Our French Camino: The Via Podiensis
A natural consequence of galloping through two Caminos in Spain (the Camino Frances and Camino Mozarabe) was to seek out a route which had funneled the faithful to the Spanish frontier. There are at least 5 of those routes, all which traverse France and most which deposit the northern pilgrim in St. Jean Pied de Port before their onward trip to Santiago. The route we chose was the Via Podiensis which starts in southwestern France in Le Puy en Velay, a small city situated about 100 k kms southwest of Lyon. From there we would follow a route enshrined
by Bishop Godescale, who, in 950, was one of the first non-Hispanic pilgrims to go to Compostela. The 750 km route from Le Puy to St. Jean crosses through the Massif Central and extraordinarily beautiful regions of France – the Allier, Marguerite, Aubrac, the Lot valley, the Tarn and Garonne Rivers, Gascony, Gers, Bearn – meeting two other pilgrim routes – the Via Turonensis (originating in Paris), and the Via Lemovicensis (originating in Vezelay) – at the foot of the Pyrenees. The path,in addition to sublime countryside, is beset with monuments and shrines which remind today’s traveller of the importance of this path to the medieval ‘jacquets’ (pilgrims); among others, the Romanesque churches housing relics of martyrs, the Benedictine abbeys founded by royalty who had
completed a pilgrimage, priories where miracles had occurred, fortified bridges, Knights of Templar chapels and basilicas consecrated by Crusaders. The journey is drenched in history, both dark and illuminating.
Ken and I, as modern day pilgrims, began our journey in the air. After arriving in Paris, we were Lyon bound, this time by train. A day adapting to the realities of urban France today – a greater police presence in airport and train stations, a proliferation of kebob restaurants and burkas on the streets, graffitied walls where shops once were – brings us, by charming ‘toy’ train, aside France’s interior altiplano – the Massif Central – and the bijoux town of Le Puy. A unique and photogenic
feature of Le Puy is the chapel inscribed into the rock of Aiguilhe on a Grinch-like mountain-top. Climbing up to it came with a fee and strict regulations – a harbinger of things to come on our hike across France.
Our first night in standard chemin accommodation – the gite – re-baptized us to dormitory living; up-close and personal with strangers, many of them made stranger because of the lack of a common language. Conversations in French exceeded my comprehension (alas, my fluency in the language ended at ‘je ne sais quoi’) and was to become another wall – unless the wine flowed freely – on our hike through France. Indeed, we were to realize how integral human connection was to the Camino experience – having been emblematic of the internationally-flavoured Camino Frances and lifesaving to the clandestine and far less-patronized Camino Mozarabe (which had sanctioned Christian pilgriming through Moor-occupied Spain). Should a recipe for a good pilgrimage be a well-marked path, a scenic route, good weather, reliable sources of food and lodging, a resilient body, an open mind, and good company, the latter would constitute the heart of your journey.
Luckily our first day on the trail merged with the pace of four other English speakers, all Australians. The initial ascent into the Massif Central was eased by non-stop conversation and the pleasure of exchanging notes about national idiosyncrasies when it came to social services – education, health and the like. Two of our companions were of our vintage – in their 60s – and typical of most older people on the trail (as we were to find out), they were limiting their walks to 20-25 kms a
day, having their luggage sent ahead, and opting for more commodious accommodation – the chamber d’hote (bed&breakfast). As Ken and I seemed to be of hardier Canadian stock (or less endowed when it came to pensions!) and did none of these, our encounters with those people of our ilk were brief, and with those 20-30 years younger than us, more frequent. By the end of the trail, the pleasure of those encounters; knowing that you did not suffer alone – that there were others enduring the heat, blisters, relentless hills and rocky paths to reach their destination – increased with each day. The shared goal eclipsed cultural and linguistic differences.
After the initial break-in period (eased by our daily dosages of Ibuprofen!), we quickly adapted to the chemin regime. With sunrise not until 7:30 a.m. it was usually not until 8:00 a.m. that we were setting forth for the day, and with the much more rigorous nature of the trail – rarely flat and often a rocky single track – be walking until 4-5 pm (even 6:30!) I order to achieve the hoped-for 30 kms a day. The Chemin de Compostela doubled with the GR65 (a ‘grand randonee’ trail) as a scenic long-distance walking trail across the Massif Central in France. To fulfill
its secondary mandate as a recreational trail, the chemin is confined to the countryside, park or forest, scrupulously bypassing large cities, suburbs, highways, traffic, noise and confusion. This alleviated those day-long walks through the industrial parks of Leon and Burgos, for instance, on the Camino, but at times the complete absence of urban intensity left the walker praying for a little excitement now and then. Yes, the villages were all scrubbed and picturesque but completely devoid of life apart from the occasional pilgrim that passed, unwitnessed, through town.
