July 18, 2008

Setting the scene.....

From mid-April until early July 2008, I walked the way of St James. I began in Le-Puy-en-Velay in France, and finished in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, nearly three months later. --> At the start there were days when it snowed a little, as I climbed above Le Puy then onto the Aubrac Plateau. By the time I finished it was clearly summer, though fortunately for me as a walker, not as hot as it can get in northern Spain.
When I began, I was surrounded by others mostly walking for one or two weeks during their vacation, but gradually I met more who were intending to go further. At this stage of the journey though, people tended to be very humble about their chances of going 'all the way' to "St Jacques". People would always add "si on peut...' (if I am able...) to their response.
At the beginning it often seemed to me that I was the 'slowest' walker around. But the French had what I found to be two very helpful attitudes to walking. They would often say - "each one has their own rhythm". And with respect to long distance walking, I heard repeatedly..."Il faut aller doucement, doucement, pour aller a St Jacques." - It is necessary to go gently, gently to get to St James.
Hence...the title of this blog.......

2012 Addendum: In 2012 I re-walked several sections of this route- from Le Puy to Conques; Pamplona to Santo Domingo; and Hospital de Orbigo to Santiago. I have added a few photos and some info where relevant. You can find all the new bits by using the 2012 labels, at the end of each relevant old post...

July 17, 2008

All my bags are packed.... (5 April)

First step was a domestic flight away from my home town, and there was a glorious sunrise at Palmerston North airport for my departure.

Soon my heart was gladdened by seeing Egmont, the mountain of my childhood,
mostly swathed in cloud but with its peaks poking through,

then over Ruapehu, there was a chance to look down over the crater of this just-dozing giant;
As we approached the urban sprawl of Auckland, fingers of mangroves poked out in the harbour.
It wasn't long before I was on my SQ flight and flying internationally, with glorious daytime views over the vast dry of central Australia.

All these brought promises of the outdoors I was soon to be immersed in.

Prelude: Paris

involved in a love affair with a rampant spring.
A crowded modern metro trip took me to Basilique St Denis
where pilgrims of centuries gone by gathered in the north
for the traverse of the city-
architecture spanning time
early crypt remnants
tombs of Kings Queens princesses.
Near Notre Dame, St Jacques tower stood against the sky in the spring sunshine.
I stood there thinking of all those who had walked before me on this route.
I was a tourist
but as I took the Rue St Jacques, climbing beyond the Sorbonne
it was as if I was already moving into a different world
where centuries merged.

In the church at Haut Pas
I greeted St Jacques
and it was as if I had turned my gaze backwards
with the throng of past pilgrims
to farewell the city.

Prelude: Le Puy en Velay (12 -13 April)

Gite d'etape des Capucins, was my first place to stay on the Chemin,
the name evocative of the rich religious past
of this city of Le Puy
buried deep in the Auvergne.

I walked up to the Cathedral
straight up the steep approach
my first challenge as a pilgrim.
Hidden were more steps under the arch, then more around corners;
penance already before the real walking begins!
Inside the Cathedral
reverence permeated the stones
a place for the devout

A modern crucifix -glass reflecting light-
caught my eye as I entered,
the glory of Resurrection
not just an immersion in death.
St Jacques statue bathed in welcoming light.

The altar around the black Madonna
was surrounded by red lamps.
Often such an icon in a dark place
would fill me with a kind of dread
but here, light permeated from behind, allowing peace.
I prayed for some people here,
and left a prayer for another pilgrim to carry.
I walked out into a maze of historic streets
and saw the giant Notre Dame statue looming high above on its volcanic rock
but the zigzag climb had resting places,
and I soon enjoyed spectacular views
of Le Puy nestled in its volcanic basin
magnificent in the sunshine
orange roofs against green vegetation.

I visited the cloister in the calm of Sunday morning,
before Mass with incense
in the Cathedral where the Virgin resides.
Then I climbed to Roch St Michel chapel

the very bones of its columns and arches
holding the prayers of ages past
the archangel defending, protecting and challenging.A wish and greeting came from a woman passing by
the first time I was recognised as a pilgrim,
"Bonne Courage! Bonne Route!"

