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LIVE from the Camino Live from the Podiensis

Aurigny

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
During a winter pilgrimage along one of the routes less travelled, one of the difficulties one confronts is not so much losing the bed race as the fact that the beds themselves may not exist.

This was the problem I was encountering for today's leg to Arthez-de-Béarn. The great majority of gîtes and chambres d'hôte in this part of the world closed for the season in October. Only one in Arthez itself remains in operation year-round, and it's been booked up for some considerable time, as I found when I began making inquiries before Christmas. Despite spending several days ringing around and e-mailing the proprietors of others within a ten-kilometre radius, no alternatives presented themselves. The nearest place in which any sort of accommodation was available was Orthez, a reasonably substantial town 14 km to the west. For a while I mulled over the possibility of walking the 34 km directly there from Arzacq and heading south to Navarrenx the following day to mend my course. But bearing in mind that I came here to walk a defined pilgrimage trail and not a random ramble around southwestern France, being off the Podiensis for almost two whole days seemed unacceptable. In the end I decided to stick with the programme; walk to Arthez; and take my chances on picking up a taxi to Orthez from there.

Remaining in Arzacq only long enough to pick up a little road food at the Carrefour (the same place that had provided my dinner last night: a microwaveable quiche Lorraine), I was on my way before dawn—which is well after eight in the morning in these parts. The weather was exactly as forecast: wet, with a freshening westerly wind. This wasn't much of a problem for the first few kilometres, as the route follows paved surfaces. Past the mill at Louvigny, though, it turns upwards. I raised my eyebrows a little at a yellow finger-post that estimated the journey-time to Pomps, 15.9 km away, at four hours. As is nearly always the case, though, the people who make these approximations know their business. It took me four and a half, although the torrential rain that soon set in had more than a little to do with that.

In contrast to yesterday's leg, the first half of today's stretch consisted of continuous ascents and descents; the second being fairly flat. None of the climbs was particularly long or steep; the main difficulty was negotiating one's way along tracks or tractor-ruts down which young rivers of yellow-silted water were now flowing vigorously. Previous downpours had deepened the grooves, so that the choice was either to wade through the water or try to pick one's way along banks that were too narrow or angled too sharply to make that a realistic possibility in many cases. Even wading was no guarantee of safety, as the bottom of these impromptu streams was often composed of mud of a quite extraordinary slipperiness and treacherousness. Lacking good options either way, I oscillated between the brooks and the braes, as local conditions seemed to call for.

The countryside out here in some respects resembles the early stages of the Primitivo, with the significant difference that cows are notable for their absence. This is tillage country. It looks as though farmers seek only a single crop a year, that crop being sunflowers, though I did pass some fields of cabbages that seemed to thrive on the wet conditions. On the whole I'd characterise it as rolling uplands, which might have yielded some impressive views if the clouds hadn't been down on the deck for nearly the entire day.

They did lift briefly in mid-afternoon as I passed the village of Larreule, from the other side of which I was able to get my first glimpse of the Pyrenees. They seemed startlingly close, and snow-covered from surprisingly low elevations. But then the sky lowered again and the downpour resumed. At least from this point on, though, I was walking across level ground for the most part, so I started to make a little better time.

The nice people at the Pilgrims' Office in SJPP are engaged in some generous and constructive work around here. On the approaches to both Larreule and the somewhat larger village of Pomps about another 8 km further on, they've planted small orchards of trees bearing now-rare varieties of fruit, thereby combining philanthropy and historical botany. These are "destined for the use of pilgrims" when they become mature. It's a lovely idea, which I've seen being done by others on the Gebennensis. The cynic in me, though, causes me to wonder how strictly some of the locals, the kids especially, are likely to observe the sternly worded "not for you!" ordinance. Still, bearing in mind that the trees in question have just been planted and are unlikely to bear fruit for quite a few years, that's a problem that can be addressed down the road.

I had an odd and slightly disturbing encounter about half a kilometre before the last substantial climb of the day into the village of Castillon. Shortly after I passed a detached house with a good-sized garden, I heard the sound of voices calling to me across the now-substantial distance that separated us, evidently trying to attract my attention. I turned to see a quartet of men barrelling out of the front door, waving and shouting at me in the most agitated fashion. Thinking that somebody was having a medical emergency and needed immediate assistance, I quickly returned. It transpired, however, that the individuals in question wanted me to (i) come inside their house and enjoy their hospitality; (ii) have them drive me to my destination, wherever that might be, for a ten-euro flat fee; and (iii) tell them in detail who I was and where I was going. They were all shouting over each other, so it was difficult to understand exactly what they wished me to do. At first I took them for a group who had been day-drinking, but they didn't smell of booze or have difficulty standing or enunciating. In the end I politely informed them that I didn't feel called upon to account to them for my movements; wished them a pleasant evening; and continued on my way. I'm still not sure what was going on—they seemed too noisy, boisterous and, above all, public to be genuinely dangerous—but all I can conclude is that they were high as kites on something considerably stronger than weed.

Arriving in Arthez, I found to my gratification that I was just in time for evening Mass, the first of the Sabbath and, in fact, the only one celebrated in the village these days. More unfortunately, my hopes of being able to obtain transport to Orthez—the near-coincidence of names is amusing—turned out to be illusory. The only taxi-driver in town, with whom I spoke in person, told me courteously but firmly that he considered his work-day to be at an end, a perfectly reasonable stance. Nor was I able to raise either of the two firms in Orthez, one of which claimed to be a twenty-four-hour operation, to come out from there and collect me. The people at the curiously-named Pingouin Alternatif, the only bar (and sole open establishment) in town couldn't think of any other options for me to consider, in terms of either staying or leaving. I did have one possible recourse, to road-walk the distance concerned, but for safety reasons I was not in love with the idea of setting out along a fourteen-kilometre route with plenty of traffic, probably no shoulder on which to walk, and during a rainstorm in the pitch darkness.

