Saturday, 28 June 2003
Distance 32 km
Duration 7 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 732 m, descent 786 m
Map 69 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Topoguide Le Chemin d’Arles (blue cover)
Rain in the night and fog in the morning meant that the tent fly was sodden, although the inside as usual was perfectly dry. We gave it a vigorous shaking to reduce the weight of water that Keith would have to carry.
When we left at 8 o’clock, nobody had appeared at the office, so we added to our score of free nights. Short of throwing the money on the ground, as Robert Louis Stevenson once did after a night in the pines, there was no way to pay.
All our tiredness of the day before had gone and we looked forward to a short, leisurely walk to Lescar, so we stopped at the cathedral bar for croissants, pains aux raisins and coffee. It was when we set off again that we realised that the centre of town was not at the cathedral as we had supposed, but down along the river, a tangle of charming little streets adorned with flower baskets.
Oloron is at the confluence of two Pyrenean rivers, the Gave d’Aspe which we had followed yesterday, and the Gave d’Ossau. It occupies a natural vantage point and was settled long before the Romans came.
Across the bridge, in the precinct called Sainte-Marie, we lost the red-and-white GR marks, or rather we saw their faint remains where they had been erased. The route had changed but we thought we would follow the old way rather than double back and hunt for the new one, especially as the map we had bought in Borce showed the old route. After so many weeks of practice, we could see GR marks in the dark at a hundred paces.
At first we went through smiling fields of wheat on a small road, then, with some hesitation, turned off onto a rough track. A wheezy old farmer assured us that it was the right way. Once off the road, the GR signs were clear again – nobody had bothered to remove them.
The track climbed sharply in the shifting green light of a forest, our enjoyment of which was slightly impaired by the attentions of an army of mean, narrow biting flies, the scourge of all moist vegetation in these parts. Fortunately they are slow and easy to slap. At length we came to a big blue cockleshell sign, the new marking for the Way of Arles, confirming that we had rejoined the official route, and emerged onto a ridge of open farmland.
We descended to a tar road, crossed it, and toilsomely regained the lost height to another ridge with a road along the top, sprinkled with houses. We could not reconcile this with the map, but there was nobody about to ask where exactly we were.
Our problem was that the scale of our new map was much smaller than the one in the Topoguide, so that we kept thinking we were further along than we were. This was bound to end badly.
After a rest beside a pilgrim cross we went on a short way and came to a crossroads with no GR sign. The charitable interpretation was that some marked tree or post had fallen over.
All we could do was guess, and it took a kilometre of walking before we were vindicated by a GR sign, which rather negated the charitable view. We were aware that we were walking in the contrary direction of the pilgrimage, so we were careful to look back as well as forward for signs.
A good while later we emerged from a wood onto a road and discovered from the signs that we were not nearly as far along the map as we thought. We still had 16 km to go and it was now hot and cloudless. We ate a rather disconsolate lunch and hurried on, at first in the relative shelter of a wood and then in full sun.
At Lacommande there was a beautiful church next to a restored monastery (‘commanderie’), which in former times was a busy pilgrim hostel. Not any more. Apart from a few pretty Béarnaise houses and a defunct restaurant there was nothing (a year later we found out why the restaurant was defunct – an interesting story).
With the resignation of pack animals we plodded on. The country was gently rounded and planted with vines of the Jurançon appelation, rising to a height before sloping down to the wide valley of the Gave de Pau. We were getting very short of water by the time we approached this valley.
In the stretched-out village of Artiguelouve there was a bar, which we stumbled towards, only to find it closed. It was a familiar disappointment, but hard to bear all the same.
We stuffed a few plums from an overhanging tree into our parched mouths and hit the main road to Pau. Shortly afterwards we turned off on the long bridge across the river.
No sooner had we set foot on land again than we noticed a sign for the camping ground, and in the same instant the camping ground itself, just across the road. We hurled ourselves across the traffic and in the gate as if competing for a world record.
The first thing we saw was a bar beside a pool. One of the addictive things about walking expeditions is that the joy of arrival is commensurate with the privations of the journey, so we have a lot of joy. We ordered coffee and a glass of water, but the waiter took one look at us and brought two jugs of water and a jug of ice, all of which we despatched while the coffee was being made. We must have looked frightful.
We were the first Australians ever to visit this place, according to madame on the desk. She assured us that we could eat there in the evening, which was good news as we were still a couple of kilometres from Lescar itself.
The grounds were spick and span and she buzzed around repeatedly on a golf-buggy, making sure that we all behaved ourselves. We set up our tent next to a blackberry hedge and had glorious hot showers, during which I noticed that my heels were newly blistered, even though we had been walking for over a month.
Expecting to be the only diners, we settled down for apéritifs at the same blessed table that we had occupied when we arrived, but soon a stream of well-dressed locals drove in to join us.
This did not speak well of the gastronomical attractions of Lescar. On the other hand, the food was surprisingly good here. We had salads to start with, then Keith had steak with Roquefort sauce (he has steak every day, only the sauce varies) and I had a stack of pork ribs, thick with garlic and parsley. The side dishes were sautéed potatoes and green beans and we rounded off the evening with an Armagnac.