In a timely #LongRead for the holiday season, health policy wonk Dr Lesley Russell shares some of her experiences and reflections from walking part of the Camino le Puy in France last year, ahead of her recent 70th birthday.
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Lesley Russell writes:
Last May I made a spur of the moment decision to join my sister-in-law and a mutual friend, both from Denver, to walk part of the Camino le Puy in France. It turned out to be a wonderful decision – I loved every moment, every step.
I also loved discovering how many people had done some part of this walk and had advice to share, had this walk on their bucket list for the future, or vicariously enjoyed following my walk on Twitter.
The Le Puy route is one of the three main French Camino routes (the others start in Paris and Arles) that meet shortly before St Jean Pied de Port and then continue through Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Compared to the Camino in Spain (confusingly called the Camino Frances), the Le Puy route is more beautiful but less popular. There is less infrastructure and fewer places to sleep, and it is also hillier and harder under foot.
My companions had already selected the route, based on the expected scenery and historic associations, and a travel company which made all the accommodation reservations, arranged for transport of our bags each day so we only had to carry a day-pack, and provided a comprehensive array of maps and information guides. These were excellent choices.
The tour was self-guided, which gave us some freedoms and yet we had the surety of a place to stay each night, and the route was so well marked we barely needed additional maps. We stayed at a lovely array of gîtes, auberges, chambres d’hôtes and 2 star hotels.
Breakfasts and dinners were provided and the food, usually locally grown and produced, often by the people who cooked it, was terrific. We were responsible for our lunches – usually a picnic sourced from local stores. There was plenty of access to potable water along the route.
Planning and preparation
I’ve always been fit and active and don’t carry any injuries, but this walk required some serious preparation as we were planning ten days of walking up to 30 km per day. Over three months I built up to a schedule that in the last weeks entailed more than 20 kilometres almost every day, in all weathers.
Although I struggled to find time for long walks in my work schedule, I really enjoyed a whole series of routes that tested me and my equipment and showed me some new aspects of Sydney. Many of my favourite walks can be found here and here.
The preparation is as much about preparing mentally, getting the soles of your feet used to incessant pounding, and knowing that you will not hold back your companions as it is about breaking in boots and learning to treat blisters (think Compeed).
In early October I was off to Paris, then by train to Brive-le-Gaillard, on to Cransac and finally a hair-raising drive in a local taxi which doubles as an ambulance to Conques.
Walking the Camino from Conques to Moissac
Our trip started in Conques, a beautiful little village hanging on the mountainside. The Abbey in the centre of the village was built in the 11th century to house the remains of Sainte Foy (a woman who could cure blindness) which were stolen from Agen by a local monk. It was chilly as we set out that first day and the first four kms were all uphill through a chestnut forest. But as we reached a little chapel in a mountain clearing, we turned to see the sun breaking through on the peaks and the mist still hanging in the valleys below – and we knew this was the start of something special.
There is a distinction made between ‘pelerins’ or pilgrims and ‘randonnees’ or walkers. We all fell into the latter class.
For me the aim of this trip was not to discover my inner self or to ponder my past or my future (although to some extent that was inevitably the case) but to enjoy life and country France and all that was on offer. Every day there were many, many occasions for us to turn to each other and marvel.
Much of the remaining walk that first day was along a high ridge, with views on both sides out over lush dairy farming country. This area used to be known as the garden of Aveyron because of its fertile fields next to the River Lot. After a diversion from the route into Decazeville for lunch supplies, we were glad to arrive in Livinhac-le-Haut with my Fitbit clocking in at 29 kms.
The day dawned with drizzling rain that persisted but was not soaking and did nothing to dampen our spirits or mar the views. We did have to camp out in the lee of a village church to eat lunch.
After 26 kms, we arrived in Figeac, founded in 830 around a Benedictine abbey, with enough time and energy to explore the historic town.
Some of our conversations as we walked centred on how this would have been for the early pilgrims. In many cases we were walking along the same routes, seeing the same landmarks, noting the same shrines and churches.
There is a tradition of open hospitality for pilgrims (some of the hostels still only require whatever you can afford to pay) and in a number of hamlets we found public tables set each day with drinks (even hot coffee in a thermos), cookies, fruit and nuts. There were also plenty of opportunities to forage – apples, figs, berries and nuts.
Our dinner in Figeac was in a restaurant whose décor appeared to date from the belle epoque – it was like something out of an Emile Zola novel. But the food was amazingly good and we were warmly welcomed by the local burghers as they came to dine.
The next day we were off early, knowing we had 32 kms ahead, and for the only time on the trip, we got lost as we tried to leave Figeac. It was a test but we all passed and soon we were properly underway.
The walk that day took us through the beautiful little village of Fascelles, with spectacular views out over the valleys of the Lot region, then up on to a limestone plateau (causse) Our notes alerted us to many dolmens (megalithic tombs from the Neolithic period), and there were ancient dry-stoned walls and stone shepherd’s huts.
