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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 :
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.
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.
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.
When the father turned back to me, he had finished with the pilgrimage
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.
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
with the crumbling lines of just turned earth.
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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