Jean Paul and his wife run the Jacquaire Information Centre in Lourdes. They are located slap bang in the middle of tourist central. Lourdes is a Mecca (pardon my french) of religious tourism. Shop after shop sells bottles for you to fill with holy water, devotional tat, candles, incense, rosaries. The Info Centre has wide open doors and Jean Paul is full of energy and positivity. He gives me my credencial, and it seems I’m the 663rd pilgrim to start here this year. Three away from a much more appropriate number. The credencial is like a passport for pilgrims allowing us to sleep in various priories etc along the way, run by the faithful.
I walk to the basilica and the grotto in Lourdes to fill up on holy water, and I immediately give myself a fat lip removing my pack, butting my mouth into the top of my walking pole. Newbie error. First injury. Minor. My lip is bleeding. I fill my flask with holy water and drink some to swill my mouth. That’ll fix it. Gets all the holiness right into my blood stream. Holier than thou I finally hit the road. The first Saint statue I pass is Margaret of Scotland. Dad would be proud. Off I go. To my right the river. Behind and to my right a soaring amplified male voice singing in Latin. Beautiful.
There are a couple of reasons why I’m glad I started in France. First it’s not at all crowded on the trail so I get a lot of alone time. Second I can speak French acceptably. I’m shit in Spanish. I’m learning this pilgrimming as i go along, and I have made the schoolboy error of not packing a lunch today. I’ve got nothing at all to consume except for holy water. Coming from London I expect a shop on every corner. Where’s Ryanair to sell me that Kinder Bueno now? There are no shops here, or they’re closed for Sunday if there are any.
By lunchtime I’m starving. I’ve filled my pockets with chestnuts and I can make fire so I won’t actually starve. But I’d sooner find a more elegant solution as making fire will waste time I don’t really have.
I end up in in Rieulhes, a tiny village West of Lourdes. Blessing my French I talk to two women who are thrilled to find a hungry pilgrim. We are sufficiently rare here, it seems. I am brought into a drinks evening for St Michel, the patron saint of the village. It was his day yesterday. I’m offered beer but I really don’t want it. A teenage girl is despatched to make me a ham sandwich. She adds an apple and a nectarine. I take them with huge haltingly expressed gratitude and make my way to a brook where i crash out and eat them watching the water.
The course of the day has taken me through French countryside, rolling hills, pastures and – for a short while – deep a wood. I get lost in it on purpose looking for mushrooms and then lost confidence. I run into two German pilgrims heading to Lourdes. They were in Santiago a week ago but took a train. There’s a lot of that going on.
As evening falls though, my energy begins to fail despite the sandwich. I start to crave a recharge and a rest. I eventually make it to Asson as the sun starts to fade, and I’m limping again with tiredness and foot pain. Seeing the sign for Asson is like finding the holy grail.
Shot with adrenaline I work up one last hill and get to the auberge. It’s a priory backing onto a church and it’s completely dark and closed. And Madame Loupy is not answering her phone. To me or any of the locals I find.
At least it gives me time to write. But after two hours gradually getting stiffer in the cold I resign myself. This is miserable. It’s half eight and dark. My body hurts. Thankfully there’s a little place that’s open for food. But I’m gonna be sleeping outdoors on my first night it seems. Shape of things to come? I hope not.
I made a little nest in the doorway of this Catholic priory and disconsolately chanted Daimoku. Literally just as I finished I heard a shutter overhead. I hobbled out of the porch on my hurting feet to explain the situation, once again praising my French teachers despite the fact they were mostly assholes.
There’s a bunk in her room. She only needs half of it. She rang ahead, in the morning. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Not just show up half dissolved in the evening.
I didn’t know this, plus didn’t know if I’d make it this far, plus I wanted to avoid using my phone to ring local numbers as it’ll cost the earth. She is totally cool about me bunking up with her. I drag my bag up her stairs, sit on the floor in her shower, talk with her a little about feet, get shown her missing toenails with the rest optimistically painted red – “I pulled that one out.” – and significantly improve my vocabulary. Then I pass out after giving myself a foot massage. I’ve gone the whole day without speaking a word of English.
Total Pilgrim Count: 3