Du Puy à Conques
A ten day walk on the ancient pilgrim route to Compostella
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In 1988 we embarked upon the first of many wonderful long walks in France. Copious research and reading had led us to choose the celebrated Chemin de Saint Jacques, a "classic" walk following a section of the GR 65 which goes all the way to the Spanish border.

The story of the pilgrimage to Saint-Jacques de Compostella is now very well known. A tomb, attributed to be that of St Jacques, or St James, was miraculously discovered on the remote coast of Galicia in Spain. The place became a shrine and destination of one of the great mediaeval pilgrimages, only surpassed by those to Jerusalem or Rome. It is a pilgrimage so passionate that it has attracted millions of followers, right up to the present day.

The walk takes in a variety of landscapes from the stark beauty of the high Aubrac plateau to the luxuriant valley of the Lot. It is a walk of ups and downs, passing through many attractive small towns, allowing the daily stages to be varied according to stamina or whim. All along the route are stone crosses and representations of St Jacques, in stone or wood, usually carrying his long staff adorned with cockle shells. The cockle shell, the symbol of the walk, makes frequent appearances on walls, bridges and crosses, even round the necks of walkers. Churches and chapels in the towns and villages are often dedicated to St Jacques and you could probably stay every night in a Hotel St Jacques or Hotel des Pelèrins.

Pilgrims, or pèlerins, from all over Europe used to gather in Le Puy, one of four starting points in France. The Abbey of Cluny, sponsor of the pilgrimage, commissioned a priest from Poitou called Aymery Picaud to write a guide for pilgrims. Published in 1130, The Codex Calixtinus describes the four main routes through France and provides advice on such things as where not to drink the water, where to find the best lodgings and where to be on guard for "false pilgrims" who might rob unsuspecting travellers. It is widely accepted as the world's first comprehensive travel guide.
Le Puy
To this day, the pilgrims converge on le Puy.
We began there also, following the route as far as Conques. In the mostly balmy late summer weather of August and September, every step was to be an exhilarating introduction to les Grandes Randonnées with the added fascination this time of retracing the route of the mediaeval pilgrimage.

Le Puy is easily reached by a series of train trips which unfold in the orderly manner of the SNCF. For us, a TGV left the Gare de Lyon in Paris at 8.00 am for Lyon where the local train for St Etienne was waiting and then another little motor rail trundled up the Loire to Le Puy.

On our arrival at 2.00 pm the Hotel la Verveine was abuzz with an animated lunchtime crowd. We booked a room and set off to explore.

Le Puy is a busy town with very old buildings and narrow cobbled streets. One of these, lined with lace shops, leads to the cathedral. Lace, verveine and the celebrated Le Puy lentils are the basis of the local economy. Verveine, we discovered, is a bilious green coloured liqueur made from verbena.

The cathedral is a massive building still retaining many elements from its 12th century construction. In its towering dark interior you can well imagine the pilgrims gathering for a final blessing before they set out on their perilous journey. A red coloured Virgin Mary, grosse et grande, looks down on the town from one of the needle-like volcanic pinnacles or aiguelles. She was cast from the metal of 213 cannons captured from the Russians at the Battle of Sebastopol in the Crimean War. On top of another aiguelle the lovely little St Michaels chapel stands all asymmetrical and oriental.
Later in the hotel restaurant, a four course dinner with local wine was everything the lunch time buzz had promised. In fact the Isles Flottantes, freshly made by the hotel's patronne, set a standard that was to be unchallenged for years.

The next morning was crisp and cool, and it was off to the weekly market in the central Place du Plot.

Without doubt one of the best markets in France, it seemed that the whole caste of "Jean de Florette" was assembled here selling or buying huge rabbits, ducks and geese and adorable little ducklings and chickens. The unfortunate geese and rabbits were unceremoniously picked out of their cages and put in cardboard boxes to be transported to their new homes.

The cheeses were incroyable. On one stall an old lady was trying a little triangular piece out of every cheese. On another a dog was happily licking them all. We chose a strong hard cheese with a wizened brown crust and another little round white disk of chèvre for tomorrow's lunch.
The bitter local beer was very good consumed in an outdoor cafe while a group of dancers, accompanied by a band of bagpipes, performed on the back of a truck. This was followed by lunch in a local bar - a Plat de Charcuterie and Salade Auvergnat (bacon and blue cheese tossed through a salad with a generous dressing).

