Category Archives: France

First day: St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Here we go! After a marathon train journey and two other connections, we finally hopped on a one-car commuter line with a few dozen other technical fabric- and hiking boot-clad would-be pilgrims from Biarritz to the small Basque village of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which has become the de facto trailhead of the French Camino de Santiago. Whether that’s for historic reasons or simply because it’s the last town in France before crossing the foothills of the Pyrenees into Spain, I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s another painfully charming spot with winding stone-cobbled streets and walls built as much for beauty as defense.

Alas, we tore ourselves from the village at about 8:30, later than most, to tackle one of the French Camino’s most difficult chunks. A lovely hostel lies about 11 km into the walk, but at that rate, we’d need three months for this journey, not one, so after a quick coffee there, we continued to climb. The next waypoint, unless you’re packing your own shelter, lies in Roncesvalles, another 16 km further.

Most of this stage – about 24 km in fact – climbs through pastureland where the Basques pasture their cattle, ponies and black-faced Brebis sheep, but apparently the healthy vulture population spiraling in updrafts like bubbles in a glass makes it necessary to prohibit dumping animal remains.

Temperamental weather can sometimes force pilgrims to take the lowland route, but all we had was sunshine and cool breezes to accompany spectacular view after spectacular view across rolling hills tapering into the ocean to the west and lapping at snow-covered spires to the east.

Roncesvalles is a tiny Spanish town with a massive hostel, necessitated by its position as a bottleneck on the Camino. Across three floors, several hundred bodies bed down every night here at this well-organized modern dormitory attached to a 12th-century church during the summer. Pilgrims almost undoubtedly out-number the town’s residents during the evening hours.

 As I understand it, hotels in small towns like this one often put together a communal pilgrim meal with an appetizer, entrée and dessert for pilgrims at a reasonable price. After enjoying our first of many, and some good conversation spurred on by a thirsty Italian who ordered us all a second bottle of wine, we happily put our weary legs up to rest in the hostel by 8:45.

Just a quick note – I’m going to try to put up shorter posts more frequently from our time on the Camino. Part of it is that I’m pretty exhausted by the time we arrive some where to sleep every night that writing longer posts is tough, and part of it is spotty access to wifi, though so far it’s been pretty good. There’s so much I’d like to share but know my words and Anne-Claire’s pictures, good as they tend to be, can’t capture. Hopefully, I’ll be able to provide a small window into this experience that we’re so lucky to be enjoying.

Upside Down Take

Anne-Claire and I have both commented on how backward this trip feels, touring around at the beginning and seeing people and places in Europe before getting down to what we expect will be the hard work of hiking every day for 500 miles.

But our frequent flier tickets worked best to fly into Paris and out of Lisbon, so we’ve made do. When life gives you lemons…

We spent a night with Anne-Claire’s former host family in Aix-en-Provence, about a 20-minute bus ride from the airport in Marseille – that is, the one that we flew into (MSP2). Anne-Claire raves about the meals Amable puts together.

Born in central Spain and raised in southern France, she brings highlights from Castilian and Provencal cooking to every meal, emphasizing fresh ingredients, balance (down to the colors of the food she prepares), and variety. I was surprised to learn that she doesn’t like to eat strong cheeses, but she says she loves buying them because there are so many to choose from.

Her long-time partner Michel is as curious as ever, proudly showing off pictures from a bike trip for a week or so last summer on the Camino de Santiago. He’s hiked the length we’re doing, from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago, twice, and has endless stories about the people he’s met along the way. Once, while he was talking about his time on the Camino, his voice began to crack and he had to wipe his eyes.

That’s one thing I didn’t expect – the importance that people attach to this pilgrimage. As I’ve said earlier, I don’t have a strong spiritual motivation for this hike. I’m here largely for the pleasure of walking a few hundred miles uninterrupted. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at its importance as pilgrims have been making the trek for hundreds of years. I’ll write more on all this later.

