As you will see from this video which we recorded back in October 2016 during our first visit to the Dordogne, one of the things which we fell in love with about the region was the hiking.
Since we adopted them a few years ago, our two large dogs, Samson and Delilah have been our motivation to go out for a decent walk every day and we all benefit hugely from the exercise, the fresh air and the countryside.
Much as we loved walking in the countryside in Northern Ireland, we really didn’t enjoy getting soaked and having to walk through saturated fields in welly boots so often! So, during our first visit here, we were delighted to discover that the stunning landscape of the Perigord is full of the most beautiful walks through ancient forest, sleepy hamlets, ridiculously pretty villages and along the river.
Even more exciting for me was that I hadn’t realised that the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago de la Compostela in northern Spain also meanders through this area. Many years ago I read actress Shirley MacLaine’s book ‘The Camino: A Pilgrimage of Courage’ and I had a strong desire to walk El Camino de Santiago (or le Chemin de St Jacques as it is called in France). You can imagine my surprise when Eoin and I went out for a walk from the place we were house-sitting in back in October 2016 and found ourselves right on the Camino!
According to the official history of the pilgrimage, the body of Saint James the Apostle was discovered by a shepherd named Pelayo in a field in Galicia during the reign of King Alfonso II, back in the 9th century. The Apostle gives the route its name: Camino de Santiago means the Way of Saint James.
Santiago or Sant Iago meaning Saint James. King Alfonso II had a small chapel built in this holy place and would later commission a larger temple to attract pilgrims from all over the world. However pre-history shows that the ‘way’ might have had attracted pilgrims even earlier than the 8th century, as a route that followed the Milky Way all the way to Fisterra (Finis Terrae). Finisterre was believed to be the end of the world, and a magical place where the living could get closest to the land of the death, to the ‘other world’.
Many would start their pilgrimage to visit St James’ resting place from their own parishes across Europe and that’s how a web of Camino routes developed with pilgrim hospitals, bridges and monasteries being constructed over time.
In recent times, perhaps because of the crazy, speeded up modern world we live in, the Camino has begun to attract more and more pilgrims from all walks of life from all over the world. In 1985, 1,245 pilgrims arrived in Santiago and, after the route was declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 its popularity continued to rise so that in 2015 over 260,000 pilgrims reached Santiago.
The symbol of the Camino is a scallop shell which most pilgrims will attach to their backpacks and the route is marked through the countryside and towns by either the shell or by signs like this with the modern blue and yellow Camino symbol on them.
In many of the towns and villages which the Camino runs through you will see the scallop shell in various different places and forms as we discovered last weekend when we took a mini motor-home adventure and ended up staying in Villefranche-de-Rouergue and Figeac. We had NO idea that we would, once again, find ourselves on the Camino but the scallop symbols throughout the towns gave it away and we ended up hiking part of it through the stunning countryside of the Lot region.
Of course, we are not true pilgrims and we have not (yet) committed to the 3 month pilgrimage from our new home here in the Perigord to Santiago de la Compostela but the Camino has and continues to play a large part in our lives. We both feel that, in some ways, it has led us to land here in this part of the world.
Last October, when we had left Ireland and were actively house-hunting, once again we ‘accidentally’ found ourselves house-sitting right on the Camino near Belves.
And, during that house-sit in October, Eoin woke up one morning and told me that he had had a ‘visitation’ in his dream which said very clearly to him “Don’t forget the Camino”. So during our house-hunting we were very conscious of wanting to be close to the Camino. In fact, we put an offer on a house which we really liked partly because when we were looking around inside, on the table was an oracle card called THE CAMINO!! We both loved the idea of being able to offer sanctuary in the form of a comfy bed and a good meal to passing pilgrims. It really made my heart sing to think of doing that.
Sadly, as it turns out, our home is not right on the Camino – although it is less than 10 kms from it and on a beautiful marked walk itself. When you drive or walk around this part of the world you will see lots of wooden posts with yellow bands on the top of them, trees marked with yellow lines and most villages will have a map in the centre. All these indicate the local walks, many of which are ‘boucles’ (circuits) and which meander through the incredible countryside. Many of them will also have the distance marked on them so that we know whether to bring a picnic or not! We can, literally walk for hours from our front door and hardly see another person. I think we will still be discovering new walks as long as we live here.
Early this morning, I headed out with the dogs in the car to the local village of Cadouin because, when I drove through it the other day, I had spotted a yellow ‘boucle’ sign and I wanted to explore it. I parked the car in the village, put the dogs on their leads and walked a few hundred yards keeping my eyes open for signs and, guess, what? There I was back on the Camino!
As I said, I am clearly not a true pilgrim, but every time that I set foot on this ancient trail which has been walked by so many sincere and dedicated pilgrims, I feel its spiritual energy and I set an intention. This morning my intention was to continue to dissolve any residual blocks to my heart being fully open and, as we walked a relatively short 5kms boucle on Le Chemin de Pelerins (the pilgrim’s way), I had another beautiful experience of healing.
And so, with my heart open, I make this offer to anyone who wishes to start (or continue) their pilgrimage to Santiago de la Compostela from any of the Camino routes near our home here (the closest point being at Cadouin on the Chemin de Rocamadour). We would be happy to collect you, give you a warm welcome, a comfortable bed and a good meal to sustain you on your way. Just email me!
And, if you have landed on this blog because you are thinking about embarking on your pilgrimage, BUEN CAMINO and bon courage!