Pons to Mirambeau

Day 45 of Walking Out of the World brings us to the last day’s walk on the GR655 to Mirambeau where the Via Turonensis guide book ends. The mystery of the 15th century pilgrim deepens, the French pilgrim gets sick and the wet weather gets worse. We pray to Saint Médard for better weather, and guess what?

(Previous post: Day 44 Saintes to Pons.)

Happy Epiphany, especially to all in Spain where the Fiesta de los Reyes Magos is the main feast of the season.  In the virtual pilgrimage we are leaving Pons today, exactly halfway from Worcester to Compostela – with 1183 kilometres to go – and we begin the day with some bad news on the outskirts of Pons at the old pilgrim hospital, as we walk out on the Chemin Saint-Jacques towards Mirambeau.

“I have a cold,” said Valerie.  She blew her nose and I could see she had red eyes. 

At that moment we were putting our rucsacks down outside the entrance of the historic pilgrim hospital at Pons.  The mediaeval pilgrim road goes through its arch on the way out of Pons, and the modern main road by-passes Pons a short distance to the west, rejoining the alignment of the Via Turonensis half a kilometre south of the arch. 

“I’m not surprised, after all that rain yesterday,” I said.  “And it was only a twenty kilometre walk.  A less energetic day.  It sometimes happens that when we are relaxed we succumb more easily to a virus.”

Hopital des Pélerins, Pons: Salle des Malades

Inside the Hopital des Pélerins – which is one of the best museums of mediaeval pilgrimage on the Way of Saint James – there was a very dedicated guide who explained the purpose of the hospital.  As well as a wayside stop-over it was a place to care for the sick pilgrims. Any seriously ill pilgrims who died here were buried in the adjacent cemetery (now turned into a medicinal herb garden.)  A very sick waxwork pilgrim was propped up against the wall looking convincingly cemetery-ready.  Valerie sniffled again and blew her nose, apologising to the guide.

“We do not offer anything for sick pilgrims today!” said the guide, a cheerful lady who enjoyed explaining the museum.  “Do you want to skip the cemetery?” As she said this Valerie looked alarmed.

I hastily said, “I think she means because it is raining again out there.”

“Don’t leave me here to die!” she hammed to me and the guide laughed.  But Valerie blew her nose again and she looked less likely to be able to walk today’s thirty-two kilometres to Mirambeau than the waxwork sick pilgrim. Particularly as it was now raining again quite heavily. The guide put the tampon of the Hopital des Pélerins in our credencials and then said to Valerie that there was an army rain cape somewhere in the store room: it had been there for several weeks, left by a pilgrim passing through. She went to fetch it.

While Valerie was waiting for the guide to return, I looked again at the museum’s row of beds. This is where Robert Sutton would have stayed in 1423. We had stayed overnight in a modern refuge des pélerins in Pons, where there were a few of the other pilgrims who had been in Saintes, but no sign of the Worcester Pilgrim because he would be found a night in places like this which were open to him in the 15th century. I walked passed Valerie, still waiting for the guide to return with the cape, and I headed for the door.

“I’m going to put my waterproofs on and look at the map: I think it’s 12 kilometres to Saint-Genis-de-Santonge. That will be the place to find lunch.”

She rejoined me outside the door, where the rain was sweeping through the archway behind us in strong gusts of wind. She was wearing a green and brown French army surplus camouflaged rain cape with a hood.

“Perfect!” she said. “I asked her about your ghost pilgrim. You’ll like this. There is a pilgrim in a broad-hat carrying a mediaeval bourdon just like yours. She said he was here when she arrived to open the museum today and he is now an hour ahead of us on this road.”

“Did she say where he was from?” I asked.

“She said he did not communicate much, but he came from England!”

I looked out of the arch to the south. Somewhere in that unseen landscape behind the sheets of driving rain was a pilgrim carrying an identical bourdon to my 15th century replica. Was it the Worcester Pilgrim? I turned my attention from the time traveller to my unhappy 21st century companion, now swathed in waterpoof camouflage.

“I think you should return to the refuge in Pons and ask if you can stay an extra day,” I said. “You’re not going to get any better on a day like this.” But she was adamant that she would continue and we set out reluctantly into the rain on a path soon running parallel to the main N137 where the monster freight trucks thundered past in clouds of white spray, like ships in some shallow tarmac canal.

