Sleeping With Strangers (or Where to Stay when walking the Chemin de St. Jacques through France)
I had my headphones on and was listening to a Podcast when I heard a loud noise. After hearing it the second time, I took off my headphones only to discover that the loud noise was from a snoring man sharing our four bed semi-private room. His wife was asleep in the bed next to him apparently oblivious to the noise. It was earth shattering! Ol and I looked at one another and couldn’t help but laugh.
It all began with our two hour lunch the day before. Because of our gluttony, we didn’t quite make it to the town that was recommended as end of the first day. We decided to stop short and make up the distance the next day.
When we entered the small community of Montbonnet we saw a sign for a gite, which is the French equivalent of a hostel. We were assigned to a very large semi-private room, with four single beds. Another couple was already unpacked and had claimed the beds on the lower level of the loft room. We went upstairs to our single beds and unpacked. We shared a large modern bathroom with the couple who turned out to be from Quebec. The total room was the size of a small apartment.
The room was clean and comfortable, but the twin beds were small, smaller than most Americans would find comfortable (specifically anyone over six feet tall and weighing two hundred plus pounds… I’m looking at Ol). After getting showers and doing our laundry in the sink and hanging it outside in the sun on the provided rack, Ol went to visit with everyone. I tried to lay down and rest as I was still fighting off a slight cold.
After a while, Ol returned to the room and we settled into our separate beds for some much needed rest. The couple downstairs was already in bed. Before we could get settled, thats when the snoring began. Good thing we brought earplugs in our camping gear for just such an occasion! After this first night on the trail, we knew we would not be sharing a room anytime soon, if it could be helped.
Despite the world’s loudest snorer we awoke refreshed and decided to pack up and find breakfast along the way. We both felt great and decided that we should be able to make up the mileage from the day before. It would be a long day as we would try to walk about twenty miles.
Our guidebook for the trip would be the Michelin guide. It provided us with a great map which included elevations and suggested hiking times and distances. It also shows which villages and towns have food and lodging. Sometimes the distance between villages can be quite great, so most people usually grab some snacks and sandwiches before they leave the village in the morning. It is also helpful for gauging how much water to carry between these towns.
Unfortunately, we are slow learners. It seems that we are generally full after breakfast and are not thinking of food. But, around noon or one o’clock we are dismayed to learn that we are not near a town for lunch. When we do get into a town, it seems that everything is closed until dinner, which in France is never before seven p.m.
We have learned the hard way to buy something the night before or to pick up some fruit with bread and cheese in the morning. Now, all I have to do is to keep Ol from snacking on our hiking provisions the night before!
Most all gites provide an option for a full or half board. Options include dinner, breakfast and a picnic for the next day. Rates range from twelve to fifteen Euros a person for shared rooms. A private room can be to twenty-five to fifty Euros a person which includes full board. A few of the villages that we have stayed in are so small the gite is the only place that serves dinner in the entire village.
We have found that meal time in France is more than just food, it is a way of life. Dinner in a gite is no exception. The French take their food very seriously. In the gite, dinner is usually served family style, and this a good time to visit with our fellow hikers. Every meal has been different, but usually follows the same number of courses. There is bread, wine and water, a large salad, an entree with a vegetable, a cheese course, and then a dessert. No one leaves a meal hungry!
Breakfast is also served family style and usually consists of an assortment of breads, jams, fruits, cheese, coffee, tea, hot chocolate. The French take their breads seriously. Especially their croissants and pastries! Breakfast is a good time to fuel up for the hike ahead that day.
Most hikes generally have a a misery index, measured by the strenuousness of the trail and the lack of comfort. After all, we carry a heavy backpack with shelter, food, clothing, gear, etc., and the days can be long. So far I would say that this is the first hike that I have been on where there may be a luxury index.
Food and lodging choices range from one to four stars and some of the restaurants boast Michelin stars! The experience really depends on the amount someone is willing to spend.
