Extracted Pages

I left Paris on Monday 9th March and arrived in Santiago three and a half months later (105 days) on Friday 19th June. Here are some pages taken at random from the book.

10-3-98 Tuesday
I felt quite attached to my little cubicle in the Formule 1 so I asked the manageress for the address of the F1 at Évry. She gave it to me, but on reflection I thought it was probably unwise to develop brand loyalty so early in the journey. It took me a while to pack as I had used virtually everything I had with me. It all had to be put back in place. I put my socks on slowly and carefully to avoid wrinkles and later discomfort.

It was very cold that morning; the puddles were frozen and the parked cars had iced-up windscreens. I did not feel cold with my thermals and my gloves. Later I felt hot as my ‘breathable’ jacket seemed to produce sauna-like conditions. I walked around the outskirts of Draveil. I thought I was walking through it, but as the map I used did not give street names I had to work out where I was by the angles of the street corners. I found myself walking by a park that I could not identify on the map. Two young women told me where I was, so I walked on through residential streets and then past old villas, converted to light industrial or bulk commercial use, to the far end of Draveil.

The photocopied pages I had been given by CIDR listed a religious house in Draveil but I wanted to reach Évry. The previous night I had phoned a convent there that was listed in the photocopied material. The nun who answered the phone sounded very suspicious of me, asking anxiously who had given me their address. No, she said, there was no accommodation.

Before reaching Évry I passed an area that seemed to be full of medical complexes, perhaps they were sanatoriums or asylums. Maybe this area had once been regarded as a restful place away from the city. The hospitals and nursing homes were interspersed with grand mansions and I had glimpses of well landscaped gardens facing towards the Seine. I passed through the smart-looking town of Soisy before crossing a bridge into Évry. I passed some tolerable looking restaurants but it was too early for lunch. One was called a restaurant gastronomique. I had seen a one the previous day in Villeneuve-St-Georges and studying the menu in the window I concluded that: Restaurants gastronomical have prices astronomical.

I could not find a good place to eat, gastronomic or otherwise as I approached Évry. I tried a station restaurant but it did not serve meals, so I just had a beer there. The proprietress was a Belgian-born Algerian who had been in France for the last fifteen years. She told me there was nothing in Évry and that France was going downhill.

“Modern is bad,” she said succinctly, “all machines, and no work.”

Évry had a high immigrant population and a lot of welfare housing. The previous day the headline news reported the fatal shooting of a seventeen-year-old Turkish youth. He was shot in the neck in a shopping complex at ten o’clock in the morning. Gang rivalry was given as the simple explanation for the murder; but the shock expressed indicated that such an event was by no means commonplace there.

The Cathedral at Évry featured in the news too. It was offering sanctuary to migrants who are trying to get their papers in order. I wanted to go there to get my pass stamped but decided to leave it until the following day.

From the station bar I continued in the direction of the centre of Évry. Two young women told me there were no restaurants in that area but recommended a pizza café on the housing estate. So I lunched there and then found the Formule 1 motel at that end of town, somewhere near the Bras-de-Fer railway station.

The motel seemed to be encircled by main roads and there was no convenient shopping complex nearby. Feeling cold and tired I crawled under the bedclothes and watched a B-grade American movie called Delta Bureau, starring lots of people I had never heard of, with guest appearances by others I had not heard of either.

30-3-98 Monday
Leaving the chambre d’hôte I walked to the church of the apparitions in St Gilles, but it was shut. I went to the supermarket to buy water but that was also shut because it did not open on Mondays. I went over to the parish of St Maurice where the church was also shut. I walked towards the Priory of St Leonard but missed it and went uphill, up a dead-end pathway before returning and realising that the ruins behind a high wrought iron gate were what I had been looking for. I did not even bother to make my way on a three-kilometre detour to the church of St Nicholas at Tavant which had been highly recommended in the pilgrim guide.

