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Monday, 05 May 2008

The Pilgrim’s Place: Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle

Written by Cameron Karsten
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The Pilgrim’s Place: Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, Santiago de Compostella, El Camino a Santiago de Compostella, The Way of Saint James, pilgrimage France

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.

The Pilgrim’s Place: Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, Santiago de Compostella, El Camino a Santiago de Compostella, The Way of Saint James, pilgrimage FranceI 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.

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. The Pilgrim’s Place: Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, Santiago de Compostella, El Camino a Santiago de Compostella, The Way of Saint James, pilgrimage France 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 reflected the hues of 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 at 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. It was 1600 kilometers from Le-Puy-en-Velay in the Massif Central region of France to Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain.

“Where are you heading this year?” I inquired. “Figeac, and then I must return to work,” He said and then paused to take 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.”

All the days soon fell into one another with the routine and a 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 had to backtrack. But if my eyes kept scanning the terrain ahead and to the side, I would be safe.

The Pilgrim’s Place: Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, Santiago de Compostella, El Camino a Santiago de Compostella, The Way of Saint James, pilgrimage FranceIn 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 the aching of my back. 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. The Pilgrim’s Place: Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, Santiago de Compostella, El Camino a Santiago de Compostella, The Way of Saint James, pilgrimage France

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. This was prime summer season and the fruits were abundant, especially the prunes. Wherever I walked, through whatever terrain or degree of weather, prune trees scattered their savory morsels. They were squashed beneath the pilgrim’s feet 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.

The Pilgrim’s Place: Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, Santiago de Compostella, El Camino a Santiago de Compostella, The Way of Saint James, pilgrimage FranceThe 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, shielded by the glass, a steady wind swept the water underneath onto my sandals. I looked around and saw the town. My back was sore, my legs were stiffening, and my feet were getting wetter. I could even feel my head beginning to daze from exhaustion. My 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; I was on an unintentional apple diet. I had not seen any prunes or pears despite looking—only apples and more apples.

As the rains softened into a fine summer mist, and the humidity increased within the damp air, I recalled the days—their brilliant sense of adventure. So far it was ten days of walking, covering over 500 kilometers, camping each night in a freezing field or forest, eating wild fruit and collecting corn husks, meandering alone, and passing pilgrims and smiling and conversing. 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.

The Pilgrim’s Place: Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, Santiago de Compostella, El Camino a Santiago de Compostella, The Way of Saint James, pilgrimage France

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 with a sweet syrupy drink labeled Mente—or mint. They asked for 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 I’d have my first bed and shower in weeks.

One fantastic characteristic of youth hostels is the common interest among all guests. The hostel in Cahors, along with all the other gite d’etapes (or guest lodgings for pilgrims along Le Chemin throughout France), houses mainly pilgrims. In my ten-bed dorm room, the five other guests were also pilgrims, three French and two from Holland. Having cleaned, showered, and organized our gear in preparation for the next day’s continuance, I thought of a fellow pilgrim—neither French nor Danish, but another German. His name was Tobias.

We met 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 ground while brilliant flashes of lightning lit the darkness. 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 reasoning.

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 words 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— it was missing the gift of companionship. Albeit, while walking the last three days into Cahors, my mind struggled with a 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 my journey end?

My moments alone walking, sleeping and eating gave me space to truly feel, observe and rethink. 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 place. Third, 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 sailed over the Atlantic—clouds thick and their bellies full. I faced the facts: I was ill equipped and unprepared. I was quickly tiring.

As I wandered through the small picturesque town situated on a bend upon the River Lot, I came to understand much about both the external world of Cahors, as well as the internal world I was walking within. And as I lay down in the city’s 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.

Cahors would be the last time I would see The Way of Saint James. As if Tobias’ divination were the first sign, my solo-questing upon Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle came to a close. From the first steps to the last, it all came with enthusiasm, which transformed into deep appreciation. Two days after I arrived by foot in Cahors, I left by train, traveling at exhilarating speeds northward to 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 of Saint James, and such it remains until the day I choose to return.

The Pilgrim’s Place: Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, Santiago de Compostella, El Camino a Santiago de Compostella, The Way of Saint James, pilgrimage France

Resourceful Links & Info:

—The French perspective with information and guides for the routes through France:

—The Spanish equivalent:

—The American guide: enjoy the English language while you can before you practice your French and Spanish along The Way:

—Another fantastic website in a variety of languages for the numerous routes to choose from:

—Coelho, Paulo. The Pilgrimage. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.

Coelho’s blog can be found at:

—Hostelling International’s website, with worldwide locations and booking information:

—Camping Beau Rivage’s website, which is located in Livinhac-le-Haute along the River Lot:

—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.

© Cameron Karsten

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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