I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Via Gebennensis

I've just returned from a momentous and stunning Camino. Between 16 September and 30 September I made a pilgrimage from Geneva in Switzerland to Le Puy-en-Velay in France. That's a distance of 360 km at an average of 24 km a day. I walked through five different French départements: Haute-Savoie, Savoie, Isère, Loire and Haute-Loire. The familiar blue and yellow coquilles Saint Jacques signs marked the way immaculately throughout. The route follows the same path as the French long-distance GR (Grande Randonnée) 65 - so there were plenty of white-on-red blazes, or balises, to point out the direction too. It was hard to get lost - though I did so temporarily once or twice, as is my custom.

After two mornings and one full day of rain, I enjoyed glorious sunshine for the rest of the trip, the temperature hovering somewhere between a very warm 20%C and a very hot 30%C. The shade of vast and numerous forests provided welcome relief from the heat. There were good accommodations, ranging from simple gîtes to nice hotels. Best and most rewarding of all were the accueils jacquaires - here families invite you to become part of their household for the evening. You sleep in their house, you dine and have breakfast with them, you talk with them. They charge a modest sum for this. It's a privilege and an honour for a pilgrim-stranger to partake uniquely in this kind of local family life for a while. The trust and openness you experience is very special indeed.

This route is a treasure, and the Camino's best kept secret. I won't deny it's a strenuous route - there are few days when you're on the flat. But it's a beautiful route - mountainous, sure, though foothills rather than alpine peaks. This is a path for the walker not the climber! One meets very few English or Americans on it, but it's well known to the Germans and the Swiss.

I set out from Geneva on Friday 16 September in a positive and ebullient mood. How could you not enjoy life as you step out on a new Camino on a warm and sunny day, full of hope and expectation? Geneva's neo-classically designed theatre looked very distinguished under an overarching sky of cerulean blue...    




Very soon an early coquille marker in Geneva's old quarter confirmed the way...




In Geneva's Protestant Cathedral of Saint Peter I found a stained glass window depicting the Apostle Saint James, guiding light of the Camino. Note the sandals, the staff and the shell on the hat...




John Knox preached and Calvin taught in this 13th century chapel next to the cathedral...




In need of a little reformation myself, I pressed onwards - ever eager to rediscover the transforming power of the Camino - through Geneva's delightful old town with its rather Italianate-looking squares...




... until I arrived at the lovely suburb of Carouge...




... with its fine and subtly painted buildings...




On the very outskirts of the city I was captivated by this crude, hand-crafted sign indicating the direction to Santiago - a mere 1850 km away...




The auguries looked good as I strode along the path to Paradise Pond...




... and these two contented donkeys proved for the moment that all seemed well, at least in this small corner of Europe, on such a wonderful morning...


19 comments:

George said...

Stunning, Robert! Now you have me confused. Here I am planning to walk the Camino Frances next year, only to be distracted by another beautiful Camino, which calls me no less than the others. What is one to do? I think that all seekers must do as you have done — just keep walking the length and breadth of Europe until all Camino paths have touched the heart as well as the feet. I look forward to the future postings on every step of your great journey!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Sounds the most beautiful walk Robert - look forward to more pictures.

Gerry Snape said...

Please give us more information and photos...it sounds amazing.
Beautiful pictures.

Rachel Fox said...

How lovely - Geneva and the thought of that long walk.
x

Ruth said...

Robert, I can feel my own excitement building as I read your descriptions. Just the place names conjure mysterious delight!

I think getting lost is a very good thing, as long as it doesn't lead to anything too threatening.

What is there about Switzerland? The sky is blue in a different way at those heights, the milk tastes better, the eggs and chocolate as wholesome as any fruit of the earth.

I am especially interested in your reports to come, as I am reading the first of two volumes in Patrick Leigh Fermor's memoir of his walk at age 18 across Europe before and during WWI, the first being A time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, and the second Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates. Fermor just passed away this past summer at the ripe old age of 95. I'd say the walk did him good!

Ruth said...

Oh, and additionally, one thing that is utterly delightful about your post and also Fermor's tale, is being taken in (in a good sense, not in the idiomatic way) by kind strangers. I can imagine all sorts of serendipitous events and meetings, conversations and discoveries as a result of these informal lodgings.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, everyone, for you comments.

Ruth, those are two of my favourite books ever. There's also a third volume - unpublished - which I'm not sure he got round to finishing.

pilgrimpace said...

I think I've read that the third volume is in a publishable state, I hope this is true and that whoever is in charge of Leigh Fermor's estate agrees!

It's good to follow your walking again Robert - getting ready for un poco camino soon,

Andy

Goat said...

SW, good to see you back and looking forward like your other readers to following your journey. I like the way you just disappear without announcement, at least to most of us readers.

Also, it's great to see one of these little yellow hiker signs again! I followed them all over central Switzerland last year. 'Wanderwegs' in the German part; I forget what they're called in the French part.

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

Oh Robert how could you do this to me? Here I am semi-settled in my own mind about the routes I will walk next year. Was thinking about Geneva-Le Puy, but opted instead for Cluny- Le Puy, and it seemed far too greedy to approach Le Puy from two directions in the same year..... but now.... you have upset all my careful pondering!!

Alive said...

Aspiring post. Your wonderous blog could indeed evolve into a book, your very own travel writing memoir.

The Solitary Walker said...

Buen Camino, Andy... and Goat, Switzerland is wonderful walking country. Do you know the Balcon de l'Europe and the Tour de Lac Leman?

Margaret (Kiwi) - oh, dear, sorry to have put you into such a tizz! But you have to do the route from Geneva some day. It's truly wonderful.

Thanks, Alive. A book? I fear my brief ponderings would not stretch that far, but thanks for believing in me...

jimjim said...

Gitta and I (2 Danes, inveterate walkers and pilgrims aged 66) walked the via Gebennensis at the same time you did (started from Geneva 2 days before you) and enjoyed it as much as you did, and for the same reasons--love your Blog, our newly discovered reference point into the world of pilgrimage and wanderers...
james

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I heard about you along the Way, James and Gitta — as one does! I'm so glad you have discovered my blog, and that you are enjoying it. Welcome to you both.

jimjim said...

Thanks looking forwards to further chats-we are drumming up interest for the Via Gebennensis in our Danish pilgrim association (www.http://santiagopilgrimme.dk/) and we have written an illustrated article for their forthcoming journal
james

Steve Bamber said...

Hi there, I'm planning a walk in May and am very interested in doing this route. I'm not able to access the full blog (first day only)- is there something that I'm doing wrong or is that all that is available to see?
Cheers
Steve

The Solitary Walker said...

Just keep hitting the 'Newer Post' link at the foot of each post, Steve, and all will follow sequentially... Good luck to you on this magnificent walk! Tell me how you get on.

Daniel McCabe said...

My wife and I are curious if you need a sleeping bag or can you get away with a cotton sleep sack? We are walking from Interlaken, CH to Le Puy en Veley and also wondering if there is a list of families one can stay with and if there is how do you go about getting it? Can't wait to start the Camino as this is the preferred vacation mode my wife and I indulge in. Thanks Dan

The Solitary Walker said...

You could get away with a cotton or silk sack in the warmer months as most of the gîtes provide extra blankets etc. However, there may be caravans and chalets on camp sites which do not. I myself carried a normal light sleeping bag which packed away small. On the French section between Geneva and Le Puy you will find lists of hospitable families in the tourist offices en route and also in some of the guide books. On the Swiss section it's probably the same. It's a great way to spend the night. I envy you your forthcoming Camino. Have a great time!