In the St Maurice part of L’Île-Bouchard a sign pointed to Chezelle eight kilometres away. I phoned the sisters there to see if they could accommodate me but I was told they had a full house. I was not disappointed as I wanted to walk further than eight kilometres.

I still walked along the D757 road, passing farmland with huge sweeps of green wheat and canola in flower. The morning started off with light drizzle so I wore my jacket all day. I took my glasses off as I could see better without them than with raindrops on them. The rain eased by the time I arrived at Brizay, a mere four or five kilometres along the road, and I could wear my glasses again The road meandered gently past big stone farm buildings and finally came to a crest where another broad valley opened up with the town of Richelieu visible on the plain.

My feet ached after fifteen kilometres and I was tired by the time I reached the town. I had a beer in a bar at the adjoining suburb of Chevigny. Thus refreshed I went into Richelieu and stopped at the first bar-restaurant I saw. I asked if it was too late for lunch,

“Yes,” I was told, “it is 2.30.”

I asked if there was anywhere else where I could get lunch, and the owner said he would find me something to eat. He served me up a herring and potato salad, turkey and pasta, a slice of cheese and a plate of tinned fruit salad, which I had with wine and coffee. It may have been the leftovers but I appreciated his kindness in serving me at that late hour.

I went towards the centre of the town along a street with high stone houses whose doorways gave on to interior courtyards. The town had been commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu and built as a whole in the seventeenth century. It was surely a very early example of town planning. I was looking for the tourist office, which the guidebook described as helpful, but it was closed until April. I booked into an hotel, the  Trois Mousquetiers.

When I told the manager I was going to Compostela he said,

“Everyone’s going to Compostela. There was an Englishman here two weeks ago on his way to Compostela!”

6-5-98 Wednesday
… In the afternoon I came to the village of Garris and had a couple of beers at a bar. ..
From there it was about three kilometres or so along the main road to St Palais. The verge on the edge of the road became narrower and narrower. It was not as comfortable to walk along as the roads I had been on previously. I stayed at a Franciscan friary in St Palais. It was here that the pilgrim route from Le Puy joined the route from Paris that I had been following, and it was from here that my experience of pilgrimage became quite different from all I had experienced thus far.

There were four other pilgrims staying at the convent: Arnaud from Switzerland, Renée from France and Ursula and Gaby who were German-speaking Swiss. I sat with them and some members of the Franciscan community when they had dinner. If I had not already walked for almost two months I might have felt intimidated by their air of competence. I was asked whether the Paris route was ‘authenticated’. The Le Puy route was well marked out and they told me how the part which was also a French ramblers route, called the Napoleonic route, was marked with red and white signs.

We slept in a spacious dormitory, which was occupied by other boarders. There may have been eight or ten people in there. There were Spartan single beds with creaky frames. It was an airy room with a balcony and the doors stayed open all night. The air was fresh and my sleeping bag kept me warm. It was my first experience of sharing a room with other pilgrims. I felt restless and worried about turning on the squeaky bed lest the noise should irritate my companions

13-5-98 Wednesday

 … The edge of Pamplona had large blocks of flats reminiscent of public housing but they gave way to the older part of the city that was bordered by parks. Pamplona is a large city, the capital of Navarre, whose origins date back to the first century before Christ. It was developed in the early part of the eleventh century by its king, Sancho III, called Sancho the Great, and since then has had a long association with the pilgrimage. It is more famous on the tourist calendar for the bull-running that takes place during the festival of San Fermin in July.

I went to the tourist office to enquire about accommodation and Internet facilities and booked myself into a pensión in a fairly central position. It took me most of the day to find an Internet place and when I did the connection was so painfully slow it was hard to read my e-mail. I was able to send postcards by ordinary mail. I had not found a Spanish post office in the villages I had stopped at, and though some shops sold postage stamps I did not trust them to know the right price for mailing cards to Australia. I made a few more family phone calls to pass on the news of the new baby and I had some photos developed.

