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500 miles in a pilgrim's footsteps

The faithful of the Middle Ages trod the southern trails of the Chemin de St. Jacques for its religious relics. Modern travelers still follow some of the same paths.

September 26, 2004|Denise Fainberg | Special to The Times

Le Puy-en-Velay, France — "My friends all think I'm crazy: 'Why would you walk 500 miles?' " lamented Jan.

Most of us in the little hostel along the Grande Randonnee 65 in southern France had walked that far, some considerably farther. Occasionally we each asked ourselves why.

The reason was clearer for those who came 900 years before. In about 814, bones unearthed in a Roman cemetery in northwestern Spain were proclaimed to be those of St. James the Apostle. How a Galilean fisherman came to be buried there is the subject of much legend; suffice it to say that between the medieval cult of relics and some canny local promotion, Santiago de Compostela became a destination for Christian pilgrims second only to Jerusalem and Rome. All of Europe beat a path to the tomb along the Camino de Santiago, or, in French, the Chemin de St. Jacques.

The path's popularity peaked in the 12th century, but pilgrimages continued well into the 18th. The route has undergone a renaissance over the last two decades as people from around the world seek a journey of spiritual significance. Today's walkers take the trail for physical, cultural and, yes, spiritual reasons -- some to walk a month or two, some to go only as far as their time allows.

My friend Patrick and I walked part of the Spanish route in 2003 and were so captivated that we decided to try one of the French paths. Like many, we sought a path that offered a long, contemplative walk as well as significant religious sites.

Part of France's extensive system of hiking trails, the GR65 approximates one of the four historic Chemins de St. Jacques. From Paris, Vezelay, Le Puy-en-Velay and Arles, the trails converge in the Pyrenees and join a single path that crosses northern Spain. The GR65 starts in Le Puy, about 70 miles southwest of Lyon in the Auvergne region, and wanders 500 miles through wildest France over the Pyrenees to the border.

Parts of the original route are now highways, while other segments have been lost altogether. But pilgrim paths always shifted; what remained constant were the shrines and relics along the way. If we couldn't always follow in the pilgrims' footsteps, at least we were seeing the same sights in Conques, Moissac or St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

We arrived in Le Puy, a red-roofed town of 29,000, in mid-June. Le Puy was a destination long before Santiago was, and later pilgrims who strung pilgrimages together would stop here before facing the perils of a journey to the end of the continent. The red-and-white stone cathedral, Romanesque with Mozarabic tendencies, still houses a stone reported to cure fevers and a Black Madonna statuette.

We dutifully visited the cathedral, attended a folk accordion concert, then hoisted our packs. We stepped out onto the Rue St. Jacques heading southwestward out of town with the vague goal of reaching St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port -- about 500 miles away at the foot of the Pyrenees -- in about seven weeks.

Trail turns rugged

It was not difficult to follow the red-and-white blazes painted on tree trunks, stone walls, even houses, that mark the GR65. What was hard was being plunked down without preamble in the Massif Central, France's central mountain range. The mountains are not very high, but they are extremely steep, dissected by valleys and watercourses. We spent the first two weeks huffing up mountainsides and down dry streambeds (the GR has an odd idea of what constitutes a trail), feverishly jettisoning our already minimal supplies. Used to walking 12 to 15 miles a day in Spain, we barely managed 10 in this region.

Our second day found us scrambling straight up a rocky knob overlooking the river Allier. (The GR also eschews switchbacks.) At the top, two ladies with daypacks gazed upon a tiny pilgrim chapel from the 11th or 12th century.

"Is it open?" I said, gasping from the exertion.

"Oh yes. Very refreshing," answered one, looking at me with concern.

Inside, it was blessedly cool and dim. One arched window let in enough light to identify a statue of St. James (St. Jacques in France, Santiago in Spain) on the apse wall. I thought of medieval pilgrims struggling up this same hill, looking at the vast surrounding forest and feeling very far from home. The view obviously served secular powers as well; next door, the keep of a ruined castle commanded the river in both directions.

French authorities are making efforts to keep country chapels along the way open, and they are one of the pleasures of the journey. The churches, which are frequently cared for by volunteer parishioners, represent vernacular variations on the great Romanesque and Gothic themes -- a curved wooden ceiling like an upturned boat, a plump peasant Madonna -- and welcome stops for rest and reflection.

We hiked 35 miles through Auvergne, up cliffs and down valleys. We walked through forests and wheatfields, cow pastures and silent stone villages. We hiked cattle trails and the high, deserted plains of the Aubrac among blond, sloe-eyed cows.

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