In May, on a whim, I flew 16,781 kilometres from Melbourne to Paris. I set out alone to walk a section of the Via Podiensis (Le Puy Camino) through south-west France. It was one of the best weeks of my life.
I’d been thinking about the Camino for years. It is the longest, most spiritual walk in the world. Medieval pilgrims took to the ancient trail in their thousands, seeking atonement or pursuing a fertility rite.
I just wanted to press pause on my normal life and have an exciting adventure. Time was marching on, I was over-caffeinated and hyper-connected. I wanted to relax, breathe deeply, slow down. And now that I can see 50 from here, I’m no longer doing things by halves.
I liked the idea of a romantic walk and a certain level of solitude, so I chose the Via Podiensis – an oh-so-quiet and stunningly beautiful trail through rural France, with intact medieval villages and isolated farm settlements. I was hoping I would get more than sore feet out of it, and equally excited that each day would be a step into the unknown.
The route begins in the pilgrim town of Le-Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne in Central France and runs through the volcanic hills of the Velay region finishing 736 kilometres later in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foothills of the Pyrenees. From there, it merges with the Camino Francés (the most popular of all the Camino routes) and extends another 780 kilometres to Santiago on the western shore of Spain.
The overwhelming majority of people walking this route are French, although I did meet some Germans and a scattering of other nationalities. Some days there were only two or three other people in sight.
My rather modest pilgrim journey began on the iconic Valentré Bridge in Cahors and ended beneath the superb Gothic cathedral in Condom. Over eight days I notched up 160 kilometres and endless hours of glorious walking under big blue skies on winding forest tracks, through rolling countryside exploding with vivid red poppies and waving fields of wheat; along paths lined with crosses and chapels – all of them unlocked, so pilgrims can stop at each one to reflect or pray.
Days and daylight seemed to stretch on forever.
Navigation was easy because the trail is very well-marked with frequent (and comforting) horizontal red-and-white stripes, one above the other. ‘Wrong direction’ signs (red-and-white crosses) are nailed to trees or painted on rocks.
I had my first 30 kilometre walk on Day 1 and fell in love with life again. The villages are magical. The charming hilltop hamlet of Montcuq is an absolute treat with its medieval alleyways, timbered facades and remarkable doors.
Lauzerte, one of the most beautiful villages in France (there are 156 spread over 14 regions), appeared like a mirage. I found myself hypnotised by the vast panoramic views of the landscape below and uncharacteristically gawping at the splendid baroque altarpiece in the Church of St Bartholomew.
I was about 16 kilometres into my first day of walking when the world-famous camaraderie, hospitality and spirit kicked in. I took a petite pause at the charming little village of Lascabanes, joining a handful of other French walkers sipping beers in the hot afternoon May sun.
I was barely able to string a French sentence together but I was saved by Marguerite, an effortlessly kind, deeply religious 28-year-old Parisian social worker who set to work expanding my vocabulary and correcting my pronunciation.
We walked together for the remainder of the day, exclaiming ‘magnifique’ and ‘superb’ at the unfolding landscapes, and enjoying lengthy French exchanges with other walkers.
Some were walking the full 1600 kilometres, all the way to Santiago. Others were back for the third or fourth time, walking a different stage every year. There were young professionals missing a sense of purpose, a primary school teacher from Switzerland, two French nationals with ailing horses, a retired policeman from Chicago, a widower from Hamburg – a tapestry of beautiful souls.
My Camino ‘family’ swelled and shrank in wonderful ways.
Evenings were as much a part of the journey as the walking. After arriving in a lovely French village, I’d check into my hotel, slip into sandals and re-emerge for the pleasure of the first aperitif, lively conversation, abundant local wines and, with luck, more of the illustrious Rocamadour goat cheese.
On the third day, when the rain and wind came, I suited up in head-to-toe wet weather gear and set off early along the flat towpath of the canal of the Tarn and Garonne rivers, headed for Auvillar, 20 kilometres away. Despite the weather, the walking was introspective and enjoyable.
