On the Monday after Easter three years ago, Eric and I arrived in Paris after an overnight flight. We took a train to Lyon, and then another one to Le Puy-en-Velay, one of the oldest starting points of the Way of Saint James, according to the twelfth-century guide for pilgrims—considered one of the earliest travel guides ever written—the Codex Calixtinus.*
With a bit of trial and error, and the support of several friendly French pilgrims, we found our gite for the night and got settled. And then, curious and full of nerves, we wandered through the old section of Le Puy, taking in its steep angles and red roofs and black stone. Crooked houses made of black volcanic rock leaned over streets barely wide enough for the occasional car to pass. Old women in long dresses sat in doorways and watched us.
For two Americans coming from a city barely one hundred years old, it all seemed straight out of a movie set.
The old section of Le Puy dates back well before the Camino ever existed. The cathedral of Le Puy was the most popular pilgrimage destination of France during the Middle Ages, boasting its own miracles and relics. Emperor Charlemagne visited twice, the first time in 772. Since then, the city has established itself as a commercial center known for its special lentils and artisan lace, but mostly, it thrives on its history.
Our meandering path brought us eventually to the heart of the town, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy.
The Romanesque cathedral dates to the early twelfth century, and it lacks the dramatic spires and outward ornaments of other, more famous structures along the Camino. The Le Puy cathedral sprawls rather than rises, its striped exterior of white sandstone and black volcanic rock spreading and twisting, until everywhere I went in the neighborhood seemed to end in some side entrance to the cathedral grounds.
The church was unlocked, dark, and mostly empty in the quiet of midafternoon. We tiptoed through the echoing stone sanctuary and studied the elaborate altar, where the small face of the cathedral’s Black Virgin looked out from above a stiff, conical robe of gold brocade.
There are ebony statues like this of Mary and the Christ Child scattered across central Europe. Most date to medieval times—the Black Virgin in Le Puy is a replica of one given to the church by Louis IX as he returned from a Crusade in 1254 (the original was destroyed in the French Revolution)—but the symbolism behind their appearance has been lost to history and is still debated today.
The next day at the pilgrim’s blessing ceremony, we were given small medallions, stamped with the Madonna’s conical form. I wore it all the way to Finisterre.
After paying our respects at the altar, we stopped in the cathedral gift shop to get a credential stamp, and Eric picked out a French-language guidebook with detailed information about gîtes and other services along GR65, the French Grande Randonnée hiking route number for the Way of Saint James between Le Puy and Saint Jean Pied-de-Port. That book, Miam Miam Dodo (which translates to something like baby talk for “yum-yum sleep-sleep”), became our primary reference all the way to the Spanish border, despite its silly name.
From the cathedral, we climbed toward the most visually familiar icon of Le Puy, the chapel of Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe.
The tenth-century structure rises improbably out of an almost vertical needle of volcanic rock three hundred feet—or, in France, eighty meters—high. At the base of the 268-step climb, a ticket collector warned us that the site would close in fifteen minutes. We could probably make the climb to the top, he said, but we wouldn’t be able to linger. And yes, we’d have to pay full price for the tickets.
Eric and I thanked him, but decided to pass, a decision I’ve regretted ever since.
Instead, figuring we needed all the help we could get on this adventure, we wound back to the pilgrim welcome center, just across the street from the cathedral, in time for the daily information session.
We found about a dozen people already there, sitting in an awkward circle in front of a fireplace. The volunteer hosts, who of course spoke only French, asked a question that set off a round of what seemed to be introductions.
When I told the group that my name was Beth, I saw a lot of furrowed brows. “Bett?” The host’s mouth twisted, as if he couldn’t quite get the syllable out. I remembered that Isidore, too, had trouble with my name.
“Elizabeth?” I offered.
Everyone relaxed and smiled. “Ah! Elisabet!” And just like that, I changed my name. For the next thirty-five days I was Elizabeth, a name no one but my immediate family had ever used before.
The adventure had begun.
* According to Codex Calixtinus, there were four primary pilgrim routes that developed in France to funnel pilgrims together and guide them past other holy sites on their way to Santiago: Vía Podiensis began in Le Puy, Vía Turonensis began in Paris, Vía Lemovicensis began in Vézelay, and Vía Tolosana began in Arles. Back then, St. Jean Pied-de-Port, which is now one of the most popular places to start a Camino, was just a small border town where pilgrims funneled after traveling for weeks or months.