Although I was walking around Sydney at a pace of about 5 km per hour, here we found that with the wide array of distractions we were travelling at something closer to 3.5 km per hour. So this was a long day and we were pleased to finally arrive at Cajarc, a village that is famous for the production of saffron.
After the long walk of the previous day, we enjoyed walking beside the meandering River Lot and then on to a limestone plain. This was a remote area with few homes but as always, the track was well signposted with little red and white tags and/or coquilles St Jacques.
All the way across France the walking route mostly stays away from roads. It varies from narrow eroded tracks where you need to watch for roots and rocks to wide gravelly paths where you can walk companionably side-by-side. We talked, we gossiped, we debated, we sang together (badly) and sometimes we walked in silence.
I was reading Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” each night, and it’s a book that needs a lot of contemplation. We had a deal not to get separated, so as the fastest walker I often had the luxury of waiting for the other two.
In the early afternoon we arrived at a beautiful mas (provincial farmhouse) where we were warmly welcomed for the night and we enjoyed a lazy latter part of the day reading in the garden.
When I went to take a shower, I was shocked to discover a very small animal by the drain, which we captured and identified with the help of our hosts. It was a rare find – an Etruscan shrew, the world’s smallest mammal. They live in the crevices of the stone farm walks and are rarely seen; their presence is usually identified by their bones in the droppings of local owls. And regrettably, we did not think to take a photo as we worried about where to safely release it.
On Day 5 we continued to walk across the high limestone plains, often trekking right through the yards of the locals farms. In many cases the farmhouse and a maze of outbuildings constituted the whole hamlet.
We also saw an increasing number of bories, shelters of dry stone construction which date back to Roman times. Unfortunately we missed the once-a-week black truffle market at Lalbenque, but our lodgings, a little off the track at Poudally, were lovely.
That night we ate dinner with the young couple who operated this gîte, their extended family and other walkers from France, the Caribbean and Japan. It gave us a taste of what it would be like to be walking in high season and we enjoyed catching up again with these pelerins (except for the Japanese guy who was walking alone and covering 40 km per day) later.
The resident donkeys ensured we were awake and ready to go early the next day as we headed to Cahors, 21 kms ahead. Our Japanese companion of the previous night soon zoomed past, plugged into his music.
Our route took us along typical walled and semi-shaded lanes. Every now and then, as along most of the route, there were shrines and stone crosses that varied in style from primitive to elaborate, from ancient to modern kitsch.
We walked downhill into Cahors, a bustling town which is surrounded on three sides by the River Lot and an important stop on the pilgrimage route. There was much to explore in Cahors, including the Cathedral of St-Etienne with its amazing cloisters and the Pont Valentré, the finest fortified medieval bridge in Europe.
We indulged our food fantasies for afternoon tea (in my case a very large plate of profiteroles) and still had room for the excellent local cuisine served at dinner.
Those calories were needed for the exertions of Day 7. We had a long walk (33km) through the villages of Labastide-Marnhac, Baffalie and Lascabanes.
Much of this was through woodland, along the remains of a Roman road. Our destination was Montcuq, a small village topped with a distinctive fortress – and with an open and welcoming bar.
That night we stayed at a chambres d’hôte owned by a young couple who had travelled and worked in Australia. He was a trained chef and served us a magnificent meal, then got up early the next morning to ensure we had a good breakfast.
The sun was still rising as we set out the next day and the changing colours of the sky kept us going as we slogged up a succession of hills on a very muddy track. But the day became glorious as we walked on to Lauzerte, a bastide hill town dating from the 12th century.
That meant more climbing to reach the village, but when we arrived it was market day in the village square. We made the rounds of all the stalls, sampled all the produce, made conversation with everyone, and finally joined the throng, including some walking friends, at the local bistro for that great luxury – a sit-down lunch.
Then it was back down the hill and on to the hamlet of Durfort and the Auberge de L’Aube Nouvelle. There was little nouvelle about the faded glory of this lovely old building but the service and food were exemplary, and most of the produce we ate was grown or raised in the backyard.
Day 9 saw us introspective and wistful at the thought that this was our last full day of walking. The countryside was now mostly vineyards and orchards and the autumn colours glowed with fields and roads bordered in reds and golds.
There were signs everywhere that the farmers were getting ready for winter and we often saw and heard chasseurs and their dogs – presumably hunting boar, deer and rabbit.
As we walked through the gritty outer streets of Moissac, I was increasingly anxious for some sign that a special time in my life was about to end, and I was becoming depressed that there would be no “We Did It” moment.
But then we entered the square in front of the Abbey Church of St Pierre. As we explored the world heritage-listed cloisters of the abbey, there was suddenly the glorious sounds of renaissance music from the church choir.
We simply sat and listened and recognised that this was the perfect signal for the end of a momentous journey.
