The day I walked to Conques was probably my favorite day on the Chemin du Puy (the favorite part of my post-Hilary time, anyway).
What made it so special? It certainly wasn’t the actual walking; I woke up to another day of gray, heavy clouds, and needed to don my raincoat from the moment I stepped out the gîte door in Sénergues. The rain pelted down, and sometimes the wind blew so fiercely that the rain drops came in sideways, splashing against my cheeks and my forehead and my nose and my lips. At one point, I started to walk backwards, just so that I could have a break from the wind and the rain against my face.
It was a short day, too, at only 9km. Typically I don’t love short days on the Camino or the Chemin, especially if I’m feeling strong and good. But with the rain and the promise of potentially meeting up with friends in Conques, I was relieved that I’d only have to walk for a couple of hours in the morning.
The descent into the village of Conques was tricky. It’s already a stretch of path that’s infamous for it’s steep, rocky downward slope, but it’s made infinitely harder when the rocks are slick and wet. I walked carefully, slowly, measuring each step, always looking for a spot to plant my foot before I made any movement.
In the middle of my descent, my concentration was broken by the sudden appearance of a large, black, angry barking dog. He seemed to appear out of nowhere but now, all at once, he was below me on the path, taking steady steps towards me, growling as he bared his teeth.
The rain continued to fall, water was now dripping from the hood of my coat onto the tip of my nose. My hand, gripping my walking stick, was slick with the rain. I was mid stride, one foot planted lower than the other and I wasn’t sure how to take my next step. The dog continued to bark, slowly advancing. My heart pounded and I did the only thing that I could think to do- I pushed my stick out towards him, keeping my voice stern. “Arrêt!” Stop, stop. I repeated the word and brandished my stick but the dog only barked louder.
Finally his owner appeared, yelling his name and eventually grabbing him by the collar. “He is afraid of your stick,” she told me. Hmm. I carry the stick to protect myself from angry dogs- not that there are ever all that many, but if makes me feel better to have some sort of protection, just in case. But meanwhile, maybe I’m making the dogs angry because I’m carrying a stick?
In any case, they walked past me, the dog giving me a side-eye the entire time, and I continued slowly down the path until I arrived at the entrance to the village of Conques.
Oh my. Even in the rain, this small village was stunning. I’d been here once before, when I studied in Toulouse during college, but I have almost no memories of the trip. It was likely that we had just passed through the village, stopping only briefly to see the cathedral.
But now, at 10am, my walking done, I had the entire day at my disposal. The rain had slowed and then stopped as I gingerly made my way down the wet cobblestones and into the village. I took my time, walking up and down the streets, snapping photos and getting my bearings (which wasn’t difficult; this truly is a small village, with only a few winding streets).
I knew that Conques was an important stop on the Chemin du Puy, and had been since the Middle Ages. The relics of Sainte Foy (Saint Faith) are located in the Church, and these have drawn pilgrims for centuries. In the second century, when Sainte Foy was only 12, she was decapitated for refusing to worship pagan gods. She became an extremely popular saint in Southern France, and her relics drew a great number of pilgrims to the small and very isolated village of Conques.
And Conques continues to be a popular site on the Chemin du Puy. I knew this from the bits of reading I’d done before setting off on my pilgrimage, but as I walked I kept hearing people mention Conques. “You need to stop there,” they told me. “And be sure to stay in the Abbaye.”
The Abbaye was just behind the Church, and even though I wouldn’t be able to check in until 2:00, I was greeted and instructed on where I could store my bag in the meantime. I pulled out my day bag and stuffed it full of things I might need for the next few hours: my bottle of water, a snack, a fleece, my journal.
And then I headed back into the village, wandering through the streets, into the cemetery, up and down and around and around until I decided that it was time to sit with a hot coffee.
And as I was walking down a road to find a café, I heard someone shout my name. Inside one of the cafés were the two French women I’d shared a room with back on the day when Hilary left. I’d been criss-crossing with them for awhile but it had been a few days since I’d seen them. I knew they were both ending their pilgrimage in Conques (and in fact, Conques is a stopping point for many pilgrims who are only able to do the Chemin du Puy in stages); so it made me happy to see that we’d arrived in the village on the same day.
