I came to Le Puy after being inspired by a book written by Paulo Coelho entitled The Pilgrimage, which chronicles the author’s mystical quest along The Way of Saint James (Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle) or El Camino a Santiago de Compostella – its commonly referred-to Spanish equivalent. This lengthy pilgrimage from France across the Pyréneés and traversing Spain is rough, challenging, cultural, and it is isolation from the external world for le pelerin (the pilgrim).
Le-Puy-en-Velay 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 Cathedral 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.
The night I arrived in Le Puy it was 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 to rest.
The French love their social hours and enjoy their respite. I came to 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 there around midnight, as the last two lovers took their leave. “C’est frois!” one whispered to the other as they climbed into their miniature car.
It was cold – I was curled up on a bench in the church’s courtyard wearing every piece of clothing I had as well as a blanket and I was still catching the shivers. I fell 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. I stretched out my foam mat and curled up into a fetal position. The rains fell more consistently. The soil beneath me turned to mud.