In com­pany with lla­mas

Wild and woolly en­coun­ters dur­ing a week walk­ing the Chemin de Saint-jac­ques

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MAU­REEN CASH­MAN

LE Puy-en-Ve­lay, about 360km south of Paris, sits among vol­canic cones in the mid­dle of the Mas­sif Cen­tral. A huge statue of the Madonna dom­i­nates the town from the pin­na­cle of Rocher Corneille; the Ro­manesque chapel of Saint-Michel perches on the sum­mit of nearby Rocher d’Aigu­ilhe.

The medieval cathe­dral of Notre Dame de France is sur­rounded by an­cient houses, cob­ble­stoned lanes and flights of stone steps. In this oth­er­worldly set­ting my friends Sue, Suzanne and I meet to be­gin a week’s walk on the Chemin de Sain­tJac­ques de Com­postelle, or the Way of St James.

Early on the first morn­ing we col­lect our cre­den­tials and co­quilles Saint-Jac­ques at a lit­tle of­fice be­side the cathe­dral.

The cre­den­tial is a kind of pil­grim’s pass­port, which is stamped at gites, or lodg­ings, along the way. The co­quilles are scal­lop shells. In medieval times pil­grims would use them to scoop wa­ter from streams; mod­ern pil­grims tie them to their back­packs as a sym­bol of the jour­ney.

Af­ter the pil­grims’ mass, we set off by the wide pro­ces­sional steps lead­ing down through the town. We are on our way.

Our first day is full of bird­song and flower-stud­ded mead­ows oc­cu­pied by fat cows and docile don­keys. We stop for a cool drink be­side way­side cal­vaires.

Just be­fore Mont­bon­net, our des­ti­na­tion for the night, we rest in a tiny chapel where there is a statue of Saint-Roch, pa­tron saint of pil­grims, and his lit­tle dog. Next day we tra­verse sough­ing pine forests, de­scend to the vil­lage of Saint-Pri­vat-d’Al­lier for pro­vi­sions, climb back to the plateau where a ru­ined fort dom­i­nates scat­tered ham­lets, and make a fi­nal steep de­scent to Mon­istrol d’Al­lier. In these two days we meet many fel­low-pil­grims.

Un­til now, we have used pre­booked ac­com­mo­da­tion. At Mon­istrol we dis­cuss whether to book ahead for the rest of the week. Suzanne vi­su­alises ar­riv­ing each evening in a beau­ti­ful val­ley where there are sure to be beds for us at a charm­ing gite, but Sue and I can imag­ine ar­riv­ing some­where where there are fewer beds than pil­grims, which could mean sleep­ing un­der a tree. While Suzanne dreams on, Sue gets out the guide­book and her mo­bile phone. There are some con­ces­sions we mod­ern pil­grims feel we can make.

In the morn­ing we climb again to the densely forested Marg­eride. There is a tremen­dous sense of iso­la­tion on this plateau, where the Re­sis­tance grouped dur­ing World War II to com­bat the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion. The main vil­lage, Sau­gues, used to man­u­fac­ture wooden clogs but is now a town of dis­mal apart­ment build­ings for work­ers mak­ing pinewood pal­lets.

We have booked at the farm of Le Falzet, which has a full com­ple­ment of pil­grims who have booked ahead, and two ex­tras who are grate­ful to sleep on couches in the liv­ing area, as it pours out­side all night. Our com­pan­ions are two French­men, two Ger­man women, a young Que­be­coise and a Swiss woman. Din­ner is veg­etable soup, mush­room omelette, roast pork and pota­toes anna, cheese and fro­mage blanc, as de­li­cious and sat­is­fy­ing as all of our meals so far.

In a mix­ture of French and English, the com­pany dis­cusses their rea­sons for be­ing on the chemin. For most it’s mainly to en­joy walk­ing in the French coun­try­side, though the Swiss woman ad­mits she is seek­ing some direc­tion in her life. As for our party, Sue has de­rived spir­i­tual com­fort from her pre­vi­ous ex­cur­sions on the chemin, Suzanne likes the mys­ti­cal and folk­loric as­pects, while I am ex­pe­ri­enc­ing once more the won­der and awe I al­ways de­rive from walk­ing in France.

