“But where is the menu?” Kim looks with horror at the plate of grey mush placed in front of him in the hotel restaurant. “Pas de menus,” replies the waitress firmly. He stares at her in horror. “C’est la cure de sante!” We look at the other people eating - small portions of grey on each plate. Health cure food. Kim is dismayed. I’ve walked 30 kilometres today, and nursed a footsore and tearful wife along the last few of those, he exclaims. I laugh. We both laugh - every day is different, I remind him.
We are in Eugénie-le-Bains, a hot spa therapeutic town. The waitress is sympathetic. To the envy of those around us, she persuades the chef to produce melon in port, Magret de canard with dauphinois potatoes and courgette tymbales, and a slice of gateau. We walk to eat - and eat to walk! Most days are 25 kilometres. That day was a long 30, walking hard little road surfaces between rows and rows of maize in the fields alongside, often so high we could not see over. It was claustrophobic, plus both my feet were excruciatingly painful. But we’d got this far, we couldn’t give up now.
For 24 days plus 3 rest days, we walked. Walked across France. The calm and sun of the Canal du Midi. The undulations of the Ariege and then the beautiful Gers, with few centres of civilisation but with a lot of mud. Mud, rain and mud. There was rain down our necks, mud on our boots, thick slimy mosquito- infested mud. Everywhere. The fields were inundated, the maize (we saw a lot of maize) dying, the ditches full, the edges slipping away. And occasionally, glimpses of the snow capped Pyrenees, keeping us company on our left. And more maize.
And the people. Warm, friendly, hospitable. One little family offered Airbnb on a tiny futon; but refused payment for the rest of their hospitality of aperitif, 3 course simple family supper and breakfast - and did our washing for us, too. In another remote village, desperate for caffeine, I asked a young man unloading his weekly shop if there was a bar or cafe nearby. There wasn’t, he said; and ushered us into his kitchen with his young wife and baby, to make us, total strangers, a coffee each. Everyone was amazed that we were walking from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and raising money for charity. Often they assumed we were walking the Chemin de St Jacques to Compostela and wished us Bon Chemin!
On the way we learned so much. Of the relief to be welcomed in and blessed even though we were strangers - and I think we often looked and smelled less than our best, as a number immediately offered us the use of their washing machine! That the things that usually matter so much to me are not the most important after all . That I can squat on the grass verge anywhere if necessity dictates - if I turn my head so I can’t see anyone passing they can’t see me either, right? That I can walk even when there is a huge huge painful blister on my toe: you can do anything if you need or want to.
And the most important thing for us to learn: that two are better than one, for if either of them falls down, one can help the other up. (Eccl 4:10). We have become a team again, walking and working together to get to the Atlantic. For each of us, there were two occasions when we wanted to give up, take a bus, go home. And each time the other could help the one to make it a bit further.
The final day. After all that distance. All those days. All the laughs and the tears, the uncomfortable beds, the strange places we found ourselves, the beauty of the countryside and the interesting conversations, suddenly the final day. Walking confidently towards the Atlantic - wherever it was. We couldn’t see it. Got lost in a sandy pine forest. Braved a final few rain drops. Walked alongside yet more maize with silly jokes - amaizing crops, decimaized by the rain; sang Amazing Grace and meant it. Then the sign: Capbreton. But still the suburbs to negotiate. We hold hands for the final few yards, steps quickening, climb up the steps to the promenade. And there it is. The Atlantic. On a grey cloudy day. The beach appears deserted. We make our way across the gritty sand and there are two young women sitting on a blanket. We explain what we’ve just done - and one leaps up and uses Kim’s phone to take photos and a video of us opening a little bottle of bubbles, laughing and crying. We’ve done it. We have actually done it! We can scarcely believe it. Tears and laughter, relief and incredulity.
547 kilometres walked ( and the last one each day was the real KIL- o- meter). 24 daily routes planned. 25 different accommodations booked. Nearly £2,000 raised. 2 pairs of Lowa Renegade boots worn through. 0 little markets seen (we never arrived on the market day anywhere!) 1 happy tired jubilant couple. Who have, as hoped, found themselves in France.