Sunday, August 19, 2012

To the Camino!

Dscn8243bAugust 11: I didn’t plan to start hiking the trail today, but it was a big day for me. It was the day I’d go to the trailhead in Le Puy-en-Velay, or as most people refer to it, Le Puy. (Kind of pronounced like “Lu Pwee!”)

Amanda left early in the morning to catch a flight home. I slept in an hour later before I had to navigate the Paris subway system to Gar de Lyon, the train station. Technically, I could have walked to the train station, and the thought did cross my mind, but it would have taken close to an hour to do so and I’d have had to wake up even earlier. The subway required me to change lines at two different stops, including a stop at the Bastille. But admittedly, I didn’t have time to sightsee and check out the Bastille—except what could be seen from the subway line which isn’t much. One moment of panic gripped me when I wanted to get off the subway but the door didn’t open. Why didn’t it open. I pointed the door urgently and a fellow traveler turned up the knob on the door and it opened. Hmm…. Why didn’t I think of that? A doorknob. Oh, I know, because every subway system in the world I’ve EVER ridden on has doors that open automatically at every stop!

Fortunately, though, I got off at my stop before the subway continued on, found my way to the subway I wanted to change to, and the rest of the subway ride went without a hitch.

At the train station, I tried to buy tickets from a self-service vending machine, and annoyingly, it wouldn’t let me buy a 2nd class ticket because it was “full.” Bah! So I paid for a 1st class ticket to Lyon, but at least I managed to score a 2nd class ticket the rest of the way to Le Puy.

At the appointed time, I boarded the train. First class folks, like myself, had assigned seats that were quite large and cozy. Not worth the extra 60 euros, I’ll say that much, but it’s better than nothing, I suppose. It seemed odd, but I was actually a little jealous of the 2nd class folks.

Dscn8248bThe train took out of the station like a rocket and never stopped. I was a little amazed at how fast this train was. At times, it paralleled a highway and we passed cars going in our direction like they were standing still. I don’t know how fast this train could travel, but I’m pretty certain I’ve never traveled so fast on land before in my life. The scenery went by at an astounding speed, and they built a double set of tracks so trains could go in both directions without getting in each other’s way and built it so it never crossed a road—the train, quite literally, never stopped once until we reached Lyon two hours later.

I had ten minutes to switch trains, and I hoped if the train station was as big or sprawling as the one in Paris that it would be enough time. Turns out, my train to Le Puy was immediately next to the one I got of off. I was off the train for all of about ten seconds before I boarded the train to Le Puy and found a seat.

This second train was a lot slower, but the terrain we travelled through was considerably more rugged and mountainous with a lot more sharp curves along the way. It also stopped at many stops along the way and I was riding the train to the end of the line this time. Very scenic, but I found myself gazing at the scenery thinking, “Gosh, I hope the trail doesn’t hit the top of every single one of those mountains….” It would be very exhausting if it did.

In Saint-Etienne, the train stopped and a guy got on asking if I was going to Le Puy. “Oui,” I told him, and he said something I didn’t understand and waved his hands around. Everyone else on the train started getting off, and I asked if anyone knew English and what was going on. One of them said that everyone had to get to a car further up the train—these near the end were being taken off.

Dscn8252bI quickly packed everything I had sprawled out everywhere. I had taken off my shoes for the 2 1/2 hour train ride, had a water bottle at my side, a book in my hand, trekking pole overhead. My stuff was everywhere, so I threw it all together and pushed into a car further up the train—a crowded car with all the seats already taken. Seriously? Standing room only? And they didn’t have room for me in second class on the first train?

A woman at a nearby seat had had her stuff spread out on it and she started to clear it and I ended up with a seat. Thank goodness. Most people who had luggage sat on their luggage—my backpack wasn’t hard-sided and sitting on it wouldn’t have been nearly as comfortable.

I was too tired to read anymore, so I mostly just sat and watched each station go by. I noticed that the next station was seemingly called “Prochain”—the reader board would scroll the words “Prochain arret!” and I knew ‘arret’ meant stop. (Amanda and I figured that out earlier.” But I got a little suspicious when the station after that was also called “Prochain,” and even more suspicious when the next one was also called “Prochain.” When finally, it occurred to me that that wasn’t the name of the station at all—it actually meant “Next stop!” See, I’m learning French even while riding the train. It also announced the next stop on the intercom, so I even learned how to pronounce the words correctly.

The train finally arrived in Le Puy with Swiss punctuality at 2:23 PM. I picked up a rough map of Le Puy at the train station, but it wasn’t very detailed. I walked in more-or-less the direction of the cathedral and my start of El Camino de Santiago, but it was a sort of aimless wandering where my first order of business was to find lodging. Eventually I wandered next to a sign that pointed to a hostel and followed it to another sign which led to another sign and finally to the promised hostel.

Dscn8254bThe woman manning the counter didn’t speak a lick of English, but I managed to get myself checked into the hostel and she gave me a small piece of a paper which I knew was a clue of some sort. She also indicated that there would be breakfast available in the morning, but when she told me the hours, I didn’t understand her. She wrote it down on a scrap of paper—another clue that I had trouble figuring out. 7h 30…. Then it clicked: 7:30. That was a relatively easy code to crack. Clearly, the French don’t even write times like we do. She walked me to the entrance, pointing to a building on the other side of the parking area, waving up the building, and I figured that’s where my room must be—somewhere above the ground floor.

