Stage One: Chemin de St Jacques
Cluny to Le Puy, February 17th to March 3rd
It seemed we were destined to walk the Camino. Well, in retrospect. I had six months long service leave and we had a house in France. Okay we could have stayed and enjoyed the local food, wine and terroire but from the first time we saw the scallop shell on a lamp post in Tramayes, which our house is on the outskirts of, we were hooked. Enough to do a one day course back home that told us the dos and don’ts of the Camino, to buy some books and watch a video or two.
Except that all of this convinced us not to do it. I’ve got past the stage of being able to convince myself bed bugs and snorers in dorms are an okay part of a holiday. The more we read about the hoards on the Camino Frances the more we thought this was not for us.
So the less walked French section, from Cluny Abbey (20 km from our house which is part of the first day’s walk) to Le Puy started to sound attractive. Most French pilgrims start at Le Puy, going to the border town Saint Jean Pied de Port where they’d pick up the hoards heading across the north of Spain. For us, to Le Puy was about 300km, more than enough I thought, given the longest walk I’d ever done was 120km around the Ring of Kerry (and okay we’d cheated one day, but our teenagers were the excuse). Seemed sensible and our heads could get around this. Little did we know…
We started on February 17th 2011. Madness I suspect M. Sotty the kindly bearer of our passport in Cluny surely thought. Still winter and no way the Aubrac would be passable. He gave us great advice though. Throw away the hiking boots and get light Gortex shoes. Given our knees were barely recovered from Macchu Pichu this seemed sensible. Light pack- of this I didn’t need to be convinced. Six kg for me, ten for my partner and this included a GPS and a light computer. And take piles of blister prevention and cure which we dutifully did. But I also washed our hiking socks every night religiously and hung them on the heaters- one of the advantages of winter. We never got one blister though saw much younger tougher people fall by the wayside with them!
We took it reasonably easily the first few weeks, days of 19 and up to 26 km, but also a 13km one when I thought my knee might have been injured (nothing a bag of ice couldn’t fix). We stayed in a variety of accommodation, B&B’s and small hotels, one monastery dormitory which we had all to ourselves. All booked three days in advance, but where ever we went a carafe of wine was always supplied (we cooked and brought our own at the monastery). The French know how to look after their walkers! We were also fussed over. By the B&B owners (whom we named: Mme Rouge with the red hair, Mme Damp who all but adopted me but her back room was moist, to say the least, M. Chef who looked after pilgrims as a way to have someone to cook for – and could he cook!). People stopping us in the streets excited about our quest (we didn’t tell them we were only going to Le Puy, or so we had thought), telling us about their own Camino, patient with our basic French.
Food never tasted so good. Hot pain aux raisins straight from the bakery as we left in the dark of the morning. Three pizzas one night, most days at least three pastries and I still lost weight!
We were very lucky with the weather. Only one day when it snowed as we walked, and sheltering in the alcove of the Montarcher church steps my fingers lost all sensation. But it was pretty and fun. For one day though! My bunions continued to ache but after only a five minute rest I could go for an hour. Our feet were always tired but all was forgotten as soon as we ate and drank. In all this time, we saw only one other pilgrim, a 19 year old Belgium with a 21 kg pack and a buggered knee. These two facts were closely connected! He was very sweet and each took pity on him and found him cheap or free accommodation. We gave him food and company on and off all the way to Conques.
Beautiful French countryside, hills that went on forever, spectacular views, quaint villages, remnants of past pilgrimages, crosses at every corner, a house with the sign of the Templars, this was the most beautiful part in retrospect of the entire journey. If not this, then the next section. Dragging ourselves into villages frozen, but relying on the guidebooks comments that the coffee shop or B&B was always open…. well except for Wednesdays (or whichever day you were there- days off for businesses seemed random), when their daughter is having a baby or … always doesn’t mean winter Madame!
When we saw the two major hills of Le Puy, one topped with a monastery and the other with Mary, we felt as if we were running. Over a celebratory dinner, there was no question. We would, of course, continue to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.