I caught a French pilgrim from Brittany whom I had met on the first day. We walked at the same pace, pausing briefly to sing happy birthday to a 73-year-old French man on his fourth Camino and then again for sustenance in a small town where I witnessed old-fashioned Frenchness – gastronomie, morning drinking, cigarette smoking and cheek-kissing.
The following day, I walked most of the way to Lectoure with Dajana, a spirited 32-year-old business analyst from Germany. She was walking to the ‘end of the world’ (Finisterre), a 2430 kilometre three-month pilgrimage from her hometown of Lake Constance.
When the picturesque hilltop village came into view we were euphoric. We entered the historic walled town and made our way to the impressive Cathedral of Saint Gervais and Saint Protais. I lost track of how long we sat in the pews but I do remember an overwhelming feeling of calmness.
What I loved most about this day was the inspiration that my walking companion and new friend gifted me. The tendency to compare ourselves to others is as human as any other emotion. But it is a habit with numerous shortcomings. The story I was telling myself was that my Camino wasn’t long enough and that I wasn’t a real pilgrim – choosing hotels over traditional albergues (hostels) and using a luggage transfer service instead of carrying all my belongings in a heavy backpack.
I changed my story that day to one that better honoured my individual journey. I was grateful for the simplicity of my walking routine and unashamedly proud of what I was accomplishing. I dismissed the notion that to be authentic it must be uncomfortable in some way.
But more than that, I was living in the moment. And it was divine! I have been racing through life at a pace that is unsustainable. Physically slowing down (walking) was helping me to mentally slow down.
When I accompanied Marguerite to mass for the pilgrim blessing in Moissac’s majestic Abbey Saint-Pierre, one of the most beautiful Romanesque buildings in France, I cried. The memory is still vivid and powerful.
I can also recall the tiny details of my many conversations with Dajana because I had the time and space to really listen to what she was saying. I focused all my attention on her instead of on my own mind chatter. It was uplifting.
On Day 5 I was distracted. And it was the only day I got lost. I set out early from Lectoure, headed for La Romieu, just 18 kilometres away. The trail took me along quiet back roads to Marsolan, a tiny village on a steep hillside. Then it was easy walking through woodland and out on to vast open fields. The air was filled with the smell of hay, wild grass and damp earth.
After the chapel at Abrin, the route goes northwards to La Romieu. I missed the turnoff and instead, unknowingly, headed directly to Condom, as medieval pilgrims would have done.
An hour later as I was taking my picnic lunch under a tree, a young French couple joined me and enquired about my day. They pointed out my error. I had two choices – walk back uphill through the muddy fields or stay en route to Condom. I was struggling physically with a tender right ankle and a wretched toe blister. Clods of mud clung to my boots, making my efforts more difficult.
In the ancient pilgrimage tradition, the Camino provided me with what I needed when I really needed it. I only had to walk a kilometre before a French cheese farmer offered me a ride, putting me back on track and delivering me to a bustling La Romieu – an incredibly pretty, flower-bedecked medieval village, which every year receives a large number of pilgrims on their way to St Jacques de Compostela.
I’d arrived on the day of the superb annual rose market, a unique event in the region. The main square was overflowing with lively banter and roses in all colours, scents and shapes.
I did a tour of the magnificent 14th Collégiale St Pierre and then settled in for a few hours and a few beers with Dajana at the charming L’Etape D’Angeline, situated right on the village square. I counted all my ‘Camino angels’ who had unhesitatingly offered me kindness.
I understand now what it is about the Camino that brings people back. The physical challenge for sure. The accomplishment is worth every blister and aching muscle. The camaraderie of course. On the Camino, as in life, people are everything. Strangers one minute, family the next. If you are open, the connections are rich and meaningful.
The gift of time is perhaps the most precious. I thought about a lot of things when I walked. Along with too many changes of clothes, I had packed worries and disappointments, failures and expectations. I unburdened myself and left them all behind.
Next time I will pack lighter, walk further and return the kindness of strangers.
Disclaimer: The author travelled with RAW travel.
RAW Travel is Australia’s leading specialist for international walks. They offer tailor made walking adventures along all the Camino routes, including Le Puy in France.
RAW makes it easy with pre-booked accommodation, meals and daily luggage transfers all included. Find out more or join one of their free information nights.