The wind came from behind us, which was at least some advantage, and Valerie’s new-found army cape acted like a sail propelling her forward. We stood for quarter of an hour at Goutrolles, the point where the GR655 pilgrim route crossed the main road, waiting for a safe moment to cross and being showered with spray by the passing trucks while we waited. The next few kilometres zig-zagged away, then back, parallel to the main road to Mirambeau.

“Today is not a good day for walking in silence,” she said, as the raindrops spat in a constant crackle on our shoulders, meaning that shouted conversation was the only volume that worked.

“No, and it wouldn’t be good for you either,” I said. “Today we need to keep talking to get you through to Mirambeau. Morale-boosting conversation. Or song…”

I reprised the song I had made up, to the tune of the Marseillaise, “La pluie de le matin, n’arrete pas le pélerin…” and we soon managed to improvise several variations on it, with alto and baritone descant! The rain was unrelenting. We arrived in Saint-Genis-de-Santonge soaked to the skin.

St-Genis-Saintonge Mairie stamp

We managed to get our credencials stamped at the Mairie next to the church, the only two buildings in this place that did not seem to be in need of repair. It was a depressingly grey run-down place in which to arrive, seeking food and shelter on a bad weather day.

The problem with waterproof gear when doing physical exercise for a few hours, is that perspiration under the waterproof layers will always leave you wet. When stopping for a lunch break you must find somewhere warm, to keep your body heat while in wet clothes, taking a rest. The only food in the cafe opposite the town hall was a choice of leftover dry croissants or crisps and peanuts.

The GR655 walkers guide provides no details of eating places – for I suppose they are subject to change, long before the next edition of the guide – so we had no idea what to expect in this place. From the ridiculous to the sublime… Apart from the café there was only a gourmet restaurant open. So it was a choice between a packet of peanuts or a menu amounting to about sixty euros each.

After looking at the menu in the illuminated display case on the wall by the door for less than half a minute, Valerie was quite sure. “We eat here. I know you said your budget was twenty euros a day. No discussion. I am paying.” She went in first and as we entered, a wave of warm air met us. It was still early for lunch and only two other customers were seated. We left our wet outer raingear and rucsacks in the cloakroom. It was a small restaurant but there was a choice of two areas, one with wooden furniture and one with white designer plastic furniture – to which we were ushered, no doubt on account of our dripping clothes – and we sat down. There was a vase with fresh flowers in the centre of the table.

“It will cost a fortune,” I said.

Valerie smiled. “I haven’t used my credit card at all since Orléans. Enjoy. Order what you want, even the faux filet de boef. Look, it is Charolaise. Since you will be walking through the Bordeaux vineyards, we will have a bottle of Bordeaux. I will not be crossing the Gironde. If you want an aperitif, order a beer if you like.”

Soon we were enjoying the entrantes of foie gras frais au Pineau des Charentes. Having controlled lunch, Valerie took control of the weather. She reminded me about something I had said earlier on the walk, about not liking the supersitious element of Catholicism.

Valerie asked me, “Who is the patron saint of bad weather?” After I said I had no idea, she told me her mother had always said a prayer to Saint Médard if there was bad weather. “He was a bishop but when he was a child an eagle hovered over him once in a storm to protect him from the rain. Maybe the eagle knew he would be a bishop one day? I don’t know how these things work.”

“That’s the kind of thing about catholicism I find most difficult,” I said. “The folk-religion side of it. The idea that you can just change the weather or find a lost button by praying to the right saint.”

“Haven’t you even said grace?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. “Not aloud anyway. I don’t always. I suppose I should really.”

“Say it,” she said, and we put down our cutlery.

“The eyes of all look to you in hope, O Lord, and you give them your gifts in due season. You open wide your hand and fill all things living with your bounteous gifts. Amen.”

“Amen,” said Valerie. “And now I add the prayer to Saint Médard. Saint Médard comme protecteur dans les intempéries, nous le prions d’intercéder en notre faveur au moment des tempêtes. Saint Médard, protège notre demeure, viens en aide. Saint Médard, veille sur nous. Amen.”

And so it was that we came out of the restaurant after a very good lunch, finishing with cake moelleux au chocolat, and found a completely blue sky apart from some retreating wisps of dark clouds disappearing to the south in front of us as we headed out of Saint-Genis-de-Santonge along the Via Turonensis, towards Mirambeau.

I decided that in the remaining second half of this walking pilgrimage to Compostela, I should review my attitude towards praying to saints. Starting by thanking Saint Médard.

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