Later on, at dinner, we discover the gutsy Côte du Tarn, and fromage blanc which is a fresh cheese curd, served with cream and sugar. Madame advised that it is always best bought fresh from the market.
St Michaels Chapel
Market - Place du Plot
The Walk
Day 1. Le Puy - Bains - 11 km
Day 2. Bains - Monistrol-d'Allier - 15.5 km
Day 3. Monistrol-d'Allier - Saugues - 12 km
Day 4. Saugues - Le Sauvage - 19km
Day 5. Le Sauvage - Aumont Aubrac - 27 km
Day 6. Aumont Aubrac - Nasbinals - 26 km
Day 7. Nasbinals - Aubrac - 9 km
Day 8. Aubrac - St Chély d'Aubrac - 8 km
Day 9. St Chély d'Aubrac - Espalion - 22km
Day 10. Espalion - Estaing -11 km
Day 11. Estaing - Espeyrac - 23.5 km
Day 12. Espeyrac - Conques - 13 km
Le Puy to Bains
The Chemin de St-Jacques begins at the 13th century fountain in the Place du Plot. After a ritual "start of walk" photo, we set off up the Rue St Jacques to the Rue de Compostella and from this moment experienced an awe inspiring consciousness that we were treading in the footsteps of the millions of others who have followed this route. It was pure spine chilling magic.

As we paused to look back on the town another pèlerin also stopped and the true camaraderie of the pilgrimage came to the fore. An exchange in tentative French revealed that this was Brian from Melbourne and so, as millions of pèlerins before us, we walked together up the big hill and out of town.

The balisage led us on a route that wound round underneath the village of La Roche where a gully and gorge fell away on the left hand side. In an isolated field there was a parked car with a couple engaged in ardent lovemaking and this seemed a good omen, being highly evocative of the French atmosphere we had come to absorb. Following a little stream the pathway became overgrown as it bypassed a village called Jalès and then came into the town of Augeac.

Here we parted company with Brian. Our plan was to take a variante on this first day and stay in Bains - a short day to get into the swing of things. But first was a picnic lunch with the cheeses and other purchases from the Le Puy market and a fine bottle of rosé to wash them down.

A short walk along the road was Bains, a small village with a 12th century church and three hotels. There were no other guests in the Hotel du Centre but it seemed to be a gathering place for all the youth of the village. An enormous bedroom overlooked the winding street below and a young patronne cooked bifftek and frites for dinner. Being Sunday there had been a big crowd for lunch but no-one else for dinner.
Checking the cheese
Starting from the Place du Plot
Lunch - day 1
The village of Fay
Bains to Monistrol-d'Allier
Continuing the next morning, the variante proved to be an excellent choice. It first passed a quarry, wound up a hill through fir trees and then followed an old Roman road. We shoo-ed away dogs to take a photo at the pretty village of Fay, mentioned in Templar documentation from 1236 and still an imposing group of buildings. There was then some more climbing to the Lac de l'Oeuf, not a lake at all, but a peat bog in a volcanic cone. There were pine forests all around here and lots of different routes converged. At this point the variante rejoined the GR 65.

Down through the pine forests the route emerged into open country and the rustic village of Chier. Then another rough winding track went down to St Privat, a magic little village, strung out along a ridge with old houses overlooking a gorge. This offered the opportunity for a beer in a conveniently placed café.

Continuing on what the topo-guide claimed was the original and authentic old pilgrim's route, we tried to imagine ourselves as the original pèlerins. Then came the tiny stone chapel of Rochegude,
dedicated to St Jacques, nestling into the hillside on the edge of a mighty drop down to the valley of the Allier. The grassy slope alongside the chapel was a good place for lunch and afterwards it was down, down, down to Monistrol-d'Allier.

Electricity farming is the local industry here and there is a huge power station in the valley. In fact the transmission lines which radiate out have such a presence in the landscape that are often used as reference points in the Topo guide.

