Saturday, 14 June 2003
Distance 29 km
Duration 6 hours 20 minutes
Ascent 529 m, descent 600 m
Map 69 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Topoguide (ref. 653) Sentier de Saint-Jacques de-Compostelle, Moissac/Condom/Roncevaux
As we ate our bowls of muesli in the grey of dawn, lights came on in the gîte and we saw people making hot drinks. All of us were driven by fear of the heat, predicted to be 37°C.
We left at 6 am, in the company of two ancient pilgrims with knee-braces and telescopic poles, who were surprisingly fast walkers.
Rounding an artificial lake, the track plunged towards a stream, rose, plunged and rose again. We seemed to be going across the grain of the country. The Topoguide did not use the dreaded word “grimper”(climb steeply), but it should have.
At Louvigny we were hoping for a rest, but we were 350 years too late – the château had been destroyed on the orders of Richelieu and not much has happened since.
Presently we hauled ourselves up to an airy escarpment and followed along the brink for a while. We knew there was an expansive view but it was lost in the haze. Down the other side and over a wooded ridge, we stopped at Larreule for a drink of water.
This used to be one of the most important stopping places on the pilgrimage, with a prosperous Benedictine abbey, already several hundred years old, supplying the wants of pious travellers.
Its destruction began in the Wars of Religion and was complete before the Revolution. Modern pilgrims must content themselves with a stone table beside a well.
Pressing on across the fields, baked by the sun, we came to Uzan. Once again, there was no sign of a shop or a bar, only a large church.
However, as we were about to leave, we saw a hand-written sign on a gate inviting pilgrims to step in to the garden for coffee, cake and cold drinks. An umbrella was set up in a shady corner over a table, with cups, bottles, thermos flasks, and a large chocolate-filled cake.
We must have been the first walkers of the day, as it was untouched. Nobody was in sight, but we sat down and helped ourselves. Soon the owner, who worked at home, emerged from the house for a chat. He pointed out the Pyrenees on the horizon, a faint blue outline, and told us about walking the GR10, which goes from coast to coast along the Spanish border. We formed the resolve to try a bit of it when we got to the end of the pilgrimage.
Not much further on we got to Pomps. It did not have a lively look, but a sign pointed along a side road to an épicerie, which was also a bar.
In reality it was only a converted room of a farmhouse, but it was the first shop we had seen since Arzac and we needed lunch supplies for the weekend. While we were at it we had another round of coffees in the pleasant garden.
Two more climbs lay between us and our destination, Arthez. After the first of these, at Castillon, we stopped for lunch and at the beginning of the second we abandoned the GR and took to the road, which was a short, sharp ascent instead of a longer form of torture. We were soaked in sweat and starting to tire.
Arthez, like Arzac, is strung out along a narrow ridge. The centre of town is marked by a slight widening of the road and the presence of a couple of sleepy bars.
Knowing that the camping ground was far below on the river, we decided to ask at the gîte for permission to put our tent up in the grounds, as we had yesterday.
The first person we met there was an Australian woman, the only compatriot we had encountered so far and we hoped, the last. She had the hot stare of the zealot, and assured us that this was a fascinating town and the gîte owner was very welcoming. Just then he arrived and sent us packing.
The camping ground was not as far down as we thought and was run by a jolly Spaniard. The ablutions block was new and sparkling, and there was shade beside the river. It had been a hot day, but not as hot as we feared.
In the evening we had an excellent dinner in the Café du Palais. We had salads to begin, then Basque chicken and rabbit with two mustards, with a jug of red wine.
As we were leaving I asked the waiter to pass on our congratulations to the chef, and he admitted that he was himself the chef. So he was pleased.