A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 31 October 2008


At 9.30 the next morning I walked back down the avenue of tombs at Les Alyscamps towards the centre of Arles and the church of Saint-Trophime (1st pic). Here I hoped to pick up a Créanciale, or pilgrim passport, which would be stamped at gîtes, hostels, town halls and tourist offices along the Way - the Catholic Church's official verification of my route. (I've written about the Créanciale before here; and here's a photo of my Créanciale from last year.)

In Saint-Trophime I was ushered into the sacristy. One of the church officials explained apologetically that they had run out of Créanciales. She asked Antoine, one of the church helpers, if he could try and find one elsewhere. In the meantime we chatted about religion, spirituality and the motives which lay behind pilgrimage. I just about managed to understand and respond (in a fashion) to the metaphysics - after all, I'd barely spoken any French for a year! Antoine returned with a brand new Créanciale and requested 3 euros. It was almost 11 o'clock. The priest came in and shook my hand. "Ah, a pilgrim!" he enthused as he changed quickly into his vestments. "You'll be staying for mass? It begins in 2 minutes." It seemed churlish to refuse.

After mass I stumbled in bright sunlight down the church steps, past the beggars and into the Place de la République. In the centre of the square was a fountain and an Egyptian obelisk. On the northern side stood the Hôtel de Ville, the Town Hall. I looked back at the church's west portal, one of the sculptural wonders of Romanesque France (2nd and 3rd pics). The midday heat was overwhelming. It was getting very late in the day to begin the 1st stage of my walk. 20 km separated Arles from Saint-Gilles where I'd planned to spend the night - 20 km across the flat, baking hot, mosquito-ridden Camargue. I turned my back on the square and headed over the river into the suburb of Trinquetaille. The pilgrimage had begun.

Les Alyscamps

Les Alyscamps has a charm and unique atmosphere that haunt me still. It's the traditional start of the Arles pilgrim route which threads a path via Montpellier, Toulouse and Pau to the Col du Somport (the French-Spanish Pyrenean border crossing) and then down the valley of the river Aragón to Puente La Reina. I walked the short distance from Arles youth hostel to Les Alyscamps early on Sunday morning 7 September. The sun was already hot and there were few other people about. My pack felt heavy but my spirit was light.

Early Christians had subsequently built the Romanesque church of Saint-Honorat on this ancient Roman necropolis. Today it seemed forsaken as a place of worship, and pigeons flew in and out. It was very beautiful.

I noticed another coquille, or scallop shell motif, sign of Saint James and the Camino, high up in a recess. These symbols would pop up reassuringly in churches and cathedrals, on road signs and waymarkers, throughout the whole journey.

The site of Les Alyscamps (a corruption of the Latin Elisii Campi: that's Champs-Élysées in French and Elysian Fields in English) was for 1500 years a well known burial ground. In Roman and early Christian times coffins were transported here from all over Europe. (The Rhône boatmen made a very profitable living out of this.) You see, the Romans did not allow burials within their city limits - and Les Alyscamps lay just outside the walls of Arles, on the final stretch of the Aurelian Way. This last section of road quickly became lined with mausoleums, and with sarcophagi stacked one on top of the other. (Much the same kind of thing happened along the Appian Way as it led into Rome.) As is always the case, only the very well-off citizens could afford this funerary expense. The whole area was thoroughly ransacked and looted centuries ago, but some of these stone coffins still lie around today.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Night Café

I left London's Victoria Coach Station at 3.30 pm on Friday 5 September. Direction: the Channel Tunnel and France. After changing coaches in Lyon I arrived in Avignon late the next morning. A short train journey took me to Arles, the lowest bridging point of the river Rhône. Pilgrims from Italy and from central and eastern Europe have congregated here for centuries before commencing the long trek westwards to Compostela.

Arles used to be an important Roman city, and many Roman antiquities still remain - including the baths and the amphitheatre. Before the Romans Arles had been occupied by the Greeks. I even spotted some Greek inscriptions on some of the stone sarcophagi in the necropolis of Les Alyscamps. This is Van Gogh's impression of Les Alyscamps:

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) came to Arles in February 1888 and lived there in the Yellow House - then in the mental hospital at nearby Saint-Rémy - for scarcely more than 2 years. On arrival he was immediately entranced by the Provençal light and landscape, and in a feverish bout of activity produced around 300 paintings and drawings - including many of those which later became his most famous. Café Terrace At Night, for example. You can still see this café today. In fact I walked right past it. He wrote of this painting: In my picture of the 'Night Café' I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. Yes, absinthe was the downfall of many an artist of the time...

I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things. VAN GOGH

I see drawings and pictures in the poorest of huts and the dirtiest of corners. VAN GOGH

Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it. VAN GOGH

The Pilgrim, The Walker And The Tourist

A visitor passes through a place; the place passes through the pilgrim. CYNTHIA OZICK

Cynthia Ozick is right. Pilgrims are not tourists. They are not principally long-distance walkers either. Many pilgrims are keen walkers; but many, too, are ordinary people who have never done a long-distance walk in their lives, and probably never will again (though some will return year after year).

For the Saint James pilgrim the tangible, ostensible goal of the journey is Santiago de Compostela itself, to be sure. But even more important is the gradual realisation that the truest spiritual fulfilment lies in the pilgrimage itself, each and every day of it - each day with its own unique texture and flavour, its own weather and climate, its own hardships, its own highs and lows, its own route-finding problems, its own little joys and pleasures, its own micro-friendships.