Actually, our trip wasn’t quite over. The next day we caught a train to Toulouse and spent a day exploring the city before I headed back to Paris via Bordeaux. I spent the train trip back gazing out the window as the scenery sped past and daydreaming about my next walking trip in France.
What I learned
Preparation is key. All that training paid off as I was fit enough to enjoy all the walking and still have enough energy to explore the villages and towns where we stayed. I also had all the right gear.
Footwear is critical – both boots and socks. I wore boots and (because I did not need to carry them on my back) also packed walking shoes. The uneven walking surfaces meant boots were the best choice, but it was nice to be able to change into walking shoes to sight-see at the end of the day.
Socks are just as important. I wore synthetic mix liners and (very expensive) wool fusion socks and changed them every 10 km. It made such a difference. I had 5 pairs of socks but was able to wash them out at night and they dried surprisingly quickly. I also liberally applied Vaseline to my feet each morning – it helps prevent rubbing and is cheaper than the products specifically designed for this purpose. Not a blister or a sore patch all trip!
A walking pole makes life easier. I had never previously used walking poles; now I would go so far as to say one is essential (but two not necessary). It’s a real help when going up and down hills / mountains, especially when the path is slippery or uneven, and also aids better posture. A folding stick makes it easier to carry if it is not needed.
Useful gear and gadgets include an array of Ziploc bags, large safety pins, a fold-up cutlery set, several big trash bags – for sitting on, as emergency ponchos etc – and a small container of liquid laundry detergent. My companions used water bladders in their packs, but I preferred my metal thermos water bottles which keep water cold for hours.
Be selective about electronic gear. I took my iPhone and bought a one-month roaming package from my Australian carrier before I left. That made keeping in touch with home easier – and the iPhone has a great camera. I also took my iPad (used both for emails and for reading) and a small camera. Free wifi was readily available everywhere and phone reception was always great. If walking on my own, I would take my iPod for music.
Walking off-season is a good idea. The weather in October was ideal – a little chilly some mornings, occasionally even a frost, but warming up to 21-23C and the days were still quite long. There were very few other walkers on the trail, which is a plus if you like solitude, a minus if you like engagement. After September many hostels and gîtes close for the season, so prior booking is essential to ensure accommodation where you want it.
Plan for food purchases. The walking trails mostly avoid roads and therefore a diversion is necessary to find villages and places to buy food, so some planning is necessary. Also shops (including bakeries) are often closed on Sundays and Mondays. On only a few occasions were we in the right place at the right time to have a sit-down lunch or drink at a café or bar. Many of the places where we stayed would pack a lunch if requested.
Do some study before you go. There’s so much of interest – geology and geography, history, literature, flora and fauna. Having iPhones and an iPad was great: we could check things out as we went. And we could look up the French words and expressions we didn’t know.
It is more fun if you speak French. My French is reasonable and I used every opportunity to practice. This meant lovely conversations with our hosts, shopkeepers, and people we met on the trail about cheeses, donkeys, making jam, the healthcare system in Quebec and whether the Wallabies would beat the All Blacks.
Finally: I learned that having the good health and the resources to do this wonderful trip was a special gift which was compounded by a supportive partner at home and great companions on the trail. I loved this so much I’m headed back in June to walk in the Perigord Noir region and in September-October to emulate RL Stevenson’s trip to Cevennes (without the donkey Modestine).
What about public health?
‘Health policy wonk goes walking’ is hardly news and certainly not remarkable, so what has this story got to do with public health?
I’ve been encouraged to write this for several reasons that I hope will explain why this is more than just a travelogue.
Unknown to me when I made the decision to make this walk, the Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute, where I have worked as a Senior Fellow since October 2012, was about to close its doors, leaving me involuntarily retired.
So instead of being consumed by disappointment and regret at this, I was thinking of the adventure in France to come.
The Camino walk (more than 250 km over 10 days) entailed some physical effort, but was nothing compared to some of the tough Tasmanian walks I’ve done in the past and the challenges so many others have tackled in places as isolated and difficult as Nepal, China and Patagonia.
I recently celebrated my 70th birthday. So for me, this walk was about breaking some psychological and physical barriers.
I did that – easily, enjoyably – and suddenly the number attached to this birthday doesn’t seem like a limitation but an opportunity (especially when combined with a change in my work – life balance).
My friends laugh at my typical Type A response to the issues around ageing and retirement, but setting a goal that is both physical and mental and then meeting it works for me.
Everyone, including me, needs to take better care of their physical and mental health and wellbeing.
You have to do a lot of walking to negate the kilojoules from a bar of chocolate but at the same time you get to look more closely at your surroundings (nature, trash, environmental changes), engage with people and animals you would not otherwise meet, have companionship or solitude, and have time to contemplate, listen to music or catch up on those podcasts you otherwise never get to.
To me, this is public health in action! What do you think?
• Lesley Russell is happy to provide further information and thoughts about the Camino experience to those who are interested.
• Previously at Croakey by Lesley Russell: Further news about Federal funding for primary healthcare research.