After a night of rumbling thunderstorms and quite the lighting effects show, the sun is (almost) out again today. The entire Occitanie region seems to be resisting the arrival of autumn with all its might. Temperatures have dropped but otherwise it is another brilliant day, contrary to the deluge that had been predicted by the weather services.
Good for me as I am exploring the hiking trails around St-Guilhem-le-Désert. This is an incredibly – dare I say cute? – little mountain village. Apparently, it is called ‘le Désert’ because when they were building the village many many years ago in this hot, quite unforgiving climate, it felt like labouring in the desert.
Nowadays, St-Guilhem-le-Désert is quite famous with the pilgrims who set out on the Camino towards Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Because here, in the church, a little holy treasure can be found. Allegedly, Saint Guilhem was given a splinter of the original wooden cross of Jesus Christ for safekeeping. Now, pilgrims and tourists alike come in troves to look at the little piece of wood.
The village itself has only 200 inhabitants. However, each year approximately half a million people make their way through here. Luckily, today St-Guilhem-le-Désert was quite deserted (unintentional pun). I enjoyed walking through the narrow alleys for a little bit, then set out to hike up the mountainsides encircling the little community.
The view from above was worth the walk as you see. High up on the left you can also spot the remnants of an old fortress in which Saint Guilhem apparently once hid when his village was under attack.
Back in the village, I couldn’t help but notice dried silver thistles (Cardabelle) hanging on almost every door. When I asked why, I learned something fascinating. No matter how long these dried thistles have been dead, about a day before rain comes, the leaves encircling the flower begin to roll up. Thus, people in the village always know without a doubt when rain will come.
A bit more hiking and contemplating… to the Pont de Diable which stretches over the Hérault river. The sky is pressing down today. It wants to rain, yet somehow it doesn’t. Instead, the air is becoming ever more humid, feeling almost solid and laborious to breathe. My weather app tells me lightning is only 8 km away. Please get over here dear storm, so we can get it over with and clear the air!
I went on a hike today after school to contemplate what to do… The little villages and surrounding landscapes were a bit distracting though. They were so gorgeous, I had to keep interrupting my thoughts to take a picture. Horrible.
At this moment in time, I really have no idea how to continue my Wonderweg. The only thing that seems clear in these puzzlingly unclear times is that I won’t find employment any time soon.
3 of 4 weeks here in Montpellier are already over. My French didn’t improve nearly as fast as I’d hoped it would during this time. I am wondering if I should sign up for one more month of language school to do it right and invest as much work and time as I possibly can?
On the other hand, the Spanish border is only about a week’s hike away from here. It’s immensely tempting to get back on the trail soon and see where it will lead. Then again, the trail won’t be going anywhere. I don’t need to rush. Weather is another consideration. The rainy season will be starting here any minute now. However, the further south I’ll hike, the warmer and drier it should stay… Money is another thing to think about, as it will run out soon… even though I always keep everything as low budget as possible…
My hike today surely did not bring me any answers. But it was a beautiful afternoon. The clouds were hanging low, the air was heavy and sensuously humid. Almost as I remember it from when I lived in my homes in Hong Kong and Macau. The landscape… as you can see… was a feast for the eyes. I am exhausted now, satisfied, happy, and as clueless as I was this morning.
Currently not much news from the hiking front. I am still in my temporary home in Montpellier, taking steps rather metaphorically and mentally at this point. Today, a major step in my life though: I have started reading my first book EVER in French! Only fitting for a Wonderweg that this book is full of little wonders! ✨✨✨
At this moment, I am not yet contemplating how and where to pick up the trail after Montpellier. But this journey is bound to stay adventurous…
Weekend steps… this time I’m just leisurely exploring around the neighborhood. So many cozy corners. Art and the memory of art can be found everywhere. Buildings, streets, and alleys are stunning. Good food and drink is available on every corner (No Liam. Don’t look. Keep walking). Street artists are doing their makeup, getting ready for a day of enlivening the streets. Everyone is out and about. Every seat in every street cafe and restaurant is taken. People are celebrating life, meeting friends, breathing the still comfortably hot autumn air.