I bought a copy of the guidebook I had seen in Larrasoaña. I thought about staying an extra day in Pamplona to see the cathedral and other places of interest but decided to leave that decision until the next day.

My experience of the pilgrimage had changed dramatically in the last week. I had become used to walking alone in France and I had become very fond of France. I felt comfortable there. The words that came to mind to describe France and things French were ‘civil’, ‘civility’ and ‘civic pride’. I found French people polite and non-intrusive. No one expressed curiosity about who I was and what I was doing. A French friend asked me later if they had not regarded me as “une bête étrange”. I don’t know; if they did, no one commented in my presence. I found evidence of their civic pride in their clean streets that had no rubbish, their exact and appropriate road signs, and their well-engineered and well-drained roads.

I had been looking forward to getting to Spain, but it was daunting too. I had forgotten that Spain, as well as being warm-hearted and open, could also be austere, dark and forbidding. The rivers of France flow deep and full, in Spain they are shallow and mean. The southern side of the Pyrenees was stark and inhospitable. There was a jarring disjuncture between my feeling that once I got to Spain the rest of the road would be a smooth and comfortable run all the way to Santiago, and the reality, which was that this was a hard road to travel.

Instead of my nine weeks in France giving me the assurance that I could finish the distance comfortably, it seemed as though the first thousand kilometres was merely a limbering up for the real thing. If I had not walked though France, I thought, if I had started at Roncesvalles, I might have given up before Pamplona. But now I was armed with a copy of the Everest guide and felt ready to walk on the proper pilgrim route.

26-5-98 Tuesday
The pilgrim refuge was to the west of Burgos and I passed it on my way out of town. I went in to leave a note for Marie-Bénédicte. Refuges usually had pin boards for this purpose. It was a one-way communication service as there was no way the recipient of a note could answer it if the sender had already gone ahead, except of course through e-mail. The way led through a short avenue of tall chestnut trees, whose branches made a soaring Gothic arch, then passed through wooded country and bypassed the next village.

Tardajos had a bar and I stopped there, meeting two Brazilian women, Laura and Sue. I bought a little food in a grocery shop: a packet of dried soup, bread, coffee and a lemon. Buying the lemon made me realise that I was finally going to eat a tin of sardines that I had been carrying for some time.

The way became pleasant after Tardajos; the path was chalky and smooth. The walk was easy, climbing slowly for the eight kilometres towards Hornillos del Camino. Then there was a slow descent into the village, which was strung out along the single street of the camino. Rain threatened as I neared the village. There was hardly anyone about. A dog barked at me and a woman told it to be quiet.

 I asked her where the refuge was. “By the church” she said.

“Will it rain?” I asked.

 “Not now,” she replied and two other women sitting on a bench agreed it would not rain.

I turned the corner and saw Viviane and some other people I did not know. Pierrette was in the refuge. There was only an upper bunk left in the room and Pierrette offered to swap her lower bunk with me if I did not find another one. So far, I had managed to avoid having to clamber up on to high bunks. I was not sure if I could. But when I went downstairs to look at the kitchen I saw another room with many empty bunks, so I claimed a lower one and left my pack there. That room gave on to a narrow courtyard with a couple of washing lines on one side and a laundry tub.

The two Brazilians, Laura and Sue, were in the refuge and they introduced Guy from Belgium. Viviane and Pierrette were the only remaining familiar faces of a few days ago. The two Italian women, Daria and Rosella, had gone on to the next village of Hontanas, and Anne and Claudine had interrupted their pilgrimage at Burgos.

I made myself lunch from the packet of soup, bread and sardines, yoghurt and coffee. Laura told me she was an astrologer. She said of the pilgrimage that “the way does us more than we do the way”, it sounded more sensible in Portuguese, but she meant that doing the pilgrimage was an experience that moulded us. The pilgrimage could change us, but our individual pilgrimages did not change the thousand-year-old journey. She looked on doing the pilgrimage as a response to a calling. The people I had met had each one, like me, at some time past, heard about the pilgrimage and decided to undertake it. There were thousands of us scattered along the track responding to that decision.