Most private gites seem to be located in the historic center and operate as small boutique hotels or bed and breakfasts. There are also communal gites which are operated by the municipalities are like lodges with large rooms with many beds and shared facilities. Some are also run by monasteries or convents.
So far on our journey we have only shared a room the once, with the snoring pilgrim. Accommodations have been somewhat limited in the smaller villages as all of the French travelers have reserved the more inexpensive gites in advance. However, we have never had a problem obtaining a place to stay.
We have tried a few times to make reservations, only to have innkeepers hang up on us. Obviously, our attempts at speaking French either sounds like a crank call or we have accidentally said something offensive. We have also tried having the place we are staying make a reservation for our next location, but this has also had mixed results, as we really don’t know what we are getting ourselves into.
After a few of these experiences, we have just decided to wing it. Apparently, the reservation system is too complicated for non French speaking Americans. Fortunately for us, the private rooms are generally available in the location of our choice. That has worked out great for us as it is where we would have selected to stay anyway.
Having no plans has also led to the most memorable moments of our entire journey. I guess it is more of that “trail magic” or since this is a spiritual journey, maybe you could call it small “miracles”.
On these occasions, when we stagger into town and our young trail mates are already freshly showered and into their “beirs” at the local tavern. They shout out a greeting to us “hey Mississippi” (our trail name). We simply head toward the church which usually involves a town square where we wander around until we see a sign for lodging.
Fortunately for us, this limping around has led to people taking pity upon us. Total strangers will take the time to call around and find the one vacant room that is left. Once, a lodge owner who didn’t have a vacancy, called around and found us a room, loaded us into her car, and took us to an inn that was already closed. She not only let us in, but helped carry our bags up the stairs to our room.
On another occasion we showed up at a beautiful home on the square that had a “Chambers de Hotel” sign. The owner was just down the street, on a bicycle. He spotted us and waved to us that he was on his way.
He welcomed us into his home and gave us a cold glass of cider. After visiting and making sure we were rested he took us up to our room, which was amazing. A queen bed, two twins and a private bath with French windows that opened to the balcony.
The room was on the third floor of a beautiful renaissance era home overlooking the town square.
The owner, who appeared to be sixty-something, eagerly showed us photos of himself in his youth on racing yachts. Every nook and cranny of the home contained remnants and moments from his sailing career and his personal collections of rare French antiques from pottery to wood carvings. His home was a virtual treasure trove.
We learned that he purchased the house after years of admiring it from the cafe across the street. He was the first owner outside of the original family since the 1500’s!
The next morning we got a complete house tour, including the attic, which reminded him of his sailing vessel and where his Inn got it’s name. In the morning he treated us to a splendid breakfast.
Friends of his began arriving, which seemed like a morning ritual, and after several hours visiting we were once again on our way. We were completely nourished, body and soul.
In the village of Estaing, a local villager saw us wandering the streets. She noticed that it was near dark and asked if we needed a place to stay. We told her that we did not have reservations so she took it upon herself to make a few calls on our behalf. She told us that we would be staying with her friend, Anne. She didn’t just give us the directions, she insisted on walking with us. As we crossed the bridge into the Medieval city, she told us how she has lived there her entire life.
She showed us her home, and pointed to her parent’s home where she grew up. She then pointed to the large Chateau which is more dominates the entire city and looks like a castle. She told us how lucky we were that the former President of France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, was visiting his Chateau and pointed to him up on his balcony having his coffee.
The former president is ninety-two years old and is the oldest living President of France. After we were shown to our room, we were pleased to discover that our windows directly overlooked the Chateau. The next morning, we once again met the trail angel villager who found us our room, as she owned and operated the local store where we purchased our cheese and snacks for the day. After hugs goodbye, we were once again on our way.
Our next lodging miracle, was when we decided to follow our Michelin guidebook for the day. We logged big miles and went from one town through numerous small villages to what we thought was a big town at the end of the day. As we were walking Ol talked about watching football and I fantasized about a bath. We talked about what we would order for dinner and desert. To our surprise, the town was a very small village and the one hotel had closed down for the season. The Communal gite had only twelve beds and all were reserved. We were stranded with nowhere to stay, and too tired to hike to the next village many kilometers away. So much for winging it!
