The wind howls most of the night, which is quite alarming, but it drops off about dawn to absolutely calm and, I discover when I stick my head out of the door, it is quite mild for a change … and it is not raining! We, the family Borzakian and I, eat our breakfast in the well-equipped dining room and are off at 9 AM, which incidentally is when we are required to leave the gite. The timing for leaving and arriving is much more civilized in France, since it is normal to reserve one’s bed a day or two in advance. We leave Senergues and rapidly embark on the usual steep climb out of the valley. Before I am halfway up, I have both my fleece and my rain jacket off and I am sweating, perspiration dripping off my face. Cassandre, the bright chatty 11-year-old, is singing as we climb.
It is overcast but not raining and the rain keeps off all the way to Conques. The path is often on quiet, mostly flat winding roads but as we approach Conques, we veer off the road and descend just under 300 metres in a very steep and slippery descent. It is quite dangerous because the rocks are slippery and you have to place every foot carefully before you put weight on it. It is slow and treacherous and I have a very firm grip on my poles, placing them in front of me as I descend.We eventually reach almost the bottom of the gorge of the Dourdou River and come into Conques and the Abbey of Ste. Foy.
This where I notice that my ring finger on my left hand is numb and when I look at the nail, bruised and discoloured. It takes about an hour before the sensation and colour come back, which is a relief. I was really holding on tightly.
This extraordinary village is old, old, old and is built into the almost vertical side of the gorge. It is also a huge tourist attraction and it is easy to see why. It is so vertical, that it makes me think that I am in an Escher drawing. I can see where I want to go, but I have to figure out how to get there, up or down several levels of stone steps. The only level place in town is the small square immediately in front of the abbey. Inside the abbey are huge columns and a dome high overhead. It is almost unadorned, natural grey stone walls, columns and floor and wooden pews.
We eat lunch in a restaurant above the abbey and it is, as always so far in France, excellent. They take their culinary arts very seriously here. The French are proud of French cuisine and have every right to be. I pay my share of the bill, then head off to the bank machine, since I am down to change. To my horror the machine is not working at the moment. It tells me it is désolé, but not as désolé as I am. I have no cash and it is the only machine in town. An hour later it is working again, so I am able to get some Euros.
The abbey is huge and the gite is physically part of it. I am sleeping in Dortoir 1, on a lower bunk. Daniel has called ahead and made sure that they give me a lower bunk. I don’t know exactly what he told them, but I am treated with great care when I arrive. One of the good things they do here is provide each pilgrim which a large clear plastic bag into which they spray anti-bedbug stuff, then drop your backpack into it. The backpack stays in the plastic bag, so bedbugs don’t stand a chance here.
I have noticed this same type of care generally in the gites. They are very aware of the problem and do everything they can to keep the bugs under control. For example, there is an iron-clad rule: no backpacks on the beds. They can handle 100 pilgrims here and, to my relief, are able to take Visa to pay my accommodation and dinner, which total 27 Euros. I decide to stay over for another day and am able to keep my bed.
In the street in Conques I meet a hospitaliere, Penelope, from Vancouver. She says it is usually quite busy here. There are 6 of them to handle all the pilgrims, although they have cooking and cleaning staff to do some of the labour. I find out later that three of the six volunteers are Canadian, Penelope and two women from Quebec, all cheerful and happy. They work very hard for the two weeks or so that they are here. They tell me that there are lots of Canadian pilgrims, almost all from Quebec.
The family with whom I have been walking the last few days, the folks who rescued me on the GR 6, will not be going on. The Easter school break is finished and the two children, Cassandre and Victor, have to go back to school in Paris. I have two Ziplights with me, attached to zippers and, since I also have a headlamp for those dark nights in the gite, I remove them from my zipper pulls and give one to each of the children. I tell them that each time they turn them on, they will can remember me. They are properly delighted. Cassandre switches hers on and off repeatedly, just to be sure it works as advertised.
At dinner we sit in a crowded, noisy, happy, dining room with about 100 people. I think that the gite must be full. Dinner starts with taboulie on a bed of lettuce, followed by an excellent ratatouille of eggplant, tomatoes and ground beef. Of course, there is lots of bread, water and red wine. With us sits a family of six from Paris, the young mother and father, Anaïs Damame de Prunelé, Pierre-Alexandre Damane, their three children, Gaspard, four and a half, Aurèle, three and Maxime, 11 months and their grandmother Danièle, Pierre’s mother. I may not be the oldest pilgrim – I am hearing about a man a day or so behind us, who is 82 years old – but I believe that Maxime is definitely the youngest.
So I am sitting with five adults and five children, from 11 months to 11 years. I think that they cannot possibly be walking the chemin, but they are. The baby girl, Maxime, travels in a backpack carrier on either father’s or mother’s back, depending on who is less tired. But how do the little boys manage?
The secret is Cadichon, a rent-a-donkey. They started about 40 km back from here and will continue on another 20 km before they say goodbye to Cadichon and return home. I ask how they managed the steep difficult descent into Conques. Anaïs tells me that Cadichon is very sure-footed, although slow. She tells me that they have to do short stages because the donkey is old and slow. Each night they have to find a place that can look after them and stable the donkey. Both parents look a little worn and no wonder. This is a major enterprise every day but they all seem very happy. The boys are happy, active, rambunctious. The older one has walked almost the entire way, the younger rides on the donkey when he tires.
I am reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, Travels With A Donkey, which he wrote as he travelled for almost two weeks south from near Le Puy en Velay about 150 years ago. He had better weather than we are experiencing at the moment. He also noted the slow speed of his donkey who was named, if I remember correctly, Esmerelda. If I were a donkey I wouldn’t be in a hurry either. Over the two weeks he became very fond of her.
There is a pilgrim service in the abbey after dinner and I am asked if I will read a short benediction in English as part of the service. I am honoured to be invited to speak, even for a few moments, in this 750-year-old abbey. The short service is in French, with four brothers singing in Gregorian chant. Perhaps 60 people are seated in the cold, damp abbey, all with our fleeces on. Three of us, French, German and English go up to the lectern and read our benedictions. I find out later that I am the only English-speaker here, so I am preaching to a very small choir.
One of the brothers blesses the pilgrims who will be leaving in the morning. He asks if there are any English – there are none, which is how I know that I am the only English-speaking person. Other people come forward, in French, Flemish (there are 3) and German. He gives each one a small card with a pilgrim’s blessing on it. It seems to me that the pilgrims here are more often walking for religious reasons than those I met on the camino in Spain. When I think about how far some of these people have walked or plan to walk, it’s not a surprise.
It’s off to bed at about 9:30.