Hortensia was the refuge warden. She had grown up in the village and in her adult life had gone on to work in Bilbao. Her mother’s illness had brought her back to Hornillos del Camino and after her death she had taken this job at the refuge. She was somewhat bemused, alone in the world without husband, children or siblings; she tended to the pilgrims who passed each day. The previous day she had taken a Spanish cyclist with a broken collarbone back to Burgos to the hospital. That evening, as she did regularly, she took a few pilgrims in her car to a nearby village that had a shop and they bought things for supper, which was shared by anyone who wanted to participate.

Hornillos did not have a shop, but in the afternoon a large truck drew up. It  sold dry food like flour, beans and rice, oil and preserved olives. It announced its arrival by tooting the horn loudly and a few of us went to look at it as the driver folded down the sides to display the merchandise.

We had a convivial evening in the refuge. An Italian couple cooked spaghetti for everyone. I sat at the table with them and drank some wine. There may have been a dozen or so people there. Apart from Viviane and Pierrette the only person I had seen before was Carlos Eduardo, a young man from Rio. He had fallen ill somewhere on the way and had had to get hospital attention before proceeding further.

I met others I would see over the next few days. One was Nicholas, a young Englishman who had worked in Buenos Aires. He spoke excellent Spanish. There were two French-speaking ladies, one of whom was Swiss. They had set out independently from Le Puy but had joined forces somewhere along the route; they had had a hard time during the Easter snowfall.

Then there was Mauro who had teamed up with Carlos Eduardo. Mauro was from Madrid; he travelled with his dog, a sort of collie. When I was in the dormitory room he had asked me very politely if I minded if his dog slept on his bed in the room. He was afraid that if the dog was shut outside on the patio he would wake us up with his barking. How could I have objected?

“What is his name?” I asked.

“Asado” I understood him to reply. Asado is Spanish for roast.

“What?” I asked, not understanding such a strange name.

“Asado.” He repeated.

“How do you spell it?” I asked wanting to understand clearly.

“S-H-A-D-O-W.” That, at last, made sense.

After the meal Nicholas began talking to the Brazilians about pop music and soon they started singing and tapping the table to make a rhythmical accompaniment.

11-6-98 Thursday
Pierrette and I set off together and walked along the ascending  main road. We stopped in a bar in Trabadelo and met some more pilgrims, mostly Brazilians, and a young Englishman. I had not seen any of them before. Most of the people we had met earlier were now well ahead of us, though we had seen Jean Pierre in Villafranca. He told us that one night a Swiss woman had woken him up because he was snoring.

 “What does she expect in a refuge?” he asked us indignantly, “The comfort of a Swiss hotel?”

There was another roadside hotel and bar in a village further along. When I got there Pierrette was sitting there with the Englishman and the Brazilians we had just met. She decided to go on to Vega de Valcarce and I stayed for lunch and was joined by yet another Brazilian and an American. The Brazilian was a young man called Emerson and he spoke good English so the three of us talked in English over lunch.

As I continued on my way after lunch Marie-Jo, from Ponferrada, passed me in her car. She had come out for a drive with some friends to see how we were progressing. I said I would see her at the refuge, so we spent the afternoon, Pierrette and I, with Marie-Jo and the two women who accompanied her.

Later I talked to a Frenchwoman called Sabine; she was an art therapist and had worked with the mentally handicapped. She had found the pilgrimage a physical experience. She had learned to live in her body, she said. I had stopped either noticing or trying to notice how the pilgrimage affected me. A few days earlier I was impressed by the series of small miracles, others might say ‘pieces of good fortune’, that seemed to have happened, culminating with the luxurious rest in Ponferrada. The fatigue I had felt prior to that had gone. The weather had been good, cool and dry. What could have been better? I was in count down mode and still thought I might arrive in Santiago on the twentieth.

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