In retrospect I ought to have asked the priest who celebrated Mass for ideas. That, however, as the saying appropriately goes, was past praying for, because by the time the notion occurred to me everyone had gone home and the church was tightly locked up. When leaving, though, I'd noticed that the south-facing door had a decently sized awning over it. The thought of making it my night-stop was not one that came easily to me, but I was bound to confess to myself that I couldn't come up with a better. Arthez has a volunteer fire brigade, and a gendarmerie that's well out of town and, if it's like most of these little country places, is staffed for only four hours a week in any event. Had it been otherwise, I might have asked if I could be locked up for the night. I gather that if the forces de l'ordre are having a quiet evening, such requests are sometimes accommodated.

So, having run out of brilliant ideas, I returned to the church portico; took out my emergency sleeping bag; habited myself in the entire contents of my backpack with the exception of yesterday's underwear; crawled thus attired into the bag; and settled myself down for the night as best I could. I would have preferred to ask for permission, had there been anyone to ask. But from a theological point of view, it seemed to me, a good place for a Christian in distress to be is at, if not actually in, his or her Father's house.
 
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Aurigny

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
Concrete is cold; water is wet; hence, to belabour the obvious, dossing down in doorways is not recommended as a means of obtaining a good night's sleep. The miracle is that in those circumstances it's possible to get any kind of sleep at all.

A state of exhaustion after a long day floundering around—or swimming through—the countryside definitely helps, though. So, I'm bound to say, did my sleeping bag. Weighing just a little over a pound, it isn't really designed for situations like this; I carry it for summer-time use, and during winter in the expectation of being indoors. But in the event it performed surprisingly well, tipping the balance between "cold" and "completely miserable." I would have fared even better if I'd had a sheet of cardboard to put under me. But I was still able to drop off to sleep: not continuously, but in increments of fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. It was turning into a wild night, and every so often a swirl of rain-saturated wind would hit me in the face or blow my raingear up over my ears, dragging me back into consciousness. When, though, a little after six o'clock, I judged it prudent to pack up and be on my way before the townsfolk were up and about, I found myself tolerably well rested for the day ahead.

I didn't see any reason to hang around town longer than I had to. Arthez is not overburdened with commercial establishments, and on a Sunday one's options are limited to a vending-machine outside the pharmacie that is stocked with condoms and Compeed, but very little else. The town boulangerie did throw open its shutters at 0700, however, so I was able to obtain a croissant and a loaf of bread to tide me over.

It seemed paradoxical to be night-walking at seven in the morning, but that was what was involved just the same: it remained as pitch-dark as it had been at midnight. For the first hour I was using my torch to pick out the GR 65 waymarkers, a process that was rendered more difficult by the sheets of water that were now lashing across the trail. Progress was, therefore, slow, but I was looking forward to being able to pick up the pace once the sky started to lighten at about a quarter past eight.

It was just around then, when I was probably a couple of kilometres away from the first village on the day's leg, Argagnon, that my plans were abruptly disrupted. Last night, on the approach to Castillon, I'd sat for a few moments and taken a swig of water at a picnic bench that some kindly group had stationed there. When I got up afterwards, I found that I was limping from a sharp pain in my right foot. It had surprised me—I couldn't think of anything I'd done to bring it on—but I assumed that it would ease off once I warmed up again. And indeed it seemed to do so, although it never went away entirely.

Now it was back, in a considerably enhanced form. It wasn't at all like the usual aches and strains I'd encountered from time to time on the trail. This time I'd get to walk five or six paces before I was assailed by a full-blooded stabbing pain that brought me to an immediate halt. It felt like stepping on a child's Lego piece in bare feet—if the Lego in question were topped by sharp thumb-tacks. There was no question of walking this one off. None of my usual expedients in such cases—shortening my stride, slowing the pace, shifting the weight from my back—made the slightest difference.

What to do about it was another matter. I was considerably closer to Argagnon than I was to Arthez, but I knew nothing whatever about it other than where it was. If it was like every other village I'd passed to this point, it would have a church, a mairie (closed), possibly a maternelle (also closed), some houses, and nothing else. I'd have no option but to bang on the nearest door and ask the people inside to summon some kind of assistance for me. On the other hand, back in Arthez I knew the wi-fi password at the Pingouin Alternatif. Even if the bar was closed, that would enable me to shift for myself.

Reluctantly, then, I turned about and headed back the way I'd come. It was an extremely slow journey, covering about 5 km, tiresomely mostly uphill until reaching the outskirts of the town. I didn't want to do more damage than I might have done already, and when the pain did hit me, it was doubling me over. It was well after ten, then, that I finally limped or squelched back into town and sat down to think out my next move.

While I've no medical qualifications, I don't think I can have broken anything. My guess is that while flailing around yesterday trying to keep my balance and, in the process resembling, to quote an American sport commentator, an octopus falling out of a tree, I pulled or strained a tendon at some point without realising it. But if something like a stress fracture is indeed involved, which I doubt, it's not going to require urgent attention. I can't see, therefore, that there's any necessity or justification for my clogging up the overburdened French medical system right now. Instead I intend to try the customary expedients first, and keep off the foot for a couple of days while swallowing anti-inflammatories at six-hour intervals. It may be that that's all that'll be required to get me back in proper working order. If not, I won't have made things any worse by trying a period of watchful waiting.

That, then, is the plan for the moment. I'll monitor the situation, encourage the local hoteliers, and on Wednesday decide whether I'm to resume my journey toward SJPP or to call it a day at that stage and start rehabilitating for the next time I'm out here.
 
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TaijiPilgrim

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Camino Frances (2011), Camino Frances (2015), Camino Ingles (2017), Camino Muxia (2017), LePuy(2019)
Aurigny, your winter chemin is continuing to be an adventure for the annals of Camino history. I began reading your posts because I need to complete my chemin from Condom to St Jean this August/September but now I am reading for what happens next! I hope you have warm shelter and hot food to heal your spirit and body. Bon courage. Ultreia.
 

Aurigny

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
On the long list of my besetting sins, impatience is certainly to be found in the top three. My wife and daughter may well give you cogent reasons, with copious examples, as to why it ought to receive top billing. But when one has an injury, there's simply no alternative to readjusting one's perspective to the pace of one's body, unless, as the Irish evocatively if ungrammatically put it, one is to allow the problem to do one's head in.

