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.