From Aix, we rented a car to get to Cahors. I mentioned how expensive it is to drive in France, and this is particularly true if you’re not traveling up one of the spokes of the bicycle wheel of thoroughfares radiating out from Paris but rather trying to hop between them as we were. Private companies have obliged drivers trying to avoid Paris, but at a high cost in tolls. We drove west to Cahors, which took about six-and-a-half hours.

Again, we were visiting one of Anne-Claire’s former host families. We’d spent a few days with Cecile and her daughters at the end of our trip last summer. I had told them I had blogged about our trip, and of course they asked to see it. Forgetting what I’d written, I plugged the address into Google Translate, and – at least in this instance – it provided a particularly good interpretation of what I had written.

As Cecile and her oldest daughter Maylin read it, I sat shifting nervously in my chair – first, because it’s never fun to watch someone read what you’ve written, and second, because I started to remember what I had included about Maylin’s father. It was only a sentence and wasn’t untrue, but it’s never fun to read something negative about your parents.  Maylin wasn’t upset with me, though both she and her mother cried at points, and Cecile gave me a loud kiss on the cheek after she finished.

Though a lot has changed in their lives – Maylin is finishing up her first year at university and set to spend the summer in Spain, and Elora has started high school – the girls and their mother are still as close as before, and we had a wonderful visit.

Paris is for Amblers

Though we figured we’d beat the summer rush by coming to Paris in late May, we didn’t count on the French Open and the Cannes Film Festival and a religious holiday all converging to pack the streets and hotels of Paris. We realized what we were in for a few weeks ago when we struggled to find budget accommodations in Paris proper on the night we arrived. So, we found a decent place in nearby Versailles for a night before things loosened up a bit on Sunday night, when we were able to book two nights in a small place near the Eiffel Tower.

I had wanted to visit the Chateau at Versailles last year, but a strike by government workers limited me to seeing just the gardens, so we were planning to make the half-hour day trip out anyway. But going directly from the airport provided a few unforeseen benefits.

We breezed through security at Charles de Gaulle in Paris without so much as filling out a form, and we caught the RER B (suburban rail) to Saint Michel station in the city. The train was packed and it’s been a bit warm in Paris, so it was a bit of a slog for 45 minutes, but from there, it was easy (and free) to transfer to a much more comfortable RER C that took about 30 minutes to get to the Rive Gauche station in Versailles.

An aside here – the trip from the Paris city center to Versailles costs more than a regular ticket because you cross beyond the borders of the central zone. But our multi-zone ticket (to get from the airport) allowed us to transfer freely to the Versailles-bound train, saving us €8 or 9.

Also, because our plane arrived around noon, we arrived in Versailles in time to eat a late lunch, then visit the Chateau. Even on a Saturday, by late afternoon, the crowds had mostly moved onto the gardens, and I took about 2 hours (plenty of time for me) to wander through the castle with the provided, detailed audio guide. Anne-Claire has visited the palace in the past, so she opted for just a garden pass (complete with a student discount) and soaked up the sun tooling around the magnificent fountains. The chance to walk, especially in the sun, was a nice antidote to jet lag, allowing us to stay up until about 11 p.m. enjoying Versailles – in my opinion, an underrated and beautiful town. Though it’s not loaded with sights (except for the palace of course), you can imagine cottage industries springing up in the old buildings around the Chateau to support the thousands of courtiers and their entourages who came to live here during Louis the XIV’s reign and afterward. Without a specific place to see in a specific amount of time, we might have been tempted to let our heavy eyelids rest after arriving.

As it was, I waited for Anne-Claire outside the gates of the gardens around closing time. An Argentinian couple asked me to snap a photo of them in the courtyard. When told them I’d heard good things about their country, they told me first that they had the best “beefsteak” and only later that, yes, Argentina is a beautiful country.