Surprisingly, the respite didn't hang as heavily on me as I thought it might. Part of it was that for the first time in days, I was finally out of the torrential rain that has been falling here since my arrival. Another part is that a good deal of professional work followed me to my current location, so that I was kept mentally occupied most of the daytime at any rate. Beyond that, though, I believe that the experience of these pilgrimages has had, at least in part, its intended effect: teaching me that my fantasies of control are just those, and that life will go on happening whether I seek to impose my will on it or not.

With these philosophical thoughts in mind, I headed out again from Arthez this morning, having been dropped off by a taxi back to the car park of the Pingouin Alternatif, for my 32-km leg to Navarrenx. Once again I didn't linger to any degree. While Arthez is a nice-looking little town, my experience of it was beginning to resemble the film Groundhog Day, to the extent that I was almost expecting a bespectacled gentleman in a camel-hair coat to accost me and ask me about the adequacy of my life insurance. Even if I were to break down again today, I badly wanted it to happen somewhere else.

My pace was exceedingly deliberate. I'd experimented with strapping up the foot, using athletic tape acquired from a parapharmacie, but the results didn't seem to justify the effort, so I unravelled everything again and trusted to nature. At first things went well. I had almost no discomfort on the long uphill stretch out of Arthez, just a consciousness of a degree of tightness in the general area. This caused me to feel more hopeful, though I wasn't counting my chickens just yet, having, to mix my metaphors, experienced many such false dawns in the past.

Regardless, it was a lovely day for walking: bright and almost unnaturally still -- not a breath of wind, not a cheep from any bird. I found it interesting to review in the daytime a stretch of trail that I'd covered in the dark and to find out how much I missed by so doing—which was practically all of it. What I saw of Argagnon, however, ratified my decision to return to Arthez last Sunday. Little help would have been available there. Neighbouring Maslacq might have been a better option, though I noted that it had an ambulance service of its own. Had I gone there, I daresay they'd simply have shoved me in one of their vehicles and carried me off to Orthez, to the considerable and unnecessary inconvenience of both of us.

Pleasant indeed as the countryside was today, especially as I had it entirely to myself, the most impressive visual feature was the Pyrenees, toward which I was directly walking. They were startlingly closer than the first time I'd seen them on Saturday afternoon. The heights of the peaks didn't appear to be very overwhelming – without looking at a map, I'd guess around 4,500' (1,300m) – but the degree of snow cover and of the sheerness of the ridges gave them an Alpine aspect that made them look more dramatic than their height would justify. All the same, one can readily see from here why trying to go over the Route de Napoléon at this time of year would be anything but a good idea.

Several times on my way, I was overtaken by a convoy of vehicles that stopped from time to time and set up road-block signs indicating that they were the local hunt. The head honcho, from whom I obtained directions, was an impressive character carrying a large and ancient brass trumpet. He was the only one wearing camouflage; his thirty or forty companions were all decked out in day-glo orange outfits. I didn't see any actual hunting going on, though I was to hear a ragged fusillade in the distance later in the evening. Instead it seemed to be a convivial gathering of middle-aged men, and a few young women, driving across the countryside in 4 x 4s and SUVs to what looked to be random spots; stopping there; and passing bottles around before getting back in their vehicles and doing it all again a few kilometres down the road.

Speaking of catering, other than a boulangerie at which I obtained a loaf of extremely crunchy bread to gnaw on as I walked, I didn't pass any open commercial establishments. I was hoping to find something at Sauvelade, a little past the half-way point, but as usual the shutters were down everywhere. I did stop briefly to check out the Abbey church, currently under restoration, and its neighbouring memorial to the armistice-days for all four of France's big wars of the twentieth century: the two world wars, Indochina, and Algeria. Both were worth a visit, and a small pause for reflection.

It was a minor irony that my favourite part of the day's journey, from Sauvelade onwards, coincided in time with the foot once again sending out definite distress signals. The two were not unconnected, as the terrain, which had been relatively easy going, now developed into a series of steep climbs and descents that recalled earlier sections of the Podiensis, northeast of Cahors. As is usually the case this made for some delightful vistas, but also threw a lot of body-weight onto the front of my feet on the downhill stretches. I'd begun twinging in earnest from about the 10-km mark onward, but now found myself in unmistakable discomfort. All the same, it wasn't the paralysing, stabbing kind that had brought me to a dead stop several dozen times on Sunday. What I was experiencing today, however uncomfortable, was much more familiar, and, hence, manageable.

One thing it did have the effect of doing, though, was slowing my pace. I'd hoped to make Navarrenx just about at local sunset—that is, 1800-- but according to the finger-markers, I was around 9 km away when that happened. I did receive compensation in the form of a spectacular sunset over the Pyrenees, followed by the provision of abundant illumination by an almost-full moon to light my way. Venus was straight in front of me, describing a left-to-right loop across the sky; Orion sprawled on his side to the south-west, looking incongruous as he always does these days without Betelgeuse being visible to give the top of his head a degree of dignity. All told, it was a truly gorgeous night to be out walking, and even more welcome to me after two days of being cooped up indoors.

I did suffer pretty badly on the long and excessively steep descent through the woods that lead to Méritein, but happily most of the pain went away as soon as the gradient flattened out. Thereafter I was serenaded from one side of the forest to the other by what I can only describe as a discordant owl chorus. The number of these birds around here is extraordinary; previously I had marvelled at how many I was hearing after dark on the way up to Arthez. Hearing an owl is a relative rarity in my part of the world, but out here, they seem more common than starlings on a telegraph-line, and noisier into the bargain. Probably that's the most lasting memory I'll carry away from this part of the Podiensis.

I was enjoying myself among the hiboux so much that I slightly resented the lights of the spread-out village of Méritein when they put in an appearance. From there, though, it's an almost straight run into Navarrenx, as long as one bears left at the first fork that presents itself. There's a Carrefour Express at the top of Navarrenx proper, and I was sorely tempted to stop at it to pick up a few supplies before it closed. Because my hosts at the Relais de Jacquet were waiting for me to arrive, though, I didn't want to delay them any longer. Anyway, as is typical for me on these trips, my appetite has gone into hibernation for the duration. The remnants of my road food and a cup of Nescafé instant will be more than sufficient until the morning.

