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My Summer on the Via Podiensis

Dave

Active Member
Past OR future Camino
First: Camino Francés 2002; most recent: Norte/Primitivo 2019
I spent a bit more than a month in France this summer, walking as much of the Via Podiensis and affiliated routes as possible. That meant the GR65, small variants along the way (like the GR6 offshoots), the three different approaches between Figeac and Cahors (along with some additional alternatives ), and two routes linking SJPDP and Hendaye/Irún. It was a blast. My early years of pilgrimaging focused on Spain and Italy; the language barrier held me back from France. I've really come to love the walking there and keep going back.

When I was walking across the USA, I got into the habit of writing at the end of each day's walk, and that transferred over to my time in France . These are unvarnished (and unedited) reflections, trying to capture what was most salient at that moment in time. I've now assembled links to all of those write-ups on this single post, if you're interested: http://davewhitson.com/index.php/2021/08/24/my-summer-on-the-via-podiensis/

Most of the posts are cheerful reflections, though the unusually wet conditions got me down at times. If you want to see me at my worst, though, keep reading.

* * *

They Can’t All Be Above-Average Days​

I enjoyed a nice, leisurely breakfast this morning. That was different! Normally, a non-negotiable impulse drives me towards the door, eager to return to the road. Instead, though, I was at the mercy of a force far greater than me: public transportation. I was catching the 889 bus from Cahors back to Bouziés. From there, my plan was to climb up to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, gawp in stunned awe for a bit, and then follow the GR46 south through Concots to the GR65. I’d re-walk some familiar ground, while also detouring to the Vaylats convent. Finally, near Mas de Vers, I would break with the GR65 in order to walk through Lalbenque, truffle capital of the Lot, where I would spend the night.

I had everything in order. I went back to Rome2Rio to double-check the bus schedule. I then went to the actual bus service’s site to check the pdf of the schedule on their end. Turns out, the first bus actually runs 15 minutes later than Rome2Rio indicated, leaving at 7:43. I left Gite Papillon Vert with a spring in my step, still buzzing about last night’s Bastille Day fireworks show. Eden, our host at GPV, had taken care of everything—he brought us umbrellas (as the rain was unrelenting), escorted us over to the Pont Valentré with his wife and daughter, and then slipped us into the best viewing spot on the river, somehow in front of all of the locals who had beaten us to the bridge. He even brought a tarp we could sit on.

Gite Papillon Vert is little more than a block away from the plaza/parking lot adjacent to the cathedral, so it didn’t take me long to discover that this propitious morning was also a market day. Tables laden with strawberries stretched out before me; a cheesemonger was laying out a similarly prolific spread. Chickens were roasting, nut tarts were assembled in formation, and a staggering selection of eggplants sat awkwardly in their own distinct section.

I took a deep breath, smiled, and slalomed through the tables with a spring in my step. This was going to be a good day.

* * *

I confidently strapped on my mask at 7:41am, my two euro coins rattling in my pocket. 7:43 came and went. At 7:45, I re-read the schedule on the shelter’s wall. Why does waiting for public transportation while traveling seem to demand a greater act of faith than any other part of pilgrimage? At 7:50, I realized something was wrong.

And then I knew exactly what it was. Bastille Day. If only there had been a night’s worth of exciting fireworks to alert me to this fact ahead of time.

I scanned further right on the bus schedule, to the “Sundays and Holidays” portion. Ah. The first 889 bus would depart at 10:30am. Merde.

Fine, then, I decided. I’ll drop the euros on a taxi. But where to find a taxi before 8am on Bastille Day in Cahors? To the train station! I hustled across town, annoyed with myself, but already adjusting to the new road forward. It’s fine, it’s fine.

Can a train station smirk? Because the empty and desolate Cahors train station gave me that look, smacking down my resilient optimism with a whole lot of empty asphalt. I looked at the arrivals and departures screens. Pretty much nothing before 10am. No point in any taxi coming over here. The taxi sign had four different numbers one could call. By and large, traveling without a viable cell phone is a dream, but there’s at least one point on every trip that it bites me in the butt. I’ll need an iron to get the chomp marks out of my pants tonight.

Never mind! If the taxis aren’t here, they must be back over in the center. Lots of people headed to the market, after all. ! I tromped to Boulevard Gambetta and luck finally broke my way. An available taxi coming right for me! I flagged it down, windmilling my arms with such vigor the driver must have thought leatherface was meters away with a chainsaw. “A Bouziés?” I asked, through the open window. “Non.” He was too busy to make that drive this morning. Could he call another driver? He started rattling numbers back at me. “I don’t have a phone.” And he didn’t have any further courtesies. That would be the only taxi driver I would encounter face-to-face today.

