Postcard 7 – The Camino Francés  – With Kathy, Becky and Cecilia

Today there are random acts of kindness and wonderful views and the sublime love of a mother and daughter makes me glow with emotion.

There is movement in the dorm at about 6 o’clock but I leave it half an hour to ensure there’s no queue for the facilities, there isn’t. It’s still dark in this part of France and Spain until nearly 8 o’clock although twilight is much shorter than the UK. The invisible sun is already creating dark silhouettes of the mountains against the lightening sky but the valleys are pitch black. To our left, looking along an adjacent valley, the mist is cocooning the villages. It’s a soft rolling scene like a sheet being cast onto a bed in very slow motion. All of this is from our bedroom window and I count my blessings for another gift from the Camino.

Breakfast is slightly chaotic and very much acceptably so. I’m not a finicky eater but since becoming lactose intolerant 11 years ago it’s always a case of being careful and I’ve learned the appropriate phrases in French and Spanish to avoid any milk-based products that could create a ten-hour period of major ‘inconvenience’! 

The Spanish are outstanding at knowing all this and the simple words ‘sin lactosa’ have them right on the ball. I have had an isolated response here in France where a French waitress didn’t appear to know that cheese is made from milk and gave me a baguette with ham and cheese in it.

Continental breakfasts tend to be very simple and I love them. Either toasted baguettes or ciabatta with a wonderful mix of sun-dried tomato paste with a hint of garlic or gorgeous, fruity marmalades. I just use a little oil instead of butter and the result is divine.

We watch the final appearance of the sun as it shines its way over the peaks and lights our side of the valley leaving the other in shadow. It’s at moments like these that you’re hypnotised by the beauty. After a few seconds, we return to now and we’re ready for the next 19km (12.5 miles) with almost three-quarters of them ‘UP’. The highest point is about 4,675 feet (1400 metres) above sea level. We’re already at 2,600 feet (so we’re looking at another 2,000 feet to the top followed by 2,100 feet back down to the monastery at Roncesvalles.

Mary, my new ‘little sister’, has joined us and I’m looking forward to a full day with Kathy and Becky. The first 5 kilometres (3 miles ish) take us up 1000 feet and we’re only a quarter of the way. That said, we’re doing well and the views are sublime.

We’re being encouraged to use the suncream by Mary which we do and we stop often to admire the sensational views. We have to remind ourselves to look around and especially look back as the landscape becomes more and more spectacular.

We talk about music and I mention Dave Cousins and The Strawbs who produced a fabulous, poetic song and music entitled “Glimpse of Heaven” and we’re experiencing heavenly views with every step. Cecilia’s gone ahead again walking at an impressive rate and enjoying the company of some of the other wonderful people that we met last night, it’s impossible not to find yourself talking to someone who has a story, it’s also important to sometimes be in your own space and in your own thoughts.

I’m struggling again today but the company of Kathy, Becky and Mary is uplifting and fills me with strength. My hip is certainly playing up so I put it down to that and I’m glad of the breaks that we take for Kathy to stretch and receive a back massage from her loverly daughter, Becky. It also means we have natural breaks to ensure we stay hydrated.

During one of the stops, Kathy lay on the grass and stretched her back to release the knot in her spine whilst Becky massaged the tension out of her. When she stood up Becky had her own bag on her back and Kathy’s bag on her front and whilst there was some protest from her mum, that’s where it stayed for the next hour until Becky was sure that all was well and it could go back to her mum. I love this couple, they’re best friends, Little Mama and Big Mama and Mother and Daughter all in one exquisitely loving supportive package. It contributes yet another random act of kindness that we witness here on the Camino.

About 3,000 feet there’s a statue that stands alone in amongst some rocks and Kathy points it out with the advice that it’s well worth a look so we do. Mary is first to it and I’m looking up from about ten metres. Mary gives it scale (I thought it was bigger than it is) but the colours are quite extraordinary and it’s remoteness gives it a kind of gravity and reverence. Kathy’s right, it is worth the minor detour. 

At 3,500 feet we find a snack and drinks vendor and he’s got coffee. I know that this sounds surreal but there is a road to this height and the ability to buy a coffee is an unbelievable bonus. We take our time and use the WC. The WC is a pile of rocks behind which you can have a pee. It is unisex so a quick shout-out is the approved protocol before you go in. I take advantage of both coffee and the WC!

There’s a lovely piece of flat now and we’re walking it in the mid-day sun so Mary is leaning on us to re-apply the sun cream – once again, we, respond without question. She’s a star is Mary.

We think we’re about there and ready to make the right turn to start the descent through the woods but the Camino has another test – it slips in another kilometre of ‘UP’ and it’s tough. Cecilia is well on form and does it in her stride. I’m struggling again but with the aid of a couple of stops manage without incident. 

At one of the stops, we’re lying on the grass with a snack and a drink when Kathy who has clearly been thinking of the previous conversation regarding the words of Dave Cousins and Strawbs plays Glimpse of Heaven on her phone. 

We’re towards the top of one of the peaks of the Pyrenees on the leeward side so it’s grassy, it’s sunny and the air currently is still, there are some wild horses not far from us who’re used to the presence of humans so they’re nuzzling each other affectionately without reference to us and we’re serenading them with beautiful words:

“The hillside was a patchwork quilt
Neatly stitched with tidy hedge 
And tumbling grey stone walls
The trees were bare but spring was here
To conjure up its endless strings
Of green magic handkerchieves

Could you only see what I’ve seen 
You would surely know what I mean 
I think I must have caught a glimpse of heaven.

It’s a moment that can not be repeated and certainly not experienced without being there and I too am in heaven. High in the Pyrenees in bright sunshine with people for whom I have deep affection singing a song with beautiful and meaningful lyrics. I’m not sure the horses were as captivated but they kept nuzzling each other’s ears and necks, perhaps nuzzling is their version of a hug and we were the gondoliers serenading them with our harmonies – yes, OK, I’ve a tendency towards minor embellishment so we’ll move on.

We’re rested and satisfied with food, drink and the welcome reverie. We stagger about a little bit until our muscles ease then we’re off again towards the highest point.

At the top, we step aside to allow a man with a quad-bike gently ease by. I’m slightly irritated initially and then I feel guilty when I’m told by one of the Peregrinos that he’s ‘Amigo de Camino’ and that there are a number of them who are the “Mountain Rescue” people of this area. We have passed four shrines to people who have died on this stretch alone so their presence is both reassuring and welcome.

Halfway down, I am well in front (for a change) and hear a commotion behind, Cecilia’s taken a minor fall but Mary is there like a shot. As it turns out there’s no damage but Mary was well on to it if there had been.

We arrive at the monastery together and we’re not far apart in the dorm. It’s a big place that’s well-catered for pilgrims. We’re allocated a restaurant where we can eat and it does have the effect of splitting us up but that means we meet other pilgrims so there are pros and cons and we do meet again after the meal to ensure we’ve all had enough liquid!

It’s been a tough day so we say our good-nights and as I lie down on the bunk and wrap the thin silk sleeping bag liner around me I reflect. There’s no need for the actual sleeping bag, It’s not cold and there’s no need for anything heavier as I’m hugged by the affection of the people that I’m with. I’m filled with contentment and love. I hear no more. 

Sleep not only comes easy it also comes deep.

Enjoy the snaps.

Love G x

Please feel free to share for armchair ramblers who can no longer get about. G x

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