All in all, I'm quite pleased with how the day went. It would have been unreasonable to expect the foot to be restored to full functioning after just forty-eight hours' rest. But although it's quietly aching now, I certainly don't expect it to get between me and my sleep. If it's no worse tomorrow than it is today, I ought to be able to reach my next destination, Saint-Palais via Aroue, without tremendous difficulty. That, though, remains to be seen. A lot can change overnight, so I'm not going to tempt fate by letting my optimism get the better of me.
 
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Past OR future Camino
Next up 2022?
my fantasies of control are just those, and that life will go on happening whether I seek to impose my will on it or not.
That's not philisophy, but simple reality. I'm relieved, though, to read a report of walking, as opposed to one saying you'd had to find your way home early.
As usual, I'm so enjoying your reports!

owl chorus
Oh, my. Envious.
The fellow with the horn sounds to have been a sight too.

All in all, I'm quite pleased with how the day went. It would have been unreasonable to expect the foot to be restored to full functioning after just forty-eight hours' rest [...] If it's no worse tomorrow than it is today, I ought to be able to reach my next destination, Saint-Palais via Aroue
RICE can't hurt when you arrive : rest, ice, compression, elevation. I hope it continues to improve - bon chemin!
 

Aurigny

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
Navarrenx, a garrison town of long standing, is another of these officially classified les plus beaux villages de France. Personally, I'm not quite seeing it. It has a couple of nice little squares, and a sixteenth-century church with one of the pepper-pot bell-towers that are characteristic to this region. According to the sign outside, the church was used by Napoleon's troops, emulating their master in his respect from the spiritual realm, as a makeshift fort in 1814 against the possibility of a siege by the Duke of Wellington's forces. There are also good views from the ramparts, which one can climb. But I've passed through quite a number of prettier places in this country that have never made the list. For all that, I would have preferred to spend a little more time in Navarrenx, if only to take full advantage of the many facilities of the apartment I occupied in the Relais du Jacquet, which I do recommend. The cost of staying there is nosebleedingly high if one is alone; it falls to manageable levels for a party of three or four. But I wasn't able to raise anybody at the gîte communal, practically across the street, and I've done my share of sleeping outdoors for this route. I was willing to pay over the odds to be confident of having a sure thing.

Today started cold, bright and, again, windless. Not only was I able to see my breath as I walked along, but if I blew my cheeks out, it would keep pace with me in a small, friendly cloud for a distance of ten or fifteen metres before it eventually dissipated. This kept me amused for the first couple of kilometres. After a brief suburban sojourn through the outskirts of Navarrenx and its twin village across the river, Castetnau-Camblong, the trail turned into the woods. The ground had frozen hard overnight, and that made progress easier along what, two days ago, would have been seas of mud. But there were parts of the ground that had received so much water that a single night of chilly weather could make little impact on it. Soon I found myself slithering once again. And after that, I came across a fast-flowing river that almost certainly hadn't existed a week ago. It was far too broad to jump across; there were no obvious crossing-spots; so I had no choice but to take my shoes and socks off and ford it the old-fashioned way. The water was shockingly cold, and almost immediately I began to lose sensation in my feet. The thought occurred to me that this might be exactly what the doctor ordered for the problem that ailed me, but after my teeth started to chatter, I decided that the cure might be worse than the disease and struck out for the far side.

As forest trails go, this is a very pleasant one. At around the seven-kilometre mark I found a stone cross with a park bench for pilgrims in front of it, well positioned for elevenses. Having had a quick bite, I continued making my way westward. There were a few very gentle climbs, none being particularly noteworthy. But all that changed when I emerged from the forest at the top of a rise by the theoretical village of Lacorne. Almost as soon as I popped out of the trees, I found myself confronted by the Pyrenees, looking in the clear air as though I could walk to them in an afternoon.

What followed for the next ninety minutes was an absolute delight. This section of the Podiensis hasn't had much going for it in the way of scenery, but what I now encountered made up for it. And this may be the very best time of the year to view what now lay before me. As was the case yesterday, the air was exceptionally still, with unlimited visibility. There wasn't a hint of a cloud in the sky, nor was I even to see the contrails of an aircraft until late in the evening. The hilltops were covered with russet-covered deciduous trees, while the fields beneath were full of lush green grass. The sun, far to the south, was enhancing the contrasts between the vivid colours, even at noon throwing a longer shadow of me than I am tall. And all the time the Pyrenees hovered over the lot, the snow reflecting the light so brightly that I wished I'd brought my sunglasses after all. For six or seven kilometres I walked from one spectacular view to another. This is, in my judgment, the most visually appealing stretch of the entire 750 km of the Podiensis. It's worth coming a long way, and putting up with a lot of discomfort, to see it.

Around Charre, which the trail skirts but doesn't ever enter, things become a little more built-up. Some of the local inhabitants have considerately set up unofficial rest-areas for pilgrims—one couple in Cherbeys, who, from the photographs they've posted up, themselves walked the Podiensis probably in the early 1980s, have devoted the garage of their modest house to that purpose, complete with coffee-making facilities and refrigerated drinks. The Pilgrims' Office in SJPP have also planted so many fruit trees along this stretch that they're no longer worthy of attention, being as common as wayside crosses. In ten years' time we'll all be steadily chomping our way along the Podiensis, while every fruiterer in Aquitaine will have gone out of business.

The village of Aroue, some twenty kilometres past Navarrenx, is listed as a night-stop in some guides. While there's a gîte communal there, I expected to discover more than was actually to be found. The only business there, a small pizzeria, appears to have gone belly-up. Accordingly I resigned myself to waiting until my night-stop of Saint-Palais for anything resembling dinner. In the ordinary course I wouldn't have gone to that town: although it's a stop on Vézelay and Tours routes, it's about a six-kilometre deviation to the north from the Podiensis. But there was nowhere else for a considerable distance with any places to stay, so after walking westward another eleven kilometres or so past Aroue, I took the side-trail to the north. About this time my foot started acting up again, so it wasn't until night was on the point of falling that I limped into town.

I've got about thirty-five kilometres to run to SJPP, including the return to the trail. If things quieten down, I'll try to do that tomorrow, fortified with as many ibuprofen pills as the dosage chart will let me take. At this stage, reaching Hendaye, as I had originally intended, is completely beyond my abilities. Although these will be the slowest 150 km I've ever done in my life, however, I'll be quite satisfied if I can complete the Podiensis at its official terminus this time round.
 
