Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the last town in France before crossing the border has been a bit of a shock. There are fresh new peregrinos everywhere straight off the train and actually queueing (yes, queuing) to get their first stamp in their credencial. After seeing about 10 people a day, quite often less, it feels like Piccadilly Circus. SJPP is the most popular starting point for the Camino, so not unexpected to see new people, but not sure what it’s going to be like from here on in, other than different to the last 730km.
Other than the incredibly beautiful countryside the thing I have loved about France the most has been the food… delicious, some of the best meals I have ever had. When I get home I am going to crack open some French recipe books… lamb with figs a must.
What has been most annoying is also food related. Do not expect to eat outside the hours of 12:00-14:00 and 19:00-21:00. If you have lost track of the time, not a single slice of bread, chip or omelette in sight. Suggest to a café owner you would like to order the simplest of cheese sandwiches outside of these hours and you will either be greeted with a nonplussed gaze or shock horror. Likewise do not consider that Monday has any chance of being a regular business day. Even reasonable sized towns – Aire sur l’Dour a good example – nothing but stray cats wandering the streets. Plenty of shops but all locked up tight. Try to buy an apple, a baguette, a chocolate bar… forget it.
Places to stay the night are the either the gites communal or private gites. All good, cannot say a bad word about them, always clean comfy and plenty of room. Only two places I could not find a place to stay and then it was just a case of walking on. Stayed in some incredible ones, the medieval tower in Aubrac very memorable, Gite Le Pigeoniers de Figue Haut, a private farmhouse had the best food, lamb and fig something and a pasta cheese bake to die for. Gite d’Etape Le Souleillou got me my own room for 12 euros with ensuite and luxury of luxuries for sore feet, a chair in the shower!
The most welcoming of all gites was in the Basque country – Gite d’Etape L’Escargot (pictured), first things first on arrival they sat me down with a glass of ice cold lemonade and boots off.
The food they served was traditional Basque, something with sausages, ham and pepper tomato concoction – I lost count of the number of courses they brought out, including wine… and all this for a donativo – no cost just give a donation for what you think it’s worth. On an average 15 Euros for accommodation a day I gave 50.
The Camino though France is definitely worth doing. The best section was from Le Puy to Conques and I would do it again in a flash. Idyllic villages, so old it’s as if you have walked back in time. The Aubrac is not to be missed. After Moissac it gets a bit flat and the towns a bit drab, you could be anywhere until you get nearer the Pyrenees. Another great place is Figeac, worth a visit any day, desperately wanted to shop there, but my backpack said no.