January 30, 2015

A sports medicine specialist and his family enjoy medieval hospitality on one of France’s most ancient walking trails
By Dr. Philippe Erhard

“Do you think it’s safe to go?” two hikers were contemplating with apprehension as a large bull 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 passed the beautiful brown cows whose big, dark eyes 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, in central France. This remote and wild area (by European standards) 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 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, France to Santiago de Compostela, 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 and I were travelling with our daughter, Stephanie, and her husband, Rick. We would complete five days of pleasant and easy (we hoped) hiking, adding 100 km to a trip we took two years earlier.

We started at the village of Nasbinal, where we left our car and most of our luggage. Whatever we’d need during the next five days was 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. We walked amid an explosion of flowers; their fragrance sweetened 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 in this wild garden, even walking seemed too fast.

It’s difficult to imagine that in the Middle Ages this area was viewed with fear. Many pilgrims lost their way and/or their life on this plateau. The hamlet of Aubrac and its monastery were created in 1120 to aid and protect pilgrims. The church bell — used to guide pilgrims — is still there and we imagined 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. There, a circular stone stairway led us to our room.

We had a great view of the village and the steeple was next to our window.

At 7 p.m., 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. We believed the exercise, fresh air and good food contributed to our excellent night’s rest.

To leave the village, we crossed the famous medieval Pilgrim Bridge. Gone were the vast open spaces and cattle as we hiked through deep forests with such luxurious vegetation we hardly noticed a beautiful stone bridge. We followed deserted roads and passed fields and farm buildings, some of which looked like small castles.

We started to recognize other hikers: The two couples from the morning, a group of Belgians and some others who travelled alone or in small groups.

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, were alone again, hiking downhill on large, loose, rocks that made the descent tricky.

The forest opened onto a small hamlet and a sign indicated the presence of a nearby buvette. One English translation for buvette is refreshment bar, but that doesn’t do the establishment justice. It would best be described as a quaint and pleasant place, full of flowers; it is impossible to avoid and impossible to leave and, of course, it has a friendly owner who likes to chat forever. The day we visited, however, 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 — or leaving to satisfy our curiosity about where we would spend the night.

The Ursulines Convent, where we stayed that night, is fully renovated with bright rooms facing St-Côme-d’Olt, one of the most beautiful villages in France, with its narrow streets, its castle and unique twisted church spire built in 1530.

We finished our day with homemade food in a large refectory among many other hikers. It rained during the night and in the morning clouds 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 vehicles.

We were surprised to come across 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 homes were reflected in the river, creating a view that had remained unchanged for more than a thousand years.

The freshness of the morning was long gone and we sought refuge 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 of us and the heat was getting worse.

We welcomed one more stop at the unavoidable buvette and the owner who, 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 under the full sun. Once at the pinnacle, our goal for the day was clearly visible on the horizon. We didn’t, however, realize the trail made 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.

The next day, while we rested in the shade during a long climb, a man hiked toward us at amazing speed, stopped and sat down beside us. Once his breathing slowed, he pulled a sandwich from his backpack before he finally noticed us. With a mixture of English and French, we learned he was a 70-year-old Dutchman, hiking the Chemin de St-Jacques for the second time, going all the way to Santiago de Compostela, averaging 50 km 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 about their origins and significance.

Being in France food was, of course, always important and always part of the fun. After a day of hiking, we were glad we were not in hotdog and hamburger country. The food here 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 at a farm, where the owner had spent 20 years renovating a small hamlet, raising sheep and producing most of the food. We shared the farm with a couple from Paris who visited annually on their vacation.

Our last day was supposed to be the longest, but it went by too quickly. We were reluctant to leave the area with its old villages and history, its rivers, its deep forests and open fields. We were reluctant to leave the thrill of discovery and the freedom walking gave us and we did not want 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 turned and looked at us with curiosity and amazement, snapping multiple pictures.

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.


Originally published in Doctor’s Review