In company with llamas
Wild and woolly encounters during a week walking the Chemin de Saint-jacques
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.