Portraits et témoignages de pèlerins
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mise à jour le 3 février, 2006   survol du site Page précédente Accueil

Meeting people on the Chemin de Tours

Meeting people on the Chemin de Compostelle is a great experience. Hereunder some notes by Christiane Buuck, american grantee of the Fulbright Foundation who is working with us.

This October I walked a portion of the Chemin de Tours.

Some scholars believe that during the middle ages this path was the most frequented of the Grandes Voies in France, because a system of Roman roads leading south made travel easier for pilgrims. Today that Roman road is still a major artery, the A-10 toll highway, but foot traffic here is both illegal and perhaps suicidal. So, in the twenty-first century a pilgrim must cobble together her itinerary from town to town, important site to important site. Each guide book and pilgrim association offers options, and some people even argue for following the GR 655, though this hiking trail is not designed as a pilgrimage route and winds its way through all sorts of convoluted turnings in its search for open space and forest amid the sprawl of modern life. I set out from the ruins of the ancient Basilique Saint-Martin in Tours (a saint who had an important pilgrimage cult of his own in the Middle Ages) armed with two guide books, a compass, a map, a few clementines, some bread and cheese, solid boots, a full back pack and, of course, a walking stick.

Over the 250 kilometers I walked in 10 days, from Tours to Saintes, I met no other pilgrims. This far north and this late in the season is not prime pilgrimage time, and today’s Chemin de Tours is the least-walked of the four French paths. I wanted to experience the solitude of pilgrimage first and chose this time and this route for this reason. Because I am a collector of stories, here are a few rough sketches from the path. They feature the people who welcome pilgrims, or simply witness the pilgrimage without participating directly :

Les Ormes

1. Les Ormes has a modern, not-too-beautiful church. I stepped inside all the same, and no sooner had the door closed behind me than it opened again, hitting my backpack.
“Ah! You’re a pilgrim,” the woman said as she brushed past me. She smiled, “Will you stay and pray the Rosary with us?”
I told her I was a Lutheran and didn’t know the Rosary.
“That’s fine,” she said. “We all pray to the same God. Come join us.”

Five of us participated in the service. We pulled our chairs close around the altar. A woman in her sixties led us from a low chair in the middle. I sat beside the woman who had welcomed me. To the other side of the leader sat a middle-aged mother and her teenage son. The women’s voices rang in the echoing space. Our Fathers interspersed with decades of Hail Marys. Over and over and over. The words became a mantra, a wall of sound. Fingers swollen from gardening, the nails still harboring earth, fingered bead after bead. “Sainte Marie, pleine de grâce”…At increments among these repetitions were short readings in the consoling voice of Mary.
After the service we all returned our cane-seated chairs to their rows on the floor and were invited to the leader’s house for coffee. Around her kitchen table we experienced a rare moment of intimacy among strangers. The woman who had first welcomed me in the church spoke of the difficulty of having an atheist husband. The mother of the teenage boy told us his problems in school, where stronger boys attack him. “He is so fragile and gentle,” she said, patting her silent son’s back. “He would never hurt someone. He would never even fight back.” The boy blinked, his eyes lowered behind black-rimmed glasses. Is the “education” of children changing in the United States? his mother wanted to know, and we talked about manners and common courtesy and the ways of raising children.
The prayer leader told us about the pilgrims to Compostela she and her husband have welcomed over the years. “I just heard from one today,” she said, and handed me a postcard of the cathedral of Compostela with a note from the former pilgrim.

We all rose to leave when Guy, the husband, came home. “Is there a pilgrim here?” he asked, having seen my pack and walking stick outside the door. When he learned I was from Texas he hit the triumvirate: Bush, guns and the death penalty. Still, we parted smiling and I took their picture before walking on.


2. Over dinner with a family of eight in Aulnay the husband told me that the Poitou-Charentes is one of the departments were one eats best in all of France. “The ocean, the interior, the creameries,” he said, with a flourish of his knife. “We have everything here. Have you ever tried raw oysters with butter?” Melted or hard butter, I asked. “Hard,” he said, and then buttered his sausage before bringing it to his mouth.
Much of their chamber d’hôte traffic is pilgrimage based. The husband doesn’t get it, this pilgrimage.
“We see all kinds of pilgrims, though,” he said. “Some are out for the exercise. They talk about times and kilometers. It’s like they’re out to break records or something. And then there are the others…” He never finished his thought because the seven-year-old at the far end of the table started rattling off swear words. Both parents spent the majority of the meal politely and not-so-politely insisting on silence from the squirming children.

When the father turned back to me, he had finished with the pilgrimage topic. “I remember exactly where I was the day de Gaulle died,” he said. Above our heads, fastened to the wall on a high bracket, the television was tuned to a show about the Général’s private life.
The next morning the wife told me to walk to the Romanesque church of Saint-Pierre-de-la-Tour, not far off of the chemin. “Leave your backpack here and go see it,” she said. “It’s supposed to be very important to pilgrims.” I’m including a picture of the sculpture of Peter on his upside-down cross.

Encounter on the "Chemin"

3. Just outside of Aulnay, on a morning when rain danced on the horizon but none seemed to fall on the path, I approached a farmer standing beside his silent tractor on the edge of the white stone path. The fields sloped around us, etched with the crumbling lines of just turned earth.
“ Bonjour,” he said, “Where are you walking to?”
“ Compostela,” I told him, stopping.
“ Alone? It’s a little late in the season.” He pointed to the clouds behind us, “It’s going to rain soon.”
I nodded. “What do you grow?” I asked and the conversation took a turn to farming, the price of corn, the impossibility of making a living by the land alone.
“ Corn doesn’t pay anymore. The Eastern Europeans can sell it for less than it costs us to grow it. My two sons want to keep farming, but they both have second jobs, too. The youngest puts in his thirty-five hours as a truck driver. Soon we’re going to give up on corn and turn to bio-diesel. There’s money in that.”
He believed the European Union was doomed from the start. “They should have set standard prices in every country before switching to the Euro,” he said. “Now the Polish can buy the same Renaults we buy here, only they pay a couple thousand less. Where’s the logic in that?”
A hare raced across the field in front of us. The farmer wanted to know what animals we hunt in Texas.
“We’ve got a wild boar in those trees just behind you,” he said. “I saw it just last week.”
I said I’d passed two band-necked pheasants on the hill, and was immediately sorry to have told him, knowing he was one of the green-booted, brown coated hunters who circle the edges of the trees with their dogs. The mornings along the Chemin de Tours were full of such men, their rifles broken open over their shoulders and their dogs running over to smell me. Shots echoing occasionally in the mist.
As if he sensed my regret, the farmer shrugged. “They always stay in the trees,” he said. “They’re cagey.”

One of the joys of the Chemins de Saint-Jacques in France are these very chance encounters that allow us to learn from each other: pilgrim, farmer, mother, priest.

All the best,

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