Leaving Le Puy-en-Velay

Sunday, June 18, 2017, Le Puy-en-Velay, France

In Le Puy-en-Velay, pilgrims are encouraged to begin their journey by attending a pilgrim mass that is offered daily at 7 a.m. Many attend whether they are religious or not. 

I won’t miss these stairs, but the view is worth it!

I climbed the steps to the cathedral at 6:50 a.m. greeted by a smiling David. Fifteen pilgrims sat on the stairs before the large, closed front doors. David and I traded stories of how we slept and as the clock chimed 7, a German woman checked the front door to find it locked. I went around to a side door and found it open. The mass had already started and there were about 50 people present. Backpacks lined the walls of the nave. I had no idea how these people got in. But I slid my backpack off and placed it and my sticks against the wall, then quietly found a seat. David did the same and came to stand next to me. Other pilgrims entered in the same fashion over the next fifteen minutes.

The mass proceeded as it has since my childhood — except that the whole thing was in French. Well, almost the whole thing. The first time I heard the priest speak English was just before Communion — to explain to us that if we were not Catholic, we were not allowed to partake. I can’t imagine Jesus telling some of the people gathered with him that they weren’t allowed to dine with him, but that’s another story. (To those of you that are Catholic, I understand why. I just can’t reconcile it.) When this announcement was made in the cathedral in Santiago at the end of my first Camino, I walked out. Over the course of the next year I went into a church twice: once for a wedding and once for a baptism. And I noticed something: I no longer took offense to the way things were done. I now had a distance from it all and was able to see it as just “the way some people see things.” Just like observing how another culture operates when I visit a foreign country, I watched, interested, wondering, but now lacking the judgement, frustration, anger. 

So in Le Puy-en-Velay, the announcement still stung, but I let it go. 

The second time the priest spoke English was at the end of the Mass. He invited all of the pilgrims present to gather in a place near the altar where he would offer a benediction. Seventy-five people gathered around him and a small table beside him. First, he asked where people were from. The first person who spoke said, “United States.” He then asked everyone from the US to raise their hands. There were five of us. Next, the French. The majority of people raised their hands. There were also people from Belgium, England, the French island of Reunion, and a few others.

After being sure he mentioned everyone’s country of origin, he held up a small book that was on the table beside him: the gospel of Luke. “It’s in French,” he told the English speakers, “so maybe you use it to help improve your French,” he said with a smile. There were white plastic rosaries enclosed in plastic along with a booklet about how to pray the rosary. “Also in French,” he told the English speakers. “But this time there are pictures,” he said, with another smile. And finally he offered a small booklet listing places to pray along the way. And by this he meant churches and chapels, because, now that I think about it, I’m sure he’d agree with my thought that you can actually pray anywhere you’d like. 

Next the priest lifted a small box from the table. Inside, he explained, were blank pieces of paper and a pen. He invited us to write what we were praying for on this Camino, and put it in a slot behind him. He then held up a second, longer box filled with folded papers. “These,” he explained, “are all the prayers of those pilgrims who were present for this mass over the last few days.” He offered that we could take one with us. Read it. Pray for that person. “This box,” he said, indicating the one in his hand, “are the ones in French. And this one,” he said, putting down the French prayers and picking up a smaller box, “are the ones in other languages.” I took one from the “other languages” box. It was in English. A long paragraph from an American now living in France. I put it in my pocket. 

Writing a prayer, and taking the prayer of another.

“Now, the blessing,” he said. He handed out small cards that contained a prayer for the pilgrims. He had it in at least six different languages. Once the foreigners had their copies, he said the prayer. 

He then moved us all directly in front of the altar. A woman who was assisting him lifted a thick 5′ x 6′ poster board and placed it on a ledge to our right. “The man who wrote the prayer called the Magnificant was from Le Puy,” he explained. “We have said this prayer in this cathedral every day for the last 1000 years.” The poster board showed the prayer in four different languages, including French and English. “We will say it now,” he told us. And we all read aloud in French. 

His female assistant then brought to him two small trays. “We have one of these for everyone,” he said, holding up a small medal. “On one side is the image of Notre Dame de Le Puy.” He turned and pointed to the black Madonna that looked out on the congregation from her perch behind the altar. “On the other side is the coquilles.” “Coquilles” is the French word for the scallop shell–the symbol of the Camino. In the Middle Ages, after pilgrims walked to Santiago, they continued on to the ocean and took a scallop to prove to everyone back home they had made it. Now pilgrims wear one on their backpacks, and they can be seen all over the Camino–on trail markers, hanging outside houses, on the tables in restaurants, etc. 

Behind the altar in Le Puy

“Back there, in the sacristy,” he said, pointing, “you can get your stamp. And then, you can descend the stairs and exit through the main doors.” Ahhh. Now I understood. They didn’t open the doors until the end of the mass. It was part of the tradition!
I went to the sacristy where a nun, in full habit, stood behind the counter of a small gift shop. She stamped my Camino credential in red ink. It was not my first stamp. My first was from the tourist office in Le Puy-en-Velay, and then I had stamps from the historic sites David and I visited the day before. The nun wished me well on my journey. Along the back wall of the room, I saw pilgrims writing on long pieces of paper. I went over to see what they were. It was a form one could fill out to be listed in the register of pilgrims. I filled mine in, and then headed back to the church to grab my pack. 

David and I descended the stairs. “Wait — I want a picture,” I said, pulling my phone out from its place in the side pocket of my hiking pants. A volunteer we’d met the previous night was there and offered to take our picture together. We stopped to look at the view one last time, and with that, we were off.

David and I

Ready to begin my first day in the Via Podiensis

Leaving the Cathedral

How Not to Lose Weight on the Via Podiensis

Despite walking 12-15 miles per day, I have never lost weight while doing a Camino. Dinner last night at the Gite d’Étape LaGrange will help you understand why. 

Along the Camino routes in France, a pilgrim can stay at “gites.” They are privately owned by a local families. Rooms have 2-4 beds in them, but these are not hostels. Far from it, in fact. There are no bunk beds. Sheets are included. And many times there is an en suite bathroom. But the best part of a gite? You have the option of “demi-pension” which means “half-board.” This means your hosts will cook and serve you dinner and as well as breakfast the next morning. In the case of the Gite d’Étape LaGrange, my dinner, night’s rest, and breakfast came to a grand total of 32 Euros (maybe 36 dollars). If you think that’s a deal, wait until you see the video of the place. (Click here.)

Oh — and that dinner? Well, I’m in France. Take a guess as to how amazing it is. But for those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of eating in France, I’ll elaborate. And those of you that have had a meal in France, well, I’m sure your mouth is watering already. 

At seven p.m. the ten of us staying in the gite gathered around the table, which was set and already had bottles of wine and pitchers of water as well. Our host, Christian, deposited two bowls on our table. The first was a salad of mostly tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs as well as some lettuce, all dressed in the mustard vinaigrette that seems to be traditional in many French-speaking counties (I’ve had the pleasure of this salad in other parts of France as well as in Switzerland.) The second bowl contained the famous Le Puy green lentils, cooked in some sort of vinaigrette as well, from what I could tell. 

After some time partaking of these dishes, our host came back to the table to encourage us to finish everything in the serving bowls. Person after person passed on the salad, so it was left to Ed and I to do our part. Ed, a middle school American History teacher from Baltimore, took some of the salad, and when I asked if he wanted any more before I finished it he said, “Oh, no. I need to leave room for the next course.” “The next course?” I asked. “I thought this was our dinner.” “Oh, no,” he assured me. I could have left the table satiated at that moment, but having walked 10 miles, I didn’t think I’d have trouble eating something else. 

For our main course, Christian served us thick links of baked sausages (another regional speciality) and the creamiest mashed potatoes I’ve ever had. I can assure you he didn’t use skim milk to make them. 

Next came a plate of cheeses. Two, Christian explained, were made locally. The third was a type I’d had the day before in Le Puy-en-Velay. Perhaps not local, but certainly French. Christian explained that they were all made from cow’s milk. Not that it mattered. I was in France. There was cheese. Of course it was going to be good. (For the record: I was right.)
In Spain, when a meal includes dessert, dessert is a piece of fruit or a small cup of plain yogurt accompanied by a packet of sugar. Certainly not what we Americans would consider dessert. So you can understand why I thought the cheese was our dessert. “Nope,” Ed said. “That was just the cheese course.” Well, duh. Of course the French would have a separate course during which the only goal is to enjoy some of the country’s cheeses. 

