7 May: Espelette to Bayonne

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“It would have been treacherous to take the road,” the wordsmith of the family commented as we began our cross-country ascent.
The previous evening we had discovered our intended route was too dangerous to be comfortable (think big trucks on road with no shoulder), and so we had pored over the map considering alternatives. Taking the 7:20 bus along that treacherous 4km stretch of road was initially the favoured option, although no one really wanted to use any transport other than feet. But then I noticed that the hiking trail GR8 went right to the village we would be heading for. It would require a 3km backtrack to join the trail, and then the path itself would wind up hill and down dale for a good many more kilometres, but having heard these official French trails are well-marked, it was an alluring proposition.
Sometimes in life you make a decision without fully comprehending at that moment what the full implications will be. This was to be one of those times; it would turn out to be both an inspired and inspiring choice.
The rumours about the trail markings were well-founded. At every intersection, whether in a village or in a forest or at a stile in a meadow, not only would the right way be marked, but all the wrong options had a red and white cross painted onto them to further ensure your success. The markings might be on a tree or lamp post or fence post or wall or the side of a building – an absolute delight to follow. Although the hills we climbed were just as strenuous as ones on previous days, we walked with real peace. There was no low-grade anxiety like yesterday when the instructions had said to take the paved road at the intersection, but there wasn’t one and so we had continued about 4km before being certain we were on the right road.
Actually, it was particularly interesting when the GR8 and La Voie de la Nive merged to the same path. The distinctive red and white GR8 stripes continued to lead us, whereas the blue and yellow Bayonne markers were haphazard at best in their appearance. No wonder it has been a navigational challenge these past couple of days.
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By the time we got to Ustaritz we had covered 25km, it was already 2pm, and Bayonne was still 16km away. Levi and Micaiah both wanted to keep walking. So did I, for that matter. But I was very aware that while we feel good after 25km, it only takes another couple to change your whole outlook on life in general and walking in particular. Yes, we are probably getting stronger – nothing aches now – but were we really ready for a marathon? I decided, against common consensus, that if I could find a bus, we would take it. The section that we would skip today we would be walking tomorrow anyway, as La Voie de la Nive shares that portion with the Camino Baztan, which we are about to begin, so it’s not like we were going to miss out (and we’d had the added bonus of some GR8).
And so it was we went by bus to Bayonne.
Bayonne. What a beautiful little city. The centre is dominated by a beautiful cathedral, where we sat gazing upwards and wandering the perimeter feasting our eyes on the artwork.
The surrounding cobbled streets are flanked by rows of three-storey shuttered houses, and bustling with people. Although the river is wider than Dutch canals, it feels very much like Amsterdam.
It was to one of these houses just a block back from the river down a little alley we were bound.
Here a German-French couple open their home and lives to pilgrims. On arrival we were served kefir (yay – our first since leaving home!) and the evening was spent in animated conversation about food supplies, the church and dreams!
Before tucking in for the night, the boys closed the shutters, which seemed a quintessentially French thing to do!

Destination: Bayonne
Distance: 27km
Cumulative Total: 171km
829km to go
Weather: overcast, 20*C at noon
Dinner: mountain of pasta and cheese and tinned veges + chocolate mousse

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6 May: Helette to Espelette

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This was to be the day we DIDN’T write, “We got lost and walked further than we expected.” But no! 30km to destination, not what we had planned. In an effort to relieve you from the boredom and us the pain of reliving exactly what went wrong, we’ll skip the details.
Straight to the good, the bad and the ugly!
The good:
1) the weather – cool, dry and overcast.
2) a half metre snake spotted beside the road
3) no snakes encountered in the waist high grass we had to walk through
4) cheese and ham crepes for breakfast, two lunch stops, chocolate pastries late, plus dinner
5) watching hay making
6) the views – mountains, mountains everywhere
7) meeting a French pilgrim couple walking the other way
8) super-friendly Gemma from Barcelona at the gite pelerins
9) cute town to finish in
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10) the grace of God on us today – when exploring later (because 30km clearly wasn’t enough!) we discovered the road we “should” have taken today and were planning on taking back to the trail tomorrow, is actually very dangerous. We have been able to make alternative plans and were saved from putting ourselves in a foolish situation. (By the way, for anyone who is reading this for route info……Espelette is NOT on La Voie de la Nive – we had decided to sidetrack from Cambo-les-bains, because there is accommodation here, which does not require making a phone call to use like the accommodation in Ustaritz, the usual stopping point for this stage)