A notice at the door of the single, rather modern hotel indicated that it was closed for the season but this didn't seem to affect its operation. A room? Pas de problème! Dinner? Pas de problème! Dinner was provided by four young men, who seemed to have got into the spirit of creating dinner out of what they had left in the kitchen. Pas de problème! A pair of Germans at the next table were reading the Topo guide for the GR 65. More pèlerins.
St Privat
Rochegude Chapel
Monistrol to Saugues
Breakfast at 7.30? Pas de problème !

The climb out of the valley was described as rude and an early start had been advised so as to avoid the heat of the day.
A new word entered the randonneur's vocabulary, denivilation. The climb went up, up, up, 400m to Montaure with the valley enveloped in mist below. Once up, we were in the rolling farmlands of the Margeride and there was an overwhelming smell of manure - a unique characteristic of this countryside where manure which has been stored in the barns since last winter, is spread over the fields in late summer.
As we stretched out resting on the grass
at the side of the path, an ancient goatherd stopped to chat while his goats munched all around us. He knew where Australia was and, after some consideration, observed that we would have come by aeroplane.
A long winding path led down to Saugues. There was heaps of time so we stopped and did some sketching before continuing into the town.

Saugues was a congregating point for pèlerins coming from different parts of the Auvergne. Consequently it has some really ancient relics in its 12th century church and some very old buildings, one a hospice which was originally a hospital dedicated to St Jacques.

The brown stone buildings are roofed in red tiles creating an attractive mosaic pattern from the high points of the town. In the central square is a 14th century Tour des Anglais, the first of a number that were to become a feature of the landscape over the next few days. It was never clear whether these fortified towers were built by the English during the 100 years war or whether it was just a convenient tag because the English had been there.
The goat herder
The road to le Sauvage
Lunch on the Virlange
The gite at le Sauvage
Today Saugues may be best known for one of its local products. On the shelves of our local delicatessen, we one day discovered a hoard of little packets of the dried mushrooms that make a good daube, or casserole, taste even better. Proudly printed on the packets was the certification "Produit de Saugues".
Hotel la Terrace had a sunny terrace, uneven floors and sloping ceilings. It also had cold water and at dinner we weren't too happy being given the foreign tourist treatment. Not a patch on the earlier hotels, but you can't win them all.

At dinner we observed another group deeply immersed in discussion of the Topo guide but there was no sign of the previous night's Germans. It was later to emerge that, aged in their 60s and with heart problems, they sometimes slept under hedges or in farm sheds if they felt they had gone far enough. They were following a lifelong ambition to walk all the way to Compostella and, like many others, completed another stage each year in their annual holidays.
Saugues to Domaine du Sauvage
Last night's group set off at same time as us and we compared notes in the boulangerie. They were French and while most of the party walked there was a support team of two who drove ahead with the luggage.
This was to be a morning full of warnings. Leaving town, the pathway crossed a very small stream where there was a warning that the road could be flooded in times of fortes pluies. We climbed some and then walked along muddy roads through pine forests.
Along the way there were signs warning of the dire consequences that would follow if you picked mushrooms or berries.

It also seemed prudent to keep an eye out for the Beast of Gévaudan.

At Le Falset the mobile cheese shop and charcuterie had arrived and the villagers were out doing their shopping.

We detoured to Chanaleilles to have a beer and buy a bottle of wine, because tonight was to be a self catering gîte d'étape.
Amid some confusion caused by the loss of the balisage we crossed a stream called le Virlange where we
found a lovely picnic spot for lunch. After lunch some power lines undergoing a major reconstruction led us back to the proper track.
The Beast Of Gévaudan
This legendary beast was said to roam in the area in the years before the Revolution - the 1760's.

