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The Pilgrim's Place

FRANCE | Thursday, 30 August 2007 | Views [2043] | Comments [1]

Who’s Guiding Whom Upon The Way?

The moment I stepped into Cahors the clouds opened their hulls. Cargos of rain poured as I laggardly entered civilization and sought shelter within a phone booth. Inside the one-man encasing, its’ glass shielded me, but a steady wind swept the water underneath on my sandals. I looked around and saw the town. My back was soar. My legs were stiffening. And my feet were getting wetter. I could even feel my head beginning to daze from exhaustion. The mind and body were spent, and so as I waited for the weather to calm I pulled open my shoulder bag and removed an apple. It was my seventh apple that day; another day on the apple diet. No, I had not seen any prunes or pears despite my eyes’ keen awareness. Only apples. And more apples.

Cahors would be the last time I would ever see The Way. As I wandered through the small picturesque town situated on a bend upon the River Lot—as I felt my body and listened deeper to a purpose gone unknown—I came to understand much about Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle. This was El Camino a Santiago de Compostella (its’ commonly referred to Spanish equivalent) and it was in Cahors in the region of Midi-Pyréneés in France where I finally saw The Way as being all I had dreamt of: it was rough, it was challenging, it was cultural, and it was isolation from the external world beyond me. The Way of Saint James was immense, and its’ scope of power and realization fulfilled most expectations. However, contrary to one, the land and its’ people guided me in the opposite direction.

Evolution of the Journey

From that phone booth in Cahors I recalled the route I traveled. It first begun in Le-Puy-en-Velay. Le Puy is the epicenter of Le Chemin de Saint Jacques. It was here that Pelayo, the abbot of the village, took the first steps toward Santiago de Compostella back in 951. He had a vision as the first catholic to pave the route; the first pilgrim adorned with a scallop shell to traverse France, hike over the mountains of the Basque country and trek onto the Spanish plateau to the northwestern coast where land meets ocean. He was following Saint James to a place where an ancient shrine was once erected by the saint’s disciples.

And so there I was in Le Puy, pursuing my own vision after the inspiration from a book written by Paulo Coelho entitled The Pilgrimage, which chronicles the author’s mystical quest along The Way. Now I was le pèlerin (the pilgrim), and I was about to begin my quest of what it meant to be a pilgrim.

Taking me back to the night I arrived in Le Puy, I remember it as being dark and cold. The winds were blowing and a firm layer of rain clouds drifted overhead. With my pack on my back, I set off from le petite gare (the small train station) to wander the streets in search of a place of rest.

The French love their social hours and they enjoy their respite. I came to a town during the hours of sleep and found almost everything locked and shut. Restaurants and brasseries were silent and hotel receptionists fell to sleeping behind their desks. Nothing seemed to stir, only a few local lovers up at the town’s highest point—the Church of Notre Dame.

I found myself here round midnight, as the last two lovers took their leave.

C’est frois!” one whispered to the other as they climbed into their miniature car.

Yes, it was cold. I was curled up on a bench in the church’s courtyard wearing every piece of clothing and a blanket, and still I was catching the shivers. My conscience swelled in and out of sleep for a couple of hours until I too took my leave. I continued wandering, back to the train station where it remained dark and damp, and then under a tree in a small central park. There, I stretched out my foam mat and curled up into a fetus position. The rains fell more consistently. The soils beneath me turned to mud.

With the first sounds of the new day’s traffic I was up. I wiped the mud off my mat and appeared to make myself as orderly as possible. With darkness still deep in the sky, I climbed back up to the church and sat beneath its’ stone portico. The time was 5:30.

I waited an hour and a half. The Church of Notre Dame is the starting point of Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle. It was here that Pelayo first began, and today it is here that the pilgrim receives the passport (la créanciale): a small booklet of collected stamps to prove one’s worthiness to the pilgrimage. Fortunately, I was in time for the daily mass. Beginning at seven, the service lasted one hour. Inside, the stones echoed the priest’s blessings and the nuns’ choir filled each niche, bringing life to the frozen statues. In the misty morning outside, the stained glass remained calm, gentle with the hues across the rainbow.

Shortly after nine in the morning on August 9th, 2007 I took my first steps. Up and out of Le-Puy-en-Velay the hills climbed. They took me onto a plateau and instantly I was in the French countryside. Here, clouds came closer to the earth and fields rolled along with their grains of harvest. Cylindrical bails of hay were stacked in open country and tractors groaned through the quiet of the day. Slowly, I came upon my fellow pilgrims who attended the morning’s mass, as well as others who had not. We exchanged French pleasantries, spoke briefly in our first day’s excitement and proceeded walking along separate paces. One man I met was German. He started his pilgrimage some years back from Nuremburg and each summer he took three weeks of his holidays to etch towards Santiago de Compostella.

“Where are you heading this year?” I inquired.