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Lleslie

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Camino Frances (2014)
Camino Via Podiensis (2018)
20220114_115031.jpg
I have so enjoyed your beautifully detailed descriptions which transports me right back there! I've been following along with my picture book reliving all those memories. Here is one of folk dancing in Navarrenx when we were there. Best wishes for a speedy recovery for your foot. Bon chemin, Linda
 
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Aurigny

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
The Podiensis, I've learned, saves the best for last.

Admittedly, that wasn't what I was thinking last night when, after dumping my bags, I went on the scrounge for a hot meal. In the normal course of events, I believe that Saint-Palais would be able to supply such a thing more than adequately, but a combination of close season and the coronavirus has put the kybosh on the restaurant trade. Suffice it to say that the traveller visiting the town these days had better like pizza.

For that reason, I delayed my departure this morning until the only grocery, a centrally-located Casino, had opened and enabled me to obtain some basic supplies. I then had the problem of finding my way back to the Podiensis/GR 65, about five kilometres to the south, so as to resume my journey. Little useful was available in the form of waymarking, but by dint of a little trial-and-error, I was able to come up with a straightforward exit strategy. One begins by going to the tourist office, and then walking southbound along the street on which it's found—the D 302. As long as one is heading uphill, all is well. After passing a "sheep crossing" warning-sign two kilometres or so out of town, a left-hand fork, the Chemin de la stèle, presents itself. Taking this and continuing the climb will soon be rewarded with a crop of the familiar white-and-red GR 65 blazes, and from that point onward all is uncomplicated. Whether this is the approved route for getting out of town I couldn't say. But it's as fast as any, and involves a minimum of complications.

As the eponymous Chemin indicates, one is quickly led to the Stèle de Gibraltar, the latter being a suburb of Saint-Palais rather than a reference to the British-held port in Spain. The stela itself is a fairly small keyhole-shaped monument in granite, the significance of which is that it's located at the point where three major pilgrimage routes – the Podiensis, the Chemin de Vézelay, and the Voie de Tours—converge. For that reason it seems to have become a miniature Cruz de Ferro, with pilgrims from all three leaving stones, memorial cards, and other items of spiritual significance there.

From this point, the trail becomes more rural and considerably more vertical. I was impressed while climbing the slopes to see how well the local farmers, while ploughing the land, had followed the contours so as to maximise the resulting crop's access to the sun. I'd always thought that the people in the eastern districts of Germany—Pomerania and Silesia—were the world champions at this game, but the cultivators of southwestern France run them a very close second. As I continued, though, tilled fields started to give way to pasture. We're speaking almost exclusively of sheep, Basco-Béarnaises for the most part, their milk being used to produce a variety of the cheeses of this region. All the ones I saw today, and there were many, looked healthy and cheerful. Surprisingly, lambing is already in full swing.

I had a lot of favourable things to say about the scenery yesterday. Most of it was premature, because today's was truly magnificent. Quite a lot of climbing is necessary, especially the haul over exposed rock that leads to the little chapel of Soyartz at the summit. The views from there make it more than worth it, though. An information-panel at the top told me that I had massively underestimated the heights of the Pyrenean peaks at which I've been looking for the past several days. I'd guessed that the maximum elevation of the mountains in front of me was around 1,300m (4,200'); in reality, the highest one was nearly nine and a half thousand feet. I must confess that I'd no idea that any mountain in the Pyrenees got up to that level; upon looking it up, I find that there are some that go beyond 11,000'. It seems to me that this is a range that deserves more respect than it gets.

But I was soon following the trail downhill, firstly to Harambeltz, and then to the picture-perfect village of Ostabat, which stands at the eastern end of a long valley. There's a combination bar/restaurant/grocery here, but as I expected, it wouldn't be open until later in the day. The pair of picnic tables outside, however, was well suited to the task of converting road food into sandwiches, a task to which I set myself before immediately demolishing the results. I'd also hoped to drop into the church and light a candle or two while I was here, but unusually, it was locked up.

Walking along the northern side of the valley beyond Ostabat, with the modest but steep-sided hills above me, was delicious. For the third day in a row, the weather was perfect: brilliant blue sky, no clouds, no wind. In fact it was becoming positively warm, and I began to work up a sweat for the first time this trip. I greatly envied the people who had the good fortune to live here, although doubtless it has its challenges when the conditions are less favourable.

So deeply was I immersed in the charms of the countryside that it came as a surprise to me, out of the corner of my eye, to observe a reasonably substantial road about half a kilometre to the south. No sooner had I done so than the trail took a sharp left turn and deposited me onto it. It turned out to be the D 933, the main thoroughfare between Saint-Palais and SJPP, and for most of the rest of the day I was to find myself following it. I considered it an unwelcome intrusion. Around Ostabat I had seemed to be miles away from anywhere, and my own heartbeat was the loudest noise I could hear. Still, I suppose I can't hold it against the road planners for choosing the only viable route through these hills, no doubt profiting from the accumulated wisdom of pilgrims and other wayfarers centuries before the motor-car was invented.

It wasn't all bad, from the walker's point of view. The trail rose steeply up the banks of the road on the northern side, descending again to bring travellers to a remarkable donativo shelter close to the village of Utxiat. This is a converted stone mill that some anonymous benefactor has acquired and converted into a four-bunk refugio. It contains all the necessities, and none of the luxuries: in particular, no electricity, and no staff. A tap outside provides cold water for drinking and washing, with a mirror to facilitate shaving. Within one finds the aforementioned bunks (plastic mattress covers, no bedding), a long table, bench seats, flag floors, and nothing else. Passing pilgrims who choose to do so can simply drop by at any hour of the day or night, wash themselves, and have a rest, on a first-come-first-served basis. The owner asks only that they leave the place clean when departing and, if they can, that they make a contribution to an honesty box attached to a beam. I myself wasn't staying, but I shoved in a couple of banknotes just the same. This is the kind of initiative that deserves to be encouraged.

