With that, she directed us to a door next to hers. We soon learned that she was the owner of both her small apartment and the massive family compound attached to it. Madame B was her name and we entered the large house as she explained that she and her husband, who was deceased, had raised their four children here, all adults now living in cities across France. She led us to a large bedroom furnished with two hand-carved wooden beds with bare feather mattresses and instructed us to set our sleeping bags atop these, a form of luxury camping. She showed us the bath and how to operate the shower, then invited us to return with her to rummage in her kitchen for provisions for our evening meal.
We seemed to have slipped into an old form of pilgrim hospitality where we paid her for what food we took and also made a donation for the beds and shower. We were hesitant to take her food until she assured us that she had someone making daily grocery deliveries, even during pigeon hunting season. "Besides," she added, sweeping her curtain aside so that we could see the backyard garden, "I grow almost everything I need here, and a neighbor brings me milk from his animals.
In my head, I began calling her Saint B, Sainte B in French.
Sainte B bid us a goodnight. We showered, cooked a hot, reviving soup in the big house's kitchen, and unfurled our sleeping bags atop the beds to sleep the deep sleep of fatigue and contentment. So far, pigeon hunting season had treated us pretty well, thought I. We were emboldened to carry on.
The next day, we resumed steep and narrow ascents and descents. Toward midday we reached a plateau, and by afternoon, plunged into a dense oak, chestnut, and pine forest where the trail narrowed and fern tips from the undergrowth brushed our legs as we passed. Up ahead, a horizontal metal bar appeared across the path. It was a makeshift gate, its sole purpose to stop trekkers and make them read the note secured to the center of the bar. We stopped and read.
"S'il vous plait, Amis Randonneurs," it read, "Please, Hiker Friends, Pas de bruit. No noise. Chasse Ã la palombe du 1er octobre au 15 novembre. Pigeon hunting from October 1st to November 15th. Merci."
"Really?" I said. "It's nice though, how polite they are." I heard a snort behind me as Sarah read over my shoulder. Snorting was her signature response to things in life that were really amusing or positively contradictory, or both.
We continued walking, quietly now, but trying to make ourselves as visible as possible. We soon came upon a second sign on a post set on the trail's edge, another note reinforcing the request for silence. Two hundred meters later a third sign appeared, nailed to a tree at eye level. "Oh, come on," I grumbled. This was overkill. But we still stopped dutifully to read it, if anything, to confirm that this was really happening.
"Dear Walker," it began. "Chasse au sanglier. Boar hunting. Faire bruit SVP. Make noise, please. Merci." A robust snort escaped from Sarah. "It looks like we have a fifty-fifty chance of getting shot," she added.
Before we could discuss whether to make noise or remain silent a man appeared before us on the trail, an epic fang-shaped dagger tucked into his leather belt and a rifle in one hand pointing to the ground. In his other hand was a horn that looked like it once belonged to a ram. His ancient leather fedora that had been softened by time now conformed to the shape of his head and draped at an angle over one eye and ear. "I don't want to shoot you accidentally," he said kindly, "you're too quiet. I came out from hiding to tell you that you need to make more noise."
I heard a soft snort next to me as I asked, "How should we balance that out with the pigeon hunters?"
He thought a bit, scratched his head under his hat, and finally shrugged. "Just be careful. Pilgrimage has its risks." He then disappeared into the thicket.
Pilgrimage certainly does have its risks, especially in the Middle Ages, when people left home knowing that the odds of returning were as good as ours of getting shot. We were at least comforted by the idea that once we passed through Oloron-Sainte-Marie and veered farther north and away from the mountains, we would be leaving the thickest hunting territory.
Pigeon and boar hunters weren't the only ones leaving notes. It was cèpes season and these porcini mushrooms were popping up quickly after a recent rain, so property owners began leaving signs indicating where in the forest mushroom hunters could or could not seek their quarry. We saw one mushroom hunter make his way into the forest with a basket covered with a red and white checkered cloth, as the trail veered to the right and briefly away from the forest into a field of corn well over head high.