* * *

At this point, Enlightened Dave and Enraged Dave had a conversation. Consumed with bitterness and self-loathing, Enraged Dave was busy berating himself for the planning oversight, berating taxi drivers, berating the very concept of holidays, when Enlightened Dave slipped out his soapbox and stepped to the fore.

“Remember, Marcilhac,” exhorted Enlightened Dave. “You had a bad morning. Things weren’t going your way. Instead of forcing things harder, you let go and enjoyed a cup of coffee. What kind of opportunities are available to you now?”

Enraged Dave couldn’t refrain completely from leveling a bit of stink-eye in his enlightened comrade’s direction, but he saw the merit in the argument. 10:30 bus, it is. A late arrival at day’s end. But there’s a market to explore!

So I circled back to the market, walking slowly past each booth. It was still early; most weren’t fully operational yet, but I enjoyed the sights and sounds. I slipped back into the cathedral, admiring the painted walls and the wide-screen stained glass, dim as it still was at this hour. (We don’t need to talk about the stained glass down the sides of the cathedral; an artistic failure like that just makes the surrounding brilliance even more luminous by comparison.) I got another coffee and sat on Boulevard Gambetta, watching the town ever-so-slowly return to consciousness.

And then, at 10:25, I went to the bus stop.

* * *

The bus arrived at 10:35. While Enraged Dave didn’t weather those ten minutes gracefully, Enlightened Dave applauded his restraint. They quickly boarded, ready to get the day’s walk underway. Then another man climbed on board… and proceeded to have a five-minute animated conversation with the driver, who seemed far more invested in enjoying every second of that than getting the already-late bus moving. “Take a breath,” whispered Enlightened Dave. “You had a good morning; there’s still plenty of time to do the walk.”

The man finally finished boarding, walking to the very last row of seats on the bus. He and the driver would continue to chat periodically throughout the journey, hurling bon mots the length of the vehicle.

While winding, narrow roads precluded high speeds, we made steady progress. Road signs updated me on the distance. I kept recalculating possible arrival times in my head, recalibrating when I might make it to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie or Lalbenque. My feet were itching, so urgent to walk. It’s easier to move on from frustration when you’re actually, finally, literally moving on, and so Enraged Dave looped his arm around Enlightened Dave’s shoulders and gave him a squeeze. “Thanks for getting me through.”

A sign alerted me that the destination was just 5km away. I checked back over my pack, making sure everything was still just so, nothing having fallen off or out mid-ride. And then the bus halted suddenly. Another bus came from the opposite direction, so our drivers, seeing colleagues on the road, decided this would be a fortuitous opportunity for a conversation. Right there, in the middle of the road, blocking both lanes of traffic. “It’s just not very considerate,” said Enlightened Dave, his brow furrowed in consternation. Still, it was just two minutes, and we must be within 4km now. We lumbered down the road and then abruptly hit the breaks again. A large semi-truck met us as we came around a corner and it was immediately clear that both vehicles could not pass. They played a game of low-speed chicken for a moment, staring each other down, before they both halted completely. Neither had a viable shoulder within close range, but the truck gave way, backing up—with great care—until it managed to manufacture just enough space for the bus to slip by. I saw the truck’s driver’s side mirror come within two millimeters of my window, holding my breath all the while.

Two more cars managed to appear behind the truck as that unfolded, so we got to repeat that tenuous dance on a smaller scale once more.

For all of that, the bus finally made it to my stop. I thanked the driver and disembarked. “I’m proud of you,” said Enlightened Dave. Right at that moment, the rain started. I erupted into a cackle that left me in a heap on a bench for a couple of minutes.

* * *

An aggressive drizzle engulfed me in Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, right from the moment I emerged from the steep footpath. It’s the kind of precipitation that coats you like peach fuzz, impervious to all measures to the contrary.

Fortunately, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is similarly impervious to the often adverse impacts of overcast, gray skies. Looking down at the village from the ruined castle’s mount, the stone houses sparkled silvery in the diminished light; in the other direction, much further down, the Lot implacably snaked past, churning ever deeper into the limestone cliffs.

I was here, back on my own two feet. The walk continued.

Climbing the GR46 out of Saint-Cirq, I was rewarded with even better views, the village in its entirety with the Lot valley in the background. Even if you had no desire to walk towards Concots, this short jaunt would be worth it. I climbed past the small chapel visible from the village and transitioned into rolling countryside, with occasional ups and downs, but nothing particularly noteworthy. That actually describes the GR46 between Saint-Cirq and the GR65 quite well. A mix of minor paved roads and dirt tracks, it passes only through a hamlet and the village of Concots, which has a modest bakery and a restaurant. I was enthused to find the bakery actually open, selling chocolatines with the density of baguettes.

