Some people go for the scenery; others for the physical challenge; but there is also an element of the spiritual journey helped by the isolated wayside chapels with their ancient primitive altars, as Jane and Richard Anderson found on the Route St Jacques.
The Route St Jacques begins in a place famed for lentils, but we learned on our first afternoon that Le Puy en Velay has much more to offer. From the enormous statue of Our Lady of France (made from 213 cannons captured in the Crimea) which dominates the town, to the cathedral, originally built in the 5th century and now a UNESCO world heritage site, faith links with history. The Chapel of St Michael has balanced on a sheer volcanic plug since 961, when Bishop Godescale led the first French pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, and built the chapel on his return. And we would follow in his footsteps, for part of the way, on the Via Podiensis to Conques.
After a day spent exploring the region around Le Puy, where the uncanny landscape is punctuated by huge volcanic outcrops, used at Polignac as a massive foundation for the 14th century fortress, we were ready to set off. Most of us had collected our Creanciale (a pilgrim’s ‘passport’ for the Route) from the cathedral. We gathered on the street corner, where St James pointed the way, the first of many useful signposts, and started walking towards our first overnight stop at St Privat d’Allier.
Every day a new experience, every night a different bed. We were living the pilgrim’s way, yet in Gore-tex and walking boots we were not in the same league as the mediaeval ascetics, some of whom completed the Route on foot. Travelling through sometimes very isolated countryside, on our second day we gazed over a valley which was completely inaccessible by road – it was crossed only by the Paris-Marseilles railway.
Crossing the Aubrac plateau, atmospheric in its solitude, reminded some of us of Dartmoor, others of lonely high Pennine Dales. Occasional cow bells clanged in the mist; later in the month the farmers would decorate their cattle with spring flowers and parade them through the villages before taking them up to summer pastures.
Landscapes changed along the way and we were soon in the Lot Valley. Ancient walled towns slumbered around dusty squares, the Lot carved her way through steep wooded valleys and we sat outside cafés after days walking through lush meadowland, vibrant with wild flowers.
Gradually the ancient language of Occitan became more prominent and the river’s name changed in Occitan, to the Olt. It was rare to find a fluent English speaker. We tackled the steep descent into Conques with a mixture of emotions; the final stamp on our Creanciale marked the end of our journey. We had achieved our aim; to get into the heart of the country. It’s very true: ‘the world is more beautiful on foot’.