A year has passed since I walked from my house in Weybridge to Santiago de Compostela. My aim had been to undertake a traditional pilgrimage involving walking, contemplation, experiencing the physical and cultural landscape of northern Spain and enjoying the company of fellow pilgrims. The journey was a rare opportunity to step away from the rhythms and pace of normal life and to spend a couple of months without too much baggage or distraction, travelling at walking pace for over 1000 kilometres .
The Camino routes across Europe to Compostela have been trodden since the discovery of the remains of St James the Apostle in the 9th century. As news spread, pilgrims travelled to Compostela seeking redemption. Bishop Godescalc of Le Puy led the first recorded pilgrimage from beyond the Pyrenees in 950AD. Many followed. In 2016, more than 275,000 pilgrims arrived at the cathedral in Santiago and received the Compostela. Many followed the Camino Frances which starts at St Jean Pied de Port, the Foot of the Pass, on the French side of the Pyrenees; others came along the less well trodden paths in Spain and Portugal. And some travelled from other parts of Europe joining one of the four main routes in France before converging on the Camino at St Jean to cross the Pyrenees.
After last year’s walk I wanted to return to the Camino but without repeating the same route. My journey had taken me across the rolling downlands of southern England, over the sea to Bilbao, along the northern coast to San Sebastian and then due south over the Basque hills to Pamplona where I joined the Camino Frances. That journey was too precious to risk repeating so soon. How could I pass through Navarette without a tinge of sadness remembering that happy Sunday afternoon in the little bar by the church? How could I walk out of Mansilla de las Mulas in the bright morning sunshine or laze around Leon without the glow of togetherness which is the essence of the Camino? Would the piper still be playing the same sweet music in the woods along the way from Sarria?
I spent months deliberating the route for my next Camino. There are many options but for me it was always going to be the French Via Podiensis, the Path of Power. This most ancient of routes starts at Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne, in the spectacular 11th century Cathedral Notre-Dame-du-Puy. Built on top of a volcanic spire, it is home to the Black Madonna as well as a Druid “fever stone” with healing powers. Immediately upon leaving Le Puy-en-Velay the path climbs the desolate and remote uplands of the Massif Central on its journey to the Pyrenees in 6 main stages:
- The Velay, a 14 million year old basalt plateau dotted with small volcanoes. The path crosses the Margeide mountain chain where highland meadows blossom in mid May with wild white narcissus used in French perfumes.
- The sparsely populated Aubrac plateau, a UNESCO world heritage site and home to thousands of long horned Aubrac cattle.
- The desolation will be relieved when the path descends into the Lot River Valley and visits the Abbey Church of Saint Foy in Conques, a major pilgrimage destination.
- Continuing into Quercy, we pass through Figeac, Cahors and Moissac and there will be a chance to experiment with red wines and black truffles.
- More of that in Gascony, the heart of English rule until ended by the devastating Hundred Years’ War in 1453. This is home to Armagnac and progress is likely to be slow.
- Finally, the Via Podiensis crosses the French Basque Country, another wet, wild and sparsely populated area producing cheese from sheeps’ milk. The climb into the Pyrenees begins.
This walk has a distance of about 820 Kms, somewhat shorter than last year, but is mostly over very rough terrain with constant ascents and descents for much of the way. I travel out to Le Puy on 8 May 2017. If good fortune prevails and I arrive at St Jean Pied de Port, I will join the new pilgrims starting the Camino Frances and my walk will climax with the crossing of the Pyrenees and a descent into the familiar sights and sounds of Pamplona, hopefully well before the start of the Fiesta de San Fermin on 6 July.