I wonder if they know how lucky they are to be living here? This must be my favorite town to date. And it’s not just the place itself but its immediate surroundings as well. Everything is only a short drive away: the ocean, the Camargue, the Pyrenees, the Provence, the border to Spain… ☀️
I made my way to Sète today, where I spent all afternoon walking and exploring. Thankfully, there weren’t many tourists. A rare opportunity to enjoy this (usually bustling) fishing port city a bit more peacefully. The locals lovingly call Sète the ‘Little Venice of Languedoc’. Rightfully so, since it sits right at the ocean, is the starting point of the Canal du Midi and, like the ‘real’ Venice, has canals running through it like a network of veins (albeit fewer and rather larger ones).
The cool thing is that many hundreds of years ago, the first villagers decided to name their village Sète based on the word cétacé which means cetacean (marine mammal). I like the way they were thinking! 🐳
I found and tried the local specialty here as well. It’s called Tielle and is a little pie filled with spicy octopus in a just as spicy tomato sauce. I found a small store which sells their Tielles fresh from the oven. One is enough, I thought. I sat gazing out at the canal whilst nibbling on my Tielle. Oh… my… God…! How delicious. I forced myself to eat slow and savour it. Immediately after, I thought, “Ah, whatever, screw it,” and ran back to the store, laughing, asking for a second one. What a feast. When I finally stood in front of the store owner’s counter a third time, like an over-excited kid asking for another lollipop, the lady started to laugh and gave me the third Tielle for free.
I loved Sète. The strong scent of the ocean was invigorating. It was great to walk along the canals (oh, btw, just yesterday afternoon they had a dolphin sighting in one of those canals!!)
The town itself had a rough yet beautiful fishing village charm. Ocean-inspired street art was everywhere. Even the chapel of La Salette sported ancient (and incredibly colorful) wall murals featuring oceanic wildlife. Last but not least, overlooking the town as well as the ocean, the Théâtre de la Mer (where this year at least they held the Cinéma de La Mer) was a treat to see. It is just an unbelievably picturesque performance venue. If they need stage managers next year, I’m in! 😆
We hiked through a forest of vocabulary and grammar again at the Alliance Francaise in Montpellier. I was exhausted after. It’s only a few hours each morning, but my brain needs to get used again to studying… and to actually retaining information.
Besides learning and opening my mind, I do enjoy collaborating with my classmates. Usually, when I’m working backstage for a show, I am immersed in an international team, a show family. I love connecting with all those people from a myriad of backgrounds, listening to their thoughts and experiences on a daily basis. I miss it with all my heart. At the school now, we are only working together in the classroom for a few short weeks, but it’s still heartwarming to connect with people from other cultures again.
The four of us come from all corners of the world. Harry is British and lives in the UK. Nadja is Brazilian and lives in France. Sangee is born in Nepal and lives in India. Every day, we discover a bit more about each other’s world and its fascinating.
Sangee, especially, inspires me a lot. He is 24 years old and a monk in a Buddhist monastery in India. He told me that up until a few years ago, they focused exclusively on religious and spiritual studies in his monastery. But, due to their culture, every now and then, a monk who is the oldest son in his family has to leave to take care of his parents. Those who did in the past, entered life outside the monastery completely unprepared and clueless. Thus, Sangee’s monastery now makes sure to teach their monks as much as they can about the outside world. The monastery provides classes for them in the sciences, history, geography, and other subjects. And, their elders encourage the young monks to travel the world and study cultures and languages. In this way, if they ever have to leave, they will not be entirely lost in the “outside” world.
Sangee already speaks Buthanese, Hindi, Nepali, and Tibetan. Recently, he has travelled through England and has studied 4 weeks of English. His grasp of the language is already phenomenal. This is now his 2nd week of French. Without any prior knowledge, his French is about the same as mine even though I know far more vocabulary since this is my 3rd atttempt at learning the language.
