Photo: Abbey Church of St. Foy, Conques, in the mist.
In round figures Santiago is 1500 kilometres from Le Puy-en-Velay. St. Jean Pied-du-Port, at the bottom of the mountain border between France and Spain, is the half-way mark. Imagine setting off to walk from Kolkata to Delhi and arriving in, say, Varanasi. Or think about walking from Banda Aceh to Pekanbaru and getting to Medan. 750 kilometres of walking deserves a pause for thought.
There are some 80 or 90 ‘departments’ (districts) in France (French walkers seemed unsure of total numbers – some said 99). The Camino (Chemin de St Jacques in France, or very commonly the Way, after the Hollywood movie of that name) passes through a dozen or so of these ‘departments’, each with its own cheese and wine and little quirks. The size of a district is prescribed to be no more than a day’s horse-ride from any point within it to its capital. Clearly this was a determination of some import prior to the advent of motorised transport, which no one has seen fit to revise in the context of technological change.
Thirty to forty days of walking brings the pilgrim from the wealthy Upper Loir Valley, through the strangely barren areas of Lower Lot to Pays Basque, the last French district, before the Way crosses into Spain’s Basque province, more or less seamlessly.
Late September, sunrise is nudging 8 a.m. Just past the Autumn Equinox, the enormous honey-blonde Harvest Moon lights up the path, for the walkers setting out before dawn. The pilgrims are travelling south-west towards the Pyrenees. If the hiker is on the right track, the sun rises just behind her left ear every morning.
Early morning in the Pyrenees-Atlantique area of France, just before we enter Basque Country, the mist sits like a rings of smoke on the the ground. Here and there, the tree foliage stands out like spiky hair above the misty grey scarf hiding the trunk. You walk in and out of puddles of mist. Later in the morning, the glassy blue snow caps of the Pyrenees are visible a hundred miles before the pilgrims will climb through the passes into Spain.
The rising sun to my left, moonlit dawn in September, the first glimpse of the Pyrénées, would have been as true a thousand years ago as it is today, though the summer heat was less intense and the path more wooded in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, in this century, satellites, mobile phones and especially the little red and white way markers of the GR 65, have made navigation easy and walkers are in no danger of being savaged by packs of wolves!
Time and technology have transformed the way we walk the Camino, of course. Nonetheless, the walker’s relationship to the world around remains visceral in a way that seems to transcend time.
In Lyon, a young engineer points to the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière, towering over the landscape: ‘You see there – enormous church, dominating over the population. It’s saying like “beware little people, we the powerful are always watching you. Don’t do anything to challenge us!”’ The atheist post-colonial Indian tourist agrees readily – Churches are indeed, above all monuments to the greed and power of institutionalised religion; their glorious architectural forms mere covers for exploitation, first of the local peasantry and then of colonised populations all over the world.
As a walker on the Camino, the spire of the church is almost always the first sign of human settlement that comes into view. Things, even immense ones like cathedrals, appear only very slowly when you are walking. You see the tiniest cross on the horizon. If you are lucky and the road is flat, you might get there in 10 minutes. More likely, the path will go up and down and around a hillside, and the church will disappear a few times before becoming a real, fixed location, that you can actually depend on.
Usually a church means a village, which in turn holds out the promise of a cafe or a grocery, clean water to refill bottles, to throw over your burning face, or wash the mud off your knees where you stumbled. Even when the church is a mere shell, abandoned by whatever community once surrounded it, its porch will provide relief when the weather is inclement. In the Middle Ages of course the Church was pretty much the only institution that stood between the pilgrim and death from illness and starvation. Even today, in the middle of a 20 or 30 km walk, the sight of a church inevitably warms the heart. That moment’s sense of relief is not tempered by the intellectual critique that seemed so convincing to the tourist in Lyon, just two days before the start of the hike!
About 5 weeks into our journey, we had walked 10 kilometres one morning, before catching the first glimpse of a town. As always, a medieval church peering over the hill ahead alerted us to the impending coffee and tart for a kilometre or two before we got there. The 12th century building is now a museum. Monday mornings can be dead in many small towns. But Lectour was jumping. The patisserie invited with the smell of freshly bake croissants and provided the world’s best apple turn-overs. Town square was crowded, with bikes and cars buzzing around; people eating and drinking coffee al fresco. There was even a ‘petit casino’ – mini mart. The public toilets were spotless and there were welcome signs of ‘eau potable’ (drinking water) at the entry point to the town and again at exit.
Three hours later when the temperature climbed to 29, this town would have been palpably different. The slow 50 meter climb up to it would have felt like a nightmare. Outdoor cafes would have lost their charm. By 1 the bakery would be shut. The mid-day sun would have wiped out the shadow of the old church building over the town square, which would seem either deserted or too crowded for comfort.
When you are a tourist, you see a place, read the information to learn about this particular place which you have driven or flown in to see. It is already special and valorised as a ‘must see’ before you arrive. When you walk, you feel a place, as a step along the road. The road which brings you there is more important than the place per se. A travel writer is for ever trying to capture the ‘feel of a place’. For the walker that feel depends as much on the place as the state of her blisters or the weight of his backpack or the angle of the sun.
And the walker is by definition transient. The pilgrim never stays long enough to feel a place except as a brief moment in time. A different home every night. The traditional pilgrim hostels in Spain won’t let anyone stay for more than a night. Each town a one-night stand, fickle as the walker is.
Even milestones are unstable on the Camino. For three days in a row, we saw markers claiming to be a 1000 kilometres from Santiago! There are milestones scattered along the way marking distances to everywhere from Bali to Goa to Wagga Wagga!
Photo: Wagga Wagga 16975 m or kms?! Signpost in a squatter commune near Moissac.
Yes, milestones are a joke here. You can flush ‘em down the toilet.
Photo: Cafe just outside the fortified town of Navarrenx.
But over time, some locations have taken on a sort of ritual significance – St Jean Pied de Port is one of them. This startlingly beautiful walled town, on the bank of the River Nive, surrounded by mountains is the starting point for many contemporary pilgrims. In summer, on average 400 pilgrims take off from here towards Santiago, each day. Now in autumn, those numbers have dropped to about 250, the Pilgrim Office tells us.
As we walk down St Jean’s cobbled main street, Rue de la Citadelle, a group of Koreans, who are about to start, cheer us wth ‘wow’s, as veteran walkers with 750 kms under our belt. For many who started from Le Puy, St Jean is the end point. For me the endorphin and the resulting euphoria at reaching this milestone, is tempered by the farewells to friends of the road, most of whom I will never see again, and with whom I have nothing in common other than the strange practice of walking day after day on a road paved with legends and myths for over a thousand years.
Legends: Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan at the official 1000kms from Santiago milestone
Myths? Three Musketeers still on the Way? Photo by d’Artagnan.