We plowed along through the thick stalks that towered overhead, so heavy with plump ears that they leaned in and formed natural Gothic arches, making it feel like a natural church. Until a sudden and painfully high-pitched screech rent the air and paralyzed us on the spot, just as a rabbit crashed through the lower stems and tumbled to a halt near our feet. We three remained that way as we heard someone approach. It was a man, a rifle held up at his shoulder pointing toward us, a tiny brass horn around his neck. He quickly lowered the gun, the rabbit took off, and we tried to act calm, though our heartbeats were thumping rabbit like. Not all hunters left notes: Rabbit hunters were surlier than the others and seemed to like to tell you stuff to your face.
"It was for the rabbit," he said while pointing at his horn, "but then I heard feet that were too big for a rabbit's and am glad I held my fire." He slipped his rifle's safety on and continued, speaking slowly so we would understand his thick Gascon Occitan dialect, an old Latin-based language similar to French and Spanish with pinches of Basque tossed in. "You're lucky. Didn't anyone tell you, walk only in corn that is shoulder high e non plus." No, I had to admit, that was a new one. "Let this stand as a warning," he added, then began to chuckle, probably at the looks on our faces drained of blood.
This drew his hunting partner out from behind the last row of corn, which almost re-paralyzed us. We were grateful that he too had his safety on and both now slung their rifles over their shoulders. The talker cracked a joke, one intended only for his friend, for he now spoke in rapid bursts in that old Romance language. I understood not much but enough to know it had something to do with rabbits and us and maybe that stunted little horn. As they erupted into belly laughter, we quickly followed the rabbit and slipped away. The trail soon exited the cornfield and went back into what felt safer, the forest and its gentle notes.
Three days later, we arrived in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. All along, as much as all bets were off for our plans for food and lodging, we always, and miraculously I would say, landed a safe and delightful place to stay, the Saintes Bs being out in force as much as the hunters. In Oloron, we decided to take a rest day before resuming the two weeks left of our trek. That next morning I woke early and slipped out into a quiet Sunday morning to explore the town's medieval churches, historic places that had been welcoming pilgrims for centuries.
When I went to the one that gave Oloron its full name, the Romanesque cathedral of Sainte-Marie, its 12th century entrance arrested me with scenes now familiar. The overhead archway was covered with series of carved panels, like movie frames in stone, showing the local life lived here, all of it governed by the seasons. Here was the boar hunt, the pigeon hunt, and the rabbit hunt all rolled into a bigger story as I viewed engravings of a hunter pursuing boar, another slaughtering a goose, a third catching and filleting a salmon. And here too were other food procurers, such as Sainte B and her kitchen garden, one carrying a massive wheel of cheese, another fresh baked loaves of bread, and yet another making a wine barrel for that year's harvest.
It felt like a private letter sent a millennium ago to remind me that pilgrimage might be an old pursuit, but hunting and gathering and living by the seasons were even older and took precedence in these hills, even at this pilgrim church. It also made me double over into laughter, one as robust as the rabbit hunters', for here too were the detailed joy and effort carved into their faces, preserving the same expressions in stone that we had encountered in the forests and villages.
These ancient but visceral and vivid scenes made me hungry. I stepped briefly inside and uttered gratitude for safe passage, and then excitedly turned back to our pilgrim's lodging, wondering what today's Sainte B had waiting for breakfast.
Beebe Bahrami is a freelance writer, anthropologist, and author of two travel memoirs set in France, Café Oc—A Nomad’s Tales of Finding Home in the Dordogne of Southwestern France and Café Neandertal—Excavating the Past in One of Europe’s Most Ancient Places, and several travel guides, including the just-released Moon guidebook Camino de Santiago. In addition to Perceptive Travel, her work also appears in BBC Travel, Fodors.com, Wine Enthusiast, Archaeology, Bon Vivant, The Bark, and the Pennsylvania Gazette, among others.
On Beauty and Foie Gras in Southwestern France - Beebe Bahrami
The Truffle Hunt in Umbria - Susan Van Allen
Trail Magic on the Way of Saint James - Beebe Bahrami
How to Accept Your Donkey - Robert Reid
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Books from the Author:
Buy Moon Camino de Santiago: Sacred Sites, Historic Villages, Local Food & Wine at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy Cafe Oc—A Nomad's Tales of Mystery, Magic, and Finding Home in the Dordogne of Southwestern France at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy Cafe Neandertal—Excavating Our Past in One of Europe's Most Ancient Places at your local bookstore, or get it online here: