As we boarded the train to Le-Puy-en-Velay we could feel the excitement for our pilgrimage hike, the Way to Santiago de Compostela. Many fellow pilgrims boarded the train, including nuns in their habits. The modern pilgrims were easy to spot with their hiking boots, backpacks and walking poles. We blended in perfectly. Everyone seemed to be around our age or older.
After visiting with a few of our fellow travelers we learned they were only doing the French section of the hike. The Chemins de Compostelle goes from Le-Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in central France towards the south west. For some, it was their first long distance hike and they were nervous. Others were worried they wouldn’t have the time to finish. But like us, the enthusiasm overshadowed any nerves.
We arrived at our destination and disembarked. We easily found our small hotel, dropped off our bags, and went to explore the historic city. It was too late to hike up to St. Michel, the chapel on a mountaintop overlooking the city, but we were starving so we wandered the streets and ended up eating at the foot of the Cathedral Notre Dame, where we would attend mass in the morning and get our credentials for our hike.
We stopped and stared when we saw our first scallop shell in the sidewalk indicating the beginning of The walk to St. Jaques (St. James) over 1,522 kilometers. After dinner, we wandered the cobblestone streets, and marveled at the ancient buildings with flags and linens strung across the narrow streets from rooftop to rooftop.
We had a nice visit with a little old lady who lived in a small castle turret. She was letting her cat out and just wanted to visit. We just nodded and smiled, not knowing anything that she was saying, but we could tell she enjoyed our company. Later we spotted her talking to some fellow hikers who were reading the historic marker near her front door. She seemed enjoy visiting with people from around the world whether they spoke French or not.
We went to bed late, after catching up on our blog (our first high speed internet since we have been in France) and binge watching CNN. We were packed and ready to get an early start for our hike.
At 6:00 a.m. the alarm went off and we rushed to get packed and dressed to make it to the Pilgrim’s mass which is held each day. We decided to leave the bags at the hotel and come back for them after we got all of the information we needed for our journey.
It took us exactly 20 minutes to make our climb up the steep cobblestone streets to the cathedral. Medieval flags lined the walkway. We were both panting heavily when we entered the side door. We made it just in time and I think we were both surprised to see the church full. The Cathedral has a convent and there were also many nuns in attendance. The side benches were packed with backpacks and hiking poles.
The French Mass was beautiful and I kept admiring the plaques that showed the crypts of royalty, the beautiful altar, and statues. I don’t know what came over me, but soon I was sweating profusely. I have never had anything like this ever happen to me before. Was I experiencing some type of miracle, an anointing? Was this some type of sign? Maybe I was overcome with the Holy Spirit, or worse possessed!
Soon my hair was dripping wet, like I had just gotten out of the shower. It became hard to concentrate on the mass, let alone prepare myself spiritually for our pilgrimage. As the sweat dripped down my back and off my chin, my mind continued to wander to my friend Pam who says, “I’m sweating like a whore in church”, during some of our tennis matches. What kind of thoughts were these for a pilgrim! Well at least it is a French saying.
Thankfully mass ended, just as I was about to convince myself that I was being possessed by a demon like in The Exorcist. The pilgrims were asked by the priest to come to the altar for a blessing. Over a 100 people crowded around the altar. He did a quick roll call to see what countries were represented. Ol and I were the only Americans. There were quite a few Canadians, all of the EU was well represented, and some people from as far away as Australia, South Africa and Argentina. Three quarters of the hikers were from France.
The priest then handed out the prayer of St. James in different languages. He also sang the prayer of Regina, which has been sung daily in this church for 1,000 years. The church bestowed on everyone a rosary or a ring and a small prayer book. He explained where to get our credentials for the hike, and where and how to get it stamped each day (a pilgrims passport).
He also had us fill out a personal prayer intention for our walk. He then pulled out a box, with papers from previous pilgrims. We were asked to take one in our native language and carry it with us on our journey and pray for it daily. Later pilgrims would do the same with our prayer requests.
The priest then prayed over us and had us all turn around. There was an audible gasp as the bottom church doors dropped open and we could see the start of the Way of St. James before us. From the dark medieval church, the path with it’s cobblestones and banners was bathed in light.
This was all so beautiful, I was temporarily able to completely ignore my perspiration problem. Ol and I went to the gift shop and purchased a map for our hike, our passports, and shells to tie to our backpack that will indicate that we are pilgrims.
Just as we were leaving the church to begin our walk, the sky opened up and it started to rain. Both of us were without our rain gear. I was already wet, so we just tried to walk quickly back to our hotel. Thankfully it was pouring and now everyone looked like me!
After getting out of our drenched clothes and checking the weather forecast we decided to call down to the front desk and stay another night. We ate our breakfast from the corner bakery and crawled back into bed where we slept for another four hours. This was a much needed zero day after all of our traveling and running around in Paris and Lyon. Unfortunately we can only have a few of these no mileage days as the clock is ticking on our 90 day visa in the E.U.
Delaying our hike turned out to be a blessing. I wasn’t possessed, I was coming down with a cold and my body needed to rest. We took the extra day to get organized with our maps. We decided to pull out our prayer requests that we selected in the morning. We thought it would be a good idea to memorize them as we will be carrying this with us for two and a half months and praying it daily.
I think we were both expecting something a little deeper and we both laughed after reading Ol’s. The prior pilgrims had written that they wanted someone to pray for their dog “Lucky”. I guess I was expecting things like world peace. So far we haven’t been the best pilgrims, by skipping out on our first day because of a little rain. But I have my faith and thankfully tomorrow is another day.