A pilgrim may visit many ancient, numinous sites and shrines along the Way, but he or she absorbs the atmosphere and moves on. There is indeed a sense that the place passes through the pilgrim, certainly affecting, perhaps changing or transforming him or her in some subtle or even in some more striking and sudden manner. The pilgrim does not have a checklist of places to visit like a tourist on the tourist trail. He or she may arrive in a town or village too late to see much at all, and will only be interested in finding a bed for the night, and something to eat. And may leave early the next morning in the dark.

The photo is of Pilgrim Alex whom I met somewhere along the Canal du Midi in southern France. He had walked from Seville to Santiago, from Santiago to the Pyrenees, from the Pyrenees to Toulouse. From there he was making his way to Rome. And after Rome he would head for Jerusalem. He was sleeping rough as he could not afford to pay for accommodation.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Real Love Is A Pilgrimage

The road goes on for ever... Notice the little yellow coquille marker (the scallop shell is a symbol of Saint-Jacques and the Camino) on the dead tree.

This is a simple map showing the main Ways Of Saint James (from John Brierley's A Pilgrim's Guide To The Camino De Santiago).

Real love is a pilgrimage. It happens when there is no strategy, but it is very rare because most people are strategists. ANITA BROOKNER

Last year I walked the pilgrim route from Le Puy in south-west France to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain - a journey of 1500 km which lasted exactly 60 days from mid-October to mid-December.

But the Camino had not finished with me. It had gripped me. It had got under my skin. It called me again this year. It drew me back. Be warned, Camino lovers, it does not let you go.

This is an account of my 2nd Camino - this time from Arles in the French Camargue to Puente La Reina on the Camino Francés in northern Spain (combining the Via Tolosana or the Voie d'Arles with the Via Aragonés), a journey on foot of between 800 and 900 km (depending on which statistics you believe). I calculated it was about 870 km. This I walked in 46 days at an average of 19 km a day - slower than my 1st Camino. I didn't want to rush. I wanted to stop from time to time to reflect on things and look around. Also I had some foot problems so I took more rest days.

As usual I had no real strategy. My preparations were fast and minimal. I would see in the due course of time what might unfold, what the Camino might reveal...

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Inspirational Books

These lists are addictive! As I walk the paths of France and Spain, I've been thinking about the books which have most influenced me and have inspired me to go for long walks. These come to mind:

1. John Hillaby: Journey Through Britain
2. Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time Of Gifts
3. Patrick Leigh Fermor: Between The Woods And The Water
4. Laurie Lee: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
5. Robert Louis Stevenson: Travels With A Donkey In The Cévennes
6. Hilaire Belloc: The Path To Rome
7. George Borrow: Wild Wales
8. Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust
9. Morris Marples: Shanks's Pony
10. Chris Townsend: The Great Backpacking Adventure

There must be lots I've omitted. Anyone like to share their own suggestions? (There's a book called Mean Feet but I've forgotten the author.) Of course there are dozens more if you include general travel writing (Eric Newby, Jonathan Raban etc etc).

Home Thoughts From Abroad (2)

On the other hand there are things one definitely does NOT miss. Here again is my spur-of-the-moment list of 10:

1. Crowded roads and motorways
2. The coffee
3. The weather
4. The public transport system (buses, trains)
5. The tax on alcohol
6. Corporate pubs
7. The fact that in most pubs the choice of white wine is limited to undrinkable chardonnay or pinot grigio, and red wine to undrinkable cabernet sauvignon; and the fact that the house wine in restaurants is also often undrinkable, and a bottle of anything remotely drinkable costs at least 20 quid
8. The slow, miserable service in shops, restaurants, bars etc
9. Yobs, chavs etc
10. The virtual exclusion from society of the very young and the very old

Home Thoughts From Abroad (1)

When travelling alone and abroad for an extended period of time, inevitably there are things one misses about one's home country (in my case, England). Here's my top 10 list:

1. Marmite
2. Strong tea with milk
3. Bacon butties
4. Toast and marmalade
5. Real ale
6. Country pubs
7. The Guardian
8. The Lake District
9. The Yorkshire Dales
10. The coastline

Whoops, I forgot my family and friends (apologies!) I don't really miss marmite more than my wife..!

Any additions, anyone?

Walking Near Lodève

Only time is now.
Only tense present.
Doing. See. Believe.

Thick heat of Haut-
-Languedoc. Hot garrigue
Rasping with crickets -

Impossibly green
As avacados.
Dead snake on the path.

Lizards on limestone.
The flashing blue wings
Of brown grasshoppers.

Singing, singing, ev-
-'Rywhere singing, in
My head, all in my

Head, my heart chalk-soft,
Ravined, and singing,
Lonely as landscape.

Richer than knowledge.
Zen, just zen, pure zen!

(7 stanzas, 3 lines per stanza, 5 syllables per line. 7, 3 and 5 are all prime numbers. 7 has always been a mystical and magic number; 3 recalls the Holy Trinity and the 3 Marys; 5 brings to mind the pentagram, the 5-pointed star symbol in witchcraft, the points representing Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit. The concept of imagination being richer than knowledge comes from Einstein.)