The next day the rain even­tu­ally gives way to pe­ri­ods of sun­shine. It’s a gen­tle 18km walk through for­est. Larks flut­ter and war­ble through the trees. Clouds bil­low among the hills and drift through the val­leys. That night, at Les Faux, in con­trast to the pre­vi­ous night, Sue, Suzanne and I have a 20-bed dor­mi­tory to our­selves and we won­der what has be­come of ev­ery­one else.

It rains again all night, but clears dur­ing the morn­ing, which brings a suc­ces­sion of hills and val­leys, with rap­tors wheel­ing over­head. We pass an old feu­dal fortress at Rouget and stop for cof­fee in a bar at Saint-Al­ban sur Li­mag­nole, where we bump into some of our friends from Le Falzet. There is a steep climb be­fore the de­scent to the Truyere River. We rest in a field of wild nar­cis­sus be­fore reach­ing Au­mont-Aubrac, where our ac­com­mo­da­tion is an­other large dor­mi­tory, this time burst­ing with pil­grims, three of whom have brought pack-lla­mas.

Two of the lla­mas, Christophe and Colombo, have trav­elled the chemin to­gether pre­vi­ously. The third, Kenzo, is a novice and has been play­ing up so much that his ex­hausted owner falls asleep and be­gins to snore at the din­ner ta­ble.

So far we have greatly en­joyed the nightly meals, ac­com­mo­da­tion and com­pany. Here, how­ever, din­ner is solid car­bo­hy­drate, un­al­le­vi­ated by any veg­etable. In the dor­mi­tory, sleep eludes us. Our beds are next to the smelly bath­rooms and through­out the night only the rain ham­mer­ing on the roof oc­ca­sion­ally drowns out the cho­rus of snor­ing pil­grims. Still, it’s bet­ter than be­ing un­der a tree.

The rain abates by morn­ing, but has flooded much of the high marshy val­ley we are to tra­verse to­day. We reg­u­larly run across the lla­mas. Christophe and Colombo are sturdy, re­li­able crea­tures but Kenzo is a fine-boned, long­necked, high-eared ‘ ‘ bou­tique’’ llama who by his baulk­ing and jib­bing re­minds his un­happy owner con­stantly of her mis­take in think­ing he could be a pil­grim.

Westop at Qua­tre-Chemins for cof­fee in a smoky lit­tle bar-cafe run by a lady with frizzy red hair, smudged stage make-up, a cig­a­rette in her mouth and a nip of some­thing on the counter. The cof­fee is a spoon­ful of nox­ious powder partly dis­solved in hot wa­ter. A cou­ple of pil­grims who are on their way back to Le Puyen-Ve­lay warn us the track ahead is flooded, and we fol­low their ad­vice to con­tinue on the bi­tu­men road to a higher point.

Some of our com­pan­ions de­cide to fol­low the track any­way and an hour later we see them still splash­ing through the fields be­low as we gain the gen­tle rolling hills where the view un­folds of the Aubrac Moun­tains in the dis­tance.

We have one last de­scent into Rieu­tort d’Aubrac, where we spend our fi­nal night in a crowded yurt.

The yurt is stuffy, odor­ous and noisy with snor­ing, and there are not enough blan­kets for ev­ery­one on this cold night.

Our group plans to break­fast at 7.30am but some­one ap­pro­pri­ates Suzanne’s bowl and she has to wait for the fol­low­ing shift. Sue stays with her while I set out in the quiet, cool morn­ing on the hour’s stroll to the vil­lage of Nas­bi­nals.

My soli­tary walk gives me time and space to con­tem­plate the ex­pe­ri­ences of the pre­vi­ous week, the beauty of the land­scape, the ups and downs of life on the chemin and the va­ri­ety of pil­grims’ hopes and ex­pec­ta­tions, in­clud­ing my own. I am sitting in a cafe en­joy­ing a splen­did cof­fee when other pil­grims start drift­ing in. I am al­ready plan­ning for next time.


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