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••• The International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Pilgrims in France

A Walk on the French Side
• Jane Anderson

Roadsign France

Holiday in France. Climb the Eiffel Tower then visit Les Deux Magots for a restorative coffee. Head south to the sun, join the beautiful people gently roasting on la plage. Travel north to Normandy, indulge in Calvados, then on to the sombre beaches, still littered with grim debris dating back seventy five years.

On the other hand, you might decide to walk back in time on the Route St Jacques, through diverse, yet always beautiful countryside, in the footsteps of the first pelerins.

Le Puy The Route is the French leg of the famous Camino, St Iago de Compostella becoming St Jacques. It starts at Le Puy en Velay, famous for lentils but with a rich history and architecture that overshadows the humble pulse. [At this juncture it is fair to warn that lentils will appear at every evening meal, you will eventually adjust to this, hopefully.]
Photo: Cathedral de Notre Dame Le Puy

In Le Puy it is compulsory to climb the 134 steps up to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, passing the lacemakers, where you can purchase your creanciale at the start of your challenge. This 'passport' is stamped by chapels, many cafes, hotels and shops along the Route, often with the image of St Jacques with his staff and scallop shell. It is probably one of the cheapest yet most evocative souvenirs you will ever buy. While in the cathedral, make time to see the Fever Stone, associated with visions of the Virgin which led to the first building, constructed in about 430AD. It was built on a steep volcanic plug, as was the chateau at Polignac nearby. Likewise the Chapel of St Michael, built in 962, to commemorate Bishop Gothescalk's return after he led the first French pilgrimage to Compostella. These sheer rocky formations tower above neat fields and small villages, lending an almost unearthly appearance to the landscape. Le Puy also prepares you for the cultural contrasts you will meet along the way; at 16 metres high, looming over the city, the religious statue of Notre Dame de France was constructed from cannon captured at the siege of Sebastopol. Our first day on the Route we clamber up a similar peak and enter an ancient pilgrim's chapel, fragrant with fresh flowers, from where we look down on a densely wooded valley impassable by road. A whistle shrieks and the high speed train from Paris to Marseilles flashes through the forest, bringing us back to the present day.

We swiftly discover that French rural life revolves around the village cafe. The first one is crowded with men of a certain age, most of whom had brought their terriers, enjoying a small aperitif at 11am. In this somnolent atmosphere the dogs also relax, one even rolling off the table while asleep. But no women. In two weeks we visit many cafes and never see any females. So where are they? We can only hope that they have somewhere to congregate and chat, preferably over something less caustic than the local pastis. Or perhaps they actively encourage their menfolk to leave the house in the morning.

In the centre of every village stands at least one war memorial. But such were the losses, particularly in 1914-1918, that some areas have separate memorials for individual battles, the Marne and Verdun exacting heavy tolls from these small townships. It is not unusual to see ten young men sharing the same surname, lost within days of each other.

What, then, must those who were left have felt at the start of the Second World War? In Aumont a memorial records the execution of members of the Maquis. In Espalion, more reminders of a recent tragic past, where a plaque on the Town Hall lists the Jews from the area that had been sent to Auschwitz. Yet on the same day we stop at a church where the priest had been decorated for bravery post-war as he had hidden Jewish children there for the duration.

Photo: L'église paroissiale St-Jean-Baptiste


Espalion Eglise

French cuisine, world famous for its excellence, can be inconsistent on the Route. Early on, we have our first experience of 'aligot'. As ubiquitous as lentils, this mashed potato mixed with stringy cheese is such a local staple that it can be bought frozen, in village supermarkets. One leaflet states that 'aligot' was devised in the sixteenth century by a pious lady to sustain the pilgrims. Its glutinous texture hints at wallpaper paste; the only way to digest it is to mix in a few lentils and chew briskly. It will take me some time to forget the lunch stop in a restaurant in Aubrac, where the chef proudly displays his catering certificate dated 1959. Our companions ordered omelettes, which rapidly appeared and were even more swiftly removed, no explanation given. We then watch in disbelief as two walkers arrive, are seated, then the chef emerges from the kitchen carrying a large pot of aligot from which he anoints this hapless pair on their heads. They appear to take it in good part, while not being over-enthusiastic.

