrived at Saintes which screwed up my back and leg, put me out of action for a week and made me question whether or not I should continue on this journey. Luckily after a week of great company, rest and a ridiculous amount of medication I was back on my feet and eager to get back on the road - so eager that I did a section that should have taken me a week to complete in three days!

My first day on the trail to Pons was a very flat, winding road that led mostly through farm lands. This has pretty much been the case for the entire trail until I got to the ‘Big Forest’- I have no idea what the forest is actually called, ha! I flew through the road to Pons with no idea where I was really going to stay the night. I’d been told that there was a pilgrim house in Pons but as I've learnt so far on the trail these can be notoriously hard to find. I managed to complete my days hike in a fraction of the time I had expected - I walked 15km to my half way point in just over 2 hours! So when I arrived in Pons there was plenty of time for me to explore the town and try to find the house. Pretty much as soon as I arrived I found the church and collected my stamp. Unfortunately the priest didn't speak any English but after a little sign language dance I managed to get out of him to “follow the pilgrims” so I assumed there were lots in town and that it would be easy to find so I set off in search of my bed, asking every local if they were a pilgrim but just getting looked at as if I was crazy! After about two hours of searching town I started heading back to the church for more directions - and realised the statues of pilgrims on the roundabout I’d been admiring every time I’d passed it were pointing at something… I couldn't believe how stupid I’d been! Every time I’d looked at the statues the pilgrim house was right next to me! I just needed to look in the direction Saint Jacques was pointing and spot the giant Camino shell on the door!!

When I arrived at the pilgrim house I was not only over the moon that it was a gorgeous, centuries old house with deep arm chairs and a tea pot (luxuries I haven't had in weeks) but there was also another pilgrim! The first I’d seen since the start of my journey! Obviously I was ecstatic at the prospect of having company for potentially the rest of the journey with someone who could speak English well and was stunning too, despite the miles and conditions! Unfortunately this was a short lived hope. After a cup of tea (always the first priority of the night) I found out that she had been just behind me for a few weeks, reading the notes I'd left in churches along the way, in the hope of catching up with me. When I was recuperating in Saintes my notes stopped and she overtook me. When she arrived in Pons she stayed for three days in the hope that I would turn up and when I didn't she assumed I had quit the trail. The prospect of crossing the Pyrenees alone was too much for her so she had contacted everyone back home to let them know that she was quitting and arranged all her return travels for the next day… and that's when I turned up- with about 15 minutes to spare before her taxi arrived!! Unfortunately I couldn't talk her out of quitting and she left shortly afterwards. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you all what a blow to my morale that was and I spent a very long, lonely, sleepless night in that house. But, I woke determined not to let this keep me down, starting to see it as a small victory with the Brits beating the Germans again - not that I have anything against you or your country if you’re reading this!  I wish you all the best in the future wherever you end up and please feel free to contact me by the links below if you'd like to stay in touch or join me on the next adventure as we spoke about!

The next day was much the same as the road to Pons, except there was no pilgrim house and no trail angels to be found - or many people at all for that matter - so it was going to be a night under canvas. Luckily I could see that there were some sporadic forested areas after my check point so I headed off to try and find somewhere I could set up camp after getting my stamp. I arrived in the first section of woodland with about an hour to last light and didn't like what I found. The first place I thought would make a perfect camp I dumped my pack down and had a scout for a water source but while I was doing this about 10 meters from my intended camp I found a game trail - a very active game trail! Following it I found it branched off and just about surrounded my camp. There were pig tracks everywhere and a rub mark on a tree that came to over my hips! From the smell of it and hair stuck in the bark there was no mistaking it, I was undoubtedly surrounded by boars and getting the hell out of there!

And that’s why you always scout out your campsite- especially if wildlife likes you as much as it does me! Luckily the next section of woodland was all but void of life and had a small stream running through it so I set up camp and had a very relaxed uneventful night.

 

The next morning I was woken early by the rain and set off on another monotonous day of flat farm land. There really isn't much to say about this day until I passed through a town and started to meet some incredible people! The first of which was Aude and her children. They saw me hiking along the road in the cold and rain and could tell I wasn't really enjoying it. They invited me in for a coffee and we ended up having lunch together, playing instruments I hadn't even seen before and I had my picture drawn by the children which I still have with me!

After lunch I set off again for Saint Aubin and was lucky enough to meet a former pilgrim, Isabella, who offered to take me in even though she didn't speak a word of English - thank god for Google Translate!! After a short while in her company I was inspired to say the least. Now in her 80’s, she had done this trail three times in the past - one of which she completed while the Nazis controlled most of the territories and with traditional canvas equipment - not bad for a woman that barely comes up to my shoulder! I guess you really can't judge anyone from first impressions, hey? She insisted on taking me to Mass with her before we ate, which probably wasn't the best idea as I think everyone could hear my stomach rumbling over the prayers and my knees were absolutely killing kneeling on the stone floor after hiking all that way! I met lots more locals there that were amazed to hear of my travels and shared some fresh figs with me. Isabella gave me some prayer beads as we left the church and some blessing cards that are in my wallet still.

In the morning we had breakfast together pretty early and she gave me a full packed lunch to take with me, as well as a jar of homemade jam and bread. I set off towards the river and Blaye. At lunch a stray dog came over and started begging for some of my pate and bread, which of course I gave him. He got more friendly as I started to play with him and when I moved on again he followed me till the edge of town, when he ran into some bushes so I thought he had left me; about an hour later he reappeared and started to follow and play with me! So I had a companion for the whole day and I hoped for the rest of the journey… unfortunately as soon as we got to Blaye some policemen approached us and spooked him and that was that!