2012: I arrived in Le Puy this time early in May at the end of a walk from Cluny- a challenging, solitary journey. 

My French friend had recommended that I stay at the Gîte Relais du Pèlerin Saint Jacques, and they were incredibly welcoming there.

When I reached Le Puy I lost the chemin I had been following- after just over two weeks of keeping my eyes peeled for small coquille markers. I had had to be 'strong' by myself on the Cluny route, but I 'lost it' once in the sanctuary of the crowds in Le Puy. I found this little chapel near where you climb up the 'needle'. Luckily, for several minutes, no tourists came in while I cried, and the one person who then did come in was a pilgrim who had just finished walking five weeks. He understood!

Day 1: 14 April- Le Puy to Montbonnet

At 7am on a chilly April morning
pilgrims made their way to the Cathedral

where the Bishop celebrated Mass
then gave a blessing
taking a personal interest in each one
and where they came from.
For me, he switched to English
and told me that more and more New Zealanders
were coming to Le Puy
to start their pilgrimage.
If you wished,
there was a medal of Our Lady to take, and a rosary
and a prayer to carry on behalf of another.I still felt so very uncertain of myself, even as a walker.
How would I manage for days and days with a pack on my back?
How would I even manage the first steps
climbing out of Le Puy to the higher ground above?
But in the Bishop's eyes, we all were already pilgrims.I never left early
I had a pile of cards to post first
and there was a Monday morning queue
so when I left to begin the climb
most had preceded me.
This first 'climb' loomed large in my mind as a difficulty
but it wasn't so hard
and I was pleased to find that after about 25 minutes
it had largely levelled off.
My "fitness" walks all summer had paid off.

But the first distance marker was sobering.... so very far to go....
The morning's walk was pleasant, mostly along farming lanes
bounded by rock walls.
Only a few blossoms here, high up;
far from the profusion of a Parisian spring
winter had not yet left its hold.Already I was noticing details of nature along the way
sunshine on these seeds, lighting them from the back,
and as I walked into the countryside on this first day's walk,
I suddenly knew a deep happiness,
a sense of 'rightness' in what I was doing.
As I walked these first few kilometres,
I knew that I was 'at one' with the landscape,
and that -barring injury-
I would have the joy to be immersed in the outdoors for many days ahead.
I was slowing to a walking rhythm,
where life was already being lived 'in the present moment'.

And I was grateful to those who had marked the route
red and white markers that would lead me far
so that in the midst of isolation
there was some certainty.

I was soon to discover some of the companionship
of this French Chemin.
At an impromptu drinks stand
I met a family from Anjou
that I would end up seeing often over the next few days.
And at St Christophe
the seats provided near the Church
-volcanic rock and twelfth century-
enabled many to sit together over lunch
all enjoying the sunshine, despite the chilly wind.

The climb seemed gradual, not too hard.

The stone of the buildings reflected the volcanic origins of the landscape.After lunch the terrain began to feel more remote
so that walking four km seemed to take forever.
The wilds of the Auvergne had yet more desolate greetings to bring
on this first day:- sun snow sun snow
on and off with the hat and gloves
often muddy and wet underfoot
passing a village that seemed grey and forbidding
with its houses made of stern volcanic rocks.
The challenge of walking alone in such terrain was with me.

I was glad to approach Montbonnet
passing a small chapel of St Roch
to arrive at l'Escole, my first gite as a walker
converted from a farm building
with an open fire and a warm welcome
and hot showers
'just the thing' on such a day.I washed my muddy trousers and hung them on the line
in full sunshine
only to have to rescue them forty minutes later
as heavy snow began,
then it was back to sunshine.
Others laughed at my child-like enjoyment of the snow
a novelty for me, but not for most of the French.
Imperceptibly almost we had climbed from 625m to 1108m,
no wonder it had got colder!

People were friendly
a shared bond after a first day's walk
and the shared meal of demi-pension.
To our hosts I owe gratitude
for such a welcoming end to the first day
a chance to gather strength for the next one....... 