They ushered me into the café and over to their table, paying for my coffee and asking me how my days had been. We spoke in French, but already I could tell that I was getting a little better, and even if the conversation was basic, I could mostly understand what they were saying. They hadn’t yet dropped their things off at the Abbaye, so I instructed them on where to go, and then set back out into the village. I walked through the Church and then went back outside into the square, and in the distance, walking down the street, was Mario.
I leaned against a stone wall and waited until he was closer to call out his name. When I did he looked at me, did a double take, and gave me a huge smile. “You’re here!!” he laughed. “I thought you might have walked past, or walked here yesterday.”
“No,” I shook my head. I couldn’t really say anything else then, I could only smile. I’d felt it so strongly the day before, the fact that I hadn’t said goodbye to Mario. He was the only real friend I made on this year’s Camino- there were others I considered my Camino friends, but Mario was a true friend. It hadn’t felt right to just walk away the day before, and I regretted the decision as soon as I’d realized what I’d done. There were many reasons for walking that short day to Conques, but the most important was to see Mario again, and to spend the last day of his pilgrimage with him.
We walked to the Abbaye together and on the way we saw Jerome and Nassim, hanging out at a nearby bar. We saw others, too- the kind French men, the French Canadian couple, and more. Mario stored his pack, and we headed back out- into the rain- to find a place to eat lunch. There was a restaurant just outside of the Church square, and inside we saw Pierre and his wife (who wasn’t on the pilgrimage but had arranged to meet him here for a rest day).
Mario and I ate a huge meal- I can’t remember what I had anymore, but I know that we lingered over several courses and I had ice cream and there was bread and wine (does the rest of the meal really matter, if I had those other things?).
And then the rest of the afternoon, the rest of the day, was Camino/Chemin perfection. It seems like at least once on every pilgrimage, I have a day like this. When everything just comes together. My friends are all in one place and we spend time together and we eat great food and see beautiful things and I’m just overwhelmed by a strong feeling of happiness.
Somehow I ended up in the quiet, mostly empty dorm room in the Abbaye. Everyone else was squeezed together in one of the large bunk rooms and I was in the other, with only three other people. I rested and wrote postcards and then headed back out with Mario to find something to drink. We saw Jerome and Nassim and we all walked together and somehow ended up on the upper, covered terrace of a bar, shielded from the rain. No one else was up there and we pushed two tables together and ordered a bottle of wine. From our perch we could look down onto the streets and it seemed like every 10 minutes, Nassim would see someone he knew, shout down to them, and our group grew larger, and larger. Paul Andre and Chantal, the French Canadian couple, joined us. So did Therese, and later Georges, and we talked and laughed and I sat in the center of it all, not completely understanding all the French that was swirling around me, but for maybe the first time, not really caring.
I was included in this group, the group that had somehow become my own. It didn’t matter to any of them that I couldn’t speak French very well, in fact, it seemed that they hardly thought twice about it. I had been folded into the mix or, maybe, I’d even folded myself into this mix and once again, for just this short time, I’d found myself a Camino family. My Chemin family.
There was a communal dinner back at the Abbaye and afterwards a service in the Church, followed by an explanation of the stunning Tympanum of the Last Judgement. And following all of that, an organ concert in the church with the chance to walk around the upper levels.
It was one of those evenings that I wished could last much longer. I thought about this as I walked around the upper corridor of the Romanesque church, Pierre Soulages’ stained glass glowing gray and blue and even orange, the organ pounding and filling the body of the church with a swelling, glorious sound. The music built and built and I walked out to the very center of the church and looked down and everything was glowing: the windows and the candles and the aisles and the faces of all the pilgrims: some in their seats, some in front of me and some behind me and all of us on the very same path.
It’s the sort of moment that rises above, quite literally, everything else. I felt full of something that night, full of so many things: of wine and bread and hearty French food, full of friendship and love and community, full of light and full of music and full of spirit and full of faith.
After the concert Mario and I stood outside for a few minutes, other pilgrims lingering as well, soaking up every bit of that soft night. The sky had grown dim, a dark blue, and a half moon hung, heavy, in the sky above us.
I breathed it all in, as deeply as I could. I knew that tomorrow everything would change but that night, I stayed rooted in the moment: in the center of it all, in the middle of France, in a small mountain village under the moonlight, music still in my ears, the love of my friends enveloping me. I wrapped myself in the warmth of it all, and breathed deep.