At a small village called Aulnay, about 100km from Poitiers, we had a difficult choice to make. The stone markers with scallop shell insignia, designating the Way of St Jacques, pointed to the aptly named town of Saintes; on our map we could see an alternative route, which passed through the far more enticing sounding town of Cognac. I say it was a difficult choice, but in fact we wasted less than 30 seconds discussing it before the latter won a unanimous vote, which quite possibly says a lot regarding our temporal versus spiritual priorities. The only reservations I had were in respect to progression – we are sampling Cognac before we get to Bordeaux. Ah well.
So it is that I write this from a hostel only three doors up from the hallowed tasting hall of the Henessey house of Cognac (guided tour with tasting: 5 euros) surrounded by bars selling every variation on the Cognac theme. Which is a good thing, as our feet are so sore it will take a sample of every one of them to dull the pain!
It was a six day stretch from Poitiers to here, and we camped all the way. Gary recently managed to acquire a wonderfully warm woollen blanket; its arrival has meant an end to the Sleeping Bag War. Once again the bags are zipped together, and my days of battling with the nylon sarcophagus seem to be – temporarily at least – over. Or so I fervently hope.
The camping grounds are well and truly shut now, but sometimes we steal in at dusk and camp in them anyway, as they are usually well lit and have a good water supply. One night we found a particularly good one. It had a lovely river running at the bottom and plenty of tall trees for shelter, so we camped well out of sight by the riverbank. Unfortunately it also had a thriving population of highly gregarious water voles. Well, Gary reckons they were water voles. I think that is just a fancy English name for Big Fat Rat.
Either way, at about 11.00 (bear in mind that we are, sadly, fast asleep by about 7.00), a rustling sound in the leaves by the tent had us both suddenly bolt upright and wide-awake. There are rustles and then there are distinctly disturbing rustles, when your subconscious mind somehow knows there is something alive out there that is just a bit too close. When the rustling changed from leaves to the recognisable sound of one of our plastic bags, right outside the mesh of the tent and under the fly, we were on high alert. Gary was halfway out of the sleeping bag with a walking pole in attack position (God knows what he thought he would do with that – fence a little, perhaps? Anyway) when the culprit showed his pointed, whiskery little face right next to mine. The bold fellow actually hurled his entire fat, ratty body at the mesh door, little legs splayed Spiderman like, in a vain attempt to climb it. I swatted blindly at the mesh and he performed a well-executed back flip and scurried back into the leaves. But the game was far from over. Despite the fact that we had absolutely nothing edible either in the plastic bags or, for that matter, anywhere in the tent, Ratty was obsessed with entering our domain. He spent the rest of the night coming at the tent from every possible direction, totally undaunted by the fact that he received a swift kick to the head every time he got anywhere near. He was obviously convinced that beyond the mesh lay a treasure trove of Ratty food, and was determined to breach the fortress at all costs. We, on the other hand, were mildly concerned that his repeated efforts to climb the mesh would eventually tear it, and so booted him as soon as he showed his face. A long night of Ratty war ensued; a war which in my opinion the little sod won, as when daylight came he got to slink back to his little ratty hole and sleep it off, whereas we had to get up and walk all day.
We had a night on a sports field in a little village, and one in woods somewhere, and then we found a great camp by another stream.
Now, as I’m sure you can appreciate, by this stage we were, you could say, a little high on the nose. Despite having a couple of quick splashes, the less than tropical temperatures had been a bit of a deterrent to indulging in an all over bath. But by the time we found the stream camp, I was resolved to immerse myself, zero temperatures or not.
The following morning I gritted my teeth and headed for the water bank. From the comfort of the tent and the warm confines of the sleeping bag, Gary supervised proceedings with his usual positive contributions, such as “bloody hell you’re mad,” “I reckon there’s rats in there,” and, the one I really wish I had heeded: “it looks a bit muddy on the bank.”
Just a bit.
I had actually got completely undressed and was heading determinedly for the water, soap in hand, when what had seemed a nice firm leaf covered bank suddenly sank beneath my feet. Before I could so much as swear satisfactorily I was up to my knees in stinking, icy mud, and the soap had flown into the water. There was no point in being half hearted at this stage, so to much hilarity from Him in the Tent, I plunged in and floundered after the elusive soap, alternately sinking in mud, shrieking at the cold, and occasionally managing to actually wash a bit. The cows on the other side of the stream watched me with their customary intensity; that should give them something to talk about next time they smoke the peace pipe together, nosy sods.
Finally I emerged, triumphant but numb, and with black mud up to my knees. I stood on the bank with teeth chattering, dried off and got dressed, all the while being cruelly derided by my dearly beloved. I haughtily replied that since I now smelt as fresh as a rose, he had better consider doing something similar or else he would be sleeping outside.
In response, my ever-pragmatic husband fished out a container he had stashed somewhere - that pack of his is like the bloody Tardus, you never know what’s inside it - and strolled nonchalantly to another part of the bank. Obviously a part which was solid because you wouldn’t catch HIM sinking in the mud, oh no. He filled his little basin and proceeded to have a perfectly decorous little bath, managing to keep half of his body warm and clothed at all times. He even bloody whistled while he washed. At the end of it he emptied his little container and wandered happily back to the tent, smiling evilly at my glowering countenance. “Of course, if you PREFER to do it your way, that’s fine,” he said smugly, “but I think that I am actually cleaner than you now. And I didn’t have to get naked and covered in mud to achieve it. But it’s up to you, of course…”
I’m sure you can imagine the fine, articulate and well-reasoned response I gave to this little observation.
And so it is that as I write this I find myself sneezing continually and shaking with a fabulously heavy head cold, whilst my erstwhile spouse has been banished, in rude good health, to do the washing as punishment. After all the camping every single piece of clothing we own needs washing, so Gary is in the Laundromat in his pyjamas and I am writing this wrapped in a blanket due to the clothing shortage.
I hear that Cognac is good for colds – if it isn’t don’t bother telling me because I don’t care – so as soon as the clothes are clean we are heading for the tasting tour and by God I’m not leaving until I’ve tasted every one of them. Twice. After which I am going to make Gary cook me a fabulous three-course meal, and rub my feet; then if he is lucky I may consider actually talking to him again.
We are having a two day rest stop in Cognac before heading to Bordeaux, which is about another 5 day walk. Of 11 French maps in total, we have walked our way through 7, and 4 of them have been covered in the last month. We are well into the South of France now and moving quickly toward the Spanish border, which we hope to cross by mid December. We have recently discovered that a bloke called James Slevin has preceded us by a few months – his website is www.walkingaroundtheworld.com and he is a top man, so have a look and send him a message of encouragement if you have the time. It was great for us to discover someone else doing the walk, and to find that we are not the only ones with feet which feel like they have been through a grade one mincer.
Thankyou to everyone who is still logging on and sending us messages of support and encouragement by email and text, we appreciate every single one very much even if we don’t get time to answer them all. Cheers to you – I am going to drown my sorrows in a vat of Cognac.
PS: there is a new album called Cognac on the left buttons.