After a number of train journeys from Paris to Le Puy, I finally arrived in Le Puy at a little past five o’clock. The moment I stepped off the train into the evening warmth, my stomach started to flutter: other people, they too carrying rucksacks adorned with the Coquille St Jacques, walked in the general direction of the town. I wasn’t sure where exactly I was going but soon enough an Australian man approached me: “Are you going to the Cathedral?” He asked. I supposed I was, so we walked together. The man, a couple of years into his retirement, had stepped off the plane from Australia but a few hours earlier that day. He was wearing a teeshirt bearing the Australian flag and was short of breath – he’d packed too much, he said.

My hand travelled to my rucksack strap unconsciously, it had already started to dig into my shoulder. Maybe I had packed a little too much aswell. Three others joined us, all from France, and we found our way to the Cathedral to pick up the ‘Creanciale’ – our pilgrim passport, if you like- before the shop closed for the night. The Australian and I filled in the necessary forms together, each noticing that the other was left handed. We then made our way to the Pilgrim’s welcome drinks nearby.

Upon entering the room and placing my rucksack next to five or six others, I looked at the faces before me – people of varying ages and physiques smiled back. It’s true that you can spot a pilgrim a mile off when you’re in a town or a city. Just look for their rucksack, their shell, and perhaps a tired gait. It’s also true, however, that no two pilgrims are the same – each with his or her reason for walking, each bringing his or her own experience with them. Despite not knowing who these strangers were, or what brought them here, I didn’t feel nervous for some reason. Usually the prospect of entering a room of unknown people is enough to make me tremble, but this time it was more a form of excitement and trepidation that I felt. After all, we already had one thing in common at least, since we were here, by choice, at the same time and place.

After a detailed explanation of the Camino, including the various possible routes, I stayed on for a couple of drinks and met two French pilgrims, both of whom had walked the camino before. They’d brought with them a casserole filled with a homemade stew for the first evening, and invited me to join them for dinner. I accepted gratefully, slightly surprised at their generosity, and relieved that I wouldn’t be eating alone that night.

I was soon whisked away to their hostel for dinner. Upon arriving, the owner offered me a chair and spoke to me passionately about the camino, insisting that I stay the night and even longer should I wish to explore Le Puy. I’ll admit, I’d already booked a bed elsewhere that night, but couldn’t turn away from such a warm welcome. It was then and there that I broke with my planned schedule, and decided to stay after all. Just the notion of choosing to stay somewhere spontaneously was so alien to the way in which I’d operated until that point (I am a sucker for planning ahead, and in great detail) – it felt both liberating, and a little bit nerve-wracking. “I’ll start as I mean to go on”, I told myself.

That night we ate plenty, with red wine and a raspberry dessert – a wonderful start! After a fitful sleep (pre-camino nerves) I got up and had breakfast, ready for the pilgrim’s mass and blessing at 7am in the Cathedral. I recognised a number of pilgrims from the welcome drinks the night before, and some new faces had appeared too. Regardless of each of our beliefs – religious or not – attending the pilgrim’s mass was a fitting way to mark the start of the journey, a way of taking time to meditate on our intentions for walking such a distance.

I set off that morning alongside the two French pilgrims with whom I’d dined the night before. Walking boots and clothes still fresh, we breathed in the crisp morning air as we descended the steps outside the Cathedral of Le Puy. The sun was out, and I smiled to myself with excitement – the journey had finally begun.

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