“Figeac. And then I must return to work.” He paused and took a breath. With a large pack, a camera strapped to his chest, a shoulder bag carrying his heavy water bottle, and a walking pole in each palm, he appeared to have his hands full. “Maybe,” he continued, “I will reach Santiago de Compostella in a few more years. Maybe.”

Coming Into Routine

Days soon fell into the next with the routine and constant pace. Without a map or a guidebook, things felt simpler. I followed the signs, bright white and red horizontal stripes that marked the GR 65. Upon trees, fence posts, electrical poles and signs these markings could be found as long as one kept their head up and their awareness keen.

To me, the white and red colors became a lifeline. If I strayed, I was lost and must backtrack. But if the eyes kept scanning the terrain ahead and to the side, I would be safe: a full 1600 kilometers from Le-Puy-en-Velay in the Massif Central region of France to Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain.

In the first week, the land was mountainous. Lush woods and verdant fields climbed up and down endlessly, bending me at the waist to a point where I tucked my thumbs into my pack’s shoulder straps and heaved. The land was like a bed of giant swells, rolling the pilgrim through the landscape and into small country villages where fountains (or eau potable) permitted one to quench his or her thirst.

Slowly, I began to feel the weight on my shoulders, and each day was different. Suddenly, from the first steps it became my back. Like a sack of potatoes, the terrain kept adding more and more harvest upon my back, and unhurriedly, as though with paternal persistence, each one began to sprout into me. The roots pierced my skin and wrapped around my spine. They twisted and grabbed hold, cracking new vertebrae and restructuring the body’s support. I came to feel like an old temple of Angkor Wat: In the Cambodian jungle, hot and sticky beneath the weight, I became contorted from the growth of the flora’s roots as they shifted and rearranged my bones. But there was nothing to do except move on and not forget to breathe.

Food was abundant along the trails. Overhead, apples in the hot sun hung before me; their boughs stretching beyond locals’ fences and finding their way into my hands. I ate when I came upon a full tree, plucking them off their nodes and discovering the sweetest to be lying on the ground, camouflaged within the grasses. Soon, my shoulder bag was full with ripe apples, crisp and sweet, warm on the outside but cool within the inner flesh. I was careful to spare the worms and stick to a vegetarian lifestyle.

Yes, there were apples and pears, as well as tangy blackberries and a variety of trees depositing the most succulent prunes—so called in French. To my common knowledge, they were plums, but much smaller and less robust. I was on The Way in prime summer season. The fruits were abundant, especially these prunes. Wherever I walked, through whatever terrain or degree of weather, prune trees scattered their savory morsels. They were squashed beneath the pilgrim’s progress and the open pits and rotting flesh carpeted the black asphalt. Bees and wasps hovered over their sweet odors and instantly I took to their liking.

Recalling The Meaning

These were the ten days prior to my arrival in Cahors. And as the rains softened into a fine summer mist, and as the humidity increased within the damp air, I recalled the days—their brilliant sense of adventure. Ten days of walking, of camping each night in field or forest and freezing in its’ chilled darkness, of eating wild fruit and collecting corn husks, of meandering alone, and of passing pilgrims and smiling and conversing.
Yes, ten days of covering over 500 kilometers. It was ten days of pilgrim-ing, to devise such vernacularisms, and so I stepped out of the phone booth and moved deeper into the city-center.

Along The Way one finds small kiosks and welcome centers for the pilgrim. Whether organized by the town or village, or perhaps by generous locals from out of their wayside barns, the pilgrim is welcomed with the shade of shelter and complementary drinks. Just across Pont Louis Philippe on the left side when entering Cahors, two women stuck their heads out of a small square construct.

Bon jour,” they both welcomed.

I stopped and peered back in. “Bon jour!

Viens, viens!” one called from behind a counter. “Le pèlerin, viens!
Inside, they instructed me to rest as I was fed dried prunes, apricots and dates and filled me with a sweet syrupy drink labeled Mente—or mint. They asked of my information—the basics such as name, age, country of origin and the start of my pilgrimage. And then, to my surprise, they found me my night’s accommodation. The one behind her small countertop called up the local Hostelling International Youth Hostel and reserved a bed. With a stamp in my créanciale I was off, satiated with the ease of knowing of my first bed and shower in weeks.

One fantastic characteristic of Youth Hostels is the common interest among all guests. Specifically, the one in Cahors, along with all the other gite d’etapes (or guest lodgings for pilgrims along Le Chemin throughout France), houses mostly pilgrims. In my ten-bed dorm room, the five other guests were indeed pilgrims. Each was French except two who originated from Holland. Having cleaned and showered, and as we organized our gear in preparation for tomorrow’s continuance, I thought of a fellow pilgrim—neither French nor Danish, but another German. His name was Tobias.