So just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, Christian, for his final performance, brought out slices of chocolate cake. And of course it was unlike anything I’d had in the U.S. It wasn’t nearly as sweet. You could actually taste the chocolate as opposed to the sugar. 
And so it was that two hours after we started, the ten of us cleared the table for our host. Yes, we were paying for the meal and for his service, but when you have a meal like that money just doesn’t seem enough. 
So don’t worry about me. I’m doing quite well here in France. Perfectly content to not lose a single pound this entire trip. 

The Gite d’Étape LaGrange in Montbonnet

Sightseeing in Le Puy-en-Velay

Last we left our heroine, she was about to spend her first night in her small cabin on the hill in Le Puy-en-Velay, France. She arrived to find the door more than a few feet in a jar. She walked in and saw that her roommate Isabelle had already gone to sleep, and left the door open because it was so stuffy inside the cabin. The cool air of the evening had yet to penetrate the very small space. She climbed into bed in her wrinkle proof dress and hoped for a good nights sleep. It was not to be. She tossed. She turned. In a couple hours the cabin cooled down. In a couple more hours it was downright cold. By the time she looked at her clock, it wasn’t worth trying to sleep any longer.  

Cabin home above Le Puy-en-Velay

And so at 5:30 AM on Saturday, June 17, she pulled out her journal and began catching up on her writing. Isabel awoke shortly thereafter, her goal being to attend the 7 AM pilgrim mass in the cathedral. our heroine stayed writing in bed because 1) she wanted to and 2) the cabin was really too small for two people to be moving in and out of it at the same time. 

After Isabel left, she went about her morning routine, and then walked into the town to meet David for a day of sightseeing. After devouring a pain au chocolat, they climbed up to the chapel of St. Michel, perched on a rock in the middle of the city And built in 962 by Bishop Godescalc who promised he would do so after returning from a pilgrimage to Santiago.  

St. Michel d’Aiguilhe

Inside St. Michel d’Aiguilhe

David–admiring the stonework? Contemplating life?

Not having had their fill of stairclimbing yet, they next ascended to the base of the Virgin Mary statue (Notre Dame de France). Made from the metal of Russian cannons captured during the Crimean war, it is perched on yet another rock in the middle of the same city. And as if arriving at the base wasn’t enough, they continued into the statue, David even managing to climb the ladder to peek out between her crown stars. Rebecca tried, but fear overcame her and she retreated. 

More stairs? Why not?

Inside the Notre Dame de France

The view of the Le Puy cathedral from inside the Notre Dame de France statue

“I think I’ve had enough stairclimbing for one day,” said David. She agreed and they searched out a lunch option for David’s vegetarian lifestyle. The region is known for its Le Puy lentils (“the caviar of the poor” she read the next day), which they both had as part of their lunch. 
They paid a visit to the museum of the pilgrim: thoughtful words about the journey were shared in nine rooms — one for each portion of the walk. She walked inside the cathedral for the first time and was surprised to see a black Madonna. She recalled that these were unusual and sought out by some people, but she couldn’t recall more than that and was curious as to how came to be one here.

 At 5:30 PM, they were welcomed into Le Camino–a space specifically for pilgrims who are leaving the next morning the way of St. James. Volunteers who had done the Camino welcomed them with a glass of verbeine — a local syrup made from verbana and, in this case, cut with water. It is popular here and also sold as a liquer.
After a late dinner, she and David parted ways. They would meet again the next morning at the Cathedral for the daily pilgrim mass at 7 AM, after which she would begin her journey on her fourth Camino, and David would continue his journey on his third. 

