Tuesday, 14 May 2013


I've been on the Camino!

When I was here a few years ago I did not know that part of the Camino passes very close to where I am living. I just noticed the other day, on a very sketchy map of a small area, a little dotted line that said Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, and because of the local nature of the map, not much is shown. But it was enough.
And so, a new part of the landscape has revealed itself to me.

And since I first discovered it I've been back several times. I'm not walking it in the traditional way but now that I've found it, I keep going back to it, entering at different points, leaving it at different points, and then finding a different route back home. Sometimes I deliberately leave it or sometimes it leaves me, I 'lose my way' lose sight of the markers that let you know that you are on the right track.

On my first attempt I decided to try to pick up the trail (which begins at Arles, and passes through Saint Gilles) on the way to Vauvert. I cycled a few kilometres to the village of Franqueveau, headed up to the main road, crossed it, and soon found a track which was clearly marked with the GR sign – 2 stripes, one white and one maroon – I'd found it! The track at first ran alongside a canal


And then there was this post with directions. I'm including this picture, despite its strange angle, because it is the same marker post that The Solitary Walker photographed when he walked along the same path, 2 or 3 years ago. 


Only I did not know this then, it was a few days after taking this photo that I read his post and realised this. And this is one of the things that struck me, the realisation that so many people have walked this same path, all with their different stories, yet with the same desire – to walk this pilgrim way.
(In one of these intriguing coincidences, the Solitary Walker has also recently published a post called Reasons to Walk the Camino)

By a line of swaying poplars, the path crossed over the canal which was when I saw my first yellow scallop shell, marking the Camino, the Pilgrim Way – great was my excitement! I was now following paths I had never been on before – and not just any path but The Way!

After crossing the canal I then discovered that in this countryside which I had always thought of as being totally flat, there exist, if not exactly hills, rises in the ground, and woodland areas. Following a path through these delightful woods I felt a great sense of wellbeing, this place felt welcoming... And I so enjoy the way the signs are painted on whatever is available, whether concrete post, metal road sign or tree trunk. 

But after coming out onto a crossroads and plunging down a steep hill, surrounded by woods and with no landmarks in sight, I lost sight of the two stripes and in fact quite lost my bearings and sense of direction and it seemed to me like an utter miracle that I managed to find the road to Vauvert, and then home, which was another 7 kilometres. I'd been out for hours, and was very tired by the time I got home, but filled with a sense of achievement.

Another time, I decided to look for the path after it has left Vauvert, and is heading towards Montpellier. Once again, that thrill of excitement when I came across the GR signs and the scallop shell. Once again, I'm following a trail so many others before me have followed, and one I have never been on before. Through more enchanting woods, over a canal, alongside fields....

This was the last marker I saw, and photographed. The next thing I knew, I was approaching a main road. I hadn't been paying attention, I'd been 'lost in thought'. I got out the map and scrutinized it, trying to work out where I was. Decided I had lost the path somehow, but felt that did not matter. I had not been looking out for the markers because I had been thinking of something else entirely. This is quite common of course, my mind chatters away to itself quite happily, a lot of the time – but this was a little different. This time it was the voice of a character in a story I'm writing, a character I hadn't heard from in a long time. I was so pleased to 'hear from' him that I was happy to head home. So I took the main road heading to Vauvert, and turned off onto the road that would take me home. Sat outside in the garden, shaded by sycamores and acacias, and started writing down the character's thoughts. And so it has continued. The Camino inspires!

When I went back the next day, to pick up the trail I'd lost, I saw it was quite clearly marked that one should turn off, in fact the way I'd gone was marked with the 'wrong way' sign, but I had not noticed it, for my attention was turned inwards. So I continued along the 'right way' and I was delighted to see in front of me, an actual person, someone walking, with backpack and staff. I slowed down to speak to him. During our conversation he said that it was perfectly acceptable to follow the Chemin de Saint Jaques on a bicycle, which is what I'm doing. Well it's good to know that the Pope would give his blessing to my wanderings, but this path, this way, is clearly something that goes beyond any particular faith or religion, but taps into something timeless so it seems to me, in the human psyche, the Way being a way of connecting with oneself or with that greater something whatever name you give it, that we are always part of but we can tend to forget, and not feel. 

