Posting 13: 09/07/2006, near Le Muy (937 kms to go)
'Hello' said a little voice from the wilderness (well south east France actually!), 'Í'm still here'.
I am now well and truely into the next section of the journey, the stretch after Arles. The current 'accepted' Camino starts from Arles so now there are no pilgrims, no more refugios and very little in the way of way marking. Fortunately though the French Amis de St Jacques have a web site that gives maps of the route and lists accommodation available in towns along the way, including details of members who are willing to help pilgrims. The maps though are not detailed enough and even when the route is well way marked I can sometimes get lost (!) so I am using the IGN 1cm to 1 km series of maps for the region. I am following the Amis' route in as much as I am visiting towns listed, but I plan the route from the IGN map so that way I theoretically know where I am.
So the Camino experience. It has been mixed. The day I went to Montpellier I predictably got lost in the forest and ended up pretty wrecked. I had already decided that I would not make it all the way into Mt P that day as it was about 30 km's so I planned to take a bus but return the following day by bus and continue the walk. I passed several bus stops but hadn't walked far enough yet - didn’t want to have too far to walk the next day. After I had done about 23/24 km's I started looking for a bus stop. Was I on a bus route? No, I was not. Eventually I found one and arrived to a very warm welcome at the refugio which is in the presbytery of the Church of St Roch, the Patron Saint of all pilgrims. The Church itself was beautiful, open with exquisite music playing. I spent some time there just 'being'.
Crossing the Camargue was a bit gruelling with the heat. On one of the days I was up at 4 am and arrived at my destination, St Gilles at 9:30. The temperature was 29 degrees. By midday it was 35 and by mid afternoon it was 42! The welcome from the lady at the Church was so warm to a weary, hot, sticky pilgrim that I just sat in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel with silent tears of gratitude rolling down my cheeks.
The next day I arrived at Arles Cathedral just in time to hear the 'Our Father' being said in English in a side Chapel. I was so tempted to go in for the exchanging of the peace but felt it might be an intrusion. I hadn't heard a Mass in English since Lourdes, also there might be an opportunity to meet people. I attended the 11:00 normal French Mass but then stupidly spent the day wandering round not quite knowing whether to walk on or to find accommodation in Arles and I got to the point of being so tired that I took the first convenient hotel. This turned out to be a 3* establishment. Feeling a bit guilty I climbed the steps only to see a lady who I knew to be English as our paths had crossed earlier at lunch. I thought 'Drat I've been caught'. I could just see the headlines ¨Pilgrim caught booking in to a luxury hotel¨ (of course this displays a certain amount of arrogance- are the papers the slightest bit interested in what I am doing?). It turned out she was part of a Parish group over from Manchester for a week in Arles. She had recognised my Depaul Trust top at lunch but had not said anything. Also it was her group that had the Mass in English that morning. Her husband was very kind and came to the reception with me to make sure I got a room OK. I was really pleased to have met them and wished I could have had dinner with them but again did not wish to impose. (Oh the humility of it - my halo is being polished as I write!). Oh and while I had been wandering around Arles, the mosquitoes had been dining in great style on me! My arms and legs were covered with bites.
After that it was a mixed bag. Heat was difficult but what was much worse was that I bought a new pair of insoles that turned out to be most unsuitable. I ended up with blisters on both feet - alas I cannot cope with 2 painful feet. That plus the heat really took it out of me and I began to really dislike walking. It was fast getting to the point where I was going to want to give up. I arrived at Aix-en-Provence at 8.00 am after only 9 km's but at the end of my tether with the heat and the blisters. I decided that the only thing to do was have a complete break from walking. So I stayed there for 4 nights. This is the longest I have stayed in one place since I left England on 29th March! Aix is a lovely town and I am glad it was there I stopped. Also in an effort to cope with the heat I decided to send back home my main sleeping bag (I still have a very light liner type bag), my fleece, my chopping board (yes I know that's not what many people consider necessary but it was only little and not very heavy!), rainproof trousers and rainproof anorak. I still have my thermals (just in case) and also my little tent.
Having sent the stuff home and rested, I set off from Aix. Two days later there was the 'mother and father' of a storm! Now I need to tell you that I had not seen rain for well over a month and indeed had only been 'caught in the rain' once, way back in Galicia in early April. This storm had it all - thunder, lightning, heavy rain, the works. My rucksack was OK as I had a rain cover for it but I got soaked to the skin! But it didn't matter. About a half an hour before I reached my destination (St-Maximin-La-Ste-Baume), the rain stopped, the sun came out and I was dry. So I was able to visit the Basilica and then go for a coffee without dripping all over the place! What does that say?
Despite not being now on the 'pilgrim trail' I have had wonderful warm welcomes. The lady in Salon who put me up for the night, the lady in Eguilles who did likewise and shared a wonderful experience of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem she had done, the Dominican sisters of St-Maximin who smiled at me as though I was a long lost friend and who's voices were like those of angels, the lady in the Tourist Office at Le Val who recognised the shell and offered her home to me if I could not be accommodated in the gite, the sisters in the Monastery of Bethlehem who were kind, accepting and generous and who's rendering of Psalms in Hebrew left me full of gratitude for being allowed to hear it, the proprietor of the campsite I am now at for giving me wonderful ripe, sweet, juicy peaches.
The way is not easy, in fact (I could use a rude word here but I won't!) very very difficult at times, but then along comes something - a chance meeting in the street, an email of encouragement, an SMS from a friend, an incredible view, a gift from a stranger, a smile from a hospitalier, a welcoming, peaceful, open Church and then everything changes. All the negative emotions melt away and are replaced by gratitude for the opportunity to be able to make this journey.