July 13, 2008

Whaddidya do on the Camino, Margaret?

Whaddidya do on the Camino, Margaret?
aka the whole long story without pictures - under construction!!!
Hmmm sorry.... this page seemed like a good idea when I started it, but it doesn't look like it is something I am ever going to finish. I might just leave the bit I have done though...

It was early morning when I arrived at Palmerston North airport on April 5th, the sun just rising and the skies gloriously coloured. And a few days later, my ‘pilgrimage’ began in Paris, as I visited some of the places that were on the traditional route pilgrims of St James took through the city.

I inadvertently stumbled on the pilgrim trail when I visited the Basilique St Denis, where Kings and Queens are buried. Here the architecture spanned time, with Romanesque pillars that merged into a Gothic style, and with remnants of an earlier building in the crypt. That evening I read that this was where pilgrims gathered from the north before crossing the city.

Next day I went on a ‘pilgrimage’ of a different kind, by travelling out to Auvers-sur-Oise, where the artist van Gogh lived his last weeks in the company of his brother Theo. I climbed an ancient set of stone steps, then stood in awe at the end of the old Gothic church, Notre Dame d’Auvers, painted by Vincent in June 1890. Both brothers are buried near a far wall in the local cemetery, their graves covered with a green leafy plant.

I began deliberately following the St James pilgrim trail in Paris on Friday 10th. First up I found the Tour St Jacques, now almost fully restored and looking glorious in the spring sunshine. I sat in the nearby garden contemplating it, thinking about the many pilgrims who had gone before. It almost seemed like at that moment I began my pilgrimage proper.

Then I visited Notre Dame, beautiful and inspiring as ever, but on this occasion I didn't stay long. I headed across the bridge and began to follow the Rue St Jacques, walking on up the hill, past the Sorbonne. It seemed like I was already moving into a different world, where pilgrims walked and the centuries merged. Eventually I came to the church of St Jacques Haut Pas that held an old statue of St Jacques. Although I felt very much like a tourist as I took photos here, it was also as if I had joined the throng of past pilgrims, turning my gaze backwards down the hill to farewell the city.

Next day I had to be at the train station early for my departure to Le-Puy-en-Velay, and was soon whizzing through the French countryside. As soon as I was on a more regional train after Clermont-Ferrand, the pace slowed and the countryside began to look more remote, which gave me a sense of excitement that the real walking adventure was imminent.

Le Puy has a beautiful setting, with the town nestled in a volcanic basin, and two tall 'puys' - plugs of hard lava- dominating the township. On arrival, I walked to my first gîte on rue des Capucins, the very street name an indication of the rich religious history of this place. The gîte itself was on the hill where pilgrims climbed to leave on their journey. (This was to prove helpful on Day 1 of walking, when I was able to climb to the Cathedral for the 7am Mass and blessing of pilgrims, without baggage, then collect my pack later en route out of town.)

I had left myself a day and a bit to explore Le Puy, and I began soon after arrival by walking towards the historical part of town, and up to the Cathedral. This was the first pilgrim challenge. It was a steep street, paved with some of the black lava from the area, leading up to the Cathedral steps. I thought that all good pilgrims about to embark on a walk through what was by all accounts fairly rugged countryside, should be able to manage these without puffing, so I tried to pretend it was easy enough by taking breaks to admire the view on the way up... So far so good. Then there seemed to be just a few more steps under the arches before I was in the door. Wrong! This was where the real pilgrim challenge-penance began, as the stairs wound around a few more corners that seemed to go on and on.... I finally arrived in the Cathedral doorway, unmistakeably puffing! (Next time I was ready for it, and it wasn't nearly so bad!)

However, it was all worth it. Despite their architectural glory, I often find the interior of European Cathedrals a bit 'too much' for my lapsed Catholic soul: they often seem 'dingy' and full of chapels to the historically wealthy. But this one was different from the start, seeming to hold an air of peaceful reverence. Near the door was a statue of "St Jacques" as St James is known in France, and it was bathed in a soft beautiful light that brought warmth to its wood. Next, a modern crucifix by Philippe Kaeppelin, made of bronze and glass, caught my eye as the glass reflected the light. Instead of being a sign of death, designed to thump fear into the hearts of all, this cross seemed to promise resurrection and life.

I then walked over to the statue of the Black Virgin. I had been told about this Virgin, and the long history of Marian pilgrimage to this city, by Fr Chris Skinner. He had also told me about how a young man had come to the Virgin's statue in search of a cure for his blindess, was cured and later studied for the priesthood. It was his experience that led him to gather others around him who shared a devotion to the Virgin, and later led to the establishment of the Marist Order. 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 there there was light permeating from behind, and I stayed long enough to say prayers for a few people.
I walked out into a maze of historic streets and saw the giant Notre Dame statue looming high above on its volcanic plug. I had thought that I would leave this climb for the next day, as it had looked so very high from below, but I realised I had already climbed some of this distance just getting to the Cathedral. The zigzag climb was much easier than it had looked from below in the township, and had resting places along the way to enjoy spectacular views of Le Puy, magnificent in the sunshine. It seemed a little odd though to be climbing up inside a Madonna statue, that was made from melted-down cannons...

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.

And would I do it again?
Strangely enough, Yes!
I wondered at odd times during the whole long walk, why people ever repeated this whole long experience…. but when I had finished I somehow understood. It has something to do with living a simple life, the rhythm of walking, noticing the 'little things' along the way, and meeting others with the same joie-de-vivre......
I see a possible starting point of Lourdes, then across the Pyrenees on the Somport Pass for the Camino Aragonese..... in the 5 year dream…..


  1. I really enjoyed reading your Blog! Thank you so much for sharing your Camino trip!

  2. Thanks anon..... and by putting your comment here you have made me realise that I have not gone far with this last section.... haven't even left Le Puy...hmmmmm...!!!!