This was the beginning of my last jaunt through mostly new terrain. While I’d revisit parts of the GR65, much of the walk was brand new, and it brought with it the typical excitement that accompanies the known-but-unknown. Concots, Vaylats, Lalbenque, Lhospitalet. Those were names I had seen on maps, imagined in countless shapes, imposed all manner of expectations upon, and the small, dashed lines connecting them were now the very ground under my feet. In the very act of demystifying and demythologizing them, I transformed them into something more lasting, a part of me I would carry forward. They would be known, however thinly.

The detour to Vaylats is exceptionally well waymarked, with red/yellow strips and scallop shells guiding the walker to the convent. The walk back is less clear and in hindsight I reversed course too early—something to clear up on the gps later on. I’d been hoping to grab a coffee in Vaylats, but the café and the church were both closed. Alas, that was the last shot before Lalbenque itself, but I’d be fine. I had a bag of peanuts and a jar of peanut butter (amazingly stocked in the small grocery store in Cabrerets), so I had all the food groups covered.

In a reversal to Vaylats, the deviation to Lalbenque was poorly marked, but I’d later discover that the return track was impeccably labeled. Nonetheless, the walk was straight-forward enough, and I walked with enthusiasm towards the truffle capital. As long-delayed as the walk’s beginning had been, I was in the home stretch and all had gone fine. Enlightened Dave beamed.

And then I arrived in Lalbenque.

* * *

I knew that the gite was just outside of the town center, so I decided to visit the center first, while keeping an eye out for directional signs to the gite. I passed through two major intersections along the way, each laden with signage, but found no reference to Gite Mango. That seemed a little odd, but unconcerning. I walked up to the church, enjoyed a quick look inside, and then decided I should focus more fully on finding the gite.

I walked a loop around the center. Still no indicators anywhere. I had, however, spotted a tourism information office, so I strolled back over to it. Not only was it closed, but the interior was completely torn up in a remodeling initiative. The free wifi was deactivated. OK, no problem. The commercial “center” of Lalbenque was next to me, so I could easily ask for instructions. The bank: closed. The Spar supermarket: closed. The pharmacy: closed. I headed down the other major road, going past one café (closed) and then another (ditto). I couldn’t get on their wifi if I couldn’t ask for the password.

I was in a ghost town. “What the hell is—” oh, right. It’s Bastille Day. A man walked past, headed to the ATM. I asked him if he knew the gite’s location. He’d never heard of it. He had a vague recollection of seeing a gite somewhere, though, so he offered vague directions. I followed them. No gite.

That’s ok, everything was ok, it was totally fine. I had a vague idea of the gite’s location from when I wisely looked it up the day before (and unwisely didn’t actually write it down). I started walking down streets leading out from the center, forking off of the two main conduits. It was just 200m outside of the center, I told myself quite rationally. Even if I literally walked every single street leading out from the center, it wouldn’t take that long to stumble into it.

An hour later, I was back in the roundabout at the entrance to town. Enlightened Dave was in a fetal position. Enraged Dave stood stoically while imagining seventeen different tantrum permutations, one of which involved hurtling his pack into a car driving through the roundabout.

There was a hotel in the center, I remembered, and that gave me a flicker of hope. They might know about other accommodations in town, or they’d at least have wifi. I hustled back. The door was locked. I rang the bell, removing my hat and donning my face mask, while rehearsing the French vocabulary I had at my disposal. No response. I rang again. No response. “Given that there’s nobody in this town,” offered Enlightened Dave, “would anyone notice if we broke in?” Enraged Dave just muttered a curse and dropped to the ground.

I’d been searching for the gite with absolute futility for 90 minutes now.

* * *

I opened my laptop. It was hail Mary time. I’d looked up the gite’s location the day before, and while I had continued looking up a bunch of other stuff in my browser, maybe something would be cached? Back, back, back. Some websites opened; others couldn’t be loaded. None of them were relevant. Back, back, back. Somewhere between the 40th and 50th click, I arrived at a dead page for Google Maps. And then I looked at the url: https://www.google.com/maps/place/67+Route+de+Puylaroque,+46230+Lalbenque

Route de Puylaroque! I had an address, a street. Of course, I also had almost nobody to ask. I stalked back through the major roads through Lalbenque. A car pulled up to me with three young dudes. I asked them. They stared blankly at me then asked if I had “fire.” They spun out, laughing, when I told them I didn’t have a light for them. Ten more minutes passed by. The flicker of hope only mounted my frustration. To be so close and yet to still have no way forward!

