Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017

© Courtesy Dr Erhard

Hikers arrive in Estaing, tackling part of the 1521-kilometre trail from Le Puy-en-Velay in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

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I prescribe a trip to the Chemin de St-Jacques

A sports medicine physician enjoys medieval hospitality on France's ancient walking trail

“Do you think it's safe to go?” Two hikers were contemplating a large bull with apprehension, as he gorged on fresh grass and wild flowers in the middle of a herd of cows. The bull's apparent indifference didn’t reassure them and they looked at our group of four hikers with relief. They quickly joined us as we went by the beautiful brown cows with big dark eyes that followed our progress with disinterest. We crossed the field, arrived at the gate and turned around; the bull didn’t even lift its head.

We were on the plateau of Aubrac, in the Massif Central, located in central France. This is a remote and wild area (by European standards) and is ignored by most tourists. It doesn’t have the glamour of the Riviera or the challenging summits of the Alps, but history is everywhere, especially here on the French portion of the Chemin de St-Jacques, or St. James Trail, a 1521-kilometre hiking trail, from the historical city of Le Puy-en-Velay in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain where, it is believed, James, the apostle, is buried. Pilgrims have been making the long, dangerous journey on this trail since 950 CE.

My wife Heather, our daughter Stephanie and her husband Rick and I would only be completing five days of pleasant and easy (we hoped) hiking, adding another 100 kilometres to a previous trip two years earlier. This past year, we started from the little village of Nasbinal, where we left our car and most of our luggage. Whatever we’d need in the next five days would be in our backpacks.

We climbed slowly to reach a pastoral area of rolling hills and open fields dotted by occasional stone farms and, of course, the herds of brown Aubrac cows. The view over an undulating plateau of deep dark green was endless. Under a partly cloudy sky, we walked in an explosion of flowers of all sizes, shapes and colours. They spread their fragrance, sweetening the gentle breeze. No wonder the bull didn’t have time for us. No wonder the meat and cheese were so tasty. There was so much to see and savour here in this wild garden, that even walking seemed too fast.

Losing your way

It’s difficult to imagine that, in the Middle Ages, this area, was viewed with fear. Many pilgrims lost their way or their life on this mountainous plateau. The little hamlet of Aubrac and its monastery were created in 1120 to help and protect them. The Latin words in front of the church ("In this time of fear and deep solitude") reminded us of this difficult era. Its bell, used to guide pilgrims, is still there and we could almost imagine the monks riding around the countryside on horses in search of lost travellers.

A renovated medieval tower in the village of St-Chély-d’Aubrac, was our destination for the night, where a circular stone stairway led us to our room. We had a great view of the village and the church steeple was just by our window. At 7PM, the bells rang seven times, twice, and we looked at each other wondering what would happen at midnight.

Whether the bells were turned off at night, we’ll never know, because we slept so soundly. But preferred to believe that the exercise, fresh air and good food were the cause of an excellent night's rest.

We left the village walking over the famous medieval Pilgrim Bridge. Gone were the vast open spaces and cows as we crossed deep forests with such luxurious vegetation that we hardly noticed a beautiful stone bridge. We passed by fields, follow deserted roads and farms that sometimes look like small castles.

We started to recognize other hikers: the two couples from this morning, a group of Belgians and some others who travel alone or in small group. We didn't start or stop at the same time, and didn't travel at the same pace, but we managed to see each other several times during the day. Sometimes we walked a few kilometres together; and then we were alone again, going downhill on large, loose, rocks that make the descent tricky.

1000 year-old towns

The forest opened onto a small hamlet and a sign indicated the presence of a buvette nearby. One English translation for the word buvette is "refreshment bar," but it doesn’t do justice to the establishment, which would be better described as a quaint and pleasant place, full of flowers, that is impossible to avoid and impossible to leave and, of course, with a friendly owner who comes and chats forever. The day we visited, the owner didn't have time to talk as 19 Belgian hikers were in the process of leaving.

We had a beautiful view of the valley and only three more kilometres to our destination for the day. We were torn between staying and enjoying this unique buvette experience and leaving to satisfy our curiosity about where we would spend the night.

The Ursulines Convent is fully renovated with bright rooms facing St-Côme-d’Olt, one of the most beautiful villages of France, with its narrow streets, its castle and unique twisted church spire built in 1530. We finished our day with home-made food in a large refectory among many other hikers.

It rained during the night so, in the morning, clouds were hung low across the valley, masking part of the village. We followed the Lot River, on a flat and shady trail. The other side of the river was busier, with villages and the now strange noise of speeding cars. We were surprised by an isolated Roman church, built of red sandstone in 1060 and delighted with the view of the little city of Espalion. Its medieval bridge and picturesque houses were reflected in the river, creating a view unchanged for over a thousand years.

The freshness of the morning was long gone and we found respite from the heat in the St. Pierre Church in Bessuéjouls. We were not in a rush to leave as we had a long climb ahead and the heat was getting worse. We welcomed one more stop at the unavoidable buvette and the owner, feeling sorry for us, kept bringing us water and ice. When we finally left, it was 33°C and we were facing a steep climb in full sun. Once at the top, our goal for the day was clearly visible on the horizon, but we didn’t realize that the trail was making a long detour around a river. In spite of our fatigue, the arrival in Estaing was magical. The imposing castle dominated the old city and as we crossed the Gothic bridge, we were almost surprised to see cars in this medieval setting.

Pleasures of the terroir

The next day, while we were resting in the shade, in the middle of a long climb, a man hiked toward us at amazing speed, suddenly stopped and sat down beside us. Once his breathing slowed, he pulled a sandwich from his backpack and finally noticed us. With a mixture of English and French, we learned that he was a 70-year-old Dutchman, doing this trail for the second time, going all the way to Santiago de Compostela, averaging 50 kilometres or more a day. He finished eating and quickly got up and left.

That day was a day of crosses: they were everywhere, in all sizes, made of stone, wood or metal. Beside them, a sign gave fascinating information on their origin and significance. Being in France, food was, of course, always important and part of the fun. After a day of hiking, we were glad that we were not in hot dog-and-hamburger country.

Here the food is different from the rest of France and has exotic names such as aligot (the most common dish made of mashed potatoes and cheese), truffade (another potato dish), farcous, estofinade and of course the inevitable local cheeses (Caille, Laguiole, Perail). We didn’t sample it all, but that night we had our most delicious meal. We were in a farm, where the owner had spent 20 years renovating a small hamlet, raising sheep and producing most of the food, we were sharing with a couple from Paris who come here for a yearly vacation.

Our last day was supposed to be the longest, but it went by too fast. We were not ready to leave the area with its old villages and history, its rivers, deep forests and open fields. We are not ready to leave the thrill of discovery and the freedom that walking gave us. We were not ready to leave the peacefulness around us; it would be so easy to continue all the way to Compostela.

At the entrance to Conques, our final destination, a large group of tourists was listening to their guide, when someone said, “Look! Pilgrims!” They all turned around with curiosity and amazement, snapping multiple pictures of us.

We followed narrow cobblestone streets and arrived at a large square bordered by a medieval church and an inviting restaurant terrace. It was such a pleasure to remove our backpacks, sit down, look around and celebrate our accomplishment.

Our first thought was to come for two weeks next year. Then we thought, why not walk all the way? It would be a fascinating and life changing experience.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

Comments

Showing 1 comments

  1. On December 10, 2012, Barry Gauthier said:
    Excellent article! I felt like I was there!

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