Field of poppies on the Camino

If the land holds the energy of the thoughts, feelings and actions that have occurred in it and around it – as seems likely to me – then all the feelings, the fervent wishes aspirations all the appreciation of the nature all around them, of pilgrims who have walked this way for centuries will have soaked into the land and be real and tangible energies.

It certainly feels that way to me.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

La Petite Camargue - Big Skies & Old Railway

I've gone from steep mountain slopes to an area so flat that mostly horizons are distant and the skies are huge. I no longer have to toil up mountainsides, in fact I hardly walk at all. My new means of locomotion, much though I'd love it to be on horseback or muleback, is a vélo. The bike and I we have history in this place, for I've been here before, and I've explored most of the possible roads, tracks and pathways in the vicinity, accessible to a bike. Apart from the main route to Vauvert, the nearest town, a journey which I've done many times before, I clearly remember the road to Gallician, the nearest village in the opposite direction from Vauvert, and the road to Le Cailar, the approach road a tree-lined avenue, dappling the ground with shade, the village itself, drenched in charm.

The Road to Le Cailar

Then there's the old railway track, long disused. When I was first here a few years ago, I was wandering along tracks through the peach farms, in a direction I had not explored before, spotted a steep little path, climbed up, and found the railway track lying like a secret, hidden from the path below by bushes and foliage and almost invisible from the track on the other side. But then, no-one walked along either track so it was my own special railway. Just as the almond tree, a short way before the steep path, that was my tree, I stuffed my pockets with almonds, and went back the next day, for more.

I went looking for that little path, doubting my own memory. But then I found, first the almond tree, and then the path, almost overgrown, leading up to the railway. But still visible. I push the bike up the short slope and over the old railway track, and down onto the surfaced cycle path. And that's when I see the marker and remember that that was my guide as to when to turn off – a old railway metal sign with the number 31 on it.

Memory can play tricks but the landscape has also shifted. The rise in the land, the steep path, that's still there, and the railway line of course, with a whole new crop of pale green plants growing between the sleepers of old grey wood, sometimes deeply ridged and knotted, sometimes curving a little, buckled under the sun of so many summers. These soft lime green plants may well turn into late summer's thorny stalks scratching at any unwary ankles that step along the sleepers of the old railway line.

But I don't imagine anyone walking along here, not now, now that there's la voie verte, a smooth surfaced pathway for walkers and cyclists, running alongside. It used to be just a dirt track bordering the canal. Now there's often people out walking, youngsters roller blading, a few cyclists. It goes from Vauvert to Gallician, the next village.

Before it became a smoothly surfaced cycle path, before the name la voie verte had been thought up, it was just another dirt track and when I cycled along it I never met anyone, ever. Occasionally, a vehicle – a dusty van or tractor would cross the bridge, wending its way through the vineyards and groves of peach trees. But these were so much part of the landscape, crawling slowly along, dust coating their sides and their wheels, joining the dust that rose in a pinkish cloud behind them. Sometimes you would hear voices among the groves of peach trees, their owners hidden from view. Sometimes, a few lines of a song.

The low, mechanical sound of a small tractor, spraying the trees, turns into the drone of insects. People melt into the land. There is so much growth, of vines and orchards, such clear signals that humans have been hard at work, but these industrial people themselves are almost invisible. The vines writhe and bend and twist, green leaves sprouting from their contorted black wood.

The peach trees are in full leaf, like the poplars and sycamores, oaks, almond and fig. Only the acacias are still hesitant, delicate fringes showing at the end of each twig. But in time they will become more densely leafed than any of the others, each leaf a spray of miniature leaves, their blossom just as dense, bouquet upon bouquet, humming with bees.

The mas, farmhouses, are large cream coloured buildings, with courtyards, outhouses, land around them. You hardly ever see anyone there.

Their porches are hung with vines, screened by them and other trees – their land often guarded and staked out by the sentinel cypresses, cones of darkness waving in the wind. Even the horses doze, flat out in the morning sunlight, or grouped under shade of trees in the afternoon. The white and restless herons stalk the fields with the white horses and the black bulls. All the other birds are mostly invisible in the bamboo, marsh grasses and reeds that screen the ponds.

Sunsets are spectacular. A few clouds catch the light and turn wondrous colours. This whole place in fact is utterly magical. I am hugely grateful to the association Les Avocats du Diable Vauvert for the chance to stay here again.