Friday, May 4, 2018

GR653 Via Tolosana: Toulouse

A day exploring the city of Toulouse: the Capitolium, the Basilica of Saint Sernin and the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Etienne, Victor Hugo market and the flea market. A Korean lunch with our new friend Jiheun to explain what to order and how to eat it, and some shopping for essential items such as the guidebook to Part Two of the Via Tolosana: Toulouse - Puente la Reina!

GR653 Via Tolosana Day 18: Ayguesvives - Toulouse

Set off from the pilgrim gîte in Ayguesvives under a light but steady rainfall, striding boldly forth - in the wrong direction! A quick check against the gps track and we corrected our mistake: we had to retrace our steps from the evening before in order to get back to the canal. We followed the canal for another twenty kilometres, making better time than usual as we were walking in company with Stephane and Alain, the two pilgrims we met on the previous day, and chatting to pass the time and break up the monotony of the canal. Also, the grass was too wet to sit down to rest and watch life go by in our usual leisurely way.

We did stop for a break in a canal-side café before leaving the Canal du Midi at Ramonville and taking the metro into the centre of Toulouse. I normally walk all the way, even through cities, but I have decided to allow an exception for the first and last city in each of the sections in which I am breaking up the Camino, i.e. I don't have to resume walking in the exact spot where I left off but can start on the other side of the city (as I did in Montpellier). In any case our hospitalier last night had recommended this route, and I wasn't sure whether that was because walking through the outskirts of the city would be merely unpleasant, or downright unsafe. Our fellow pilgrims were taking the metro, so we did the same.

When we emerged from the metro in the city centre we initially felt giddy upon finding ourselves surrounded by so many people - and so much food, after all those tiny villages with their (permanently or temporarily) closed shops and cafés!  

While wandering about the city still in our pilgrim garb, complete with backpacks and sticks, we found ourselves at a wine-tasting event put on by the local tourist office, where we were treated like minor celebrities, offered samples of both wine and beer and interviewed by the event organisers! Unfortunately our French is not worthy of amplification, so we let Stephane do the talking! 

A quick snack and a visit to the Basilica, where we had our pilgrim credentials stamped, and then we said goodbye to our fellow pilgrims and checked into the tiny airbnb studio flat where we will be spending our next two nights.

Ayguesvives - Toulouse (Ramonville)
21.5 km

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

GR653 Via Tolosana Day 17: Le Segalà - Ayguesvives

Meet the Canal du Midi, the protagonist of our story for the next two days. We opened the shutters this morning and there it was, shining in the sun!

It took 12,000 men and women four years to construct the Canal du Midi, which together with the Canal de Garonne links the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Considered one of the greatest feats of engineering of the 17th century, it was built under the supervision of Pierre-Paul Riquet during the reign of Louis XIV, between 1666 and 1681. The watershed is located at Seuil de Naurouze, only a short distance from where we spent the night. Here the Rigolle, the artificial stream dug to bring water down from the Montagne Noire to feed the canal, flows into the Canal du Midi. The water on one side flows toward the Mediterranean; on the other, toward the Atlantic.

We followed the canal all day, walking along the former towpath, now a cycling and walking path. The monotony was interrupted occasionally by the spectacle of boats going through the locks, and by encounters with colourful characters such as Stephane, a Swiss/French pilgrim whom we encountered again at the pilgrim gîte in the evening, or a Sicilian man on a bicycle complete with a trailer containing two dogs and all his worldly possessions. He has been living on the street for 23 years, the last 12 of which in France, and has finally decided to head home to Marzano del Vallo, cycling to Genova in order to take the ferry to Sicily. But he'll have to sell one of the dogs, he says, because the trailer is too heavy with both of them in it. It was nice to have a conversation in Italian - though our new friend appeared to have forgotten quite a few words during his many years in France, and spoke Italian with a French rather than a Sicilian accent! He assured us that the world was soon going to run out of petrol, and that people like him, and us, would be the best prepared to survive in such an event!

The canal, the railway tracks and the motorway all proceed in parallel, so we called in at motorway rest areas to use the facilities and buy sandwiches. Aire de Lauragais is a rest area with a restaurant, souvenir shop, tourist information office and petrol station accessible by car, boat, or bicycle - or on foot!

There are locks every few kilometres along the canal, and we stopped by each of them for a rest, setting the rhythm of the day.

It was a very long day, but finally we came to Écluse de Sanglier, the locks where we were to leave the canal and follow the blue and yellow arrows to our lodgings in a pilgrim hostel operated by the Confraternity of St. Jacques de Compostelle. These are the best kind, because there is always a volunteer hospitalier on duty to welcome pilgrims and dispense cold drinks, hot soup and warm hospitality!

Le Segalà - Ayguesvives
33 km
(including sorties in pursuit of provisions)