Our second day of walking:
We were only a few kilometers from where we started, but I could already see a difference in the land around us. The farm dirt was no longer black with volcanic rock, but had softened to a deep brown. The trees were thicker. But the one thing that did not change, it seemed, were the hills.
Was there no level ground in Auvergne?
GR65 took pilgrims west, toward the sunset and the the remains of St Jacques. The rivers in France, or at least in this area, run toward the south, toward the Mediterranean. The result is that the Chemin de Saint Jacques encounters a constant series of steep, rocky climbs and then possibly steeper, rockier descents. The path out of St Privat was a steady ascent. I was stripping off my wool layers after half an hour, despite the chill in the air, sweating and swearing at the extra effort.
But there was so much to see, and I was feeling so good, that I almost didn’t mind.
We—well, I—struggled past farm buildings of crumbling rock, guarded by a legion of French chats who looked well fed and competent. We occasionally ran into other pilgrims on the trail; we would pass them or they would pass us with a polite Bonjour or Bon chemin (”Good way”).
Just past a cluster of houses too small to be a town, we finally came to the top of the hill…and stepped into a fairy tale. The trees cleared away, leaving only bright green, early spring scrub grass to cover the rocky outcropping. And there, sitting by the side of the road, guarding the valley, was a castle. Or at least, the ruins of a castle, which seemed even more appropriate. A crumbling, round keep balanced on the rocky crest, keeping watch over a sweeping river valley below. Just below the tower stood an intact chapel, built of rough stone that seemed to extend straight from the hillside, crowned with a haphazard tile roof and a belfry with real bells.
The date on the lintel of the chapel read 1328.
1328. The date was so old that I couldn’t put it into a context. I couldn’t imagine the world of 1328.
And yet there was nothing to keep us from scrambling up to explore. No gates or locked doors or “No trespassing” signs. There was no one else around. We shed our packs. While Eric climbed to the keep, I ducked under the low door to go into the chapel. A rough stone floor, with the rocks of the ground below breaking through in places, a few wooden benches, and—incongruously—what looked like a microphone stand.
The children’s song from my childhood started to play in my head on repeat: “The wise man build his house upon the rock…”
Outside, I climbed onto the edges of boulders and looked out over the valley below. I could see a train winding along a river, and in the distance the town of Monistrol d’Allier, our halfway point for the day. It seemed impossibly far away, but at least it was downhill. I tried not to look at the rows of mountains behind it. We would cross all of those.
But that was later. This was now.
In the opening paragraphs of her travel memoir Tracks, Robyn Davidson says, “There are some moments in life that are pivots around which your existence turns—small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track….[This] was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence—and lasted about ten seconds.”
That was me.
I was on top of a mountain, next to a castle, on a spring morning. I was past my lists, my maps, my plans. There was nothing beeping at me, rushing me, demanding me.
I was entirely present.
It was a mountaintop experience in more ways than one.