The next morning, we decided to go back to the gardens and take in Les Grandes Eaux Musicales, during which the Chateau’s fountains dance to classical music throughout the day. Like many things in France, from a penchant for odd wardrobe combinations to the design of the Eiffel Tower, what might have been kitschy in American hands turned out to be a well executed sensory experience. I’ll let you be the judge:

In the afternoon, we met Anne-Claire’s friend Sophie at her apartment and had lunch with her parents. Quintessentially Parisian, her apartment is small but maximizes every inch of space and has a view we tourists pay hundreds of euros a night to have from our windows. It was a lovely afternoon, though I think the combination of wine, trying to keep pace with the French conversation, and a body clock that woke me up at 3:30 that morning caught up with me: my head snapped down a few times as I dozed mid-sentence on Sophie’s couch.

;

What better for drowsiness than another walk, so we hit the streets from the residential 14th arrondisment and walked past the Eiffel Tower and along the Seine to the Latin Quarter. We spent much of the rest of our time in Paris just wandering winding alley ways and enjoying the world-class views around nearly every corner. As we were staying in a little place close to Paris’s most iconic landmark, we took the opportunity to head there at night. The Eiffel Tower turns the surrounding area – even the steps of the Esplanade du Trocodero across the Seine – into a nightly carnival, as people gather to watch the light show.

Not a bad town for a few city strolls.

Medieval France

I’m convinced Anne-Claire is on a mission to become friends with all the best cooks in France. Last year, before starting graduate school, she came to Cahors in southwestern France to brush up on her French. While the school itself turned out to be a disappointment, she made lifelong friends in the family she lived with – a woman, Cécile, and her two daughters, Elora and Maylïn – cemented with their shared appreciation of top notch food and excellent “black wine” from the region.

We made the trek from Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the Atlantic coast of France to Toulouse, and then turned north to Cahors. Cécile and her girls met us at the train station and welcomed us into their home.

They live on five floors built around a spiral staircase, tucked in the town’s old section, which dates back to the 14th century. Strolling the narrow, gorge-like streets, you catch glimpses of arching stone windows and the ancient timbers that still form the endoskeleton of these shotgun homes (only here, you’d better point the gun skyward if you want the bullet to clear the building’s walls and occupants, rather than horizontally as you might in an American home of this type).

After stashing our stuff on the second-floor room (ours for the three nights we stayed there), our hosts took us on a walk through Cahors, the highlight of which was seeing the spectacular Pont de Valentré, built in the 1300s. Legend has it that the bridge’s builder had to sell his soul to the devil to meet the construction deadlines. But to ensure that the bridge would never be completed, he gave the devil a sieve to collect the water needed for the last bit of mortar. The devil of course couldn’t carry any water with the sieve, leaving the bridge unfinished and thus saving the master builder’s soul. In retaliation for being tricked, the devil

removed a cornerstone from one of the bridge’s towers every night that had to then be replaced in the morning. To this day a devil sits high atop the bridge (thanks to the architect in charge of the bridge’s 19th century restoration) poised to yank a stone from one of the towers.

Our walked ended with a stroll along the Lot River, followed shortly thereafter by a delicious dinner.

The French pretty much have this whole food thing figured out. Every meal we had at Cécile’s had at least three courses. The first night we had rabbit in a mushroom sauce, and dessert was a caramel chocolate tart made by a pastry chef that Anne-Claire made friends with last summer. Other dishes included farsi – seasoned ground pork stuffed into tomatoes and zucchini – and fried duck, along with a smattering of foie gras (duck or goose liver) in various forms. I’m almost certain foie gras is Anne-Claire’s favorite thing on the planet, though I thought it was a little strange that she’d stop to thank the ducks we saw sitting along the roadside.

Cécile and the girls’ father split up a while ago, and it sounds like he’s shirked his responsibilities to them a bit. The upshot of those difficulties is that the three of them have become as close as I’ve ever seen a mother and two teenaged girls. Maylïn and Elora are truly best friends, even at 17 and 15, and it’s obvious that Maylïn’s coming departure for university won’t be easy on anyone. When we visited, they were enjoying each other’s

company and the month of August that Cécile gets off for vacation.