Le Puy-en-Velay

Girl leaves Lyon, France to head to her Camino starting point: Le Puy-en-Velay. One train and one un-air-conditioned bus later, she arrives. She hikes up out of the city 15 minutes to her cabin home away from home. She arrives two hours before she planned, and the owners are not there. There is a note on the door that says early arrivals can call a cell phone number, but the girl did not yet get a French Sim card for her phone and so cannot call. She thinks about sitting under the shade of a tree and writing for the next two hours. But her intuition tells her to go into town. And so she does.

She descends back into the city, attains the SIM card, and then walks through a square only to hear someone calling her name. She looks up and is delighted to see her Camino friend from Asheville, David Vaughn, sitting at a table on a terrace overlooking the square. He began his third camino in Geneva a couple weeks ago. She and he had emailed and discovered that perhaps they would be in the same town on the same day. But neither had made any plans for how to find each other. I just figured I’d sit in one of the squares with a good view of all the people going by, and maybe I’d find you,” David told her.

She had met David only once but in that short time she learned he was a minimalist living in a 700 square-foot house and therefore she wanted to learn more about him. She is thrilled to be able to connect with him over a glass of lemonade in Place du Caizel–a world away from where they met.

They sit fully engaged in each other’s stories. They talk over drinks until she has to hike back up to her cabin to meet her hosts.
They later meet for dinner and, as often happens on the Camino, conversation quickly deepens. She learns he has a son her age. They talk of their families, their childhoods, and the generosity of their mutual Camino friends in Asheville, Chris and Esther. They climb the stairs up to the cathedral. It is closed for the day, but they sit looking out at the view of Le Puy as they talk of time, busyness, and the tendency to live in the past or the future instead of the present.

Me, delighted to have yet another travel companion to take my picture. Note that this is my “Camino dress.” My mother bought it for me prior to my first Camino and it’s been on every Camino since.

The view from the cathedral stairs

They do their best to stay awake as darkness falls so they can view the Lumières– The light shows the town has every night from May to September on five of its historic buildings around the city. They begin at 10:15 with the show at the theater, then walk over to see the one at the Hôtel de Ville, and finally the show at the Cathedral.

The light show at the Cathedral. Note this was taken from nearly the same place as the picture of me earlier in this post.

She had heard there were many interesting sites in the city and so had plans to stay for two nights. Earlier in his Camino, he had decided to do the same. “What time would you like to meet tomorrow?” she asked. He said, “How about you plan the itinerary for the day. Someone tells me you’re very good at that.” She laughed knowing it was probably Chris who divulged her determination to prepare and plan (sometimes too much!) for her Camino travels. They parted ways looking forward to exploring the city’s wonders the next day.

The Hidden Passageways of Lyon

Girl visits third largest city in France. Decides she wants some nature. And some information. And some company. So signs up for the 1015 tour of the Parc de la Tête d’Or that meets at her hostel. 

Only one other person shows up for the tour: Michelle is an American from Colorado traveling Europe solo for a few weeks. Ahhhh. A like-minded soul. 

American women enjoy the sights in the largest urban park in France, opened the same year as New York’s Central Park. (Apparently there was a worldwide movement that decided cityfolk needed exposure to nature.) 

Entrance gate

Learn the park is home to 30,000 rose bushes. 350 species of them, in fact, totaling about 5 million roses. Popular spot, therefore, for wedding photos. Reminds girl of the Italian Gardens at the Vanderbilt mansion in her hometown– which also has a rose garden that is popular with the newly wed.

 Park is home to a free zoo. And a small, circular cage that once used to house one very lonely bear when the zoo first opened. Thankfully, zoos have come a long way since then.  

 When tour is finished, girl has that moment many single travelers do upon meeting a fellow single traveler. “Would other single traveler like to spend some time seeing some other sites with me?” Girl knows most single travelers enjoy meeting and spending time with others on what can sometimes be a lonely trip. So as expected, the question is answered with a yes. 

 After lunch at the same place she dined alone yesterday, girl and her new friend head out to hunt for the “traboules.” Traboules are hidden passages that connect one or more buildings. Historically used in the old city to get to the river, and in the silk district to keep the silk from gettinng stolen or damaged outside in the elements while it was being transported to the river, they were subsequently used by the Resistance during World War II to store weapons, to hide Jewish people, to keep many things from the eyes of the Nazis as the passages were not mapped at that time. 