2012: I wasn't sure how I was going to find it, 're-walking' some of my 2008 route. I knew it could never be the same as that first time as a newbie pilgrim, my heart full of hopes, fear, joy, with unknown challenges ahead. But I was soon to discover, it was still a new thing. Each day I met new people, stayed in some different gîtes/villages from before, and saw places in different weather, and in France at least, slightly later in the season.
This time, I knew to make sure I took lunch with me from Le Puy, and actually had something to eat when I reached the seats behind the romanesque church at St Christophe sur-Dolaison.

The weather began to change, and clearly a storm was imminent. About 5-6 kilometres from Montbonnet, while I was walking amongst the lentil fields, the storm struck, and I was walking in thunder, lightning, and was under bombardment from heavy hail. There was no shelter, and I was concerned that the hail was so hard, I might even suffer a head injury! The track became like a stream.
This was the same area where I had struck sleet/snow on my 2008 walk from Le Puy: lentils thrive in the harsh weather it would seem! I had found it very hard leaving Le Puy in the morning this time, saying goodbye to some special friends, but it was like God was having his own special joke at my expense here, making the 'present moment' so intense I had to live in it, and not worry about anything else!

In 2008 I had enjoyed staying my first pilgrim night in l'Escole gîte in Montbonnet, and was disappointed to find it was 'complet' this time. However, a real treat was in store instead. 'La Grange' gîte, next to the bar, was in an old stone building that had been completely modernised inside.
It had a huge communal lounge with windows that had a view absolutely to die for, with so many old volcanic remnants in the landscape. I would quite happily have stopped walking here for another day or two just to sit in this lounge and contemplate the view!

And like always on a pilgrim walk, once wet clothes were peeled off, and I was showered and in dry clothes, the world was made new again. I headed back to the bar next door for a welcome hot chocolate. 

Le Puy en Velay: YouTube

Day2: 15 April- Montbonnet to Monistrol-d'Allier

Snow lay on the ground this morning
as I climbed up past farms,
then through forest
where everything was still
and snow hung on the leaves of the fir trees
magical, beautiful
Then came the descent to Saint Privat d'Allier
that I had been warned about
so I took extra care, and came down safely

to discover a magnificent 12th century church
Romanesque, its arches hewed from volcanic rocks.
Those who have done the Le Puy route
will all quickly tell you how up and down it travels
at the beginning.
The path climbed again out of St Privat
as I listened to the bells tinkling on the sheep nearby.

The chapel of Rochegude stood solid on its high rock
its position a statement from centuries past
its humble wooden floor, permeated with the very rock foundation
telling a story of simplicity to the present.
I ate lunch with a group on the hillock by the tower
camaraderie easy with fellow walkers
superb views all around.

A long rocky descent followed to Pratclaux
then more descent to Monistrol-d'Allier
resting place for the second night.

2012: I remembered feeling quite exhausted last time when I arrived in Monistrol d'Allier, and put it down to my newbie-ness. But I realised today that some parts were harder than I remembered- especially the descent from the little chapel of Rochegude, which had large rocks to clamber down, tricky for one with shortish legs. There was ample reason for my exhaustion! 
And yet I had remembered the snow that I had walked through in the forest near Montbonnet in clear detail. I was to discover how often my brain had done this: I remembered the weather I had encountered in certain places, but did not always have a good recollection of how difficult the terrain might have been.

I enjoyed the evening in the Gîte Tsabone very much. I had stayed here in 2008 also, but now it is run by a different young couple, and they were very welcoming. I met Brigitte and Christine here, two French cousins, and our paths were to cross often over the coming week.

Day 3: 16 April- Monistrol d'Allier to Saugues

I had heard about the steep climb out of Monistrol d'Allier
had seen how close the altitude lines were on the map
but in the end I found again that my fitness training counted.
A woman from Grenoble joined me as I slowly made my way up the steep road but I urged her on
...she was of mountain stock and I was holding her up.
She left me with encouraging words about each of us having our own rhythm.

It wasn't long before I came to this chapel,
at one with the volcanic rock,
photographed by everyone...
And after that the way became even steeper for a little while,
but taking it slowly, at my own pace
I was surprised by how quickly I had come to a place
where the slope reduced
and the walk became easy.

For a while I was surrounded by many hills
and my heart rejoiced as always with the views.
And later the walk became flat again,
with farmland that reminded me of home.

