Pilgrimage – originally a journey to the shrine of a saint or holy person, undertaken alone or in the company (think the Canterbury Tales) to give thanks, worship, ask them for something or just taking the time to work things out at a turning point in life. Some hardship is usually involved – travelling on foot for example – and the separation from everyday life is an important element. The journey itself – or the spirit in which it is undertaken – is as meaningful as arrival at the destination.
The origins of the pilgrimage to Santiago of Compostella was to visit the tomb of St James, one of the 12 apostles, who is said to have journeyed to Spain to preach the gospel. In the last 30 years, this has become a very popular pilgrimage largely due to the Council of Europe in 1987 declaring it as the first European cultural route. Consequently certain parts of the route – particularly the Camino Frances in Spain – have become the pedestrian equivalent of a pilgrim motorway.
July 2016. A hilltop basilica filled with light, a sacred spot in fecund Burgundy. My first thoughts of retirement – letting go of one (long) stage of my life and a starting point for the next. I decide I will walk to Santiago de Compostela. My wife objects to me calling this a ‘pilgrimage’. Catholic by upbringing but certainly not by inclination. It’s just a long walk, she insists.
Only two fixtures in an otherwise gossamer plan. The start point: Vezelay. The start date: 21 June 2017. My 61st birthday. The summer solstice, when a pathway of light runs down the centre of the nave of the basilica (those clever medieval builders). But how long will I take? And how far will I walk? Do I go it alone or invite others to join me along the way? Does anyone believe I will really do this? Do I?
First step. Negotiate terms. We agree I’ll take one month, with a plan to meet and walk together somewhere towards the end of that period. Next step. Plot the route, my route, on an old road map of France. I underline in red, the towns I will pass through. I pin the map on my wall so I can see it, remind myself that it’s real. I order my pilgrims’ guide book. I get my credential, my pilgrim passport. A few steps further. My retirement date slips from the end of April to the end of May. But I will hold to my schedule.
20 June 2017. I’m packed and ready to go. A sense of dislocation, unreality, before leaving home. A send-off dinner in the garden with my family. I imagine they think I may never return. A broken night and an early start the next morning. New walking shoes and unfamiliar weight of the rucksack on my back. I decide to leave my carved stick at home, not sure if I can get it through security. I’ll find another along the way.
At Vezelay station, I have my first encounter with another pilgrim. We share a taxi into town. The taxi driver complains about the heatwave. It’s 36 degrees, not good for walking. I’m lodging at the Centre de la Madeleine, my first pilgrim hostel. This is all very new to me. I’m bewildered, and very hot. As I register with the hostelier, I accept the offer of a pilgrim blessing the next morning in the basilica. Casually.
I sleep badly and wake before dawn. Just in time I get to the basilica. Two other pilgrims are there for the blessing. Mark, a tall bearded American who appears to have fallen out of the sky. And Helios, a young man wearing a flat cap and a beatific smile who has walked all the way from Aachen. I am transported by the ritual, the transcendent ancient chants. The blessing is heartfelt and heartening. I leave with a copy of Luke’s Gospel and tears streaming down my face. My journey has begun.
The first day of walking is tough. I’m not prepared for the heat. By mid-afternoon, I collapse under a tree outside a cemetery where there is a water tap. My head is pounding and I have another 5 km before I reach my lodgings. I have no energy or will to move. But I have found myself a stick, a piece of coppiced hazel. It’s pleasingly crooked and I start to carve some marks on it. Eventually, I summon the energy to get up and stagger on. I arrive at my lodgings, exhausted and slightly delirious.
On my third day, I walk 31 km in sultry weather and mostly on tarmac. Too soon to be so ambitious. I lodge with Claude and Bernard on the outskirts of Nevers. Claude sends me to the pharmacy to have a couple of ticks removed from my leg, hopefully averting Lyme’s disease. Next day on my way into town to visit the cathedral, a Moroccan shopkeeper looks at my piece of hazel. ‘This is the stick Moses used to part the Red Sea.’ Later, I find myself in a side chapel called ‘La Chapelle du Passage de la Mer Rouge’. How do these things work, I wonder?
I cross the bridge over the Loire. It feels significant, a passage pilgrims have made through the ages. The weather gets cooler. I am heading into rural France. I start to notice things. Place names that make me laugh. The daily yellow post vans. Carefully tended vegetable patches. Barking dogs in every back yard – why so many? Romanesque churches, elegant and almost Protestant in their simplicity. The depressing frequency of derelict and abandoned houses in the villages. And the speed of traffic – why is everyone in such a rush?
