Posting 10: 26/05/2006, Lourdes. (1773 km's to go)
Well have reached another milestone (well a few actually) in that I have crossed the border into France, have also crossed over the Pyrenees and am in the foothills, and have reached a place of great devotion - somewhere my Aunt Anna (really a grand aunt) used to visit every few years. In my childhood, Lourdes was always a place a bit like the Holy Land, very far away and shrouded in mystery - places that physically existed but one would probably never be able to visit. It felt very strange to pass the sign that said 'Lourdes Centre Ville'. Even though my schedule on paper showed Lourdes as a place I would pass through, somehow I would not have been surprised if I had not been able to get here. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
After the severe heat I was most anxious to be up with the lark and be on the road early when I left Jaca. Consequently I was out of the hotel by 6.20. Unfortunately due to my stupidity at not checking the route out of town the previous day, I was not actually on the Camino for another 50 minutes! (Oh yes before I forget - I did have my pint of Guinness at Jaca but must say it wasn't the best pint I've tasted.) Despite my worse fears, the heat did not materialise - I seem to remember writing that phrase several posts ago! The walking went very well and I arrived at Canfranc Estacion in good time. Also I was pleased to find that the Church there advertised Mass times outside the locked doors AND Mass was at 19:00, a very good time for a pilgrim. (It is more usual for Mass to be about 20:00 which leaves it very late to eat if you want to be up early) So was able to attend Mass. Sadly there were only three of us in the congregation - and no other pilgrims.
The following day I set off for what was to be the highest ascent so far of the Camino. I had erroneously thought I'd passed this already just prior to Rabanal but that is the highest point on Camino Frances. The Col de Somport is 1640 mtr’s high. Previously I had been 1500 plus high. It was only 6.5 km's away but I knew it would be a hard climb. That's putting it mildly. It was very steep in places which I did not mind but at one point I lost the Camino and ended up on a narrowing path which eventually disappeared into a bush. It was so narrow by this point that it was almost impossible to turn round and I was on a slope at an angle of about 45 degrees. Luckily there was a break in the shrubbery and I could see the field below which the Camino had crossed and it was only about 15 ft below so I was able to go sideways down to it. I carried on forward as I could see the road which I was sure the Camino was about to join. As I got closer to the road I could hear the unmistakable sound of rushing water - which means water running down a steep slope. I tried a likely looking path but it too started to get narrower so I turned back. I was obviously not going to be able to ford this rushing stream so I went back across the field to where the Camino had left it. I paid considerably more attention this time and found where I had gone wrong. This time I managed to stick to the correct path but it was very steep. There were times when I needed hands as well as feet to negotiate it (with the heavy backpack etc etc) so I was very relieved when at last I emerged out onto the road at the Col de Somport just in front of the border. And joy of joys (I could have been in Ireland) there was an open bar!
There I rested and ate and checked the map for the next part of the day's route. Eventually I set off again. After my experience with the ascent, I have to admit that for the first time on the Camino since I left Plymouth in 2003 I felt real fear. My plan was to take a path across the mountains through very beautiful but high terrain. It entailed a further 300 - 400 metres ascent from Somport. Alas I do not have a head for heights and after my experience of losing the Camino and ending up on a narrow path, I was concerned that I would end up stuck at the top, with a narrow path both up and down and not be able to negotiate either.
Nonetheless off I went and walked the 2 km's to Astun where I should pick up the path marked on my map. Well to cut a long story short, I couldn't find the right path. At one point I though I had it but came to an uncrossable stream - and some snow to boot! By now it as 15:00 and clouds were beginning to gather. I wasn't so worried about being stuck in rain, I still had the tent and some food etc. What was very much more likely was that I would end up totally lost and miles away from where I wanted to be. In the end I decided it would be foolish to continue - it was too dangerous. So reluctantly I returned to Somport (I hate retracing my steps!) where there was a refugio and spent the night there and amended my plans to take the road route to Lourdes. Unfortunately this cost me a day and an extra 36 km's.
Well it all worked out OK in the end except two days after Somport my leg muscles ached like mad. They had not been this painful since the first week. I can only assume it was the steep acent of Somport followed by a very steep descent and a walk of 28 km's to try and make up time.
Fantastic scenery though. Spent the next few days just getting through the Pyrenees and to Lourdes. Left the Camino at Escort and had to camp. Alas that was the day it rained - a wet tent is heavier than a dry one!. No matter. Next day took an hotel to get the tent dry and because felt like being kind to myself. In fact the only other option was to camp as there was not a handy albergue.
As I came out of Louvie-Juzon (where I had taken the hotel) I met another pilgrim. I asked her if she was going to Santiago. 'No' she said, 'Lourdes'. 'So am I' I said. She had decided to take the main road. So she took the low road and I took the high road but she got to Bruges before me! She was heading to Betherram for the night. This was 30 km's away though only 15 km's from Lourdes and I did not know whether I could walk so far. In the end I did, and we met again the following morning at breakfast at the refugio. It was the first time I had experienced meeting someone more than once on the Camino. She was only spending the day at Lourdes, had booked a night train out so we were not destined to meet again. I stayed in Betherram for Mass and then further delayed my arrival at Lourdes by becoming a tourist for an hour and a half. My route took me right past the 'world famous' caves outside Betherram so I decided to visit them. The idea of exploring caves by boat and train really appealed after all the km's on foot! The reality proved slightly different. The caves were certainly impressive in size but most of the 1hr 20mins tour was on foot! I had thought it would be mostly by boat. I might not have done it had I realised I had to walk so far!
Anyway it was a beautiful afternoon and I continued to Lourdes. My route in, as it happened took me right past one of the entrances to the Sanctuary area (a huge fenced-off area encompassing the Grotto and Basilica and various support services) so I went in. I have to say that I am very glad my route took me in that way. It was Ascension Thursday, a Holy day of Obligation, so as expected there were a great many people visiting. Even so there was an amazing sense of peace about the place. I had been intending to camp just outside Lourdes and the walk in the following morning at about 6 to see it in a peaceful way as I had done when I first visited Santiago. But there was no need. Even at 17:00 on a very busy - albeit not height of the season - day it was peaceful there.
A marked contrast to the town though. This was populated with shop after shop selling souvenirs of Lourdes - some rather tacky and some rather incongruous. There was one shop which called itself a shop for pilgrims and sold the usual selection of medals and rosary beads but also deactivated fire-arms and even knuckle-dusters. I couldn't reconcile knuckle-dusters with rosary beads.
Nonetheless my overall feeling of Lourdes is that I wish I could spend more time here. The people who visit are not like those I saw in Churches in Spain, who seem to have come mainly as tourists to look at the splendour of Spanish Churches, take photos and then move on with no time (or inclination?) to stop and pray. My impression here is that people who have come have done so out of faith. Yes they take photos as well but they also stop and sit still and are 'in the place'. In addition the Sanctuary area (which is large) is kept free of the souvenir shops which would completely spoil the sense of the place. The Lourdes Sanctuary really is a sanctuary.