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Day 5 - Nowhere to stay
March 4, 2010                              Pouzols-Minervois to Azille                               12 miles
La Dolce Vita, Azille
Sullen canal west of Homps
Med-themed gatepost in Homps
Today came with a sting in the tail - in fact, a double sting.

I left Pouzols-Minervois with a fresh baguette bought from a hole in the wall of an unmarked store that the locals had bought baguettes at since time began. Jackie Kennedy, my landlady at La Maison des Rossignols, took me round there personally, and then pointed out an exit route from town that ran through the local vineyards.

Though I haven't mentioned them, vineyards have been everywhere. They're besides the canal, besides the roads, and generally visible somewhere when you're not deep inside a town. At this time of year, the vines are dormant and the view is of seried ranks of vine stumps, often pruned and ready to sprout.

I mentioned yesterday that it would take about five miles before I reached the canal again. In that vicinity, though, there's a distance along the canal without a path on either side, so I delayed my canalside routing until I was past this section, and in the village of Homps. In  Homps, I first visited a supermarché, where I bought my now-usual two apples, a can of sardines or mackerel in white wine sauce, and some cheese. These, and baguettes bought elsewhere, are my staples. My plan to eat out sometimes hasn't come to fruition here in the countryside. I've spotted very few restaurants open at this time of year, and the open ones have come along at the wrong times. In the evenings at my last two stopping places, I've seen none.

The rain ended today, but it remained cold - and windy. I've seldom spent a day with a cold 30 mph wind coming at me head-on for several hours. Today was such a day, and it made the going that much harder. For the last five miles of my 12 mile (18 km) day, muddy paths added to the challenge. But the challenge was manageable.

There's been a dearth of wildlife on the hike so far. Except for the flamingoes back in Portiragnes on  Day 2,  I've  hardly seen even a bird. I need to ask someone about this.

Today's destination was La Redorte, and that's where the first end-of-day sting came along. I had found my B&B on the Internet by plugging "La Redorte" into a search engine. I hadn't had any trouble locating 1 place de l'Eglise, La Redorte in Google Maps either. I flagged it on my own maps, and deftly approached the B&B by taking a shortcut path through the vineyards that led almost to the door.

But it wasn't the right door. The B&B was actually in another town, and both the landlady and I had been the victim of an overeager search engine. That the street address also showed up on Google Maps just reflected the fact that 1 place de l'Eglise is probably the most common street address in France.

Setting analysis aside, I now had a practical problem. With the expert guidance of the locals, I shuttled between a hotel sign (the hotel is no more) and a B&B (it was closed). The B&B owner sent me up the road to another B&B that she assured me was 200 meters away and open, but it was 600 meters, was closed, and wasn't a B&B anyway but a gîtes (vacation home for rent). The Mairie (town hall) was closed until the late afternoon. An old lady assured me there was a hotel by the canal, but she pointed in the direction that I had already walked and seen none.

There were few people to ask. There wasn't a bar to be seen. The only restaurant was closed for the winter. And, though the wind had died down, it was really cold - far too cold to spend the night outdoors.

And that's when Hobson stumbled in despair into the nicest insurance agency in the whole wide world. There, Joȅlle Galibert and Fabienne Lopez, the two kindest of ladies made a project of getting Hobson a B&B for the night. This activity culminated in the office owner, Jean Sigé, driving Hobson to the d
oor of the B&B, two or three miles away in the village of Azille where he was returning home.

There, La Dolce Vita is owned by Natalie Trent, once-of-Seattle. Hobson enjoyed a canopied bed with leopard skin spotted duvet, twelve pillows, flower murals, and  a blessed heater.

For the moment, life was good again, and it's of little importance that Hobson will need to walk back to La Redorte in the morning to start where he stopped yesterday's walk.

But then came the second sting in the tail. Actually, there have been signs of it for the last three days. For my American friends, let me remind that France is quite a big country, and it has boonies. Moreover, I am in the boonies. I saw not a single person on the canals today, and no one on the roads that wasn't in a car. The towns are pretty empty of people also, at least outdoors. There are dozens of those French stone buildings with windows shuttered closed for every building that has a store front. It's almost like being in a movie just before the bad guys enter town.

The paucity of people must relate to the paucity of accommodation places here in the boonies. I had extensively researched accommodation before I left home, and found very little. Towns of the size I've been in may have two or three listed - of which one may be closed for the winter, one may be closed permanently or be a vacation rental home, and the remaining one open. But open doesn't mean that the owner is there to answer the phone or the door bell. Or that they'll always have space even in winter. The days when every village had a hotel-bar-restaurant seem to be over. The landladies have pointed to a down-economy, but I wonder. Maybe it's just that the boonies are changing to places people farm or commute from - and then jump in their cars to head for Dodge when it comes to supermarkets, entertainment and any other commerce besides the corner store's baguettes and cheeses?

So Hobson has been spending inordinate time looking for the next night's accommodation. And today's final sting in the tail is that he spent four hours this evening, with good Internet access, and multiple phonecalls, finding nowhere to stay tomorrow night except between Trèbes and Carcassonne, about 18 miles (29 km) away.

There won't be a lot of canalside hiking with this distance to cover tomorrow.

Eckuse de Jouarres
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