I was becoming used to the mud on farm paths
though I think the dragon-woman at the restaurant I reached for lunch was a bit shocked by my appearance!

There was another treasure of a place to stay this evening in Saugues,

a gite "a la ferme", aka the Martin's place.
My coming from New Zealand was a cause for some excitement
and I was given a wonderful room to myself
with views over the farmland
and when I went to the church that evening to get my credential stamped they already knew about the lady from New Zealand.
"Radio Camino" worked well in France!
Dinner as cooked by Mme Martin was a wonderful affair
with delicious food and good company: my four 'mates' from the first two nights saved me a place near them,
so they could help me
when the French around me was spoken too fast,

as I was the lone English speaker here...

Le Puy en Velay to St Privat d'Allier: YouTube

Day 4: 17 April- Saugues to Chanaleilles

In the landscape around Saugues, you pass quite a few local wooden sculptures as you walk. There is a wildness about them, that somehow speaks of the folklore that has been part of the isolation in the Auvergne for centuries.This tower stood out against the dark sky at La Clauze,
-winter had not let go its hold of the Auvergne,
whatever spring blossoms were evident in Paris.

The day got colder, ever so much colder,
but somehow the people all got friendlier,
and all made cheerful comments on the cold day we were sharing. I bundled myself up warmly in multiple layers!
This region of the Haute-Loire has many crosses in the landscape.
At first I saw them as sort of a protection,
that people were praying for those who passed by.
But later I think I learned that they were in fact a means of warding off evil ones from the villages we were passing through.
(Don't take this conclusion as gospel truth though: I often got half the story right with my limited French...)

At Falzet, on a farm, a farmer's wife was serving hot chocolate etc in her barn, and I gratefully imbibed. The welcome was warm, and the shelter was very welcome to give a break from the bitter cold outside. The hot chocolate was just the thing on a day that was becoming bleaker and colder as it worn on.The buildings in this area, made of the local stone,
looked sturdy against the elements.
I was deliberately taking 'short steps' these early days,
to break myself in gently... with such a long journey ahead...
It meant that many people I only saw on one day,
and then they passed on ahead of me along the trail,
but there were some people I came to recognise
who were walking similar stages to me.

There was a group of four ladies from St Etienne.
At Saugues they had befriended me
and made sure someone was speaking slowly enough for me at the dinner table.
This day they shared their lunch with me, local sausage and bread,
as we sat outside all bundled up against the cold while we ate.
(I haven't managed to make contact with these ladies to share my photos: if anyone reading this recognises them, I would be glad if you could tell them of my blog...)
And there was a family from Anjou, two parents and two of their four children, a daughter in her early 20s and a son who was about 8. I ended up staying in the same town/gite as them several times. This evening in Chanaleilles was perhaps the most special. We were staying in a gite a little way off the GR so there were not so many pilgrims. We arrived on this bitterly cold afternoon and the first thing that Mme Richard, the gite owner, did, was light the fire, which gave very quick and welcome warmth. Sitting in the comfortable lounge sharing some quiet time with this family, I felt very much 'at home'. At dinnertime we had to brave the elements to walk the short distance to the bar, but what a delicious meal. We had soup, perfect for such a cold day; then salad, with greens that the husband had collected freshly from the mountains that day. It was a lamb dish for a main. Great company and an excellent meal to give energy for the challenges of the next day.

Chanaleilles was only about a kilometre off the main track, and I am glad I stayed there. The cold weather limited exploration, but I saw the church, beautiful Romanesque with a distinctive belltower, and a medieval statue of the Virgin inside. And the gite was one of those very welcoming ones, pleasantly common in France, where the welcome in the afternoon gives renewed strength for the next day of walking.

2012: This time I was already well 'walked in' and never stopped at Saugues, but continued on to La Clauze. There are two rural gites there and I stopped at the gite des pelerins de Margeride. It was just lovely- very welcoming couple, and very much enjoyed the shared evening meal in their company. It cooled off in the evening- and they had a warming fire by the dining table.

 Getting my washing dry. It was chilly in the air, but much warmer than last time I passed this way when it snowed not far from here...