In a period of three years many people were attacked - nearly all the victims, most of whom were killed and eaten, were young girls or small children. The monster was seen 18 times by others who were not attacked or who escaped. Was it a wolf, a werewolf, or was it, as some suspected, a man disguised in an animal skin? Legend says that the beast was shot with a silver bullet by the King's huntsmen. A more practical account simply notes that a local hunter in 1767 shot a very large wolf.
A long unsealed winding road led us to Domaine du Sauvage through countryside very reminiscent of the Monaro in N.S.W. At the end of the road was a group of old farm buildings and in one of these was the gîte. This was a very old establishment of low stone buildings set around a central courtyard. There are references to there being a farm here right back in the times of the knights templar.
Madame sold us some produits de la ferme - eggs, tomatoes, bread and saucisson. There was a big country kitchen with a communal cooking stove and we slept in a dormitory in a long double bunk that ran the length of the room. Fortunately there were no other randonneurs or things would have been a bit cosy. The electricity workers from the site down the road were sleeping in a room upstairs. Being mobile they had eaten in town.

There was a magic moment in the evening when the brebis, or ewes, were brought in for the night, the bells around their necks clinking like music.
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Le Chant des Pèlerins
A book recording personal observations on the journey made fascinating reading. Randonneurs from many countries have passed through and most seem deeply conscious of the historical and religious significance of the pèlerinage. Particularly engaging was a poem which turned up years later on a CD of traditional pilgrims' songs. It had been transcribed in the book in Latin but is reproduced here in French.
Le premier des apôtres
Martyr à Jérusalem,
Saint-Jacques a été
Consacré par le martyre.

Seigneur saint Jacques,
Grand saint Jacques,
Et outrée, et sus!
Dieu à notre aide!
les brebis
Le Sauvage to Aumont Aubrac
Leaving Le Sauvage early, we walked through more pine forests and passed by some cross country ski trails. From here it was mostly downhill, through the mist with purple heather growing alongside the track and then into the town of St Alban. There were some very old buildings and an interesting church but as the town is now centred on a psychiatric hospital it felt rather unwelcoming. So after drinking a coffee in a cosy hotel bar it was an easy decision to move on.

The village of Les Estrets seemed to be a well off community with new, stylish housing. Some local residents directed us across a little stream, we climbed some more and then ate lunch in the pine forests. Afterwards it was down through a hamlet called Bigose and past farms with distinctive pigionniers till, counting the footsteps and by now very tired, we reached Aumont Aubrac. Today's walk was 27 km.
There was some difficulty finding a hotel room as a motocross race was progressing through the region and had taken most of the accommodation. There were trail bikes and bearded Americans in leather jackets everywhere. But it is quite a big town and a room was found in an elegant three-star establishment. Here we met up again with Brian from Melbourne so we had dinner together and decided to link up for the next day's walk to Nasbinals. The French party from Saugues also reappeared, buying provisions and eating in the same hotel.
In the heather
Wet morning in Aumont Aubrac
Cleaning the cepes
Path to Nasbinals
The water trough at Rieutort
Aumont Aubrac to Nasbinals
This stage had long been anticipated as a challenge - 26 km across the hot and treeless Aubrac. Instead it was cold and wet.

It started to rain as everyone left Aumont and the French group soon marched ahead. It continued to rain. At the village of la Chaze-de-Peyre there was an interesting church, very much changed since its construction in the 16th century. The French took shelter here but we continued through the pouring rain thinking how good a hot chocolate would be. Lasbros, the next town, offered nothing but as the heavy rain continued, the route reached a crossroads and there was a café off to the left.
This little café, Les Quatres Chemins, is, it emerged, a popular refuge for pèlerins . Hot coffee or cold beer have been enjoyed there by many - and many revisit, as we did some years later, to recollect the experience. Café au lait with cognac seemed the thing to have but, as there was no cognac, Armagnac was a good substitute. It was wonderful. Two rounds of coffee and a spell by the kitchen stove warmed us up.

The café was owned by an elderly lady and her even-more-elderly parents. Someone had been out in the morning collecting cèpes and a huge pile was being prepared for cooking. A cèpe omelette would have been good for lunch but the rain had eased and there was still a long way to go.
The track was wet and muddy but the sun came out at times and long enough for a stop for lunch between two stone walls at Roc des Loups. Then on and on, through Rieutort d'Aubrac , "place of the fountains", where there was an intriguing old stone trough which was pictured on the cover of the topo guide. Across this wild, bleak countryside, past the little town of Montgros and finally to Nasbinals which hides itself till the very last minute.