A place of Refuge France We can only hope they are local, with a sense of humour. On the other hand, enterprising farmers' wives produce excellent coffee and delicious fruit tarts in several places along the way. Some go even further by providing shelters where we can have 'interior picnics', and we meet up several times with other groups on the Route in these sociable surroundings. These shelters are often advertised several km in advance; on a wet day knowing that 'Chez Jerome' is imminent is a great boost. At the final destination, Conques, do sample the ice cream. You will have earned it!

Contrasting landscapes on the Route enhance the sense of discovery, and each day is different. The same can be said of the weather. We were lucky to see the dramatic gorges of the Allier river in sunshine, dappled through trees, footpaths rather than roads. Later heavy rain and mist obscure much of the Aubrac plateau, the clanging of cow bells the only indication of their presence. On May 22nd these cattle will be decorated with fresh flowers and paraded through the villages before going up to high pasture for the summer. More of the plateau is revealed as the mist lifts, and drifts of wild flowers scatter vibrant colour which fades into the distance. Heading west, we leave modern France behind, entering the Lot Valley in brilliant sunshine and climbing gradually above the river to St Com d'Olt, an old walled town, dusty and drowsy at midday, before descending to Espalion via a wayside church unmissable due to its primitive carvings, seen by climbing narrow stone stone steps to an upper chapel. By now, many signs are in Occitan, the local dialect still widely used in this area. Timelessness is intensified by the lack of roads, isolated farms and, walking over the bridge into Estaing, looking up at the chateau dominating the town, we are surprised to see cars carefully navigating the cobbled streets.

We don't see crowds. But over the two weeks we see people, all walking the Route. Nationalities range from Germans to New Zealanders and a shared camaraderie blossoms - in cafes, shelters and wayside chapels. A young French man is accompanied by his enormous dog. He outstrides us every day and we track him down in villages by spotting his backpack, usually outside the bar, guarded by said dog. A jolly band of South Africans are having a two-week walking reunion, while our group ethos is 'the world is better on foot'. Yet even in this secular age, we meet pilgrims like the middle-aged man, wearing a Paris rowing club jacket, who prays in every chapel. Such is the sense of peace in Conques that several of us attend Mass in the Abbey. It just seems the right thing to do.

Whatever your faith, or lack of, it is impossible not to be moved by the tiny chapels along the way, some built as spiritual shelters for 'les pelerins' by others who had completed the Route, often all the way to Santiago de Compostella. Many had local volunteers in situ, stamping creanciales and chatting to travellers. Other churches are silent, oases of peace, obviously swept daily, gently scented by flowers. Wayside crosses, again often placed by pelerins, appear in random places along the Route. It is easy to miss the fourteenth century cross on the bridge in St Chely d'Aubrac, you are distracted by the swiftly flowing river and houses tumbling down its banks. My personal favourite is not so ancient; between Le Faux and Aumont Aubrac a tiny cross is crudely carved onto a village wall. Unusually it is dated; 1742. Think of the hands that have touched that rough stone; consider France's tumultuous history since that date.

Conques France

Too soon we are walking down our final hill into Conques, back into the Middle Ages, when the town grew around the eleventh century abbey. A network of narrow alleys are enclosed by strong defensive walls and a dry moat; this fortification went a long way to preserving unique mediaeval architecture during tumultuous times. The Abbey is listed on UNESCO's World Heritage list; don't miss the detail in the tympanum above the main door.

Photo: Conques: Pop 287 -ish

Conques is the end of our pilgrimage; here we draw together the strands of our journey. We see many pelerins we have already met along the route, mingling together at last. Our young Frenchman is lighting his primus stove on the Abbey lawn, watched by his ever-attentive dog. The New Zealanders are going on; they have three months' leave and will walk the entire route to Santiago De Compostella. The South Africans are saying their goodbyes; later in the year we meet one of them in Sussex, on the South Downs Way. We see our Parisian rower at Mass in the morning. And we must go too, into a minibus bound for Toulouse airport. The shock of returning to the present day momentarily stuns us; but the atmosphere of peace and timelessness we found on the Route St Jacques will remain for a long time.

© Jane Anderson May 2019
anderson.clan at

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