My report for the Swiss Coop Zeitung Magazine about my pilgrimage on the Via Podiensis in 2021 from Figeac to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

1300 kilometers and one goal: to walk to the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela by July 24th. To arrive in time for the huge fireworks display that heralds the feast of St. James, which takes place on July 25th. Usually Santiago turns into one big party. How it will be with Covid remains to be seen. It’s definitely an extra special day, because in 2021 Santiago is celebrating a Holy Year. Then the devout Catholic gets a total erasure of his sins – a tradition that has attracted a particularly large number of believers for 600 years.

In the last Jubilee Year 2010 there were almost 300,000 pilgrims on foot. Of course, this year is different: the Way of St. James is almost deserted. Currently, just 60 pilgrims per day start from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, at the foot of the Pyrenees (starting point of the well-known Camino Francés to Spain). That’s only about 20 percent of the usual number. While this is devastating for the hostels, restaurants and shops along the way, it can be an opportunity for those who decide to hitch on their backpacks despite everything. Pilgrimage in 2021 is more authentic than it has been for a long time.

Via Podiensis – Hiking clears your head

I’m not catholic, nor do I believe that a god counts sins against kilometers run. Nevertheless, this is not my first march on the Way of St. James. I came here for the first time on my bike in 2002, then on foot in 2004. Since then I’ve hiked various Caminos in Switzerland, Italy, France and Spain. I’ve now covered a total of more than 10,000 kilometers on various stretches of the long-distance hiking trail. In Spain they would call me a Camino Adicto – a Camino de Santiago Addict.  So what is this drug that makes me sleep in snore-ridden dorms, endure blisters, and sometimes despair?

It feels like freedom. It may sound paradoxical, but there is something deeply liberating about always having the same daily routine – getting up, walking, having a picnic, walking, arriving, washing, eating, sleeping. In these almost eight weeks, I haven’t had any deadlines, Zoom calls, or complex problems that need to be solved. The way, the days, the infrastructure are predetermined. That leaves room to break out of the hamster wheel – but I have to force myself to do it first. During my first few days in the foothills of the Massif Central, I’m going so fast it’s like I’m walking with tunnel vision, still caught up in the accustomed fast pace of everyday life. To break out of being driven by the outside world, I use a trick to slow down: I sketch the landscape and details along the way.

Then I sit on the path and absorb the beauty of the landscape: the chalky plateau with dry stone walls reminiscent of England, the deep valleys, the wide vineyards and orchards. The medieval villages could have come from a film set of Lord of the Rings. The Unesco-honored monasteries and cathedrals.

Walk in Historical Footsteps

The Via Podiensis runs from Le-Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne to the Pyrenees. It is one of the four historic Ways of Saint James in France, and I walked the last 500 kilometers. In the Middle Ages it was the most important connecting route for pilgrims coming from Europe walking to Spain. In the heyday of pilgrimages between the 12th and 15th centuries, tens of thousands of pilgrims marched to Santiago every year. At that time, churches and monasteries in particular offered shelter to pilgrims. Many smaller hostels have not survived the turmoil of time. My personal favorite is the cloister of the former Abbey of Moissac with its 88 decorated capitals from the Romanesque period.

The frescoes and paintings there also act as a moral compass. At the portal of the church there is a hideous figure who personifies the deadly sin of gluttony. The message: If you indulge too much in the pleasures of life, you will end up in hell! It’s a warning I don’t care about. Because the Camino de Santiago through France is also a delight for the taste buds.

A Pilgrimage on the Via Podiensis is also a Culinary Delight

The accommodations known as “Gîtes” are often on farms that also offer dinner. Low-cooked pork, duck breast or gazpacho – it hardly goes below that. Sometimes the pleasure-spoiled French pay tribute to the hostel parents with loud applause for a particularly successful dinner. And where else can you find wine and cans of foie gras in vending machines?

Even a so-called quick dinner turns into a feast like in the town of Eauze in Gascony. In the Loft Café I feast on goose, duck and different types of cheese for two hours. Finally, host Jean-Philippe rolls up a cart with 30 types of Armagnac. «Choose three,» he says, «let yourself be guided by your feelings.» So I choose three drops based on the look of the bottles. Jean-Philippe is satisfied with two, the last one doesn’t fit. Then he serves me a 25-year-old drop that glows like liquid amber in the glass. «It’s a miracle,» he enthuses. And really, my palate rejoices. Savoir-vivre as only the French can. My tip: If you want to get a taste of the Camino de Santiago, you should start your walk at this stage.

It may sound paradoxical, but there is something deeply liberating about always having the same daily routine – getting up, going, having a picnic, walking, arriving, washing, eating, sleeping.

Besides enjoyment, experiencing nature and diving into history, above all it is the encounters with people from all over the world that make the Camino de Santiago something special. In the village of Labastide-Marnhac, for example, I stay with a trio of French pensioners. After dinner we sit on a small porch and Didier pulls out his mini mouth-blown accordion, and sings wistful songs. We dream blissfully into the sunset and life is just good. Age, status and origin no longer play a role. We are all pilgrims.

And sometimes you’re lucky enough to be there when big personal stories happen. I spend the night in Maria Xemard’s pilgrim hostel, in the hamlet of Harambeltz in the French Basque country, which consists of only three houses and a small church. The 27-year-old spent a whole year on the Way of St. James and was lovingly received in this house, which made a deep impression on her. When she wanted to open a pilgrim hostel herself after her journey, that very house was for sale. «That was a sign for me,» says Marie, who has been receiving pilgrims for two months now. “Now I can give something back to the Way of St. James and to the people.”

What else does the path have in store for me? These lines are written in Pamplona just across the Spanish-French border. I still have 800 kilometers ahead of me, through the Rioja wine country, the Meseta plateau, where there is no shade, and the lush green hills of Galicia.  St. James is kind and gives me a nice view from time to time. Because the Pyrenees didn’t have the generosity  to reveal themselves from the thick clouds, I have to come by again. Certainly in the year 2027, the next holy year.

Want to read more about my experiences? Here you find a text about my pilgrimage from Rome to Santiago.


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