Thursday, 30 May 2013

Day 1: Lourdes - Bétharram

Alex's small dog jumped on me at 7.40 this morning - the cup of coffee that followed a few minutes later was a lot more welcome. We'd arrived at his place late last night, so I hadn't had a chance to see quite what an Apple Mac fanatic his is - all his computers were neatly stacked up (dating back to the trusty Apple Mac Classic that I first got to grips with back at school in the early 1990s, with its screen somewhat smaller than an iPad today). He's also just bought a vintage arcade machine - although quite what his girlfriend makes of it all I dared not ask.

Alex and his Apple Mac museum
Once in the town centre the day kicked off in time honoured fashion with coffee at the Italian Cafe, which is located at the foot of the hill of the hotel where I normally stay when I'm in Lourdes. Alex and I were joined by the others from Photo LaCaze, and we then joined up with the Birmingham pilgrimage. It is absolutely pointless trying to resist the whole religion business when in Lourdes, so I asked for one of the priests to say some prayers for my walk to Santiago. He promised to come back in five minutes to do it, but by the time he returned one of the helpful Birmingham pilgrims had collared another priest. The net result was that I got a double blessing, and after a final cup of coffee for the road I bade farewell to Alex and my other friends.

Overlooking the Grotto
First stop was the Grotto, where I filled my water bottle from the source that Bernadette uncovered in 1858 during the course of a series of apparitions from the Virgin Mary. I lit a candle, and then set off down the south bank of the River Pau towards Bétharram - my first stop for the night. 

My candle is at the front, hanging out with all the big candles...
I'd love to say I had adventures galore today, but to be honest it was five hours of trudging along in the driving rain and listening to podcasts. It was also rather cold - I had every layer I'd brought with me piled on under my goretex jacket, and wringing out my gloves every so often. The weather was so grim that by the time I'd reached the famous Bétharram Grottos I really didn't feel like hanging around in the cafe for 30 minutes for the next tour to start - I needed to keep walking to keep warm, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I've already seen the caves as a child when we came here on holiday a few decades ago. I did pass a rather impressive salmon run on the river's hydroelectric dam. 

The track is well marked, and I've been following the river for most of the day, so haven't had to look at the map. It was a slightly strange moment seeing my first Camino de Santiago route marker, but for the moment I'm following the French Hiking Association's red and white dashes of paint that turn up reassuringly often. The photo below is the first one I came across, just after I left the Lourdes Sanctuary. 

Bétharram is lovely - I'm staying in the monastery tonight, which dates back to the early 17th century, and has a spectacular bridge over the river that was built in 1687.

The pilgrims' accommodation is simple but very nice -  bunk beds and wifi! I did my first batch of washing in the bathroom sink - the water went brown as I'd spent the day splashing through puddles, but the showers were lovely with lots of hot water, and the monks were excellent company, particularly once they found out that I'm a New Zealander - Les Bleus are playing the All Blacks next week and we had some entertaining discussions in my pidgin French about the one point victory margin at the last World Cup final. 

Finally - thank you to everyone who has sponsored me. It is hugely appreciated, and very encouraging when I'm walking along in the pouring rain to know that this is entertaining those of you staying at home, stuck behind desks, etc. and hopefully helping Motability and CPRE. If you're interested in making a donation just click on the link to the side or the bottom of the page. Thank you!