22 May Sauvelade to Navarrenx

Since I went to bed at 9, I cannot stay in bed until 7, so I am up and dressed before the rest of the people have left. I ask if the French couple who will be in Ottawa in September are still here. They are, so I issue them a formal invitation to join me in Ottawa for a pilgrim’s welcome when they are there. They are just delighted with this and assure me that they will come. We exchange email addresses to make sure this can happen. Then they are off. We plan to share a beer – ‘un demi’, I have learned – later today in Navarrenx. It is only 14 kilometres, a short walk and likely about three hours.

Oh yes, yesterday I crossed over the major multilane highway in this area, the one that links Bordeaux to Pau.

The weather forecast for today has changed from raining to just overcast, so when I leave, I have my rain jacket packed at the back of my backpack. When did I start trusting the weatherman? In France they have the same abysmal track record as in Canada. So within 15 minutes it’s raining and I have to stop and recover the jacket to put it on – which almost immediately stops the rain.

The walk today is all on roads, very narrow, paved, grass to the pavement. The country is very hilly and the roads here have been laid out by the same folks who do the GR. I am on the top of more crests than ever. By now I have been walking for more than a month – it’s the 22nd of May and I started on the 22nd of April, so I figure that I can climb anything and evidently that needs to be tested. So I go up and down steep winding hills. The good news is that the roads wind so much that I can’t see how high I have to climb, so it always looks just on the edge of possible.

Because it has rained so much there are puddles standing on the road and I drag my pole tips through them for fun. And I recall a moment 50 years ago when I was reassured that I had married the right person. (I was already certain, but there is no such thing as too much reassurance). We had our first child, a son Francis and he was just walking. We three went out for a walk in the rain and Carroll not only permitted, she encouraged Francis to jump in the puddles – and I knew that I had a partner for life. She wanted this little boy to get the most fun out of being a child as he could.

Perhaps it is because it is a shorter day today that it seems much longer. I look at my watch, as if that would shorten the time, and note than 15 minutes have gone by. And there are frequent markers telling me how much longer in time it will be to get to Navarrenx. Subjective time is very deceptive, I am finding. On longer distance days the time seems to go by more quickly. Perhaps that is because the destination is far enough away that I am not measuring time to it.

The woods here are dense and I think about Robin Hood, only here it isn’t Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, it’s Robin de Béarn who is the local hero. I have been in Béarn for a few days and am discovering how, for many French, their local political entity is really important. For example when The Three Muskeeteers was written by Alexandre Dumas in the 1840s and set 200 years earlier, all three of the musketeers are from Béarn. By the way, D’Artagnan is NOT one of the three musketeers. Did you know that? I didn’t. And a pertinent question: since these guys were all musketeers, how come every image of them has each of them holding an épée? How come they’re not holding muskets? No-one can answer me. I think the French have a lot to answer for on this topic.

As I walk alone I feel a need to scratch my butt and, to my amusement, realise that before I do, I look back to see that no-one is following me. Can’t be seen scratching my butt by a complete stranger, can I? I wonder what that’s about. English prudery? I was going to write British, but a Scotsman or an Irishman or a Welshman would just scratch, wouldn’t he?

As I come into Navarrenx there is a plaque explaining that the town was fortified in 1316 and later in the 16th century, a wall was built protecting the town square. It was the first bastioned city in France. Béarn was Protestant at the time and the Catholics planned to change that. It was Protestant because Jeanne d’Albret, the queen of Navarre (1555-1572) and the mother of Henri IV, converted to Protestantism and in the custom of the time converted all her subjects at the same time. The Catholic church was understandably perturbed. The town was besieged as soon as the wall was built – bad timing for the Catholics – but withstood the 3-month siege. The wall is still intact today. I am going to go have a look at it. And see if I can find the French folks for that demi.

I don’t find the French folks, but I do find Jean-Pierre, the Belgian sitting outside a little cafe. I have a hot chocolate (anything hot) and go off to explore the town. It doesn’t take long. It is about the size of Fort Henry in Kingston.

The wall is interesting but once you’ve seen it you have pretty well done the town. There is a cigar factory using Cuban workers in a 15th century barracks but watching people roll cigars is much like watching paint dry. It doesn’t help that it is quite cold and still rainy, so sitting outside watching the pretty girls walk by is not an option. Any moment now, spring should spring out.

There is a big fast river here, the Gave d’Oloron, reputedly the best salmon fishing in France. Gave is Béarnaise for river. There is a bridge over it here and the fortress is situated to cover and protect the bridge.

I have walked now over 560 kilometres and the end is starting to be significant. Up until now it has just been a vague idea, way out there. Now it is starting to feel close.

At 6 PM there is a service for pilgrims in the large and ornate church. The service is brief, done by a layman who then follows with a history of Navarrenx which takes at least as long to tell as it did to happen. In subjective time it is about 500 years. This is followed by a little reception in the welcome centre, and who is there but two young German girls whom I have not seen since the first day at Saint Chely d’Aubrac!

At the reception there is a young Japanese woman pilgrim who plays a little recorder-like instrument. The first song is an Irish reel, the second a Japanese lullaby and the third is Ultreia, a pilgrim’s hymn. Very moving. I meet here a Scottish couple who are cycling from Le Puy to Santiago. My first Scots pilgrims. More about them later.

Afterwards I have dinner with 10 French pilgrims in a restaurant. We have the pilgrim’s menu, which is lots of good food for 12 Euros. After dinner the owner’s wife gives us, without prompting, a fascinating history of Navarrenx and Béarn. Basque country starts just south of here and it’s pretty clear that the Béarnese feel that this is the outer edge of civilization.

I am tired before she is finished, but I wait until the end before I pay my bill, say goodnight to my fellow pilgrims and head back to my room. The weather for tomorrow is promising. At least rain is not forecast.

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