The two American women have a map and addresses. The first three doors they arrive at are locked. Then, they see someone else enter by pushing small button beside door. Now the world of the traboules opens up to them! 

Heading into a traboule

I knew “Porte” meant “door” but just thought this was how you called the people who lived in the apartments above!

Women enjoy one of the main benefits of traveling with someone else: getting their picture taken to share with friends and family.

Inside a traboule

In a courtyard looking up

People that live in these buildings head up the stairs to head home.


Camino training–in Lyon

I think the best practice for the Camino is traveling around Europe the week prior. More specifically: Go to Lyon and head towards the Basilica Notre Dame de Fourvière at the top of the hill. See some stairs and think, “They don’t look that bad.” Get to the top of the stairs, and find even more stairs. Think, “Well, at least this is good practice.” Get to the top and see even more stairs. Feel your body responding to hundreds of stairs in 95° weather. Start cursing yourself. Figure it’s too late to turn around now. How much longer can it be? A lot longer. Climb more stairs. Wish you had counted the number of stairs so you could brag about it on your blog. Stop to catch your breath. Take a video to try to show how crazy this is. Video does not do it justice.

 Finally get to the top and see a map of said stairs. Think to yourself, “Why wasn’t this map at the bottom of the stairs?!” 

Check the Internet when posting your pictures that evening. Find that it was 798 steps. Be proud of yourself. Brag to your friends on blog.

A few minutes later: Girl walks up to the door of the Basilica Norte Dame de Fourvière. Sees the sign that says “tour decouverte” (discovery tour) to the left. Sees that the sign also says “tour insolite” to the right. Looks up the word insolite. Finds that it means “unusual.” Heads to the right.

 Finds that the tour starts in 30 minutes. Reads that the tour provides 360° views of the city. Realizes that’s more stairs. Wants to go anyway. Sign says one should sign up online. She doesn’t have internet access. Walks inside of the basilica. Stops and stares at the blue and gold mosaics covering the ceiling. Catches her breath. Confirms that if she waits by the sign outside, she may be able to go on the tour. Heads back to the sign. 

Twenty-something English-speaking girl approaches. Visiting from the US — thanks to a $3000 grant her college offers for students for summer travel.

Learns the tour guide only speaks French. Is able to follow not even half of what she says. But it’s all worth it for the views. And the opportunity to have dinner with the American girl who, two weeks ago, stepped on a plane for the first time. To head to Europe for the first time. Alone. 

 Acknowledges that the girl’s troubles the first week were all normal. The loneliness. The getting lost. The wondering if it’s a good idea. Wondering if one should head home. Tells her she still has these feelings after 20 years worth of traveling–alone and with others. Hopes she’s convinced the girl it is worth doing. Again. Because at the girl’s college, she can apply for that $3000 grant again next summer.

Sarah and I: Note the Basilica waaaaay up on the hill behind us.

View from dinner with Sarah. Place St-Jean.

Things Remembered or Learned in Madrid

Things I’ve learned or recently recalled:

1) Do not wear convertible hiking pants through airport security. Zippers. Snaps. Don’t do it.

2) Fly home via Dublin if at all possible. They do US customs at the Dublin airport, so you just walk off the plane as usual when you arrive back in the US.

3) The people playing music in the street here aren’t your typical singer/guitar player. Tonight it was three violinists and three cellists!

4) To keep people cool on a 95 degree day in a city where most people walk, cover the streets with parachute type things.

5) When Michael’s not with me, I can spend as long as I want taking pictures. And seeing museum exhibits. (In this case, the museum of the Almudena Cathedral and pics from the dome of said cathedral.)

6) And something I remembered from my Camino with Lois: the pics you most look back on are the ones with people in them. Specifically yourself and/or friends you meet along the way. (And that you should show them no matter how bad you think you look in them. In this case, it will help you remember that it was 95° the day you first saw Madrid.)

7) Not all big cathedrals were completed before my birth. This one was finished in 1993 and so has some colorful modern touches in addition to the traditional.

8) How much I love traveling. And how the best way to see all I’d like to see is to live here. Some day. Sooner rather than later.