Cheese and Wine on the Pilgrim Trail
Trip Start Jan 28, 2012
19Trip End Jan 28, 2013
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The legend of St James holds that he preached the gospel in Spain and was beheaded (martyred) in Jerusalem in AD 44 by Herod Agrippa,
The Way to
Santiago de Compostela has existed for over a thousand years and was very significant in medieval times, but its importance had reduced with the passage of time. During the Middle Ages, the route was heavily travelled. However, in 1987 only 690 people made the pilgrimage, but since then however the route has attracted an increasing number of modern-day pilgrims, last year the number was 179,919. There is a number of possible reasons for this increase, the route was declared the first European Cultural route by the Council of Europe in October 1987 and in the same year the famous author Paulo Coelho (who wrote The Alchemist) released his first book “The Pilgrimage” about his experiences on “The Way”. Just recently I've been told a movie with Martin Sheen called “The Way” has been released so the walk should become very popular in the future. I’m glad we haven’t seen the movie yet.
A 13th Century poem quotes of the Camino (“The Way”) “The door is open to all, to sick and healthy, not only to Catholics but also pagans, Jews, heretics and vagabonds”. So that covered us.
Historically, most of the pilgrims came from France. So we followed suite and decided to start the camino in France at a traditional starting point at Le Puy. Apparently the first foreign pilgrim (non Spanish) to reach Santiago was a French Bishop from Le Puy. We planned the first section of our walk along the original trail known as “the way” from Le Puy, 200km to the important pilgrimage monastery at Conque, a ten day walk. The entire way extends for 1570 km to Santiago. The trail we walked covers a range of environments across some of the least inhabited areas of France, from and vineyards to fields of crops to forests and the high snowy plateau’s of heath and summer grazing pastures. The way connects up small towns and villages each with churches and chapels and shelters for the spiritual and physical support of pilgrims.
We started our walk the traditional way by attending the early pilgrims mass at the “Notre Dame” cathedral in Le Puy. We were the only English speakers in the small gathering and blundered through and received our "pilgrim's passport", the credencial is stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or refugio at which the pilgrim has stayed. It provides you with access to pilgrims shelters and hostels along the route (as pilgrims on the route average accommodation was 13 Euro pp (A$17) and provides proof to the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago that the journey is accomplished according to an official route.
This was an interesting trek because your not considered a tourist but rather a more respected position as a pilgrim where the local communities have an obligation to assist you. So along this trail old historic and relatively new springs and fountains provide drinking water, some picnic tables for rest and lunch, some simple huts have been built to provide shelter in bad weather and in some places hot tea or coffee and cool water are left in shelters by local villagers or farmers for pilgrims.
We stayed in the full range of accommodation Hotels, local family homes set up for pilgrims, to pilgrim gites were you found a bed for the night dormitory style, community voluntary accommodation were you left a donation for the room, to convents and abbeys. Sometimes it was just for the room and other times it included half board which was breakfast and dinner for an extra 10 Euros.
A great part of the trip was the fantastic supply of local food. We would load up each morning with a fresh baguette some local cheeses, some cured meats, tomatoes and more often than not a local bottle of wine for an afternoon picnic. One afternoon after a good walk we hit the lunch time markets and managed to devour a baguette along with a spatchcock or pheasant, a rack of pork ribs, a large duck leg and washed it down with a bottle of red wine (see photo). That afternoons walk was the most tiresome difficult day we had on the whole trip. At night when places offered half board we sampled local cuisine such as regional green lentils and mushrooms and aligole (a combination of mashed potatoes and a lot of cheese) (see photo) Aubrac cattle, duck, wine and bread. Its hard suffering the pilgrim trail in France!
We met all sorts of people on the trail, an elderly family of Germans who walk a 200km section of the way each year having started in 2005; a Norwegian couple walking for a month; a Dutchman walking from his home town in Holland doing 60km a day hoping to finish in 4 months; a couple of Korean Buddhist nuns; a French teacher from Oklahoma; a tattoo artist from France that would start his day smoking a big joint; a Spanish man who was walking to the French / Spanish border, meeting his fiancÚ there and walking to Santiago De Compostella to getting married at the cathedral.
We walked about 20km each day which took around 7 - 8 hrs walking, looking and resting. The daily trail was easy to follow marked by red paint lines on the route to follow and crosses on the roads to avoid and every so often an old stone cross on the wayside. Occasionally we came across signs on the fences and able to read more French than Mel usually interpreted these as “Don’t worry everything is fine, just keep doing what your doing and enjoy yourself” (see photo).
The monastery in Conques holds one of the greatest medieval treasure collections in Europe, much of it buried and hidden during periods of war. The center piece of which the monastery was founded is the relic of St Foy a girl who was martyred for her beliefs. Around a piece of her skull has been built a complete person originally of wood and then sheathed in gold and precious stones. The relic looked very much like an idol built by the Inca in South America, very eerie. The night of arrival in Conques was a pilgrims gathering for all those who completed this leg of the journey. During dinner Mel told me that when she checked us into the Abbey dormitory, that we had been the first English speakers to arrive for the day, and when requested she had volunteered us … actually me to present the pilgrims benediction in English at the cathedral that night, not bad for someone of protestant extraction.
A reflection to ponder along the slow landscape and quiet periods of this walk and the next Spanish section that we are about to undertake to do the final leg to Santiago may well be from Paulo Coelho's book “The Pilgrimage” the important thing is not the finding of yourself, but what do you intend to do with that knowledge, after you’ve found it?...............yeah that question should keep us going for a while.