The bad:
1) up and down – mountains, mountains everywhere
2) losing the path (oops, we’re not talking about that!)
3) walking beside a busy 90km/hr road (better not mention that either)
4) sore knee for Micaiah on downhills

The ugly:
1) a bloated pig in the grass beside the road

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Destination: Espelette
Distance: 30km
Cumulative Total: 144km
856km to go
Dinner: microwaved pizza with potato salad and for the boys a Dutch toffee waffle biscuit (given to them by very friendly Gemma from Barcelona)

5 May: St Jean to Helette

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We made it to 100km today!

Around the 15km mark the boys were busy composing a blog post. It was mostly to do with their desire to see a bear and the excitement of finding a snake and squashed frog and mice, and a red squirrel initially mistaken for a possum, and a gazillion geckos and enormous worms, and butterflies dancing together, and hearing a cuckoo, and most of all the 23 large birds (eagles? hawks? vultures?) that soared silently over us. I thought I would add a bit about the amazing 360* panoramic vistas – wherever we looked, north south east west, there were mountains. The views were so impossibly beautiful that we couldn’t help but sing the hills are alive which morphed into How Great Thou Art – at the tops of our voices. We barely noticed we were climbing and the little hiccups of instructions not matching signs were soon put right with the help of map and compass.

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Then we descended to Irissary where we were to get lunch and hoped to fill our now-empty water bottles.
But everything was shut.
Never mind, we’d done 18km and only had four to go – we’d be at our destination in an hour, by 2 at the absolute latest if we kept stopping to take pictures like we had been.
Only we didn’t arrive until 4:15 and those four hours were as hard as the morning’s five had been awe-inspiring.
The problem was a simple one. Our written instructions said things like “turn left to Mandos area” – useful if you know where Mandos is! We didn’t. Or my favourite one: lowering and raising toboggan, top, turn left onto a mile to the bottom of the descent Etchartea. That’s where we got really lost. While we had been eating our lunch which ended up consisting of a handful of peanuts and some chocolate breakfast cereal, I had spied an old lady in the church graveyard. Hoping she could at least point the right direction to Etchartea, I felt confident when she gave very detailed instructions not once, but four times. I came away fairly certain (quite a statement when you don’t speak more French than bonjour, merci, pardon, baguette and voila!) we had to go to a bridge (pont) and we’d see a house (maison) with a balcony (balkon) and go up a hill (cote) and lots of “ah gosh” which her hands helped to explain meant something about turn left. We did all that and it was just as she said – the only problem was that after about 3km we realised we had not seen a direction marker since – oh, I don’t know, just before the church! We backtracked somewhat and stopped a passing motorist to find out where we were. I am grateful to him and the three kids he was taking somewhere for giving us quarter of an hour of their time, trying to put us right. We followed his instructions, but when we got to an “ah gosh” by the maison he had pointed to, we spied a marker to the right and decided to ignore the spoken instructions that we weren’t even certain were well translated and follow the sign. Our happiness at being back on the trail lasted only for the 2km we covered before discovering we were going the wrong way!!! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and while never found the toboggan thingy, we could see where we should have walked.
Then we had to “follow the road ignoring roads to right and left” – which one would you have chosen?

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We, of course, went the wrong way, asked a man in his yard, who turned us around and told us in the only English of the day, “Not far – by car!”

By now, our parched mouths made us think frequently of charity: water. When an elderly gentleman filled our bottles with cool fresh water, we understood a little more what a gift it will be to those who get a water source at the end of this!
We still had a long way to go and by the end of the day had covered 30km. Although the boys had been keen to blog when they were being wowed by mountains and big black birds soaring above us, their enthusiasm had waned by the time we trudged into Helette’s main square and even the ten pack of icecreams we shared and the pottles of potato salad only recharged them enough to do washing and journal entries!

Destination: Helette
Distance: 30km
Cumulative Total: 114km
886km to go
Cold foggy start (needed fleeces, gloves and scarves) through to HOT
Dinner: couscous and nasty stew out of a tin (we’d have eaten at a bar if one had been open – but after being concerned that we would not be able to buy anything, we were most grateful the wee grocer was open. We had prayed “give us this day our daily bread” and we bought the last three baguettes so we would be sure of having lunch tomorrow!)

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