Thursday, 12 June 2003
Distance 24 km
Duration 5 hours 5 minutes
Ascent 256 m, descent 283 m
Map 63 of the Top-100 series
Topo-guide (ref. 653) Sentier de Saint-Jacques de-Compostelle, Moissac/Condom/Roncevaux
This was the day of the great short cuts. At 6:30, having slipped over to the gîte for our ablutions, we set off. Once again we had had a free night, through no fault of our own.
Ignoring the contortions of the GR, we returned to the church and continued straight up the water tower, then took a tiny local road to the scatter of houses known as Arblade-le-Haut. Soon after, we met the GR again and emerged onto the frantic N124 for a short distance. Just as the devil has all the best tunes, the highways of France have taken all the best routes – the N124 is built on top of the original pilgrim track, so the GR has to twist and turn absurdly to keep off the bitumen.
In the woods beyond, we passed a French couple labouring along. They must have started at an ungodly hour to get so far at that pace. It was a beautiful pastoral walk, but it wandered, and the day was heating up already. Keith noticed on the map a wisp of a road from the house called Castin, heading directly into Barcelonne-du-Gers.
We soon realised that we were not the first pilgrims to have spotted this short cut – there were wayside seats in the forest, some of them even padded with artificial grass. Better still, at Arblade-le-Bas, a placard invited passing walkers in to the adjacent house for coffee or a cold drink.
We did not hang back and spent a delightful half-hour in the kitchen of a beaming old couple. All they wanted in exchange was a postcard from Australia to add to their collection, which was proudly brought out. They insisted on stamping our Topoguide with the official pilgrimage stamp, disappointed that we were not carrying the proper créanciale (a sort of religious passport).
From there it was a few more kilometres along the road into Barcelonne. The French airforce screamed overhead, making their daily check on our welfare. Passing cars waved and honked in the friendliest way, and council workers mowing the verges also waved. They are a nation of mowers, the French – they have to be, with the rainfall and fertility they are up against.
Originally a bastide town, Barcelonne-du-Gers is poor cousin to its neighbour Aire-sur-l’Adour, but it still prides itself on its Beast Markets in the immense central square.
A hot final trudge across the departmental boundary brought us to Aire-sur-l’Adour. We sat down at the first bar we came to, Les Platanes.
From there we could see the camping ground just over the river, next to the bull ring. After we had stopped sweating and drunk our grands crèmes, we stepped across the bridge into the town itself. The streets were full of posters advertising the bullfighting festival that was to start tomorrow. At the camping ground, we made ourselves at home in a shady nook, as needless to say there was nobody at the desk.
Later, fresh as daisies, we went to pay, and the woman was indignant that we had come in when the office was shut. She should have been grateful that we had presented ourselves at all – she would never have known we were there otherwise.
Aire-sur-l’Adour is an extremely ancient town, at least as old as Julius Caesar. It was the residence of the king of the Visigoths in the 5th century, and a good deal of it looks as though it has not had a lick of paint since.
There was a street or two of smart shops stretching up the hill, flanked on both sides by urban decay. I bought another T-shirt, an orange one, which I was pleased to wear to dinner that night.
For want of alternatives, we ended up at the same hotel over the bridge that we had stopped at when we arrived.
The tables were set up in a little square off the road, some already occupied by pilgrims. One of them asked us whether it was faith, historical curiosity or love of nature that was our motive for walking. I lied that it was all three.
Our excellent dinner consisted of a large salad (which we shared), then a rare steak and a duck confit. We are in duck country still.
The night was as warm and stifling as yesterday, but we fell asleep from pure exhaustion.