I went in and up a flight of stairs, and I noticed small numbers by each of the closed doors. My little piece of paper had a number 5 on it, all by itself. A room number? I found room #5, and there was a keypad on it. Locked. Hmm…. The piece of paper also had a code of some sort on it C5678Y—maybe that was the code to get into the room. I tried it, turned the knob, and was in.

It’s amazing how satisfying it was to figure this out. The room had five beds in it, two of which already had stuff on them but the owners were nowhere to be seen. I claimed a bed myself, then went back outside to explore Le Puy.

I headed to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but aimed east of it to way away from the trail. Although there wasn’t any logical reason for it, I wanted my first steps on the Camino to be at the very beginning—not intersecting it further into town. I ended up walking in through an east entrance into the giant cathedral—quite the show! This—this was the start of my hike. Tourists were walking all over the place, and many of them bought candles to light and pray and do whatever it is they do. I followed an exit sign down a staircase which took me out to the west side of the building through an arch and a view of the town framed in it. The view was stunning, and it seemed like a good as place as any to start a hike. I walked back into the cathedral and headed to their gift shop where they had all sorts of materials for pilgrims—I was a pilgrim now, on a pilgrimage to Santiago. I purchased a creanciale, my passport of sorts in which they stamp every time I stay in a hostel along the trail. They pre-stamped it with the stamp for their cathedral—my first stamp of the trail.

I also bought a book with a description of all of the hostels along the route and another book that had maps of the trail and, more importantly, an elevation profile of the trail. And finally, I bought a patch of a scallop shell—the symbol of pilgrims on the Camino.

Dscn8258bWalking up to the cathedral, I noticed a volcano summit with an enormous statue on top—absolutely beautiful except that the statue was covered in scaffolding. Obviously, it was being refurbished, but I wanted to get a closer look and walked up to it where I learned I could hike to the top for 3 euros. I paid the price and climbed the steep trail to the top. I couldn’t go in where the statue was—it was boarded off—but the views from the top were spectacular! I also noticed another impressive volcanic summit nearby with what looked like a castle at the top, and a third volcanic summit further in the distance with a tower at the top. I saw people walking up the castle-top mountain, so I knew it could be climbed, and I put that on my to-do list. The tower further off I decided to pass on. It wasn’t as impressive and it was much further away from the trail.

I took my photos, descended, then headed to a pilgrim’s gathering near the cathedral. My guidebook explained that people who’ve hiked the Camino would be there to ask questions or get advice. I didn’t really have any questions or advice, but I figured it might be a good way to meet a few of my fellow travelers, so I attended anyhow.

Turns out, one of the people who showed up was the woman sitting next to me on the train to Le Puy. She didn’t look like a hiker and I assumed she lived in Le Puy or was just visiting it for some reason. So we formally introduced ourselves. I have no idea how to properly spell her name, but it sounded like Katreen.

The passed around a bottle of some sort of alcoholic beverage—and anyone who knows me knows I’m not a big fan of alcohol. So I sniffed it a little when nobody was watching and it didn’t smell like alcohol, so I figured I’d go ahead and try it. Which I did. I have no idea what it was, but it didn’t kill me. =) It didn’t even taste bad, but I still liked water better and drank that the rest of the evening.

None of the other hikers I met were planning to go all of the way to Santiago—they were all planning to section hike the trail. Katreen would do only three days on it. Most of the others planned for at least a week, and one person had a maximum of three weeks and he’d stop wherever he was after his time was up to pick up and continue again next year. I didn’t really have any in depth conversations with any of them them, though—most didn’t speak English and those that did didn’t speak it well.

At any case, I got another stamp in my creanciale for showing up. =)

As I was writing in my journal, Katreen walked back in and waved me to follow her. So I did—a woman who worked there was going to give a tour of the place and she knew English so I could follow along. In the floor under us, they were doing some renovations and discovered paintings under the false ceilings that nobody knew about and dated from hundreds of years earlier. The renovations stopped and the restoration began. They were only discovered about three months before so one room they had finished restorations—the other room was still exactly as they found them. It was all very cool and fascinating.

After the tour ended, I wandered off on my own to a shop where I purchased a sandwich for dinner and bumped into Katreen for the third time completely by accident. We talked for a couple of more minutes and wished each other luck on the trail. Then I headed back to my room at the hostel. Another bed was taken during my absence, but the room was empty. I still had no idea who my roommates were.

In other news, no new contributions for the Hike-a-Thon since my last report, but it’s still not to late to sponsor me now! Don’t make me post more photos of my feet! I just finished a 20+ mile hike today through 100 degree weather. They aren’t looking pretty!

The view through the arch of the cathedral and my
first view of El Camino de Santiago

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Le Puy—and the starting point of my hike.

I’m sure the statue would look more impressive it
it weren’t covered in scaffolding….

This old volcanic hill intrigued me when I spotted it.
Look at all the people going up the right side! I can DO THIS TOO!

These are some of the recently discovered paintings hundreds of years old
that have already been restored.

My abode for the night….

It’s interesting walking around foreign countries. Even though
this sign had no French on it, I still had absolutely no idea
what it meant. Spiders, to the left? Everyone else to the right?


Debbie St.Amand said...

I think I've solved the sign. They seem to be having some kind of spider exhibition, in partnership with the "National Museum of Natural History in Paris"

Anonymous said...

I would go whichever way the spider isnt