It was Sunday evening and everything was closed. There were no restaurants, shops, cafes, tourist spots, or anything else for that matter. We were both hungry, dirty, and tired. As we were turned away from the gite, across the street we spotted a few ladies sitting under an umbrella on the lawn. We decided to to ask them if they had any suggestions for us as the next village was an hour and a half away.
Again, the heaven’s opened up and the grandmotherly woman motioned for us to take off our backpacks and shoes. She brought us glasses of cold water and then took us inside her home. She motioned for me to follow her upstairs. When we reached the top of the stairs she opened a bedroom with a queen bed, made up with a quilt, with a window overlooking a garden. She motioned to the bathroom down the hall. I immediately said “merci boucou” in my best French. I think I may have also hugged her.
Her home adjoined the church, and after showering and washing our clothes, she directed us out her back door, to the clothesline that hung from the wall of the church. Many of the hikers from the gite across the way were hungry, and when we returned from hanging our laundry, our hostess was emptying out her fridge and garden to feed everyone. After a restful night, and the best Wifi in France, we were on our way the next morning. It was if we had stayed at grandmother’s house.
After passing through so many beautiful villages and towns, we are certain that we will never see a town or village more beautiful that the place we just left. That all changed when we walked down a mountain pass into the village of Conques. It is a UNESCO protected village that is tucked into the the walls of surrounding mountains. It was stunning! We noticed a large parking lot on the edge of the town and realized that everyone must park outside of town and walk into this medieval village with its terrace gardens and steep winding stone pathways.
To imagine Conques, one must only think of Belle’s hometown from “Beauty and the Beast”. The villagers we ran into all greeted us with lilting “bonjours”. I could picture Belle walking the cobblestone paths with her nose in a book, and Gaston with his friends at the local pub.
We stopped at the tourist information center and were directed to a bed and breakfast with a private room. We made our way to the bed and breakfast, but according to the sign we still had an hour until it opened. As we were fumbling with our phone, a sweet older woman with a basket of flowers, spoke to us in perfect English. She said that she had a room in her house, if we were interested.
We couldn’t resist her sweet smile, and her small stature and mannerisms reminded me of my own mom. We followed her just a few feet to a large imposing home just across the way and opposite the town’s imposing Cathedral.
When we entered the door, we were greeted by her husband and one of her cats. We were offered a cold drink and she showed us to a large spacious room just off the living area. It had a large bed, high ceilings, a new modern bath, and a double windows that looked out at the cathedral and the towns main street.
It was perfect! After I showered I went out and asked about laundry. She offered to do all of our laundry (which is an extreme luxury on the trail) and gave me a basket. I decided to take them up on their offer of a cold drink, and asked if they had any beer. I was met with a gruff boisterous laugh and a few minutes later our host returned with a pint of cold beer made locally.
While Ol showered I visited with our hosts. Both were retired university professors from the Netherlands. Louisa was a language expert and translates obscure texts which have never before been translated, and teaches numerous languages. She speaks too many languages to count, including French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Russian, Greek, and Latin, and can transcribe several ancient languages. Hubbert is an architect and professor of architecture specializing in ancient building materials and the renaissance.
They retired to this village twenty years ago and about twenty-five times a year take in guests not for money, but to meet interesting travelers. I’m not so sure that we are interesting but we sure felt lucky! After a few pints of beer, Louisa dug up an English guide book of the cathedral and Ol and I went to explore the town.
We returned later that evening and Hubbert and Louisa were still up and working. We shared stories, but mostly listened to them tell us about their amazing lives. The next morning we woke to a feast of a breakfast including breads, cheese, homemade fruit preserves, fresh ground coffee, and other treats all prepared by Louisa. They insisted on making us lunch to carry with us on the trail. Again, we were completely rested and nourished for the long journey ahead.
So, the lesson that we have learned, despite what you may have heard, sleeping with strangers may not be a bad thing after all! Buen Camino!