One afternoon, we all went to a charming hilltop village called Saint-Cirq-Lapopie with incredible views of the Lot, the region’s namesake river. Picturesque doesn’t begin to describe the stone-paved streets and the curving red-tiled roofs typical of towns here and in the adjacent Dordogne region. I’ve been fortunate to live in some beautiful places, so I don’t often seek out the most attractive locales for travel, but this part of France begs for a longer visit in the future.

Our stay in Cahors finished with an abbreviated meal of foie gras and a lasagna-like dish with thin layers of pasta and a light sauce. The real purpose of the evening was to sample the dozen or so desserts Cécile had bought from Anne-Claire’s friend’s pastry shop. Though we nearly made ourselves sick, we tasted an éclair stuffed so full of rich chocolate that the chef had sliced it lengthwise to accommodate it all, a lime tart with a basil ganache, a fraisier (strawberry cream and cake), a cake soaked in Cointreau, and a handful of equally inventive others. Even with a half-hour break midway through, I woke up the next morning still full.

Across the Pyrenees

We left Burgos, again without a clear plan, knowing only that we’d spend a night in Pamplona and make it to Cahors in France at some point in the coming days. A quick calculation as the city bus to the train station told us we weren’t going to make our train that day, so we grabbed a empty taxi (somewhat miraculously, as there weren’t a lot just trolling for passengers). Even the cab driver was a little surprised at how close we were cutting it, but he dropped us off in time to make it onto the train.

Pamplona is far too big and full of history and culture to begin to absorb in just a one-night stay. Still, we made the most, getting lost in the narrow, cavernous streets that look deliberately designed to form the racetrack for the annual Running of the Bulls that happens here each July. Tiny balconies seem to jut from every window – perfect for watching the run from a safe distance, or for scoping out the nightly rehearsal for the party that precedes the run, as the cobblestones are covered Bourbon Street-style with tipsy revelers.

Like so many cities on the Iberian Peninsula, Pamplona is steeped in Catholicism, and it shows in the beautiful churches that sit on every corner. The Running of the Bulls, after all, is the cornerstone of the San Fermin festival, which celebrates the town’s martyred patron. He was beheaded, hence the red scarves that folks like to wear. Not knowing much about the brutal sport/art that is bullfighting, Pamplona certainly feels like the center of that universe, from the impressive bullfighting stadium to this magnificent rendering of the run itself. It’s done so well that you almost swear the bulls and people move.

From Pamplona we headed deeper into Basque Country to the seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz just over the border in France. We ended up staying at the pleasant little Hotel de Paris. The town itself is charming – in fact almost overwhelming with its cuteness. The beach too was lovely, if a bit crowded, and the warmish water made for a nice swim on our second day there.

But we’re not sit-on-the-beach people, and we used our lucky find of a hotel room here (as this was a holiday weekend and the tourist office told us that all the other rooms in the area were booked) to stay a second night and explore some of the Basque region. We made the mistake of taking a train to the top of the Rhune. If we had to do it over, we would take most of the day and hike the 900-m peak, enjoy the tough little Basque ponies that dot the hillsides, and gawk at the views of the coastline and the French and Spanish Pyrenees.

Instead, we cheated, whisked up to the top and back again by the “little train of the Rhune.” That left us more time to explore the nearby town of Sare. While it was interesting to see the feisty independence of the Basque people up close – a friendly shopkeeper explained the graffiti we’d noticed around by stating unequivocally, We don’t want another high-speed rail line built here” – Sare was touristy, and everything seemed to be overpriced.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz turned out to be a lovely spot, and we enjoyed terrific meals, replete with creatively prepared fresh-caught seafood and meat galore, at Chez Pablo and Pil-Pil Enea. I wouldn’t hesitate to return here if I was looking for a beach vacation. But, spoiled as we’ve become, we missed not being with people we know who have welcomed us into their homes again and again as we’ve traveled. Thankfully, our next-to-last stop was Cahors, where Anne-Claire had come to study French last summer and met a family eager to welcome her back.