But true to its mandate, the chemin did take us through the traditional byways of farming France. Mountaintops and hedgerows of walnut trees and beech forests gave way to rolling lands of plenty – when not buried in cornfields, we would be between vineyards and cow pastures, lentil fields and fallow plots, vegetable
patches and fields of freshly harvested hay. We felt the fecundity if France, the sacredness of a farmer’s life. It was the NOT-Paris of France – the silent, deep, unchanging, unheralded side of France. It was important to become acquainted with these traditionally farmed areas of France, as can you imagine thinking you knew B☺C because you had spent a week in Vancouver?
I don’t know if it was the conservative nature of country folk, or something endemic to France, but we were made acutely aware of the social proprieties and restraints that seem to govern life in France, at least in the France we travelled. For one, you didn’t just show up at a gite. Well, you could, but be prepared for a closed sign, or a shrug of the shoulders which said the gite was full, or a very flustered welcome. Part of the reason for notifying gite owners in advance of your pending arrival is because food service was part of your evening’s accommodation – demi-pension (dinner and breakfast) – and they needed to be forewarned about the size of cow that would need to be slaughtered, so to speak, for the evening meal. And your arrival is far more procedural than falling into an auberge on the
Camino, as well. Boots, poles, packs are all shown their place outside the dorms (leaving one fumbling for shower and sleeping necessities), and you are then ushered into a spotlessly clean room with disinfected sheets, blankets and pillowcases. Dinners are conducted equally formally – always with an aperitif and tid-bits of hors-d’oerves, then a standard 3-course meal – soup, main, dessert- usually consumed with liberally-refilled carafes of red wine. It’s invariably delicious – I don’t think the French know how to make a tasteless meal – and one is obliged to show one’s appreciation for the host’s efforts and skill by staying pinned to one’s chair for the duration of the evening. So much for the post-walk responsibilities of a pilgrim – the journal writing, the trail planning, the e-mail correspondence, the moment to oneself to reflect on one’s spiritual development. The lack of unscheduled, unsupervised time in general (don’t walk on the flowerbeds, don’t trespass, don’t take too long in the shower, don’t turn the light on in the dorm after 9:00 pm or before 6 am, don’t forget to report to the municipal gite host at the required
time) made me a tad homesick for Spain where life is a little more loosely arranged. And cheaper – remember those 5 euro a night auberges, and 1 euro glasses of wine? And perhaps, just perhaps, a tad more welcoming. God bless those hospitalleros!
Apart from the spectacular donativos along the way (where Christian families would invite pilgrims into their home and provide everything for a song or certainly never enough to compensate them for their efforts), one sensed that business, not spiritual support, dominated the raison d’être of cafes and lodging along the chemin. All was provided, but not without ample recompense, and extras – a coffee refill, a piece of fruit with breakfast, a second napkin, a towel in the bathroom, a sympathetic or forgiving smile – were seldom offered. Come on, France, things are tough all over and I know your tourism was down this year due to terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice (up to 30% according to some operators), but why can the bankrupt people of Greece always greet you cheerfully, load up the breakfast table with melons and cranberries and hazelnuts and always send you away with a free nightcap and a bottle of their special brandy?
It behooves Ken and I to remember that we have spent a lot of time in the past few years in two of the most hospitable countries in the world – Greece and Turkey – and be grateful for the blessings we did receive on our walk through France, namely: the mornings in farmers’ fields that
glistened with goodness, the carts with clusters of grapes left for the pilgrim, the astonishingly fairy-tale like villages of Eastaing and Conques, the romance of crossing every ancient arched bridge and passing every 11th century chateau, the magnificence of every cathedral, the splendour of every meal served, the sweetness of our Belgian host, Veronique, the entertaining glimpse into host Jane’s twee ex-pat British life in rural France, the equally insightful
glimpse into life on a barge along the famous Canal Midi, the laughter shared with our German vagabond friend, Andy, the communal meal deftly prepared by our ever resourceful jailbird friend, Peter and the steadfastness of my true love, Ken.
Our arrival in St. Jean was, as expected, a bit anti-climatic apart from the warm welcome and congratulations received by the credential office. A couple of sangrias and spell of unabashed people-staring later (wow –
real tourists – and mostly French day-trippers and cyclists rather than tentative, teetering pilgrims) we were on the train bound for Toulouse where we would be catching our flight to Athens, Rhodes, and our beloved house on Tilos. We had accomplished what we had set out to do, and now three caminos, 2750 kms, and close to 60 million steps later, I can plan for journeys where inspiration and joy need not be dependent on a walker’s ‘high’ or a pilgrim ‘s pardon.