Sangee and I have many wonderful conversations during our breaks. Also, through our exercises in class, all of us learn a lot from each other. Today, for example, Sangee told us (in French!) about the Indian human rights movement and about Babasaheb Ambedkar who campaigned against social injustice towards the untouchables.
I have to say, besides loving to learn from each other, Sangee also reminds me of my life and travels around Asia. His soft-spokenness and calmness, everything about him, reminds me of how much I love living there. It triggers an ache, a longing, as well as a feeling of happiness in me to be able to spend a little bit of time with this lovely, inspiring man.
Phew, I’m busy 😅. But, in a very good way. Until Montpellier, my days were filled with putting one foot in front of the other, doing my best to stay in the moment, spanning the distance, and writing. Which was fabulous in and of itself. Now, for just one month, I treasure the fact that I have a little home to relax and thrive in. My days are filled with learning Francais at school, doing homework, writing articles, meeting people, soaking in some culture, going on excursions, and watching the odd series before going to bed.
School is going well. I wish I could do more than one month to really get my French to almost fluent. But, I’ll need to be careful not to get too far into winter to not get into trouble once I reach the Pyrenees. So, just one month it will be and… damn… it’s already passing way too fast.
There is a beautiful cafe here called ‘Le Gazette’. An organic cafe, cozy, roomy, with live music as well as quiet corners to get some writing done. If I’d live here permanently, I would definitely be a regular! The food is delicious, too. Last night, I had the best Ceviche and the absolute best Creme Brulee of my life in there! What a fabulous end to a fabulous day.
In the afternoon, a small group of us aspiring French speakers had gone and taken the classroom to the river. Instead of practicing tenses, we practiced shouting French obscenities at the elements as we canoed and pretty much rocketed down the awesome Gorges de l’Herault. Breathtaking landscape and so much fun. I haven’t laughed this much in ages. Due to the hot summer the river was way too low and we kept getting stuck on rocks or the current was pushing us underneath low-hanging branches. I shared a canoe with my classmate Cedric, and we could both hardly breathe after a while, because we were laughing uncontrollably. Even today, my arm muscles are ok, but my stomach muscles still hurt from laughing so hard.
It’s time to share a map again, now that the third leg of my journey is done: from Grenoble to Montpellier. It was a mix of hiking and traveling by car, since during the last week I was lucky to be able to catch up – and catch a ride – with a couple old friends.
All-in-all, I have now been on the trails for almost 2 months, hiking from Brugg in Switzerland towards Portugal. So far, I have covered a distance of 500 km. 100 km were trains and cars. 400 km were tackled entirely on foot. Three days ago, I finally reached the Mediterranean Sea at Saintes Maries de la Mer. A real highlight of my journey!
Here some random observations and practical thoughts so far:
Feet: are ok now, but… oh boy. I can recommend to anyone who has spent years living in flip-flops like I did, to do a lot of smaller hikes before embarking on the big one. My feet took ages to acclimate to being in closed shoes again, all day long. Also, the heavier your backpack, the more strain you put on your knees and feet. Knee problems can easily be avoided by using walking sticks. But, the feet feel the heavy load all day long. This is one reason why I am strongly considering leaving behind even more of my stuff. I am at 12 kg now, but would love to bring it down to 7 or 8 kg. Will need to see what to do…
Gravel paths: the worst!!! So many hiking trails have gravel on them. I’ve come to hate those paths. They absolutely kill my feet. No matter how thick the soles of my shoes are, after a few hours I can feel every single sharp rock.
Water: is a real problem when you hike through the Swiss and French Jura regions in summer. I brought a water filter but was never able to use it, because all creek and river beds were completely dry. I ended up depending on the kindness and close proximity of farmers. In Switzerland, where everything is closer together, this wasn’t so much of a problem. In France, the distances between any settlements and farms are much farther apart. Sometimes more than a day’s walk. Additionally, many small restaurants along the way are currently closed due to Covid19. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it feels like to be thirsty and to be afraid, not knowing where the next drop of water will come from… and when. It all got a bit better once I came through the Rhone valley and the Massif de la Chartreuse. But, since it’s a very hot summer, the water situation remained precarious throughout.
