Route: 15 km with 1440 ft climb
Tour: I attended Morning Mass for pilgrims at the Le Puy cathedral, which was a very interesting structure. More than 40 attended, about 75 per cent French. There were 6 Quebecois, 2 Norwegians, 2 Swiss, 1 German, 1 Brazilian, and us Americans. After collecting our packs we set out – finally! There is a steep (750 ft in first hour) ascent coming out of Le Puy on 80 degree day. We took our lunch break in a churchyard at the town square, where we refilled water (total 2 liters for day’s walk, I was too thrifty in the morning and suffered). My pack feels heavy, but I know first days are always hard for me, I’m still jet lagged and I never did well with heat. The road was mostly dirt farm roads, some section terribly stoney (rocks ranging from hens egg to softball size). Soil here is volcanic, rich and black. Roads topped with crushed pumice, dark red. Fields were mostly pasture or sileage (hay, corn, clover). Farm buildings uniformly field stone quite old, recently repointed, with red tile roofs and stained wood frame windows with external shutters. We stop at a little 12th century chapel outside Montbonnet, then make our way to the gite.
Lodging: Gite L’Escole, which is in an old stone barn, renovated. First time for the soon-to-be-familiar bed bug prophylaxis drill (leave your packs in the foyer and carry inside the stuff you’ll need for the night), which was very aggravating given our fatigue. Other guests all French save one German woman who was an English teacher.
Cuisine: Demi-pension accommodation includes dinner and breakfast. Dinner began with a lovely tossed salad (greens from the garden, tomatoes, simple vinagrette dressing). The main course was a penne pasta with fresh vegetables and sliced pork roast (French pigs are almost as lean as ours, I wish there was a bit more fat for flavor). Dessert was a cheese platter followed by fresh fruit. The French folks at the table showed us the proper way to serve ourselves cheese: slice it in such a way that everyone gets a bit of the rind. Tonight’s assortment included one of the local Auvergne bleu cheeses, which I acquired a real taste for over the course of the trip. In our room, the German woman was complaining about French bread – that it has no taste. After a few weeks of it, I understood her point. (Note: Central Market carries Auvergne bleu.)
Grace: We were so grateful to finally be on our journey, and to have arrived and settled into our lodgings before the thunderstorm (which had been threatening all afternoon) broke. There was much lightning, and pelting rain with wind, all night. We felt very snug and slept like logs.
Tour: People say that travel, especially international travel, is no longer as fun as it used to be. Our flight was 45 minutes late leaving Seattle (the crew needed rest, at least that’s a known factor) but only 10 minutes late arriving O’Hare. In Seattle while we waited, the land-side crew was very cheerful. My waiting lobby seatmate recommended the Berghoff in Chicago – they have O’Hare location. So upon arriving O’Hare, I immediately sought out the Berghoff, an old-Deutsch establishment, and they offered a Cuban sandwich I figured would not be on offer in France. This being a very popular and crowded place, I had to share a table. My table mates included a couple from near Gothenburg Sweden, going to Vancouver, and another couple from St George Utah, heading to Tuscany. The flight on to Paris was briefly bumpy as we crossed the remains of Hurricane Earl, but we arrived CDG 45 minutes early, deboarded promptly, and immigration line was non-existent. Light rail link to building with train station went quickly. The remainder of the day was a succession of wait, train, wait, train. The train from Saint Etienne to Le Puy was exceptionally scenic, winding through steep little mountain valleys (as steep as western Pennsylvania) with so many tunnels I lost count. Frequent open breaks for spectacular views across the river valley. Hints of early fall on this crystal-blue day; trees still officially green but some yellow-green and others rust-green. Actual fall would be spectacular here.
Cuisine: French railway stations have a ubiquitous sandwich stand. They use butter rather than mayonnaise, so they don’t require (as much) refrigeration. The ham sandwich was very tasty with brie. The tuna sandwich (it was a long ride) had a “provencal salsa” with fresh tomatoes and garlic — the finest tuna sandwich ever! Dinner was included with our lodging, and unremarkable, excepting the dessert. Ice cream was on offer, in twelve flavors (we could pick two). I had lime and verveine, a local herb liquor distilled from verbena (after the fashion of Chartreuse etc.). Such intense flavor! The pistachio had discernable grit of ground pistachios.
Grace: After travelling so far and so long, it was an unexpected pleasure to be met at the station by my travelling companions (who had arrived in Le Puy the previous day, smart folks). The Confraternity of Saint James (CSJ) is the UK pilgrim association and has the de facto all English-speakers pilgrim forum. After several attempts we succeeded in linking up with a CSJ forum member from New Zealand, who was just finishing the walk from Geneva to Le Puy, along with a friend from Germany. We very much enjoyed meeting them, hearing their stories, pilgrimage wisdom, and future travel plans.
So the Pilgrimage of 2010 is about to begin, at long last. Actually, some of us are already in France, due to our various individual travel itineraries. I’m flying out tomorrow, laggard that I am.
Packing the bag has been an exceptionally challenging step, due to the target weight limit of 15 pounds (for a dry pack, with no water or food). It’s a nice goal, but I didn’t make it. For a long time I was stuck at 18.6 pounds and playing whack-a-mole (as soon as I thought of something I could take out, I would think of something else that needed to go in). Finally, after leaving out the fleece vest, swapping the amphib sandals for a pair of Wal-Mart aqua-sox, and swapping the ebags toilet kit for a Outdoor Research pack sack, I’m down to 17.4 pounds. Now, that includes a pound of consumable pills and papers, so the number will go down a bit day by day. The consumable papers are the guidebooks pages I razored out of their binding. Consumable pills include vitamins.
We’re due to have some rain on the early days, so I’ll get a chance to test the gaiters.