I’m not entirely sure what I expected to find on this walk–beautiful countryside of course, good wine, food too. Meeting fellow travelers also, though I expected that to be more difficult as almost all people on this walk are French, while on the Camino de Santiago in Spain the fare tends to be much more diverse. I imagined the language barrier to be significant in how much socialization this walk would provide. And then there are the less tangible benefits, benefits that are nonetheless very real–physical health, mental health, the clarity of thought that comes with being in a ‘flow.’
Whatever my expectations were, somewhat meager and uncertain, those expectations have been squashed readily by the reality of this walk. The countryside is filled with endless verdant agricultural landscapes, valleys and hills and rivers dancing between forests and farms, unbelievably fresh food and wine, and people that are so friendly and kind, generous, both fellow travelers and people that host pilgrims in the local Gites of small French villages, which roughly means translates to guesthouse. Throughout my first day this reality became increasingly apparent, and by the end of it I was amazed.
Here are some of the landscapes from early on, only a small portion I can show here. In the future I will fill the photos section of the website with this entire trip.
Beyond landscapes, every 4-7 miles lies a church right alongside the trail, most having been in their present locations in some shape or form since the 11th and 12th centuries. This makes sense since that is the time when many Christian pilgrims from across Europe began making this pilgrimage, turning it into what it ultimately became and what it still remains today. This is one of those churches, the Chapel of La Roche right outside Montbonnet.
These churches have a character that can’t be found in the large, towering cathedrals filled with art which you can find in every city of Europe, even though they lack much of the art and expertise of them.
On the first day I walked about 23 kilometers. It ended with this beautiful entry into a town in a valley called Saint-Privat-d’Allier, with it’s church on a rock above the rest of the village:
I spent much of this first day walking with 2-4 French fellows and a Dutch woman, and upon entering we found a Gite that offered dinner and breakfast in addition to the bed. Before dinner, however, I engaged in a custom that will surely become a daily ritual after each day’s walk–the daily beverage, be it beer, wine, whatever, shared with people you walked with and people you didn’t. The dinner, to me, was first class, with several courses: soup; lentils; cheese; home-made yoghurt; and wine that tasted as though it had just finished fermenting.
The rooms at the Gite and for much of this walk were several beds to a room, usually alone but occasionally bunk-beds. At a gite one is usually a guest in a part of the house of the person running the refuge for pilgrims, who lives in another part. The cost is typically 10-18 Euros for a night, and another 15 or so for breakfast and dinner. Given how delicious the food was that first day and has been since, it seems very fair. Lunch typically involves eating a sandwich from a shop or going to a boucherie (meat shop) and/or small market to make your own from fresh fromage (cheese), chevre (goat cheese), and fresh bread.
Beyond Day 1
Surprisingly, the landscapes were even more beautiful than the first, and the weather decided to keep a fog down low such that for the first few hours the valleys along the trails were filled with white mists that only added to the allure and romance of this place. Local legends such as the Bete of Gevaudan, a mythical wolf beast of the region from years past, enhance this further. This image left a great impression upon leaving Saint-Privat-d’Allier:
Another chapel along the way, Chapelle du Rochegude was, along with a defense tower, built on a rock outcropping and they have both stood as sentinels over the valley through which the Allier River runs for hundreds of years. I will let the pictures speak for this special place.
This is the inside of the same chapel:
Another chapel, in a troglodyte cave where people once lived, stands above the town of Monistrol-d’Allier. Inside, as in other places along the way, a man holds a figurative sermon, talking pilgrim’s ears off and stamps the pilgrim credencial. The credencial is part proof you have walked to wherever you come from to wherever you go, part souvenir, and part art, as the stamp of each place along the way is beautifully unique and bear’s their name, be it a Gite, cafe, or chapel. Mine is barren now at the beginning, but as it fills I will surely show you what it looks like.
Typically the walking begins around 8, and goes until 1 or so for an hour of lunch wherever the best scene presents itself, perhaps a farmer’s field or a patch of grass looking over the hills. Come 3 or 4, the walking is usually done as we enter the town where we stay until the next day’s walk.
On day 2, I walked about 20 Kilometers and finished in the town of Saugues. These are a couple other pictures showing the rest of the journey, a view down to Monistrol d’Allier:
And a view down to Sauges to rest for the night:
My feet feel great, as does my body and spirit, and I am looking forward to the next 70 days or however long it takes.