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

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Setting Out

A welcome splash of colour outside Saint-Étienne railway station.

Sometime in the early evening of Saturday 5 May 2012 I stepped outside the railway station at Saint-Étienne and admired again the artificial tree stuck in the middle of the station forecourt. I'd been there before — on Saturday 1 October 2011 to be exact — on my way home after a fortnight's trek along the Via Gebennensis from Geneva in Switzerland to Le Puy in south-central France. Now, as then, the tree was a welcome burst of colour lighting up a drab, urban wilderness. This humble yet pathetically touching arboreal firework seemed to say: Trust me. Things are going to get better.

However, a heavy, grey sky glowered above, pregnant with rain. The weather here in the French Massif Central had been wet for weeks. I considered the prospects for my walk along the GR 65 pilgrim route I'd planned to start in Le Puy the next day. They were not brilliant. After an early spring of drought and fine days, the weather over much of northern and central Europe had settled into a pattern of cold snaps, bitter winds and thundery squalls. The UK, for instance, had just experienced its dampest April on record.

Oh well, que sera, sera. It's no good worrying about the weather if you're a walker. I had Goretex raingear in my pack and waterproof boots on my feet. A previous time I'd walked across Spain in January during the wettest winter in living memory. If I could do that, I could do anything. In a suddenly excited and optimistic mood, I stepped back into the station and boarded the local, two-carriage train to Le Puy. Trust in the tree, I thought, fake as it isTrust in the tree.

If trains still chug these days, this one chugged — through tunnels, through remote rural halts and through deep river gorges cut by the Loire. Rain lashed down. Thunder grumbled distantly and the occasional flash of lightning sparked over some far, rounded peak. But, as the train eased into Le Puy, the weather eased too. The sky cleared and brightened a little, and I could pick out some familiar sights: the cathedral's seven-storied bell tower, the chapel of Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe perched high on a volcanic plug, the almost obscenely huge red statue of the Virgin Mary, Notre-Dame de France, half-hidden by scaffolding...   

Virgin and Child in Le Puy.

Sunday dawned warm and bright and full of promise, and I wandered contentedly up and down the narrow alleyways of Le Puy-en-Velay. I bought bread, cheese, tins of fish. Some fruit. A tomato. I was given a brand new créanciale (pilgrim passport) by a nun in the cathedral's sacristy. And then I was off, in the pure, clear morning sunlight, under a sky of forget-me-not blue, down the cathedral steps, along the Rue Saint-Jacques and the Rue des Capucins, climbing first gently then more steeply out of town. A sign confirmed it was a mere 1511 km from here to Compostelle, but this time I wasn't walking so far...

1511 km to Compostelle.

I passed Saint James in myriad forms and representations, though which was the real, most authentic Saint James is anyone's guess. Perhaps the true one hovers like a religious touchstone in our imaginations... 

Saint James.

Another Saint James carved in wood.

On the plateau above Le Puy I simply felt glad to be alive, to be there, to be in that place and at that time, on that fresh and pristine day in early May, with the crickets singing and the wild flowers coming into bloom...
  
An old stone cross above Le Puy.

A scallop shell points the way.

14 comments:

George said...

I look forward to hearing about this walk, Robert, especially since I have had to postpone my walk of the Wales coastline. Unfortunately, there are issues here at home that now make it impossible for me to be away in June. Oh well, as you say, que sera, sera.

The Solitary Walker said...

Oh, George, I'm so sorry you've had to postpone your Welsh walk. And I was just about to email you saying it might be possible to join you for a few days after all! Never mind. Chaque jour est différent. And que sera, sera. Always.

Dominic Rivron said...

Sounds great. You make me want to get out putting one foot in front of the other.

Did have a bit of an adventure while you were away: I went walking in upper Eskdale -I'm ashamed to say- for the first time.

http://dominicrivron.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/eskdale-adventure.html

Rubye Jack said...

That's so cool that you're out there walking away and I have to let you know, you're certainly an inspiration to me as I struggle around my local park.

Goat said...

Luckily I've got a map of Les Sentiers de Grande Randonnée bookmarked. Also taken on the exciting but extremely daunting adventure of learning some basic French. All will be revealed.

Meanwhile I will be enjoying your account of your latest randonee! It's off to a very promising and evocatively written start...

Timecheck said...

Just in time to inspire us before we set out from Geneva to your starting point. We've been hopefully scanning the Europe weather forecasts, and are seeing them move from RNs across the continent to more and more PCs, so looking good for you and us.

Ruth said...

I like how you worked into your gladness, Robert. And it is contagious: I am quite glad to be reading your walkalogs again!

Friko said...

And so he was off once again. I look forward to to your adventures.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I wondered when you would be off on your travels again Robert. Enjoy!

The Solitary Walker said...

Enjoyed your walk, Dominic — though I missed a few photos?

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for visiting Rubye, as always...

... and Goat, feel free to practise your French with me if you wish...

Have a really great walk, Ralph & Susan!

Thanks, Ruth — I do try to create gladness out of sadness ... where and when I can ...

And thanks, Friko and Pat, for your visit!

Dominic Rivron said...

Unfortunately, the only photos I took were stored in my brain. Perhaps, when they work out how to fit us with USB ports...

Susan Scheid said...

I see I have got woefully behind here, having been away on a camino of sorts myself. I had not know you at the time of your earlier caminos, so am glad to be able to walk along with you this time, at least virtually.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Susan, for following my journey...