Day 46 of Walking Out of the World takes us out of the Via Turonensis guide book (which ends at Mirambeau) and to the Gironde estuary at Blaye, the traditional ferry crossing on the route through Bordeaux for English pilgrims to Compostela. Valerie finishes her pilgrimage in Mirambeau and returns to Paris.
(Previous post: Day 45 Pons to Mirambeau.)
I rejoined the GR655 at Mirambeau for its last few kilometres, here standing at the Rue Saint-Jacques de Compostelle,looking for the road to Pleine Selve.
The overnight stop had seen another of those little miracles on the Way of Saint James. The pilgrim I had walked with for the last few days, Valerie had become seriously unwell with her cold by the evening, even after her prayer to Saint Médard had stopped the rain during our lunch stop in Saint-Genis-Saintonge.
When we had arrived in Mirambeau there was no pilgrim accommodation to be found. We had our pilgrim credencials stamped in the church and Valerie explained we were looking for a pilgrim refuge. The sacristan said, “There are two parishioners who offer shelter to pilgrims and I will phone them.” He arranged for us to be collected by our host and taken to a house in the countryside. “He will be here in half an hour: go to the café opposite. I’ll tell him that’s where you are.”
The hosts for our overnight stop were wonderful: a quiet retired couple – very much like my hosts back in Vendôme, which now seemed months ago – who had never walked the Way of Saint James but were simply members of a Catholic parish in a small town on the pilgrim route and considered it their duty to offer hospitality. They showed us into a large guest room with two beds and an en-suite bathroom, with a glass porch looking out on an orchard garden. They gave us supper (unusually for a pilgrim, the second hot meal in a day!) Not only that, but they kept the washing machine and drier running for three hours while they made sure all our wet clothes were washed and dried, ready for the next day. Such angels!
I woke up when our hosts knocked on the door to invite us to breakfast with them. Valerie had been very quiet and – apart from regular sneezing and snuffling noises – and a short “Bonjour,” before more nose-blowing, there had been no conversation from her corner of the room. When I came out of the bathroom dressed in my freshly laundered dry clothes ready for walking, she sat up, propped on one arm and pigtail trailing over the duvet up to her chin, looking quite miserable. “I am feeling terrible.”
“I said you should have stayed in Pons yesterday. I’ll speak to these good people and ask them if you can stay here for another day. You said you weren’t going to cross the Gironde anyway, so why not finish here instead of Blaye, and return home when you are ready? The GR655 guidebook route ends in five kilometres anyway.”
She did not reply, but when I sat down to breakfast I put the idea to our hostess and she was very pleased to help. She took a breakfast tray to Valerie while I talked with our host, a pleasant round-faced man with a moustache who had been a school teacher like me. I told him Valerie’s father in Paris would send a car to collect her, as she told me, and the car could collect her from here.
When I finished breakfast I returned to find Valerie was making an attempt to eat breakfast. She confirmed she would phone Paris for the car to collect her.
“Look at the wall up there, behind me,” she smiled, trying to turn her head but finding her neck was too stiff to look up. “That is the picture my mother has.”
My eye followed the pattern of the old floral wallpaper above her head and I saw a small wood-framed holy picture. A young man with an eagle protecting him from a storm. “It looks like Saint Médard brought you safely here. And to think I’d never heard of him until yesterday!”
“I’m glad I taught you something. And I will learn to say the Jesus Prayer with a woollen prayer rope,” Valerie said. “But not a green one!”
“Read Narziss and Goldmund,” I said. “Then leave Herman Hesse behind. He’s for adolescents and those seeking the first spiritual steps! I’ll pray for you. Ultreïa!”
Our host said he would drive me back into Mirambeau, but I thanked him and said I would prefer to walk, as I left my fellow pilgrim, and I did so giving thanks she was safe in kind hands. As I began my walk back into Mirambeau I prayed to Saint Médard, asking his intercessions for Valerie who had taught me his name, only the day before. He was certainly doing a good job with the weather today!
Not far out of Mirambeau I came across a Saint-Roche waymarking statue on the road and decided it was time to make a personal list of saints for regular prayers on this pilgrimage. He had to be included. Maybe that list would tell me something, provide some kind of spiritual compass?
Just at the point where the last of the Charente-Maritime waymarker stones was placed, by the village of Pleine Selve, the lights suddenly went out on the GR655 and there was no sign of the Via Turonensis again, all the way to Blaye. After I had my credencial stamped in the Mairie (an exception to the rule: the receptionist wearing a bright orange cardigan and not the usual dull Mairie tampon but a smart coat-of-arms!) there was a crossroads and not a single sign or waymarker. The last page of the guidebook reached Plein Selve and then the path went off the map, and there was nothing.
Vous quité la Charente Maritime. But no sign where to go next. I went back to the village and asked at the town hall. They did not even know. “Maybe keep going down the main road?”
I spent the next two hours walking down wooded leafy lanes in what seemed by the sun a south-easterly direction, and then an old railway track going south.
I had not used the tent since Saint-Jean d’Angely, the place where I had met the Worcester Pilgrim, and next day Valerie. As I was putting up the tent in the campsite, a man in a camper van in the next plot said, “That’s twice I’ve seen a walking stick like that today!”
“Really?” I said. “And where did you see the first one?”
“Down in the town at the ferry ticket office, there was a walker taking the ferry across this afternoon.”
“Did he have a broad-brimmed hat?” I asked.
“Yes, he did.”
So he was still ahead of me. I could catch up with him in Bordeaux perhaps. I also went down to the ferry ticket office to see what time the earliest crossing would be. It was at 7.30 so I would need to pack up the tent and get down there at about seven. There was a very touristy row of shops and restaurants and bars, and I found a brasserie with a cheap menu of steak and frites. The only draught beer was Kronenbourg which gives me indigestion.
“What bottled beer have you got?”
“Kronenbourg,” said the barman. He reached in the fridge. “Or there’s this biere brune if you prefer…”
On the label I saw an eagle hovering over a bishop’s head.
“Yes, that’s the one!” I said.
I could not help laughing as I sat down with my beer. It was the laughter of recognition. Like the day God once showed me a sign in the sky near Chartres.
“Cheers, Valerie,” I said, looking back towards the north, and I tasted my first bottle of Saint Médard.