Archive for the ‘A. THE START’ Category

You’re on the track, your all is on your back.

So how do you find your way, find accommodation, food?

Finding your way on the Camino is not that hard. The whole trail is marked, mostly with the white and red stripes on rock, tree or pole. It’s possible to miss the balisage, or markings, and to stray, but not likely.

As for food and lodging, much advice is available on the forums and at the frequent tourist offices in France. But the killer-app, for those with a little French, is the extraordinary Miam Miam Dodo guide.

Miam Miam Dodo is French baby talk, meaning Yum Yum Beddy-bys. You get day-to-day maps with distances, landmarks, shops, water points and detailed food and accommodation info. With a French mobile phone, you’re as covered as you can be.

A few people camp out, and I’m thinking of taking a light tarp next time so that I can take the camping option in good weather if I come across a tempting spot like this, late in the day:

The snoring in shared accommodation is a very big problem and is not something I can live with, so a mix of camping and individual accommodation is now my preference. Mind you, one should not miss the communal atmosphere of shared meals in abbeys and pensions. During the day, unexpected conversations and instant friendships on the track, with such a mix of races, languages, ages and characters, make the Camino something much more than a big hike.

We’re pilgrims!


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…you’ll need a créanciale, a kind of pilgrim’s passport which is obtained and stamped at the cathedral and then each day at any rest point, major religious centre or any accueil, which is a sort of welcoming office. A créanciale isn’t compulsory, but it smooths the way and makes a fine detailed memento. Get one.

Of course, you’ll also need a good pack and good gear. For endless debate and comment on the subject, check out the Santiago forums. One personal thing, which is a touch controversial: I find that a light pack can be a heavy pack once you start putting things into it. A full sized, full featured pack with a plush harness is one thing I don’t quibble about. Save weight elsewhere…but save it! Beware of the spare anything.

Now go!

No, wait. Have you checked out this lovely old town you’re already in? Before you trudge off to another? Le Puy has lace…

…and charming ancient alleys…

…and it’s just so cute…

Okay. Now get your stamp and start walking toward the Atlantic Ocean.

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Le Puy-en-Velay is the most popular of remote starting points for the pilgrimage to Compostela. A fast train, the TGV, bolts across the richer, flatter country of central France to St. Etienne. From there you take a regional train to Le Puy.

Abruptly, you are in France Profonde: difficult country of unusual productions – lentils and lace! – and unusual beauty. As one walks west from here, everything will change daily: landscape, architecture, crops, geology, but the various parts of the pilgrim way are connected by more than pilgrims. Many variants of an old language are scattered across the south and centre, even to the edge of the Basque country. It may be called Languedoc, Bearnais, Gascon. Most commonly, it is called Occitan. Rare and moribund, it may only decorate street signs for a little tourist value; but these fragments of the language of the troubadours and Cathars remind us that Paris and l’Europe are far away, and have always been far and even a little alien.

A chapel, Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, perched on its volcanic “needle”, was built more than a thousand years ago. The name of the rock formation, Aiguilhe, like that of the city it dominates, is Occitan. One wonders where the wealth and resources came from that could permit such an ambitious project. Well, as we know from dry and infertile Siena, there is money in pilgrimage, and pilgrimage is old business here in Le Puy.

The chapel’s interior is worth the climb.

We know more of how another landmark was produced. Our Lady’s statue, atop its needle, was made from melted down Russian cannon captured in the Crimean War. Things were going well for Napoleon III and maybe he decided to whoop it up a bit and also please his (then) strongly Catholic support. I’ve never really grasped what France’s various Bourbons and Bonapartes were trying to achieve – the first Bourbon excepted  – but somehow I’m happy to see Notre Dame de France forming a lofty threesome with her Cathedral and Saint-Michel’s chapel.

And it’s the Cathedral of Notre Dame which is the exact starting point for pilgrims in Le Puy.

I cheated a little and visited the day before leaving. But I was there, and passed though that archway.

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Why pilgrimage, why St. James, why on foot from so far – from France, Switzerland, from even further, to the western extremity of Spain? Why any of it?

There is no reason. Or there are a hundred reasons: faith, tourism, escapism, curiosity, fitness, vanity, tradition, piety, crime, altruism, exploitation, contemplation…some or all of the above, and much more. A thousand years ago or today.

Back when the world was warm enough and safe enough, millions made their way across France and Spain to the supposed tomb of that cranky evangeliser of the West, James. They followed, like Charlemagne, the line of the Milky Way.

With harsher weather and wars and wolves and roadside crooks and Louis XIV and Carmelite massacring revolutionaries…it all slowed. Through the quiet centuries, a few souls still struggled to Santiago – even across France, along the Aubrac plateau and across the Pyrenees, juggling the seasons to make it through.

The world is again warm enough and safe enough to enable hundreds of thousands again to make their way to Santiago, St. James, in Compostela. This year being a holy year – with the saint’s feast falling on a Sunday – the crowds will probably swell to the greatest number since the middle ages.

They will come, religious and irreligious. For no reason, for a hundred reasons.

An often heard French pilgrim song calls the Camino, in rough translation, “the road of earth and faith, the millennial way of Europe, Charlemagne’s Milky Way.”

So we walk.

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…and pausing half-way in Pamplona. [BUT SEE: UPDATE]

SlowCamino is an account of one pilgrim’s sluggish progress toward Compostela. Posts will follow the timeline and east-west direction of my fifty-plus days walking along – and up and down! – the Chemin du Puy, the beautiful and very strenuous pilgrimage route across France.

Wishing you were there?



The blog will continue, tracking my progress over the Pyrenees into Spain…

…across its northern meseta

…over the Cebreiro…

…into Galicia…

… to the end of pilgrimage at Santiago de Compostela.

Then a traditional extension of pilgrimage to the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Finisterre.

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