A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Le Puy: The First 60 Steps

After a sleepless night on coach and cross-Channel ferry - and much excited conversation with fellow travellers - I arrived in Lyon at dawn the next day and took a local train to Le Puy-en-Velay. Midday found me sitting in a sleepy square outside a small bar-restaurant in Le Puy eating delicious chicken and rice in the warm sunshine.

Le Puy. Famous for lace and lentils. A spectacular place high up in the Massif Central, that huge granite plateau in south-central France dotted with extinct volcanoes and hot volcanic springs. It's been a pilgrimage centre since the Middle Ages, and its Romanesque cathedral is one of Europe's oldest and most beautiful pilgrim shrines. 60 steps rise steeply to a facade of white sandstone and black volcanic breccia (see photo). Around and below it the narrow streets of the old town twist and turn.

I stayed the night cheaply at the Maison Saint-François, a gîte d'étape in one of the old alleyways, but once again hardly slept. Early next morning I made my way bleary-eyed to mass. Even though I was practically in the cathedral's shadow, I managed to lose my way through a maze of dark and silent streets and passages. Finally I crept into the gloomy interior of the cathedral by the south porch. It was just 7 o'clock. I genuflected before the statue of the Black Madonna. In the pews were a scattering of devout elderly Catholic ladies and 4 other pilgrims.

After mass we were blessed by the Bishop of Le Puy in a special pilgrim benediction ceremony. He gave each of us some plastic rosary beads and a plastic cross and a tiny silver medallion of Our Lady of Le Puy. "We have been criticized for not doing enough for the pilgrims" he said, smiling. "These are my gifts to you. May God protect you. Please pass on my greetings to the Bishop of Santiago." This most humane and charming man then invited us to take some folded pieces of paper from a basket. On these were written heartfelt supplications from people in need and distress. We were entrusted with these touching little notes. We would pray for these supplicants on our journey.

I bought for €5 a scallop shell pendant from a nun in the sacristy. The scallop shell or coquille Saint-Jacques is the single identifying symbol of the pilgrim bound for Santiago. This motif recurs consistently - in religious and secular architecture, in shop windows, on road signs - during the whole route. I also picked up my pilgrim passport, or Créanciale, which would be stamped in churches, tourist offices, town halls, bars and gîtes along the Way. This passport would prove to the cathedral authorities in Santiago I had covered the route so that I could obtain a coveted Compostela, the official certificate of completion of pilgrimage. Then I was off down the main staircase marked Grand Escalier, Direction Compostelle.

It was the start of a 1000 mile journey along the French Via Podensis and the Spanish Camino Francés, a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela; a pilgrimage made by many 1000s of travellers for over 1000 years, travellers on foot, on horseback, on donkeys, on bicycles; a pilgrimage to Santiago cathedral, reputed burial place of Saint James the Apostle, Saint James the Moor-Slayer, Saint James the Pilgrim (portrayed with wide-brimmed hat, staff, Bible and scallop shell), Saint James the patron saint of Spain.

I climbed the hill out of town and left Le Puy behind me.

I had begun my journeying, my quest. But what I was seeking, what I was travelling towards, I was not sure...

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