A good deal of the day's quietude was restored for me when the trail carried pilgrims over to the southern side of the road. Little villages pop up at about three-kilometre intervals, but for the most part one is simply meandering along small country roads. A certain amount of care must be taken, because in areas of perma-shade, patches of snow were to be found in quite a few places. As it crunched under my feet, it was curious to think that I had been perspiring freely in temperatures that were ascending into the mid-teens in centigrade (sixties in Fahrenheit) just a couple of kilometres earlier. That, though, is characteristic of mountainous regions, where all sorts of odd micro-climates are to be found.

I was especially fortunate to have the sun set on me between Mongelos and Bussumarits. Here one is, in effect, in a large bowl, with the rounded mountaintops rising above eye-level on all sides. When the sun goes down, the effect is to leave the western end still suffused with light, but the eastern end practically black. It's a marvellous visual perspective, and when the darkness spreads over the entire area, on full-moon nights like tonight the interplay of light and shadow is arresting in yet another way.

I had about two hours' night-hiking before eventually reaching SJPP, meeting up with the terminus of the Chemin de Piémont from Carcassonne en route. One forgets how many trails converge on this town, thinking of it as one does only as a place of departure. The approach from this direction passes first through the adjacent town of Saint-Jean-le-Vieux, still lit up for Christmas and with quite a few open restaurants and bars. I'm not sure that this might not make a better jumping-off place for those about to begin the Francés than does SJPP itself. Three or four kilometres later, after snaking sinuously around the countryside, the trail enters the town at the Porte de St Jacques and continues down the rue de la Citadelle, passing the Pilgrims' Office which was just putting up its shutters for the night when I arrived.

I had wondered what SJPP is like in the off-season, and I need wonder no longer. The short answer is: dead as a doornail. The streets are completely empty; almost nothing is open beyond the cinema and the petrol station; and at present I'm the only pilgrim staying in a gîte capable of accommodating forty-four people. It's highly evocative of a faded seaside resort at this time of year, with all the hotels boarded up and nothing to be seen beyond a flock of chilly-looking seagulls standing on one leg on the promenade.

Still, I've made it in one piece, and am immensely glad to be here. My foot hurts like blazes, despite my swallowing as many ibuprofen pills as it's safe to take. And although I've come to the formal end of the Podiensis (not, curiously, the GR 65, which continues across the border as far as the monastery at Roncesvalles), I won't consider the French part of my journey over until I'm standing on the bridge between Hendaye and Irún. Almost certainly that won't happen before next summer. All the same, contemplating how impossibly far this place seemed to be when I was setting out on the Gebennensis fourteen months ago, the thought that more than half the journey between there and SdC is now in the books is a gratifying one.

The usual round-up of this sector will follow in a couple of days.
 
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Past OR future Camino
Next up 2022?
Beautiful! And you made it - congratulations.

My foot hurts like blazes, despite my swallowing as many ibuprofen pills as it's safe to take
Perhaps because. It masks pain enough to allow us to walk, thus exacerbating whatever the problem is. Not pointing a finger, at all. I learned this the hard way with ankle tendonitis.

Fortunately you have the sense not to continue to Hendaye - later. I am very much looking forward to your description of that walk!)

Thank you for sharing your camino with us - your posts have (as usual) been a joy to read! Safe journey home, and swift healing to you.
 

TaijiPilgrim

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Camino Frances (2011), Camino Frances (2015), Camino Ingles (2017), Camino Muxia (2017), LePuy(2019)
Congratulations and well done. You have provided an insightful and different view of the Via Podiensisr. I look forward to reading your final report and I hope it includes an optimistic prognosis of your foot. You still have miles to go on your way!
 

Aurigny

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Francés; Português Central; Português Interior; Primitivo; Português da Costa; Invierno; Gebennensis
Some observations are in order about the Podiensis as a whole. I've now completed seven different pilgrimage routes—eight, if you count the Gebennensis, the 350-km "prequel" from Geneva to Le Puy, which I don't—and I can say with emphasis that this one is my favourite of the lot. For me, it hits nearly all the sweet spots. It has a definite spiritual identity. The waymarking is magnificent throughout its entire length. Although one has to take the rough with the smooth at times, there's quite enough infrastructure to make the logistics manageable. The scenery is nearly always attractive; often exceptional; and there's any amount of variety—something that suits the short-attention-span crowd, among whom I number myself. In summer at least, one won't lack for company, as long as one is willing to speak French. But one can also be as solitary as one likes, and that suits me as well. While I don't know that I'd recommend the Podiensis as a "starter" Camino, for the experienced pilgrim, with a couple of these under his or her belt, it's one that should be high on everyone's bucket list.

And now, with particular reference to the last hundred miles/160 km, especially in winter:-

* In my view, this time of year may be the very best of all to be out on this stretch. For the first couple of days, granted, I was swimming rather than hiking. But the other three were magnificent: clear and chilly (-2C) in the mornings; clear and temperate (11-13C) in the afternoons. Views were unlimited. The opportunity to see the Pyrenees covered in snow is not to be missed. And one covers ground quickly and relatively effortlessly in such moderate temperatures. I never so much as turned a hair at any of the slopes that confronted me, some of which were quite steep. It would have been a hard slog to drag oneself up some of those in 30C-plus summertime weather. I'm given to understand by the locals, moreover, that the bright days, even in January, are more characteristic of this part of the world than the rainy ones.

* The price that must be paid for these advantages, of course, is a drastic curtailment of one's eating and sleeping options. So far as the latter is concerned, had I to do it again, I believe I would have booked all my accommodation for this last leg however long in advance was necessary to make that happen. The risk one takes, of course, is that if one suffers an injury or other interruption along the way that throws one off schedule, it can be expensive. As I found out this time round, though, if one suffers an injury, it's going to be expensive regardless.

* If one is going the reservation-in-advance route, there are two things to remember. The first is that the search-engine Booking.com, on which many people seem to rely, probably lists at most a tenth of the options that are out there. (Gronze is more comprehensive, but even Gronze doesn't know about the many farmhouses that simply shove up a hand-lettered sign along the side of the trail, and which are often very good choices.) The second is that there is not the slightest point in e-mailing French accommodation-providers to inquire about reservations. Of those I contacted in that manner, only one ever responded—two days after the date about which I was inquiring. Call them up on the electric telephone and talk to them in person: it's the only thing that works. If you don't speak the language, have a French-speaking friend do it for you.

