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by Colleen Friesen
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

September’s morning fog lay low in the fields, pushing up against ancient rock fences. My hiking sticks tapped on stones worn smooth from centuries of footsteps. Mist, floating free of the fog, rose, illuminated and golden, before disappearing into the light of the sun.

2. Steeple in the mist

3. Morning mist

A few years ago, our same foursome (myself, my husband Kevin and our friends Yvonne and Bruce) completed a wonderful walk in England’s Yorkshire Dales. It had been a journey replete with old inns, pub dining, and plenty of that Ye Olde Englande feel to things. Very importantly, it included the transfer of our luggage to each night’s hotel. This left us free to carry a small daypack with rain gear and our lunch.

So, when we booked this walking trip in France, I thought it would be similar to that one, except, of course, we’d be trekking in the land that celebrates cuisine. What I’d failed to read was that we were doing more than just a hike.

It seemed we’d signed up for a pilgrimage.

I’d certainly heard about the UNESCO-designated Camino de Santiago. But I hadn’t realized that there are literally dozens of pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela and that when we booked our trip in France, our walk would be on one of them. When I read the brochure again...yup...that’s exactly what it said. How’d I miss that?

Still, no one was forcing us to call our seven-day-150-kilometre hike a pilgrimage. But when your first night’s accommodation is in a converted abbey that holds 96 pilgrims in monastic cell-like rooms within the UNESCO-designated city of Conques, a village that has been a holy site since the 7th sort of sets the tone.

1 Fog in Conques

That night we sat in the grandeur of an eleventh-century church listening to the haunting notes of the huge pipe organ above us. Behind me, I heard a woman quietly weeping.

4. Symbolic Scallops

Some walkers had large scallop shells on their packs, symbolic of a pilgrim. Most of them had started in La Puy-en-Velay, already covering the first 150 kilometres of The French Way of St. James. Many of them would be traveling for much longer, with only what they could carry on their backs.

At first, parachuting into the middle of the pilgrimage made me feel like a poseur but I soon realized no one knew was there to judge.

Halfway through that first day, the interior lining of my left boot began bunching in the arch of my foot. By the time I looked, the blister was already fat and growing. I slapped on some Moleskin but it was obvious I needed new boots. I left my old boots in the store and staggered out, stunned by the day’s exertion in the unusual heat wave.

If suffering is part of a pilgrimage, it would seem we were being initiated quickly. A few days later Yvonne’s toes started to blister, then Kevin and Bruce showed off their blackening toenails. Each day we passed around ibuprofen, Voltaren, sunscreen and Moleskin like party favours.

We learned that all of it was surmountable. Walking all day becomes its own meditation. Plus, it turns out that pain has a curious way of removing all other thoughts.

5. Kevin Redl, Bruce Searle

Each day we drizzled olive oil on baguettes, tucked into aromatic sausage, delectable cheeses, olives, fragrant tomatoes and nuts for our picnic lunches. Our feet carried us through history, as forests of chestnut, oak, Montpellier maple and boxwood gave way to fields of chateaus, churches, cows and sheep. We stumbled through tiny villages, incredible cathedrals, tiny roadside churches and another UNESCO-designated city, Figeac. Curious donkeys watched our progress. Dying sunflowers bowed their heads.

On our final day the trail briefly opened up near a highway. Looking down at the speeding trucks and cars, it struck me as ridiculous. Everyone was in such a hurry. It seemed wrong for bodies to be hurtling through space and time like that. When had we all decided that faster was better? This slowed down version of life seemed infinitely richer and deeper.

I turned my back on the highway and faced into the ancient landscape, trodding in the footsteps of all those seekers before me. And that is when I knew. This had been so much more than a walk.

I had been on a pilgrimage after all.


PHOTOS by Colleen Friesen

#1 Fog in Conques

#2 Steeple in the Mist

#3 Morning Mist

#4 Symbolic Scallops

#5 Kevin Redl & Bruce Searle

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