Nasbinals is a small town, constructed of dark stone.
Our hotel bedroom looked onto the belltower of the 11th century church - the bell rang twice every hour and half hour throughout the night.

All the pèlerins encountered along the route gathered for dinner - the French, the Germans and Brian. It was quite a party, with good conversation and a fine five course dinner where the pièce de résistance was the famous aligot served with wonderful spicy sausages.
It was easy to imagine ourselves as pèlerins, back in the 12th century, enjoying a warm night's shelter in the depths of the dangerous Aubrac.
Nasbinals to Aubrac
Brian decided to spend some more time in Nasbinals so we continued with the Germans. The French had disappeared. With slightly sore feet after the previous long day it seemed timely for us to make this an easy day and fully experience the wild and windy environment of the high Aubrac.
The track soared across windy hills and along the old drailles. These narrow transhumance trails tightly defined between stone walls have been used over the millennia to drive the cattle up and down between the seasons. For the ancient pèlerins this was one of the most dangerous parts of the journey. Bandits hung about on the wild plains waiting to rob unwary travellers, blizzards would rage and heavy mists descend to make the route even more difficult. There were no such problems today, though it was very cold.

The problems of the 20th century were rather different. In the middle of the narrow draille, leaving no way round, stood a group of cattle with long curly horns. Terrified and staring them down, we tentatively walked past, saying calming things like "You are very beautiful Buttercup" or "I really like your cheese Snowdrop" or "Daisy, what a dear little calf". They seemed to respond quite well.
In the past Aubrac was a pivotal point of safety where monks had set up a hospice to protect those crossing the dangerous Aubrac.
These days the town comprises three hotels, a church, a few other assorted buildings and a grand belltower. When the blizzards raged or it was foggy the bell was rung to guide in the cold, wet and frequently terrified pèlerins.

We found a hotel and had a warming bowl of soup for lunch before exploring the town. This did not take long, so we returned to the bar where, over a pichet of very fine red, we chatted to the barman who had a deep interest in the history and flora of the Aubrac. We politely looked through his four volume compilation of the Les Fleurs de l'Aubrac and recognised some that had been growing alongside the GR. Responding to our interest in history he lent us his copy of Le Grand Hôpital d'Aubrac, a comprehensive history of the region, the town and the hospice by the historian Raymond Oursel.
Sheltering from the wind
The Aubrac
St Chely d'Aubrac
The village of Aubrac
Returning all the books a little later we found our learned friend excitedly talking to an elderly couple. He exclaimed to us "Mais, c'est l'auteur, le professeur Oursel" and everyone agreed what a coincidence this was. Oursel was a highly celebrated medieval scholar who had made a specialty of the pilgrimage to Compostella. His contribution to identifying the route that the GR should follow was so great that the Topo Guide is dedicated to him. He seemed quite gratified that his writings were of interest to foreign travellers finding refuge in the Aubrac.
St Come d'Olt
Gateway St Come d'Olt
Aubrac to St Chély d'Aubrac
Another Sunday, another easy day.

On leaving Aubrac our pathway made its way through forested country and then very quickly descended to emerge above the village of Belvezet where the remains of a castle stand on a high abutment above the village. The only activity here seemed to be the removal of the old slate roofs - probably to be sold to city folk renovating homes elsewhere. This was a good spot to stop and spend some time sketching before going down again along narrow pathways where our vocabulary was expanded to include boue and merde - not a pleasant combination. We picked our way through the muck on the sharp shale rocks that formed the solid base of the track and crossed a couple of little streams, arriving in St Chély in time for Sunday lunch.

At the hotel we found the typical cheery scene with families enjoying a meal together. Unlike most of the other diners, our meal was relatively modest - a shared salade d'auvergnat and a charcuterie plate, with a bottle of red wine, and then a piece of freshly baked apple tart.
St Chély was so agreeable that we booked in for the night and went exploring. The town had all the characteristic features which are so interesting in small French towns - sumptuous vegie gardens, the belltower of an old church towering over the village houses, and sad war memorials which bring home the fact that France lost a whole generation of young men in World War I. It is not unusual to see the names of 2, 3 or even 4 members of a family on the war memorials.