* Food: In wintertime, this is not a gourmand's route. Nearly all my eating was done courtesy of the Restaurant Carrefour Express. I'm racking my brains trying to remember if I passed a single open bar, café, grocery, or resto anywhere along daily legs that averaged 32 km in length, and in truth I don't believe I did. And there are some published night-stops, like Aroue, that don't have anywhere to eat either. It would, then, be a very bad idea to start on a day's hike without carrying in one's backpack all the food one will need, not just for that day, but up to and including the following morning also. Hard cheese, vacuum-packed sausage, black bread, and apples make excellent and portable standbys in the event of the catering system breaking down, as it's virtually certain to do at least once in the course of the journey.

* Company: Again at this time of year, bring your own or do without. I enjoy hanging out with people; I also enjoy solitude. This last stage featured the latter in superabundance. I never thought I would find, in western Europe at any rate, a lonelier route than the Invierno, but I managed it this trip. When I never saw another soul—even local dog-walkers—anywhere during my first two days out of Aire-sur-l'Adour, I put it down to the bad weather. It was exactly the same story, though, after the sun came out. Apart from stumbling across the local hunt on the Maslacq-to-Sauvelade stretch, I had the countryside completely to myself for the entire way, with the occasional exception of suspicious dogs, inquisitive cats, one wild boar that didn't quite know what to make of me, and a great many owls that preferred to be heard rather than seen. That suited me down to the ground. It is, however, something for the more gregarious to bear in mind. As for other pilgrims on the trail, the most recent entry I saw in the visitors' books to be found in every church dated from before Christmas, and there were in total fewer than two dozen of them since the end of last October.

* Laundry: The same old song. Few laveries are to be seen, and none is open in any event; the night-stops probably won't have facilities. Like the Little Red Hen, you'll be doing it yourself. Quick-drying attire is essential, because if you try to hang anything out overnight, it'll be either every bit as wet as when you started, or frozen solid, by the following morning. That may also be the case if you try to hang anything up indoors as well. A lot of gîtes don't believe in spending money on heating at a time when people are supposed to be asleep anyway.

* Stamps for one's credencial: Necessity will have to be the mother of invention. I can state with authority that not a single church between Aire-sur-l'Adour and SJPP contains a tampon. With rare exceptions, the gîtes and chambres d'hôte don't either. Saint-Palais and Navarrenx have an office de tourisme and a couple of hotels apiece, any of which will no doubt accommodate a polite request. As for myself, my own document now bears the unaesthetic but nonetheless adequate stamps of a paraharmacie and an accountant's office, those being the only open businesses I found along the trail on the days in question. I didn't try the mairies, of which there was always one in every village of any size, because, like the rural police stations, these are staffed irregularly at this time of year. But nobody I did ask, after I had explained what I wanted and why, turned me down.

* Daylight: There's not too much of it in these latitudes in midwinter. It wasn't bright enough to be able to see waymarkers reliably without illumination until about 0815 in the morning, or after 1800 at night. Bearing in mind that the daily legs are necessarily long, and longer if one has to go off-piste for nightly accommodation, it's unlikely, unless you cover ground a lot faster than I do, that you'll be able entirely to avoid night-walking. In itself that shouldn't be a problem. The excellence of the waymarking and the fact that a large proportion—well over half, I'd say—of this section is along hard surfaces means that it's actually a good part of the trail for the neophyte night-hiker to get experience of walking after dark. My only caveats are that this shouldn't be the first time one tries to do so (get practice on a route with which you are intimately familiar, and only after that try it for real), and that you should have two independent light-sources, with fully charged batteries, available at all times. Your mobile 'phone ought not to be one of them.

The final verdict: The Podiensis is not a winter route along its entire length. I shouldn't like to have to cover the initial stretches in December or January. One might get caught out badly, for example, trying to cross the Aubrac Natural Park in snowy or icy conditions. But anything south and west of the Lot valley should be quite manageable other than during exceptionally inclement weather, and one is walking toward a more favourable climate the further one progresses. If I could choose any time of year to be covering that sector, it would be this one.
 
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mspath

Veteran Member
Past OR future Camino
Frances, autumn/winter; 2004, 2005-2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015
Aurigny,
Thank you for writing this personal/perceptive update of your recent camino.
Winter is a special time to walk. I, like you suggest, always carried light weight basic food supplies to share when meeting a solitary soul in a spot without food during a storm.

May you continue to enjoy your memories as you plan your next journey.
Stay safe and Carpe diem.
 

TaijiPilgrim

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Camino Frances (2011), Camino Frances (2015), Camino Ingles (2017), Camino Muxia (2017), LePuy(2019)
Thanks for your reporting. I am not a winter hiker, and I am impressed by those who are. Let your body rest and heal in preparation for the next Camino. I look forward to reading about it!
 

Dan

Member
Past OR future Camino
Camino Frances 2013
Le Puy 2014
Pennine Way 2015
Del Norte 2016
Arles Route 2018
Way St Francis 2019
Some observations are in order about the Podiensis as a whole. I've now completed seven different pilgrimage routes—eight, if you count the Gebennensis, the 350-km "prequel" from Geneva to Le Puy, which I don't—and I can say with emphasis that this one is my favourite of the lot. For me, it hits nearly all the sweet spots. It has a definite spiritual identity. The waymarking is magnificent throughout its entire length. Although one has to take the rough with the smooth at times, there's quite enough infrastructure to make the logistics manageable. The scenery is nearly always attractive; often exceptional; and there's any amount of variety—something that suits the short-attention-span crowd, among whom I number myself. In summer at least, one won't lack for company, as long as one is willing to speak French. But one can also be as solitary as one likes, and that suits me as well. While I don't know that I'd recommend the Podiensis as a "starter" Camino, for the experienced pilgrim, with a couple of these under his or her belt, it's one that should be high on everyone's bucket list.