After I found where the ferry I needed left in the morning I set off to try and find somewhere to sleep and struck gold again! I met another trail angel who showed me the way to a pilgrim house and set me up with a map! I couldn't believe that I’d managed to complete this entire section and had somewhere to sleep just about every night!

 In the morning I was determined to get to Bordeaux and see an old friend, Simon. According to the map I was given it should have been about 50km so I got up at 06:00, well before the sunrise, and set off for the ferry. On the way there was a Christmas market being set up that made me remember how close the holidays were; I’d almost forgot that Christmas and my birthday were coming up! I grabbed a coffee and got on the first ferry across the river, talking to the crew and watching the sunrise, I knew it was going to be a good day. But it turned out to be a lot more challenging than I'd expected… on the other side of the river I was met by more woodland but this time it was full of hunters and I had to walk straight into the sound of gunfire - which was pretty damn sketchy! I also quickly learnt that the map I was using was out of date and that sections of the trails route had been extended to try and encourage pilgrims to split the section into two days and stay in one of the local towns. In the end, with all the diversions and the extra distance I needed to cover to get to Simon’s flat in Bordeaux, I actually ended up doing 70km in a day! It was definitely worth the struggle though when I saw him riding up on his bike to meet me!

I ended up spending a lot longer in Bordeaux than I planned, waiting on more pilgrim passports for my stamps to arrive by post. To my knowledge they still haven't arrived - I got robbed by the church!!

But it was a fun week catching up with Simon, meeting his friends, drinking great wine and, after one miscommunication in a market, almost buying a shotgun!

When I left Bordeaux I made my way to Gradignan and another pilgrim house where I managed to persuade an old monk to sell me his unused pilgrim passports, so I would still have a record of my journey for when I arrive in Santiago de Compostela, and I managed to get a list of places I could stay the next few nights too!

In the morning I left early in search of Au Barp and it was freezing! This section of the trail again wasn’t too exciting with long straight roads through the forest making up the bulk of it. I think the road to Au Barp was probably mentally the toughest part of my Camino so far with no wind, the sun bear

beating down on me, no incline and not a sound to be heard to break things up at all. Put simply it sucked and I spent waayyy too much time in my own skull than anyone should have to.

 

 

But when I arrived in town things were great! I made friends with an English woman who bought me coffee and offered me to stay the night; loads of locals were very interested in what I was doing and I even got some free goods from the bakery! And my luck didn't run out there as I managed to find out where the next pilgrim house was and arranged to have it opened up for me in Mons. It was a gorgeous 10th century church where Charlemagne (the first Holy Roman emperor – google him!) had be treated for injuries sustained in battle and I got blessed in the steam out back where the monks drew water to clean his wounds and to hydrate his armies, pretty cool hey!

In the morning I had another early start and it was freezing again! I think it might have been the coldest since Brittany because that was the last time I had ice in my beard! But again it was another long, monotonous, straight, flat road through the Forest except this time there were some beware of feral dog signs dotted about the place and lots of animal signs to keep me on my toes!

I think that tired me out just as much as the hike itself - looking out for the animals, reading the signs and stopping to let things just ahead get some distance away, was exhausting! But just before I made it to Moustey, my aim for the day, I had someone offer me a bed on their farm which I took and loved! The room itself wasn't much but there were canoes everywhere to remind me of home and horses working the fields with carts, which made me think of my travels in Kentucky and realise how much I want to go back! And most importantly - there were women! For the first time in a long time there were women my age - who spoke English!!

The next three days, to be honest, are kind of a blur from lack of sleep, dehydration, exhaustion and more verrrryyy similar terrain. I set off from the farm house early to try and make up for the previous day’s stopover before hitting my target, and because I had been told that there were three pilgrims a day or two ahead of me that I wanted to catch up with. Along the route I started to notice three sets of boot prints that were sitting deeper in the trail than the other's and that were almost always accompanied by hiking pole marks, which told me that they were probably wearing heavy packs and because they were on the same path as me I was fairly sure they were the pilgrims I was after – yes! So I spent the next three days following them, focusing almost entirely on catching up with them. I didn't give myself as many breaks because I could see where they stopped so as long as I could keep going past these stops it would mean that I was gaining ground and would eventually catch them. I didn’t sleep in the pilgrim houses, rationed my water and, at one point even had a boar try and steal my food - before I gave him a kick to the face, which left me with a bruised and swollen foot. I was determined to find these pilgrims and get some company!

Which I very nearly did – but, unfortunately, I got to a pilgrim house in time to find out that they had quit a matter of hours before I arrived and had all left their shells in the house! Not again!! But trying to stay positive I saw it as another victory, got a good night’s rest and drove on ready for my rest days in Bayonne.

The day before Bayonne was another incredibly tough one as, if the heat of the day with high humidity and no wind to ease the heat in the Forest wasn't enough, I had a swollen foot from kicking the boar, most of the water supply points had run dry and I had to hike through ankle deep sand for most of the day! When I arrived, however, it was all worth it to be greeted by the sun setting behind the Pyrenees and the Christmas lights glowing in the streets - not to mention the mulled wine, hotel and old friends waiting for me! These have been my favourite rest days so far - right on the border of Spain dreaming of the mountains…