An old stone bridge over the river must have been crossed by many pèlerins, watched by a statue of St Jacques himself carrying his cockle shell nailed to a long staff.

Throughout the afternoon the town was busy with Sunday drivers stopping for coffee or drinks. Our hotel had done lunch and was closed for dinner but another one along the road filled the gap.
St Chély d'Aubrac to Espalion
After the last two easy days there was some catching up to do, so equipped with advice from le patron about where to sleep and eat in Espalion, we made an early start. His daughter ran a restaurant there and he seemed very proud of her efforts.
Today was a continuation of the transition that started yesterday, leaving the high country of the Aubrac and descending to the valley of the Lot. But first a narrow pathway climbed out of this little valley and then levelled out along the plateau. In one direction was the Lot, shrouded in mist, and in the other, the receding Aubrac.

On the steep descent, the track crossed two small streams surrounded by leafy forests and at one of these a fisherman was laying damp bracken in a wicker basket and carefully arranging an array of mushrooms and several trout. Who was to be the lucky recipient?
Finally down, the road led to St Come d'Olt where we lunched with les ouvriers, enjoying the hearty menu du jour in one of the local cafes.

St Come was built around an 11th century chapel which also housed a pilgrim hospice mentioned in the 12th and 13th centuries. The present church overlays one from the 13th century. It is an intriguing town with old streets, slate roofed houses and gateways and a curious twisted church spire.
The name St Come d'Olt reflects a curious local variation of the spelling of the river Lot.
St Come, along with Estaing further downstream, were the favoured places for pilgrims to cross the river. Crossings were built by an order of monks whose role it was to build bridges for the pilgrims.

After lunch we began our three days of interaction with the Lot - sometimes delightful and sometimes frustrating. The river flows gently west with steep forested hills on either side spreading out into farmlands on a plateau. There are wide panoramas stretching even as far as the peaks of the Auvergne. The towns are all in the valley and the GR route climbs over the hills and up onto the plateau and then down. The track makers were determined that today's pilgrims should go up and down as much as possible.
The workers' lunch sat heavily as the track perversely climbed up and over the first very steep hill. Surely only the silliest pèlerins would have taken that route, given there was a perfectly good road along the river. To compensate there was a magnificent view from the top and docile cows with huge bells around their necks quietly grazed as they probably had for centuries. Then, in the full heat of the day, it was down to the river again and the on to Espalion.
Espalion was the largest town we had encountered since Aumont Aubrac. It was originally the site of an old Roman river crossing, and now a picturesque 13th century bridge spans the river. Interesting old houses are built alongside and overhang the river. A chateau-fort, dating from the 10th century dominates the town.
Misty morning at Espalion
We found the recommended restaurant whose owner was faintly amused that her Dad had praised her so much. An elegant place, it offered a six course menu dégustation as its pièce de résistance. Our choice was a simpler, but very fine, four course meal. The walls of the restaurant were hung with paintings of St Chély.

The hotel in Espalion was rather ornate and fussy, full of antique furniture and run by two dear old ladies who presented us with a gift of some chocolates. Now how on earth could anyone preserve chocolates in a backpack in weather that was becoming decidedly warm?
After the late start it was a short, but very hot, day. There was quaint stone church at Bessuéjouls. As we passed the local school, a clamour of children were called to "Regardez les randonneurs".

Another diabolical climb up to the plateau was rewarded with another expansive view and then it was down again to Verrières. Did the pèlerins really follow this route? A bar just off the track was a godsend as spirits were getting a bit low. Further along the river was a lunch spot on the riverbank where huge fish were swimming around under the bank. Then after a final climb the track took a long traverse down into Estaing.

Estaing, with its chateau dominating the town, was the seat of the illustrious d'Estaing family who contributed greatly to the state in several arenas. Guillaume I went to the 3rd crusade, others were churchman (a cardinal and a bishop), and one was an admiral. An act of bravery in 1214 against the English gave the family the right to put 3 fleurs de lys on their coat of arms. The church was consecrated in the 15th century over an old 11th century priory.