It was over a meal one night in the small town of Livinhac-le-Haut by the River Lot. I had spent the afternoon walking with Tobias and we instantly bonded. As we continued to talk that night underneath the plastic shelter of Camping Beau Rivage’s restaurant, rains lashed the grounds while brilliant flashes of lightning alighted the darkness of night. Thunder roared across the horizons like distressed phantoms, causing the electricity to flutter, and the energy of the evening rose. He inquired about my solitude.

"The whole way you will walk alone? All the way to Santiago de Compostella?"

"Yes," I replied. I then relayed my reasonings.

Tobias paused after I finished. He was respectful and heard my desire to be alone and learn from this solitude, but I could see he was thinking. At last he responded, nodding his head, but in that moment I could not grasp his full power: "You can't learn everything by yourself."

Tobias was right. In the days following, for the first time on all my travels I began to experience true loneliness. In the past, there were moments when I was overcome with being alone, but it was not a sense of missing someone—missing the gift of companionship. Albeit, while walking the last three days into Cahors, my mind struggled with a ping of loneliness that only grew sharper as my feet moved onward, rising and falling over the rocky terrain of southern France’s Lot region. The heat intensified in this dry climate as dust rose and my mind burned. I missed family. I missed friends. I missed the lifestyle I knew and it all twisted me into the struggle of confusion. Already I had been on the road for four months, walking from Dublin, Ireland to London, England; and now the question arose: When would it end?

As the days went passed and the moments alone walking, sleeping and eating gave me the space to truly feel, observe and rethink the train that blew its’ whistles through my mind, I came to see the reality of my present situation. Before me, I had one and a half more months of walking until reaching Santiago de Compostella. First I had to go up and over the Pyréneés. Second I had to keep moving; every day walking to an unknown destination where I would unpack my gear, curl up for a short night’s rest, and then pack it back up again the next morning for another day towards some other destination. Thirdly, I had the cold to combat as summer neared its’ completion and the transformations of fall descended upon me with its’ cascading leaves and gossamer webs. An august moon would shortly be in the past as the crisp winds sail over the Atlantic—clouds thick and their bellies full. I faced the facts: I was ill equipped and unprepared. I was quickly tiring.

The Last Steps of Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle


Those twenty minutes in that one phone booth with my seventh apple changed me. I saw both the external world of Cahors, as well as the internal world I was walking within. And as I laid down in the city’s HI Youth Hostel—clean and fresh—I closed my eyes and slept. The other pilgrims around me spoke of their onward journeys; some returning home, some to the end in a nearing Spain. Deep within me I knew that in less than a week I would be home and within my own bed. Secretly, my body understood this, as well as my mind. My soul was the mediator, laying down within me to point The Way.

Dreams come and dreams go. Changes arrive and changes pass. But standing firmly within is the pilgrim, taking every rise and fall, every twist and turn in steady strides. As if Tobias’ divination were the first sign, my solo-questing upon Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle came to a close. It all had come with enthusiasm, from the first steps to the last, and it left with an enthusiasm transmutated into deep appreciation. Two days after I arrived by foot into Cahors I left by train, traveling at exhilarating speeds northward into Paris. The factors were many to bring me to such a sudden conclusion, and it was El Camino a Santiago de Compostella that allowed me to experience these lessons. It was the art of the pilgrimage that presented me with the direction in which I was to proceed. Such is The Way, and such it would remain until the day I choose to return.

Resourceful Links & Info:

—The French perspective with information and guides for the routes through France:
http://www.chemins-compostelle.com/

—Your Spanish equivalent: http://www.caminosantiago.com/

—The American guide: enjoy the English language while you can before you practice your French and Spanish along The Way: http://www.caminhodesantiago.com/index3.htm

—Another fantastic website in a variety of languages for the numerous routes to choose from: http://www.santiago-compostela.net/

—Coelho, Paulo. The Pilgrimage. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.
Coelho’s blog can be found at: http://en.paulocoelhoblog.com/

—Hostelling International’s website, with worldwide locations and booking information: http://www.hihostels.com/dba/hostel020075.en.htm

—Camping Beau Rivage’s website, which is located in Livinhac-le-Haute along the River Lot: http://www.campingbeaurivage.com/

—Raju, Alison. The Way of St. James: Le Puy to the Pyrenees. Cumbria: Cicerone, 2003. An excellent compact guidebook for The Way covering two volumes: Le Puy to the Pyrenees and the Pyrenees to Santiago—Finisterre.

Tags: On the Road

 

Comments

1

aho brothers and sisters
my katharsis brought me to wicked situation- my heart is healing but babylon presure is to hard for me alone- also miss two stones- give in true hands and i need them back- so my plan is to go to chatre and after sevenne- le mare ans then espana. have to leave my cat and i am single again. now i look first in my german family but anyway i have to look in to eyes to now more about my heart- sorry for suffering feel free again- peace and love

  marcus pete Oct 21, 2008 4:31 PM

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