Bon Chemin! Chemin de Saint Jacques, Hiking Across France
We were finally on our way, on our 1,000 mile walk on the Chemin de Saint Jacque, as the French call the Camino de Santiago, or the journey to the shrine of Saint James. The sky was a beautiful serene blue and we both glanced back to see Chapelle Saint Michel d’Aiguille up on the hill. A true inspiration, built in 951 after the Bishop of Le-Puy-en-Velay returned from his first pilgrimage across the Pyrenees, to Santiago, Spain. To celebrate his return, he had the chapel built atop a volcanic tower that was in the center of the town.
I was hopeful that this pilgrimage or long walk would also inspire Ol and I and strengthen our faith. I imagined the pain and suffering of taking on this journey over 1,000 years ago. My mind was already wandering and thinking good pilgrim thoughts as we followed the scallop shells that marked our path down the cobblestone road.
It seemed that we were making good progress, until we weren’t. The trail markers disappeared and we were at a highway intersection at the edge of town. Roads and signs were pointing in every direction. It’s almost as if the opening music to a great film soundtrack came to a screeching halt.
We spent the next 30 minutes climbing hills and winding cobblestone roads. Finally after starting to think some un-pilgrimage like thoughts, the soundtrack started again, as we spotted the red and white markers, back on the other side of town.
We found ourselves standing in front of a wooden carved statue of St. Jacque. I stopped and said a small prayer for our journey and recited the prayer I was given at Notre Dame the day before for a fellow pilgrim. Ol was busy taking pictures, so I also recited his prayer for “My dog Lucky”.
We were on our way, even though it was now 11:00 a.m. and we had planned to leave at 8:00 a.m. The trail was a winding, slow climb up paved streets. The fieldstone structures quickly gave way to a sandy and rocky trail that led through a patch of small evergreens. We were now on the opposite hill from Le-Puy-en-Velay and the statues and monuments that reign over it.
We quickly got into our hiking rhythm. The weather and the small evergreen lined mountains reminded me so much of where I grew up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The paths looked the same as the dusty trails that I hiked with my brother in the summer looking for a fishing spot. The weather was also similar, a perfect 72 degrees.
Everything was so new to us and we stopped constantly to admire the stone homes and kitchen gardens with walls which were made after the fields were cleared of the rocks. Most homes had geraniums and colorful flowers brimming from their window boxes.
Wild flowers lined our paths through freshly cut hay and newly tilled pastures. Ripe blueberries and blackberries lined the way and glistened in the sun. We didn’t hesitate to sample these wild delicacies.
The trail was ever changing and we climbed up and down hills. Trail markers were easy to follow and we stopped at the historical crosses that marked the way. Some were in stone, others in iron, and others were just makeshift piles of pebbles that pilgrims kept adding to over time.
We occasionally came to a marker that showed the distance to the Cathedral in Santiago, Spain. Ol would remark that “we have lots of time to train” trying to ease my worries that we had enough time to complete our journey.
We passed through the first village on our map, La Roche. We decided that we would stop for lunch or grab a sandwich in St. Christophe-sur-Dolaison, the next town which was a short 3km hike further down the trail.
We passed through fields filled with cows and sheep and ancient barns with their moss covered slate roofs, and barn doors brimming with rolls of hay for the winter.
We peeked into centuries old huts used by pilgrims and shepherds. We read the markers that explained how the valley was formed by volcanic lava flows and made the soil rich in nutrients.
We were surprised to come across the first bathroom along the trail. It was clean and nice and the sign indicated it was paid for with funds provided by the EU. Along the way there were also benches and picnic tables for hikers.
As we walked into the village of St. Christophe we saw one of many charming churches and noticed resting hikers. I was starving and glad to spot a little restaurant that was still open even though it was past the lunch hour. The owner said she could still seat us. We had no idea what to expect.
Before we were seated she explained the restaurant had only a menu du jour. We looked around and noticed the locals enjoying themselves. We sat down not knowing that this would be one of the most memorable meals we have ever had.
The menu provided a selection of four or five options for each of the four courses! We were thankful that our host had lived in England for 8 years and was able to translate the menu for us. We were proud of ourselves that we didn’t order wine, as we still had 15 km to walk before our stop for the night.
She quickly brought us a carafe of water and the chef brought out a small aperitif, a soup made of the lentils the region is renowned for, many call it the caviar of France.
Soon we had our first course. Ol ordered a goat cheese soufflé and it was without a doubt the best thing either of us have ever eaten. The texture was so light, it was like eating a cloud. We also shared my delicious fish pate.
For the second course Ol ordered the beef filet with a bleu cheese sauce and I ordered the local veal sausage with mashed potatoes and a mushroom sauce. Again, both were delicious (unfortunately, we start eating everything before pictures)..
For the 3rd course our hostess described the local cheeses and brought us each a cheese plate made by local and regional farmers.
For the 4th course we had a choice of desserts and I selected the chocolate torte, Ol chose the puffed pastry filled with fresh cream and covered with caramel.
Between each course, the silverware was changed along with a basket of assorted breads.
When we left, we thanked the owner and her chef husband. The other diners also bid us a Buen Camino.
It was now after 3:00 and after visiting the church we once again hit the trail. Not for the first time on this trip, I had my Bridget Jones moment and regretted gaining weight before our hike. How could I be so stupid and not realize how amazing the food would be?
I don’t know if it was the late afternoon, or the large lunch but about 8km later around 6 p.m. we saw a sign for a Gite (French hostel) in Mont Bonnet and decided to stop for the day. If this was a typical day on the Chemmin de St. Jacque, I was no longer worried about my immortal soul but my waistline!