And now, with particular reference to the last hundred miles/160 km, especially in winter:-

* In my view, this time of year may be the very best of all to be out on this stretch. For the first couple of days, granted, I was swimming rather than hiking. But the other three were magnificent: clear and chilly (-2C) in the mornings; clear and temperate (11-13C) in the afternoons. Views were unlimited. The opportunity to see the Pyrenees covered in snow is not to be missed. And one covers ground quickly and relatively effortlessly in such moderate temperatures. I never so much as turned a hair at any of the slopes that confronted me, some of which were quite steep. It would have been a hard slog to drag oneself up some of those in 30C-plus summertime weather. I'm given to understand by the locals, moreover, that the bright days, even in January, are more characteristic of this part of the world than the rainy ones.

* The price that must be paid for these advantages, of course, is a drastic curtailment of one's eating and sleeping options. So far as the latter is concerned, had I to do it again, I believe I would have booked all my accommodation for this last leg however long in advance was necessary to make that happen. The risk one takes, of course, is that if one suffers an injury or other interruption along the way that throws one off schedule, it can be expensive. As I found out this time round, though, if one suffers an injury, it's going to be expensive regardless.

* If one is going the reservation-in-advance route, there are two things to remember. The first is that the search-engine Booking.com, on which many people seem to rely, probably lists at most a tenth of the options that are out there. (Gronze is more comprehensive, but even Gronze doesn't know about the many farmhouses that simply shove up a hand-lettered sign along the side of the trail, and which are often very good choices.) The second is that there is not the slightest point in e-mailing French accommodation-providers to inquire about reservations. Of those I contacted in that manner, only one ever responded—two days after the date about which I was inquiring. Call them up on the electric telephone and talk to them in person: it's the only thing that works. If you don't speak the language, have a French-speaking friend do it for you.

* Food: In wintertime, this is not a gourmand's route. Nearly all my eating was done courtesy of the Restaurant Carrefour Express. I'm racking my brains trying to remember if I passed a single open bar, café, grocery, or resto anywhere along daily legs that averaged 32 km in length, and in truth I don't believe I did. And there are some published night-stops, like Aroue, that don't have anywhere to eat either. It would, then, be a very bad idea to start on a day's hike without carrying in one's backpack all the food one will need, not just for that day, but up to and including the following morning also. Hard cheese, vacuum-packed sausage, black bread, and apples make excellent and portable standbys in the event of the catering system breaking down, as it's virtually certain to do at least once in the course of the journey.

* Company: Again at this time of year, bring your own or do without. I enjoy hanging out with people; I also enjoy solitude. This last stage featured the latter in superabundance. I never thought I would find, in western Europe at any rate, a lonelier route than the Invierno, but I managed it this trip. When I never saw another soul—even local dog-walkers—anywhere during my first two days out of Aire-sur-l'Adour, I put it down to the bad weather. It was exactly the same story, though, after the sun came out. Apart from stumbling across the local hunt on the Maslacq-to-Sauvelade stretch, I had the countryside completely to myself for the entire way, with the occasional exception of suspicious dogs, inquisitive cats, one wild boar that didn't quite know what to make of me, and a great many owls that preferred to be heard rather than seen. That suited me down to the ground. It is, however, something for the more gregarious to bear in mind. As for other pilgrims on the trail, the most recent entry I saw in the visitors' books to be found in every church dated from before Christmas, and there were in total fewer than two dozen of them since the end of last October.

* Laundry: The same old song. Few laveries are to be seen, and none is open in any event; the night-stops probably won't have facilities. Like the Little Red Hen, you'll be doing it yourself. Quick-drying attire is essential, because if you try to hang anything out overnight, it'll be either every bit as wet as when you started, or frozen solid, by the following morning. That may also be the case if you try to hang anything up indoors as well. A lot of gîtes don't believe in spending money on heating at a time when people are supposed to be asleep anyway.

* Stamps for one's credencial: Necessity will have to be the mother of invention. I can state with authority that not a single church between Aire-sur-l'Adour and SJPP contains a tampon. With rare exceptions, the gîtes and chambres d'hôte don't either. Saint-Palais and Navarrenx have an office de tourisme and a couple of hotels apiece, any of which will no doubt accommodate a polite request. As for myself, my own document now bears the unaesthetic but nonetheless adequate stamps of a paraharmacie and an accountant's office, those being the only open businesses I found along the trail on the days in question. I didn't try the mairies, of which there was always one in every village of any size, because, like the rural police stations, these are staffed irregularly at this time of year. But nobody I did ask, after I had explained what I wanted and why, turned me down.

* Daylight: There's not too much of it in these latitudes in midwinter. It wasn't bright enough to be able to see waymarkers reliably without illumination until about 0815 in the morning, or after 1800 at night. Bearing in mind that the daily legs are necessarily long, and longer if one has to go off-piste for nightly accommodation, it's unlikely, unless you cover ground a lot faster than I do, that you'll be able entirely to avoid night-walking. In itself that shouldn't be a problem. The excellence of the waymarking and the fact that a large proportion—well over half, I'd say—of this section is along hard surfaces means that it's actually a good part of the trail for the neophyte night-hiker to get experience of walking after dark. My only caveats are that this shouldn't be the first time one tries to do so (get practice on a route with which you are intimately familiar, and only after that try it for real), and that you should have two independent light-sources, with fully charged batteries, available at all times. Your mobile 'phone ought not to be one of them.

The final verdict: The Podiensis is not a winter route along its entire length. I shouldn't like to have to cover the initial stretches in December or January. One might get caught out badly, for example, trying to cross the Aubrac Natural Park in snowy or icy conditions. But anything south and west of the Lot valley should be quite manageable other than during exceptionally inclement weather, and one is walking toward a more favourable climate the further one progresses. If I could choose any time of year to be covering that sector, it would be this one.
@Aurigny - I've bookmarked this thread more than once. It was sheer anxiety that I would not be able to find it again. Never have I seen such a valuable resource, graced with writing that rivals H.V. Morton and Jan Morris. Thank you. My wife and I are off to do Le Puy-SJPP once again commencing the last week of March. We last did it in 2014 and the memories are a little hazy. I won't breach your copyright, but I have copied each of your despatches and shot them up to a Dropbox folder for easy access on the track.
all the best - and it would be a pleasure to meet you someday on the trail
Dan
 

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