Sunday, October 18, 2009

Whine and Dine aka Our GR653 Walk from Dourgne - Sept 2009 to Oloron St. Marie


For a music backed overview, check out our YouTube video of the Dourgne to Oloron walk.

In spite of the video appearances this was a somewhat difficult and stressful trip for us. Our seventh walk on a pilgrimage trail, we were looking at it as more of a vacation adventure, than as a serious trek. Our plan was 20 to 25k per day and to use B&Bs and hotels when possible, not using scarce pilgrim gite space, leaving that for the pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostella. I'll give you an overview of the day to day, some planning tips, and then why it wasn't so fine for us, but could be for you.

Trip Notes:
1. From Toulouse, got taxi to Gare Routiere got bus to in Revel, the closest point to Dourgne. From there got a taxi to Dourgne. Toulouse bus schedules at www.haute-garonne.fr and the bus lines that go to Revel are 56 and 57.
Walked from Dourgne to St. Felix. Stayed at Le Cocagne - no star room, but food and ambiance good. In the main square. The fancier hotel is away from square.

Walked La Rigole & stayed at gite Moulin de Naurouze where GR653 hits Canal du Midi - very welcoming and pilgrim friendly - lots of pilgrim info. Canal du Midi info www.canal-et-voie-verte.com/

From there walked Canal du Midi. Choice is canal with shade, water, but paved path or GR653 with villages, no shade, and few facilities. Stayed at La Masquière in Écluse en Laval. Nice but pricey. Nothing else available and this wasn't far enough for the next day to work.

Took taxi to Ramonville, walked from there into Toulouse. Stayed at Hotel des Arts a one star but centrally located and pilgrim friendly. Takes some adjusting to get used to the toilet being visible from every part of the room. Don't miss Augustin Museum.

From Toulouse, took bus to Colomiers at outskirts of town, then walked to pilgrim gite in Leguevin. Found out that next day's route had just been changed, too many trees down in forest, and temporary route setup - not waymarked.

From Leguevin walked to just short of L'Isle-Jourdain at Chateau de Guerre - hard to get to from new route - had to ask and walk thru someone's fields to get there.

Next day on to Gimont at Hotel Le Coin du Feu - supermarket in town, but it closed just before we got to it, 15 minutes before closing hours. After that we paid attention. Closing hours in southern France mean when the last employee locks the door and leaves. They might close the door to incoming customers much earlier, also, if store is empty near closing, they sometimes lock up and leave.

Next day was one of our favorite stays - the gite at La Croisee de St. Cricq, just short of Auch. Very nice couple running it. We were only ones there and shared their meal.

Then a short day into Auch, the birthplace of D'Artagnan, at Hotel de France

From Auch, on to L'Isle de Noe - a town on a small island between two rivers. We stayed at Edna's Chambres d'Hotes - Mme Moody. A unique stay. She saw an ad in an English paper about 3 years ago, and bought it sight unseen, never having been to France, and not speaking a word of French.

From there walked to Monlezun and stayed with Mme Seailles - she had no English, and we little French, but it worked out.

The next day we walked direct to Maubourguet, bypassing Marciac and following an alternate route in the CFSJ. Only problem was that distances and details in CFSJ weren't quite right, but map and compass got us there. Stayed at Hotel de France.

General note on prices. Bed, dinner and breakfast at a gite or CdH for two was about 70 euros, at a hotel in a small town, about 90 euros.

From Maubourguet, there are no accommodations within our walking range on the GR653, so we took the alternate route thru Lembeye. The CFSJ description of the alternate did not match the trail at all - possibly it has been rerouted since guide was made. Anyway, we soon realized we had missed the alternate, due to our map and compass checking, and made our way by small roads to our stay in Lembeye. Hotel Pelerin was not open - apparently on owner's whim, opens and closes, but stayed with Mme Price and her daughter about 1 km past town. Nice meal and company.

From Lembeye, back to the GR653 at Anoye and on to Morlaas, again at Hotel de France don't think they are a chain - no similarities.

The next day we pass the outskirts of Pau on the way to Lescar. One of the highlights of the trip was walking into the cathedral, tired and pack laden and hearing the sound of the huge organ as the organist practiced. The pipes filled the end of the cathedral, and the sounds penetrated to the bone. Stayed at La Terrasse - wonderful gaspacho. Another pilgrim told us that the gite was excellent, but we had already booked the hotel.

Next day to Estialescq - CdH Maison Naha - we highly recommend, due to hostess, food and accommodation.

Waymarking varied. Some new, some old and faded, never any comfort waymarks - i.e. on a 5k straight stretch, one mark at each end. One in the middle would be a comfort mark, to reassure that you are still on the trail. In some areas there were red and white plastic flags, from extremely faded to new, that seemed to mark the trail.

On to Oloron St. Marie - stayed at Hotel Alysson - too far from main section of town and pricey, restricting food choices - suggest Hotel de la Paix as better option.

Train back to Toulouse with a couple hour layover in Pau - went up the nearby funicular to center of Pau - views, castle, people, restaurants, then on to Toulouse and Hotel des Arts again. Next day fly home.

Suggestions, Hints
Some of the difficulties were unique to our trip, others you may encounter. Starting from Toulouse would be better than starting from Dourgne. Accommodations are infrequent and quickly filled in the area around Toulouse. This is a fine bicycle route, as you can adapt to filled accommodations, and just go on to the next.

