Saturday, 12 May 2012

I came, I saw...

Today, I've reached Conques, which I had always gathered was the high point of this journey. To that extent, I suppose I was a bit disappointed. It is of course an intensely touristy place. I prefer less obtrusive villages/small towns, of which there have been many - like Saint-Côme-d'Olt on Wednesday (I omitted to mention it).

Nevertheless, the descent into Conques on this Voie du Puy is undoubtedly special: after a long walk upon the crest, with views of open countryside - I included this photograph as it shows some arable farming, very little of which we have seen hitherto - you are suddenly led steeply down to the village, clinging to its steep, wooded hillside. There is not a hint even of its existence till you are there. And the fabled Abbaye Sainte-Foy does not disappoint, with its tympanum and soaring nave.

Vespers and Compline there this evening certainly were a high point, along with the blessing of pilgrims: each group was called up separately and we were presented with booklets containing one of the gospels in our own language.

I had been rather dreading the prospect of Conques' dormitories with their three-tier bunks, which I'd read about. When I woke this morning at 4 a.m. (la voie du pipi), I encountered a couple who were setting off already for the Abbaye, to avoid the heat of the day. Could they possibly, I asked in my best French, reserve me a bottom bunk when they get there? Yes, came the man's reply, if you in turn will kindly bring with you my sunhat, which I left in the Reception room - it's locked till the morning. So it is that I've walked all this sunny day wearing a nice white Panama. What's more, I do have a bottom bunk, though the old three-tier ones have been replaced now by well-spaced two-tier models.

It is a great pleasure to be staying here: a troop of kind hospitaliers greeted us with tea, and 100-odd of us sat for supper on benches at the long refectory tables. (Before eating, we had to learn the Chant des pèlerins de Compostelle, "Ultreia!" Some tummies were rumbling.)

I very much enjoyed having Peter's company on this lovely day. Poor man, he was launched into a 21km. walk (with more such days to follow) having had hardly any time for preparation, and a joke of a rucksack. Last night, I was sharing my gîte dormitory with, amongst others, a soft-spoken man of my age from Lille, Philippe. When I met up with him again on arrival in Conques, I asked him whether he'd heard of any who were going home from Conques and might be willing to sell their rucksack to Peter. He replied that his own walk had just ended, and he was expecting his wife to arrive very soon, to drive him away: when she came, he would be willing to empty out and lend Peter his rucksack, "sans souci". Thus, from tomorrow, Peter won't know himself, being furnished with a piece of state-of-the-art kit! That sort of thing is why this walk is so distinctive.

Peter and I had another happy experience this morning: after some two hours' walking, we reached the hamlet of Le Soulié, where first I spotted a water tap, and then a table with coffee, biscuits - and a bowl of cherries. As so often upon the Way, it was "give what you wish", not a system likely to catch on in Cheltenham's High Street, I regret to say. We were helping ourselves, when the person responsible drove up: Michel Roudil lived elsewhere, but had set up both the wayside hospitality and a chapel and gîte beyond as a year-round service to the pilgrimage. Not only did he welcome us, but rang ahead to another Christian friend, who also runs her gîte on a donativo basis: we are now booked in there for tomorrow night.

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