Walking the Camino de Santiago has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me—despite the pain that comes from crossing an entire country on foot—but one thing that I have been missing has been other people walking the Way of St. James. I have set off, day after day, in the hope of coming across fellow pilgrims, but apart from my wonderful hosts in Bourges and Mosnay I have not really gotten to know anyone at all. Until, that is, I was in Crozant two days ago and bumped into Irma and Gerwin.
Irma is an 18 year-old Belgian just out of high school, but from talking to her you would think she was almost twice that age. She is incredibly well-read, comes from a family of musicians and enjoys the solitude of walking by herself—there has been a lot of that for her, since she started walking from Ghent, her hometown. The only way you know she’s 18 is because she is a ball of energy, and she can easily cover 40 km per day—most people on the Camino do between 20-30 km per day.
Gerwin is a 43 year old Dutchman and has one of those stories that make you think you’re reading a Hollywood script. He is a self-made man who launched his own successful software company over a decade ago. Life was pretty normal until several months ago, when he thought that he was having a heart attack. The doctors found nothing wrong with him, but he took it as a sign from the Universe that life can end at any moment. His nurse in the ER told him about the Camino de Santiago and how it could change his life, so a few months later—after randomly seeing that same nurse one day in an office supply store—he took off from Holland. Gerwin met Irma a few days before I met them both, and it has been a pleasure walking with them.
I have seen sheep, cows, chickens, the occasional pig, and horses, but this was the first mule I saw on the road. We were near La Souterraine when we came across a paddock with several donkeys, goats, and even a timid black llama.
At the end of the day we arrived in La Souterraine, a relatively big town in the Limousin region of France. They have a beautiful cathedral with a Romanesque nave and Gothic choir, and although most of the sculptures are disfigured, this one in particular caught my eye:
This sculpture, on one corner of the main portal on the West front, is a bit tough to read because of the missing heads, but upon closer inspection it appeared to depict the Annunciation. This is the scene in the New Testament where the angel appears in front of Mary and informs her that she is pregnant with the Son of God. “That’s lovely,” you say, “but how can you be so sure when the whole thing is pretty much destroyed?”
This and this work both depict the same scene. The first one is roughly contemporaneous with the one in La Souterraine, and is located in the abbey of Conques, on the Le Puy Route. The second version of the annunciation was painted centuries later by Botticelli, but there are a few things that all three of these scenes have in common:
1. Notice the strong gestures of Mary’s hands. They do not rest by her side, but instead move in surprise. After all, it’s not too often that a virgin finds out she’s pregnant!
2. Mary is never outside during an annunciation scene; she is ALWAYS covered by some sort of architectural element. Long story short, this is to signify her purity, as well as the miracle of her conception. Despite being enclosed, the seed of God makes its way inside her, just as Gabriel finds her even though she is inside a building.
3. This one is normally obvious, but the damage to this sculpture makes it hard to pick out the figure of Gabriel. Like in almost every single image of the Annunciation, he is the figure on our left; if you look closely you will see that there is a diagonal line of stone above the back of the headless figure on the left. Those are no doubt Gabriel’s wings, and they tell us that he has come with a very important message for a very surprised maiden.
Moving on from the Art History lecture, as wonderful as having company on the trail was, it was even better having a French speaker in our midst. Irma is fluent in French, and asked a woman in the cathedral if she could arrange for a place for us to stay. Sure enough, a stocky, balding man named Guillame pulled up in a car about 20 minutes later and offered us rooms for the night, at a much lower price than the hotels, which were our only other option.
After sleeping well on real beds (my first time in couple days) we left La Souterraine for Benevant L’Abbaye, about 16 km down the road.
This was one of those things I would never learn by myself: Gerwin told me that you can find fresh potable water in every cemetery in France. So in the middle of the day, with our supplies running low we found the nearest plot of old cadavers and filled our bottles back up. I thought it was a little odd, but we all agreed after tasting the water that it was some of the best we had drank in quite some time! That had me wondering the decaying human bones nearby had anything to do with it.
When we reached Benevent L’Abbaye, we were treated to a perfectly preserved Romanesque church. Unfortunately, there was so much artificial lighting inside that shooting any of the delicately carved capitals was impossible.
This was where Gerwin left us for the day; his foot had been bothering him for a while, so he checked into an albergue for the night. Before we left each other, I told him to look for me in the Cathedral of Limoges (where I am supposed to arrive tomorrow), and he told me to look for him in the boulangeries along the way. Despite knowing him for only a day or so, I had really enjoyed getting to know Gerwin, and was sad to see him go. Just after we left him, Irma and I came upon a cheeky sign that said Santiago was about 1,550 km away. Luckily, our destination was only a mere 13 km away.
It started to get dark as we walked mostly uphill to the tiny hamlet of Saint Goussaud. We were treated to an incredible view of the countryside below, and as it finally became pitch-black we arrived in the town square. There were about six or seven buildings, and all but two of them were dark. My experience so far has been that places like Saint Goussaud—barely a dot on the map—are rarely completely occupied. Many of the buildings are uninhabited, but we were lucky enough to stay with an old couple who kept a second home in the village.
It turned out that our host is a very accomplished painter—this was just a corner of his studio. If you would like to see more of Bernard Bigey’s works, you can visit his website by clicking here. You won’t be disappointed!
After we left Saint Goussaud, Irma and I bumped into a Dutch pilgrim named Imke, who apparently knew Gerwin from earlier on the Camino. She and I began talking, and Irma walked at a more brisk pace than either of us. Soon, Irma was out of sight, and when Imke and I made it to Chatelus about 8 km later Irma was gone. Imke had already walked quite some distance, so she and I said goodbye, and I continued down what I thought was the right way. About 30 minutes later though, and I was back in Chatelus again! I had taken a wrong turn and ended back in the same place I left. And wouldn’t you know it, there was Gervin, having his lunch with Imke. So after only a day apart, we were reunited, and continued on to a small village about 40 km from Limoges. Since I want to arrive there tomorrow I walked an extra 5 km to a campground, and will be spending the night in what they call a “chalet.” For less than 13 euro I had a cabin all to myself; not too shabby for a pilgrim. Anyways, the plan is to meet Gerwin and Imke in Limoges the day after tomorrow (Sunday), but if I don’t see them at the Cathedral, I’m sure I will at least find Gerwin in a boulangerie, munching on his beloved raisin bread.
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