For walkers it is a different matter. As a walker, you need to reserve your accommodations if you expect them to prepare you a meal, and it is a good idea to reserve even if you just need a bed. You need a plan for when you can't get a place, such as a tent and food, a taxi, etc. The stages work a little better if you can easily do 30k per day. If you are staying in a place that provides breakfast, it is hard to get walking before 8 or 8:30. If we couldn't find accommodations within 25k, we would opt for a lesser distance. For 30k per day, it is best to get going by 7 or 7:30. Accommodations are frequently off trail, so your navigation skills must be good.

Always carry lunch material. It is very rare to find more than one place per day where you can buy supplies, so when you hit the village of the day, get what you need. I also suggest carrying snack material so that you have something to eat about 10:30 in the morning and 2:30 in the afternoon. That snack should provide lots of salt and sugar to keep you going.

For most of the trip, we found we didn't have much energy after walking the first couple of hours. Late in the trip we decided that this was probably an electrolyte imbalance due to hours of sweating, and at first opportunity started carrying bags of potato chips. This helped quite a bit. Energy bars of some sort would have been a good idea, but we never had our act together enough to get some. The little Casino groceries didn't have them and supermarkets within walking distance were rare. On the plus side, there were lots of figs on trees hanging over the trail, so we got some fruit intake. (We would never reach over a fence or onto a farmer's property, but we figured that anything in the airspace directly above the road/trail was fair game).

We had a number of days in the 80s (ºF) and a number in the 40s, a couple of days of rain and boot sucking mud - the rain happened to coincide with few days of dirt tracks. Humidity very high for most of the trip. 95% of the time is on small paved country roads. Imagine a 10 inch pie 2 inches thick attached to your foot, and a softball on the end of your hiking stick, and that is boot sucking mud.

When we got home and looked at our pictures, it looked like the best trip we ever took, and in some ways it was. The people we met were delightful, the cities buzzing with activity. However, on the trail, we saw practically no one, maybe a dozen hikers over three weeks, including the ones we met in the few gites where we stayed. Many days were fairly boring. After several days of walking through cornfields, Susan said: "Are you sure we're not in Iowa?". Same feeling after walking along La Rigole - a small feeder canal to Canal du Midi - haven't we been at this curve a dozen times already today? The sameness also made the navigation difficult. Some areas were well waymarked, others scarce or missing waymarks. You had to count the little side roads, as they were not labeled. "Is this the 5th side road from the right, or the sixth? Well, it is a dirt road. Do dirt roads count?".

Almost forgot, have to put in © 2009 backpack45.com to slow the blog bandits. I don't mind if they give attribution, but there are some spammers that copy legitimate articles and highlight text so a click will go off to their spam.

When to go:
We did this trip in September. That accounts for the lack of other walking pilgrims. In talking to our various hosts, we found that during April and May there is a lot of pilgrim traffic - frequently filling the gites. These are the people walking the entire route from Arles to Santiago. Many of them carry a tent and expect to do their own meals much of the time, though some have sent their tent home by the time they get to Oloron St. Marie.

Navigation Notes:
I have carried a small Silva compass, about 2x3 inches on all our trips, backpacking and otherwise, and rarely if ever looked at it. This trip I carried it and the map in my hand, and looked at it frequently. With all the little unmarked roads, and sameness of the trail, it was important to know exactly where we were. If we had off trail accommodations, we had to know that we were turning off on the right road. We carried the 1/100000 IGN maps for the trail. These are identical to the map pages in the back of the Sur le chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, la via Tolosona, la voie du soleil... - Francois Lepere & André Dehnel guide. (we didn't use this guide except the maps). We carried the Miam Miam Dodo, the Confraternity of St. James Guide, and the Le chemin d'Arles vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Louis Laborde-Balen - Jean-Pierre Siréjol guide. We mostly relied on the CFSJ, the MMD and the map and compass.

If I were to do this part of the route again, I would look for more detailed maps. Excellent maps are available interactively on http://www.geoportail.fr/ but they don't print out easily. Since we got back I've been looking for better maps. You can get the 1:24000 IGN maps, but it is costly and heavy. There is a website www.geolives.com that allows you to download topo maps of Europe, and load them to your iphone or pda. You can also print them. It looks like a possibility, but I haven't tried it.

Cell Phones
Last year we carried an unlocked GSM phone and bought an Orange sim card when we got to Paris. This year we ordered a sim card in advance from Rebelfone. The Orange card is prepaid, and we had to buy cards to top it up as we went along. Orange also now has a cheap cellphone that you can buy with initial minutes when you get to France. However, the Rebelfone has worked out ok to make calls. When we got the sim card, it had the phone number on it, so we knew our number in advance. We were able to make calls without problems throughout southern France. We still haven't gotten the final charges on our credit card, since they have to wait until the charges from the French carrier come through. Hopefully they will be reasonable. Orange is the French carrier.


Why did we have a difficult time?
It was a matter of mindset and circumstances. We were not primed for a serious venture. If we had been headed for Santiago, a couple of months away, then a week of not so good walking would not be significant. We could anticipate something different in the days to come. In this case we were using our scarce vacation time, and when much of that time was not fun, having some doubts about our choice of activity. We did get off to a bad start. Missed our plane connection in London, so got to Toulouse the next day and by taxi, bus and taxi again, got to Dourgne and started walking immediately, rather than having a night's rest first in Toulouse. That put us into catch-up mode as far as food, arranging accommodations, etc., not to mention jet lag, and we never really caught up. The lack of other hikers had a big negative impact. When we encounter other walkers and spend a few minutes chatting, that has a huge positive effect - it gives us a burst of mental energy that will carry us for a couple of hours. It helps the boring parts. That has always been a highlight of other trips, but it wasn't till this trip that we realized how much we depend on it.

I think if you start this trip from Toulouse, and have food for emergency supper and breakfast, as well as the usual lunch and snacks supply, you will do fine.

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