Stage 2: Pontacq – Sevignacq (Bains au Secours)

Waked up at 6 am to find out that day breaks in only at 7 am at this longitude. So I waited a bit before hitting the road and in the meantime trying to upload the summary of the day to my blog with disappointing results. The bandwidth of the connection all of sudden dried up and the update could not get through for several attempts.

Never mind, I was eager to start the day’s walk anyway, and by 7:25 am I moved on in a brisk cool morning, skipping breakfast figuring to have some later on in a couple of hours’ time. The direction chosen the night before was on secondary paved road towards St. Vincent and Nay. The road almost immediately started to climb and the effort was rewarded by a magnificent panorama of the valley still covered by the morning mist.

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At a junction near Nay a woman in a car asked me for directions, and made my day! I was surely a foreigner but I have to say I was also the only living being around. Because of my typical habit of memorizing the road map of the surroundings, I actually knew how to direct her correctly : the problem was still to make myself understood in my rusty French!

Nay is a beautiful town with a well landscaped riverside worth another visit some day. Across the river, a central promenade lined with cafes and bistrots, was too inviting to resist. I had a double espresso, in a corner table still very conscious about being a mature man with a huge backpack and dressed like a bum. Still I could not meet yet any other pilgrim on these roads, and the blending in with these nicely dressed people was not so easy. After a short while, I followed the road towards Arudy and the destination of the day near Sevignacq.

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The road narrowed a bit and the indications suggested another 3 hours of solid walk, before reaching the planned overnight stay at the Hotel du Thermes au Secours. The road climbed furthermore and unrolled like a grey ribbon on the crest of a hilly range, dotted with rural mansions and farms.

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The hotel was not located on the main road where I though it should have been, and I could not get directions over the phone for the lack of references that made sense to me. The hotelier, who later introduced himself as Jean-Pierre, as soon as he finally understood I was coming in on foot and was heading to Santiago, insisted to come and pick me up with his car. He also shared with me that he was a pilgrim once and did himself part of the Camino de la Plata from Seville to Salamanca, and was planning one day to continue to reach finally Santiago.

I was grateful of the courtesy since the road to the hotel was a diversion of more than 5 km from I was and the direction I wanted to go the following day. The diversion was well justified as soon we reached the place: a quintessence of French hospitality with all the must haves such as the flowers at the balcony, the ivy on the walls and an incredible peaceful landscaping. Not to mention a private bathroom with a bathtub! I slowly simmered in the hot water and fall asleep for some thirty minutes, with my heart pounding of joy for these simple gratifications.

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While allowing myself with the pleasure of a cold French beer, I enjoyed also the company of a charming British couple, Jean and Alec Jessups, in a holiday trip to visit friends in France and Spain.  We stayed in contact for some time during my trip as they wanted to get my news and whether I managed to reach Santiago in one piece. Since they live not far from Canterbury, I made also plans to visit them in the UK if and when I shall embark on the journey along the via Francigena, from Canterbury to Rome.

At dinner, Jean-Pierre authored an exquisite beef composition, which I devoured in very good spirit and with a glass of excellent Bourgogne. For my foodie friends, the dish was a combination of beef filet with mushrooms and a reduit of beef stewed in red wine sauce. Delicious.

Worth mentioning the first signs of the Santiago pilgrimage: the lid of the dustbin in the room has a motif inspired by the St. James shell.

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All in all the stage was 28.6km long which I covered in 6:18 hours of walking and 2 hours of rest. First lesson learned during today’s stage: never underestimate the distance especially if you are taking side roads. What was supposed to be an easy stroll, turned out to be the longest distance so far. Google Maps indicated 23km but I ended up with about 30!

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Incipit…. 1st stage: Aeroport de Lourdes to Pontacq – 14.4km

Before landing, I made a mental note to buy some water at the airport, to get the first stamp on my pilgrim passport, to buy a French 3G SIM, and also some maps. None of these items could be even considered: the Lourdes airport is so tiny, that there were no shops, or any other offices for that matter at the arrival hall. Perhaps there were some at the departure hall but I was eager to start the walk at once, and to subtract me from the curiosity of the other folks ready to board on the buses directed to the city center, so I went off on my own. It was 12:50 pm on Sep 4. The first steps…..

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The road was well indicated and so I moved on towards Ossun making a big detour around the airport. There is a peculiarity of airports of being designed only for people arriving by car or by other public transport: walkers do not represent a business target and therefore these odd people need to manage their balance on curbs and road rubbish to avoid the incoming vehicles and the questioning stares of the drivers. Around this rural airport there was evidently no reason to open amenity shops you could reach on foot. None of the shortlisted items I wanted to do were taken care, but I resolved anyway to reach Ossun first and then look for shops there. Maybe the midday timing was not the most appropriate, and most likely the simple fact that Ossun is not Paris, but I was barely the only human being around. I just managed to get my first stamp on my brand new pilgrim’s passport at the local post office and take a photo of the cozy village.

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The first acknowledgement greeting came from a couple of bicycle riders that yelled me:  “Buen Camino!” and moved on quickly. I felt quite happy and encouraged. I also felt proud of being recognized as a Santiago pilgrim . Perhaps the two bikers who were carrying large bags and backpacks were also travelling to the same destination. So I yelled back something similar and continued my journey sidelined by green pastures and with the Pyrenees in the far background. Such bike pilgrims, I learned much later, are called “bicigrinos” and unless they travel on paved roads, are quite annoying when they appear all of sudden from behind at great speed on narrow trails and yelling to give way.

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The only signs of life were horses and cows: both a bit surprised to see this strange guy walking by. All other humans in facts were either driving cars or tractors. The landscape is definitely rural, totally silent in the slow natural cycles. After a short while, I reached Pontacq, my first stage.

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I have plenty of time to settle down and start counting my blessings but also my aches and pains. So far so good. The spirit is high and I start appreciating the small pleasures of a decent shower, a change of clean clothes, and sitting down at a cafe in the small village which was founded in 1630 by a local landlord.
Happiness was to find also a small shop selling wanderers’ maps and some fruits and chocolate to carry along the next day. Dinner at the hotel with a filet de poisson avec les haricot verts et fries.

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At 8:30 I am ready for bed. Tomorrow’s stage is a long one through Nay and towards Sevignacq-Secours.