Le Puy-en-Velay, September
Le Puy is a good place to begin a pilgrimage. In between steep, rocky mountains and hills, and the remains of extinct volcanoes lies the capital of the Departements Haute-Loire. To put it casually, there is at least one church, cathedral, chapel or enormous statue of a Madonna and child. Le Puy is undoubtedly a holy place; well, at least it was one once. The woman in the cathedral’s sacristy has already walked the route from Le Puy to Santiago three times. She made her last trip at age 74, after a serious hip operation. She explains kindly that we should have applied for an official pilgrims’ pass at our local parish or one of the St James’s societies – we think it best to keep the fact that we don’t even have a local parish to ourselves. As consolation, she gives us a kind of tourist logbook in which we can collect stamps from each leg of the journey. She says that the official pilgrims’ pass wouldn’t be of any use to us in the Chemin de Saint Jacques, the French part of the Way of St James anyway, since most of the pilgrim hostels or “gîtes d’étape” belonged to the parish and in France state and church are admirably separated. In Spain however, one would need the pass in order to spend the night in the pilgrim hostels or “refugios”. Being an experienced pilgrim she explained to us that the hostels were of varying quality. They always had a shower, toilet and sleeping place, and some even had kitchen facilities that sometimes included kitchen appliances. Often one could also find basic foodstuffs such as oil or salt and spices, garlic or jams. If these weren’t present, one should buy some to leave for the next guests. As a result there would always be a quiet sharing “exchange”. The old lady recommended the Couvent de la Providence, the Convent of Providence next to the Saint-Laurent church for our stay in the Le Puy. I wrote in her pilgrims’ book: “Nous nous fions à la Providence” – we set our trust in providence, which, when you think about it, is really the only thing that’s left to us in life. It’s just that one notices it a little more as a pilgrim because one has to take the things one is given, whereas normally one can at least choose freely from the menu or the TV guide.
Today we walked 15.5 km, a real beginners’ achievement… but all right since we didn’t want to overdo it in the beginning. Tomorrow we should walk at least 16.5 km. Then we would be in Monistrol-D’Allier where we could sleep, eat and shop. Or we add on another 12 km, making 28.5 km and we would be in Saugues, which also has a good “infrastructure”, as we like to refer to the humble sleeping and shopping possibilities along the way. It is only our first night on the Way of St James and I can already make out what we will be spending most of our time doing: namely fi nding the best way to walk so as not to end in no-man’s-land in the evening, since the nights are already far too cold to sleep outside. During breakfast in the monastery at Le Puy we met a married couple, both around the age of sixty. They’re French-speaking Canadians from Quebec and had already done the Spanish part of the route last year. “My backpack was twenty kilos,” says Guy-Marie. “I already ruined my feet on the first leg across the Pyrenees, and after two weeks in Spain I told my wife: I’m never doing such a crazy thing again in my entire life. Now, not even a year has passed and we’re on our way again.” We lingered in Le Puy until noon, since it is a pretty town. Th en we set off to climb onto the Rue de Compostelle and looking down onto the town breathlessly, we asked ourselves how on earth we would ever make the next 1500 km on foot. Our first set-back was followed immediately by another when we realised that there was no shop at the top of the mountain… so we headed back down to buy provisions. Fortunately, food shopping in France is always a great pleasure since even the smallest supermarket offers so many different types of cheese that one could eat three new varieties on every day of the month without repeating a single one. But now to the important part: the Way! How beautiful this route is when one has finally left the outskirts of the city! It snakes its way through oak forests, over fields, along stone walls in which one can hear lizards scuttling. It leads through pine forests and past fat contented cows whilst always providing a beautiful view – hundreds of kilometres in any direction! I now know why I hesitated so long to describe this trail: I simply cannot do it justice.
Today we are staying with a family that also rents out guest rooms. Right now we are sitting in their living room, the mother is cooking, the daughter is doing her homework in the kitchen, and the son is unpacking his kit aft er football practice and going to have a shower. We are only two add-ons to the family but must nonetheless be a pain. We want tea, want to smoke and are sitting around uselessly. Bains is a small village with one hotel-restaurant where we were unwanted both for eating and sleeping. Someone told us it was because the owners were simply too lazy. We have ended up in what seems to me the cosiest house in the whole place, with the Raveyre family, and this is where we will stay. The weather was so nice today; we both got a bit of a sunburn. I suppose it also has something to do with the fact that we are normally around 900 m above sea level and the cool breeze prevents us from noticing the true strength of the sun.
Today, on our second hiking day, we have succeeded in getting lost for the very first time. It is a bit of an achievement, since the paths are labelled very well with red and white themed marking. A set of straight lines means the path continues straight ahead, a right angle means that the path is changing into another direction and a red and white cross marks the turns one shouldn’t take. So it really is idiot proof. Well, almost. At least we have now learned one important piece of wisdom: if you are lazy, this laziness can oft en result in a more energy-consuming outcome; as for example when one doesn’t return straight to the last signpost when one notices that there haven’t been any for a while. Aside from the stinging wind, which no one can be blamed for, the path has once again done its best and adorned itself with little stone walls and forests and cows. One crosses large fields and then re-enters forests that could easily be in Styria. Along the way there are many fat stone crosses, reminding us that the route really is several hundred years old. Above Monistrol there is an ancient St James’s chapel with a wooden statue of the saint inside and a spectacular view outside. We looked through the “golden book” and found only effusive pilgrims thanking God, the Virgin Mary and Saint James for the beauty of the world and the joy of being able to walk the Way of St James. We thought for a long time but couldn’t think of anything effusive to write. I’m afraid we just aren’t holy enough yet. Or maybe we’re just too tired. We haven’t prepared for this amount of walking at all, neither physically nor mentally, which was probably not a good idea. As expected our feet are hurting, and our shoulders, and our legs; and our souls have to get used to this feeling of extreme vulnerability. It is feeling like we are exposed, bare and powerless on our trip. This notion is only underlined by our arrival in Monistrol-d’Allier. When we arrive the bakery is closed, half of the town looks like a building site and all of this is located in the deepest part of a shadowy valley. We quickly decide to make the climb to Saugues instead.