Walking alone: overall no problem. Each day seems to just fly by. After a few hours my feet start hurting and I need to take a break. But, ten hours of walking pass by so fast, even with pain. Which is something I need to be consciously aware of. It’s better to pace myself and not do too many hours in one day. I haven’t listened to any music yet. I love the sounds of the wildlife all around me and of the wind gently, or sometimes not so gently, blowing through the trees and over the meadows. And, I enjoy my own company. However, what I do struggle with is my homelessness. If I did this hike knowing I have my own little home base to return to somewhere, I would feel more at peace. As it is, I do not know when and where I’ll find my next job. So, I also do not know when I’ll have my own little private space again. I miss having an actual home. That’s why, sometimes, I wonder if I should have bought an old car, so at least I’d have a home on the road. A little mobile space that’s mine. But maybe that’s also something I need to learn: to be ok without that. In essence, camping has so far never been a problem, but it has been stressful nonetheless. I am the kind of guy who loves to have his little quiet sanctuary somewhere to retreat to after a hard day’s work. And, somehow, a tent in which I always have to anticipate people, deer, cows, wild dogs, etc. disturbing me, just doesn’t quite measure up.
Covid19 considerations: I always have my face mask in my pocket, within easy reach. As soon as I get close to too many people at once, I put it on. For their protection and mine. In Switzerland, social distancing rules were followed in some places and not in others. Some people wore masks, some didn’t. It seemed to be different in every single farm, village, and city I walked through. In France, the preventive measures so far seem to be in place everywhere. Most people seem to be quite disciplined when it comes to wearing a mask as well, even out on the street. I am surprised the numbers in Southern France are going up so much, because everyone I see is being so careful.
Horse flies and tics: I just really hate them. So far, thankfully, I have found every single tic that was crawling around on me before it latched on. Grrr. Tenacious little buggers!
This is all I can think of right now. I’ll stay in Montpellier for a little while. It’s just too beautiful here to leave quickly. And, after so much forest and nature (which I love) it is great to feel so much vibrant city life and culture around me (which I also love). More about the next steps in tomorrow’s blog post!
Here a few heartfelt thanks:
Big thanks to Maggi and Abel for picking me up close to Avignon. Thanks for letting me stay at your place for a few days! It was so peaceful and I loved our conversations! Thanks Lionel for driving so many hours just to come see me. I loved exploring Uzes with you and was glad we had a chance to catch up after so many years. Thank you Ute and Jim for giving me a ride to the Camargue. How awesome that we had a chance to meet and then hike for a couple days together through the beautiful Camargue! From now on, every time I hear someone burp loudly I’ll think of those strange flamingos, of the weird sounds they make, and of our bird watching adventures! Mylena, how awesome to meet you upon my arrival in Montpellier. What a great day! I could have continued forever. And thanks so much to Evelyne at Villa Stella. Thanks for sharing delicious fruits and coffees with me and for inspiring me with great conversations.
And, thanks to all of you who read this, for being there. Writing these posts is as much a means of letting friends and family know how I am, as it is a means for me to not feel so alone on the road and stay connected with the people I care about and with the world in general. Thanks for your support!
I’ve arrived in Montpellier. This bustling city is quite the contrast to the quietness and natural beauty I experienced in the Camargue during the last four days. However, albeit different, Montpellier has abundant charm and beauty of its own. I am quickly falling in love with this old town. Every street is rich in history, flowers, and an international mix of humanity.
I got lucky with my accomodation as well. For three nights, I am staying at this private villa in the middle of town. Upon arrival, Evelyne, a former journalist and the owner of this lovely jumble of rooms, provided me with a unicorn key, a street map, and great off-the-beaten-path advice.
Everything in this old building has such a welcoming atmosphere. Over the last few weeks, I’ve mostly had restless nights. In the tent – always – because it’s just truly far more uncomfortable than romantic. In the hotel rooms I take once a week, I don’t seem to feel comfortable enough to sleep deeply either. My mind is racing and seems to never quite calm down. Here, in this old villa however, it’s so comfortable and homy, I’m actually resting.