Gradually I’m finding my own rhythm and I feel well in my body, like a sturdy little pony. But my legs and feet are aching. I get my first blisters and chafing in my arse. I start to develop a small love affair with French pharmacies. After my first week of walking, I take a day off and stay in Chateaumeillant, once a Gaulish settlement and Mediolanum, now just a provincial town with a small museum. My lodging is a mobile home in the vegetable garden. I think I could grow roots, stay a while.
I have a sense of slipping out of time and entering into an altered state. My thinking mind is on vacation. Not much in the way of concentrated or systematic thought. Half thoughts, thoughts for nought, wisps that pass against the backdrop of mind. Background noise, low static. Sometimes it gets in the way and I miss a turning, distracted, abstracted. Remembrances and fantasies. Ear-worms – tunes that are stuck in my head. As I walk I hum, sing out loud the bits of songs I can remember.
I’m alive to sights, sounds, and smells. The Wind in the hedgerows. Birdsong. Cloud patterns. Sunlight on fields. Fresh cut hay. Old green lanes, Roman roads, forgotten byways, hollow ways, scooped out tunneled tracks through the woods. Each day starts on an up, those first few steps. Twirling my stick, heading off down the road. For the first time in years, I feel free, in a sort of ecstasy. The joy of not knowing what comes next, where I will sleep at night. An adventure.
The road, walking, becomes my meditation. I feel connected to land, nature, spirit. A force that flows through everything. My intuition feels much sharper. In churches, I pray, clumsily because I can’t find the right words, silently and out loud. Where the acoustics please me, I sing or whistle my own music. I understand these are sacred spaces. And so are the hedgerows. Which gods do you worship?
The Vezelay route is a solitary one. For the first two weeks, I meet no other pilgrims along the way. I’m happy in my own company. But solitude can feel like loneliness when I’m the only one sleeping in a hostel. One night I lodge with Paul, an elderly widower, in the damp, musty wing of his large house. After falling asleep, I wake up to torchlight and muffled sounds downstairs. I lie there for ages, frozen in fear, before dozing off again. Come morning – I realise that what I heard in the night was Paul laying out my breakfast. I feel foolish and a little ashamed.
Being alone for long periods, I get lost in myself. Imagination becomes more potent than reality. What might it be like to go feral, live in the wild? Naked, unaccommodated, instinctual. Walking through great silent woods, I expect any moment to stumble upon a writhing, orgiastic mass of bodies. Pan and Lilith hold sway here. Feverishly I make up lurid stories and scribble down notes in my journal. Is this how the devil tempted Christ in the wilderness? Is this how Mara tempted Siddhartha, the soon to Buddha? Am I also being tested?
I take another day off walking. A combination of blisters and the heat of the road has made my feet swell up painfully. I rest, v get a massage, leave offerings at a menhir. I meet Sylviane and Albane, grandmother and granddaughter walking together. It warms my heart to be with them. I start crossing paths with other pilgrims. Bernd, who has walking poles and a purposeful stride. Vanessa, who has lost her God. Patrick, who has written a sequel to Lord of the Rings. Bärbel, who wheels her tent behind her on a trolley. Mostly we don’t walk together, only meeting in the evenings. We are nodes on a line, pearls strung out on a long necklace.
Heading slowly south the landscape has been changing all the while. At walking pace, it’s subtle, details you wouldn’t notice flashing by in a car. Walnut gives way to chestnut, chestnut to fig. Cows become fewer, maize and sunflowers more prevalent. In the Dordogne, the countryside is still green. But the ground underfoot is harder, drier, rockier. I hear crickets for the first time. There is fruit in the hedgerows though not yet ripe. This is still deep country but there are more foreign registered cars and holiday homes.
I now feel as if I could walk forever. Come rain or shine, blisters or no. But soon, all too soon, my journey is coming to an end. I’ve lost a few kilos and I feel fitter than I have for ages. I’ve got a magnificent farmer’s tan. I feel a fresh sense of purpose and identity. The plan to meet my wife and walk some of the ways with my daughter for the final few days is abandoned. Relief for all of us as the logistics are tricky, and the late insertion into such a personal journey even more so.
18 July. I arrive in Perigueux, my stopping point for now. A large town, busy with tourists. I feel the tug back into everyday time. A new sense of dislocation. Fear about reintegrating, settling down again. I’m going to miss so much of this. My companions who are continuing their journey to Santiago. The welcome relief of the pilgrim hostel at the end of the day. Conversations with strangers along the way. The friendliness and respect for those who make this journey. The simplicity of just walking, eating, sleeping.
The joy that has fuelled me along the way stays with me. This journey will continue. Ultreya!