Today the castle still overlooks the valley and the town's typically narrow streets lined with ancient houses.
Espalion to Estaing
The whole valley was deep in fog and it wasn't hard to delay a little, soaking up the atmosphere, taking photos and buying lunch in the central square where some travelling vans were doing a brisk trade.
There was not a lot of action in town - only a few couples like us, strolling round or sitting at the river watching it roll by.

Dinner offered the chance to experiment with tête de veau, highly acclaimed as a regional speciality but unlikely to be repeated. The full and flavoursome Estaing wines, particularly the rosés, are an unexpected surprise and one of these, a Cuvée Selection du Château was a good choice.
Estaing to Espeyrac
Leaving Espalion, the river becomes very wide because of an upstream dam and signs warn of the danger of swimming in the river. Starting early to avoid some of the heat of the day, we had the predictable long climb up to the plateau followed by a hot walk along through fields where the smell of the fertilising manure was overwhelming. Lunch was a lazy stretch out under a tree alongside the pathway with a view across to the Cantal mountains.
Down in Golinhac the atmosphere was rather grim as a funeral was about to be conducted in the very old church. Somberly dressed people were rolling up in their farm vans. It didn't feel like a good place to stay so we decided to push on another 8 km to Espeyrac.

Espeyrac is a quiet town off the main tourist routes, completely encircled by a wide loop in the road. At the Hotel de la Vallée the best option seemed to be a pension fixé. Before dinner everyone sat drinking on the pavement outside the hotel and no-one seemed to mind that the narrow streets were covered in merde. The locals all dropped by for a drink, parking their cars in the middle of the street, and everyone ignored a crazy woman who squawked excitedly from a window above.
Dinner was served in a long room with all the chairs facing towards the TV. There were quite a lot of French holiday makers staying here, using Espeyrac as a base. Information was exchanged about where everyone had been today, and their plans for tomorrow. Everyone ate the same meal - soup, beans, an omelette, salad, cheese and a pear. We seemed to be allowed to drink freely from a litre bottle of wine placed on each table. We all watched a quiz show on the TV. Most people lost interest when the news came on though there was some animation when tomorrow's maximum temperature was forecast at 35. No-one stayed up very late.
Postcard of Espeyrac
Morning at Estaing
Conques and the Dourdou Valley
Cemetery in Conques
Espeyrac to Conques
An early start to beat the heat though there was now only a short distance to go. The obligatory climb to the plateau was the last and it was then fairly flat all the way, following a narrow farm road. Our plan had been to savour the journey's end with lunch in view of Conques, but after a scramble down a narrow track we were suddenly there. So on the outskirts of the town our arrival was celebrated anyway with a bottle of Entraygues wine. The appropriately named Hotel St Jacques provided a room with a wonderful view of the cathedral - literally a stone's throw away.

Arriving in Conques you are stuck by its remoteness and the beauty of its location, deep in a valley with hillsides rising steeply all around. It must have been an awe-inspiring place to reach on the long pilgrimage.
There is so little flat land that terraces had to be cut into the slopes to allow construction of buildings.

The abbey itself rises from one of these terraces. An intriguing little cemetery hangs over the side of a hillside, supported by a deep abutment wall. The abbey dominates the town. Close up, its tympanum and façade are a tribute to the medieval craftsmen who built this great structure. Floodlit at night, it is a truly special sight.
The story of Conques and Sainte Foy
Unlike establishments such as Rocamador and Agen, Conques had no religious relics and these were needed to pull in donations. Agen did very nicely from the relics of Ste Foy, a Christian girl, martyred by Diocletian.

So in the 9th century Conques hatched a plot. A monk Aronisdus was sent to infiltrate the community at Agen and steal their relics. It took 10 years to win their trust and be allowed to guard the relic. At first chance he was off with the relic, assisted by Ste Foy herself who hid him in a mist from his pursuers.

Agen was outraged but Conques paid some compensation and kept the relics. Conques became prosperous and soon built a new and grand church for the relics.
It had been a walk of 200 km in 12 days - a long way still to Compostella. The GR continued steeply up out of the valley but perhaps this was a journey that should never finish and St Jacques de Compostella should always be a little out of reach.

In the end we did go there years later but by train from Portugal.
Typanum, Church of Ste Foy Conques
The Last Judgement
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