I looked back at the directional signs outside of the tourism office and I nearly keeled over in shock. A village. There was a sign for the village of PUYLAROQUE. An angel could have dropped down from heaven in that moment, engulfed in flashing lights and harp music, and it wouldn’t have hit me any harder. I nearly unleashed a primal scream as I stormed down the road.

That road, though, started splintering off into different, smaller roads. Where to go? I saw a yellow stripe on a pole, indicative of a pedestrian track, so I decided to give it a shot. It led me uphill, along a small residential street that concluded in a parking lot for a community center. Dead end. I sighed. And then I heard a dog bark—saw a dog, charging towards me. Another—larger—dog was right behind it.

A man yelled. The dogs proved friendly enough. I assumed he was yelling at them; he was yelling at me. I had no idea what he said, so I just replied that I was looking for Gite Mango. “I run Gite Mango,” he replied, in English.

Gite Mango, it turns out, wasn’t on that street. We followed a pair of footpaths back across two other streets, ultimately arriving at an unmarked building. It occurred to me that I only found it in the end because I went down the wrong road when I thought I was on the right one.

* * *

This was the worst day of my chemin. So many things went wrong.

I’m writing this from a comfortable sofa. I took a hot shower and had a real, actual towel to dry myself with. I asked where to wash my clothes and my host told me where the basin was, but added that I could use the washing machine if I liked. I did like. He made dinner for me. There were three older Frenchwomen also in the gite and they went out of their way to help get me situated, offering me coffee and tea. In a little while, I’ll get into bed, where I have fresh sheets provided by my host, instead of my sleep sheet which has nearly three weeks of road grime woven into it at this point. I’m in good health. I walked what I wanted and needed to cover today. The rain wasn’t terrible.

It wasn’t the day I wanted. I was inconvenienced for a few hours. The discomfort was real, particularly as the mounting frustration accrued in Lalbenque, and I do myself no favors by behaving dismissive towards it now. That sucked.

When I was walking across the USA a year ago, I committed myself to write about each day’s walk on that day, while it was still fresh and honest, before the revisionist forces of memory kicked into gear, smoothing out the edges and granting Enlightened Dave full command of the keyboard. As best as possible, I wanted to capture the real, unvarnished, and often unflattering reality of the experience. I’ve sustained that habit on this trip.

Reliving the day now, in these typed words, I endure the full panoply of emotional responses. I’m annoyed with myself for not planning and preparing better. The residual despair from the Lalbenque roundabout stings. Part of me tells myself I should grow up and not be so rigid, while another tells that part to shove it. A smaller part says there were many more hours today that were good than bad. The loudest voice says I should be happy. I should be happy because I’m here, in a beautiful place, doing what I love. I should especially be happy because others can’t be here, haven’t been able to be here for a long time and they’re aching to be where I am. Another voice whispers that sometimes you’re not happy when you should be happy, and you’ve got to work on forgiving yourself for that failing as well.

Today was hard. Today was deeply instructive. The Camino is your friend who can call you on your BS, the friend you’re willing to hear tough things from. I’ll try to listen better tomorrow.
 
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natefaith

Moderator
Staff member
Past OR future Camino
2009, 2014, 2017
Great post, Dave. You definitely went through the ringer that day. That would've been stressful for anyone! Thanks for sharing and I'm glad the majority of your month was better. :)
 

mspath

Veteran Member
Past OR future Camino
Frances, autumn/winter; 2004, 2005-2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015
Dave,
Your's was certainly a day to remember! Thanks for letting us read "the real, unvarnished, and often unflattering reality of the experience".

Carpe diem!
 
Last edited:

Kanga

Moderator
Staff member
Past OR future Camino
Francés x 5, Le Puy x 2, Arles, Tours, Norte, Madrid, Via de la Plata, Portuguese, Primitivo
A lovely bit of writing @Dave . The experience might have wrung you out but it gave me a great deal of pleasure, sitting here in Sydney in lockdown, and, as you say, aching to be where you are.

I shall follow the link and immerse myself.
 
Last edited:
Past OR future Camino
Camino Frances (2014)
Camino Via Podiensis (2018)
You had me completely captivated to the end wondering where you would end up! Will definitely follow your link too😊 wishing you happy trails and easy to find Gites!
I stayed at Gite Papillon Vert in Cahors in 2018 and met Eden and his enchanting daughter - 4yrs at the time I think. She was delightful pretending to be a school teacher teaching us to count to 10 in English! Bon Chemin, Linda 20210830_175333.jpg
 
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shefollowsshells

Veteran Member
Past OR future Camino
Several alone and with children
at a small cafe in France, hope yo sleep in the same open church tonight that we did five years ago… can’t wait to curl up in my sleeping bag to your read! Always a fan of what you share!!!!
Neve
 

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