|A welcome splash of colour outside Saint-Étienne railway station.|
Sometime in the early evening of Saturday 5 May 2012 I stepped outside the railway station at Saint-Étienne and admired again the artificial tree stuck in the middle of the station forecourt. I'd been there before — on Saturday 1 October 2011 to be exact — on my way home after a fortnight's trek along the Via Gebennensis from Geneva in Switzerland to Le Puy in south-central France. Now, as then, the tree was a welcome burst of colour lighting up a drab, urban wilderness. This humble yet pathetically touching arboreal firework seemed to say: Trust me. Things are going to get better.
However, a heavy, grey sky glowered above, pregnant with rain. The weather here in the French Massif Central had been wet for weeks. I considered the prospects for my walk along the GR 65 pilgrim route I'd planned to start in Le Puy the next day. They were not brilliant. After an early spring of drought and fine days, the weather over much of northern and central Europe had settled into a pattern of cold snaps, bitter winds and thundery squalls. The UK, for instance, had just experienced its dampest April on record.
Oh well, que sera, sera. It's no good worrying about the weather if you're a walker. I had Goretex raingear in my pack and waterproof boots on my feet. A previous time I'd walked across Spain in January during the wettest winter in living memory. If I could do that, I could do anything. In a suddenly excited and optimistic mood, I stepped back into the station and boarded the local, two-carriage train to Le Puy. Trust in the tree, I thought, fake as it is. Trust in the tree.
If trains still chug these days, this one chugged — through tunnels, through remote rural halts and through deep river gorges cut by the Loire. Rain lashed down. Thunder grumbled distantly and the occasional flash of lightning sparked over some far, rounded peak. But, as the train eased into Le Puy, the weather eased too. The sky cleared and brightened a little, and I could pick out some familiar sights: the cathedral's seven-storied bell tower, the chapel of Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe perched high on a volcanic plug, the almost obscenely huge red statue of the Virgin Mary, Notre-Dame de France, half-hidden by scaffolding...
|Virgin and Child in Le Puy.|
Sunday dawned warm and bright and full of promise, and I wandered contentedly up and down the narrow alleyways of Le Puy-en-Velay. I bought bread, cheese, tins of fish. Some fruit. A tomato. I was given a brand new créanciale (pilgrim passport) by a nun in the cathedral's sacristy. And then I was off, in the pure, clear morning sunlight, under a sky of forget-me-not blue, down the cathedral steps, along the Rue Saint-Jacques and the Rue des Capucins, climbing first gently then more steeply out of town. A sign confirmed it was a mere 1511 km from here to Compostelle, but this time I wasn't walking so far...
|1511 km to Compostelle.|
I passed Saint James in myriad forms and representations, though which was the real, most authentic Saint James is anyone's guess. Perhaps the true one hovers like a religious touchstone in our imaginations...
|Another Saint James carved in wood.|
On the plateau above Le Puy I simply felt glad to be alive, to be there, to be in that place and at that time, on that fresh and pristine day in early May, with the crickets singing and the wild flowers coming into bloom...
|An old stone cross above Le Puy.|
|A scallop shell points the way.|