What is it like to walk the Via Podiensis, the Le Puy Camino? I’m starting to gather my thoughts and my notes for a talk I’ll give at the American Pilgrims on the Camino Gathering of Pilgrims next month in Asheville, and I keep coming back to the story of this day, which happened on our first week of walking, and which covers so many of the things I love about the French Chemin: the people, the rolling hills, the small and medieval villages, the open churches, and the long conversations over dinner.
I excerpt bits of this story when I speak to groups about the whole Walking to the End of the World adventure, but here it is, in its entirety, and with pictures.
We woke up in Saint Chely d’Aubrac, a town deep in a valley, built around a stream.
Wearing sandals had relieved the pressure on Eric’s injured Achilles tendon, but as he got ready the next morning we realized that it had caused another problem: the dreaded ampoule (a blister) finally struck, and in an awkward place between his toes.
We stopped to buy supplies at a miraculously open market, and when Eric sat down outside to adjust a bandage over his blister, he was immediately surrounded by concerned pilgrims. The two women from dinner offered their antibiotic ointment. A Frenchman we’d never seen before waved away our American Band-Aids and whipped out his own, presumably superior supply. Others paused with opinions.
When we finally got on the road, we joined our friends, who I called the Eight Walkers for a while along a wooded path, teasing them and being teased in return. I realized our language barrier seemed to be shrinking. Maybe I understood a few more words, but mostly, I realized, I was getting better at paying attention. I couldn’t think about other things while also miming my way through Frenglish. I had to stop worrying about whether my floppy sun hat made me look dumb, or about how my left toes were starting to ache again. The conversation was worth my full attention.
We split with the Walkers when they stopped to wait for their camper car and lunch. The trail continued to run perpendicular to rivers and streams, and we climbed and descended several times through forests full of chestnut trees as the morning wore on.
Despite the hills, I loved the woods and the soft, padded ground. I loved the shade and the way the trees framed pastoral valleys and lonely stone cottages.
Eric, it turned out, was not having the same experience.
Wearing sneakers protected his blister but ate into his ankle. Wearing sandals protected his ankle but rubbed the blister on his toe. He soaked his feet in an icy stream when we stopped for a break, but found little relief when we were moving.
Two days earlier, my feet had beaten me. Today, his were winning.
“I have one job to do, and I can’t do it,” he said in exasperation.
Fortunately, we were past the most remote portion of wilderness. When we saw the spires of Saint-Côme-d’Olt rising in front of us, we tossed the plan that would send us to a gîte still ten kilometers away.
We weren’t in a hurry, and this wasn’t a race.
The guidebook said that there was a gîte communal here and even indicated that the hosts spoke English. If they had room, we agreed, we would stop.
That spontaneous decision, driven by the only blister either of us had on the whole Camino, led to one of my favorite afternoons in France.
The twelfth-century heart of Saint-Côme-d’Olt is walled and medieval. To enter, we passed through a narrow gate and discovered the kind of twisted, cobblestone streets that could never support modern technology or cars, but even as I thought about the impossibility, a tiny French hatchback zipped by.
The gîte was as old as the town. A door right in the thick city wall led us up steep stone steps, deeply rutted by the thousands of feet that had passed the same way. In a long, narrow common room, a man introduced himself as Sylvain, from Montreal, and welcomed us in English.
“You’re the Americans! I heard you were coming!”
“We didn’t know until ten minutes ago that we would be here,” I stammered. “How did you…”
He laughed and waved us to rest at the table.
“It is Radio Camino,” he explained. “There are no secrets along the Way.” Someone who had met us had stayed here the night before. It was natural to tell the Canadian host about two other English speakers on the trail.
Sylvain led us up another flight of stairs to our low-ceilinged room. Four bunk beds stood on a rough wooden floor, but Sylvain said that so early in the season, we’d have the space to ourselves. The walls were stone, and casement windows opened out to a view of tiled roofs and the uniquely twisted steeple of the town’s church.
Every quirky corner and dark beam here made me happy. Eric could have the wild country. This was my kind of fairy tale.
I left Eric sitting in the sun, doctoring his feet, and went out to explore what the guidebook said was one of France’s most beautiful villages. Streets jutted at odd angles and wove in circles, with arches and unexpected staircases turning every alley into a postcard-worthy picture. The sixteenth-century church—practically modern history for France—was unlocked and deserted, and I explored it slowly, taking in the statues of the saints and the way the late afternoon sun glowed in the stained-glass windows.
I reveled in the chance to linger and study an image of Saint Roch, the popular figure who seemed to grace almost every roadside chapel of the region. In a sometimes overwhelming lineup of saints, Roch stands out. In every image, no matter how simple or ornate, he’s always lifting the hem of his robe and showing off more than a little thigh. And there’s always a dog leaning adoringly against his leg.
After a long, quiet time in the church, I meandered to an outdoor cafe, where I sipped a Leffe beer and half-heartedly caught up on my journal while watching the people go by.
“C’est bon?” the Brothers Grim asked, when they paused by my table to say hello.
Oui. C’est bon indeed.
When dinnertime approached, I went back to the city wall and my home for the night. A small group of pilgrims gathered at a long wooden table to share a simple curry dinner with Sylvain and his wife, Sabine.
The couple had met on the Camino ten years ago, Sylvain explained, and walked to Santiago together. He moved from Canada to France to marry Sabine, and now they ran this gîte for the city while saving money to open a pilgrim house of their own.
As the wine flowed, Sylvain described what he’d learned from his time as a pilgrim.
“It is a monastic life,” he said. “You wake up, you walk. When you arrive, you take care of your feet, you take care of your basic needs, and you eat. Do it day after day, and it becomes a meditation.”
He’d hit on one of the things that had been scratching at my mind all week.
We walk, we eat, we sleep. Is this IT?
According to Sylvain, yes.
And the way he said it, it was enough.