A Journey along Way of Saint James through Celtic Lands

It is a phenomenon with which I am confronted with young pilgrims on the Way of Saint James or Via Tolosana. The Camino de Santiago is a medieval Catholic pilgrimage whose purpose is to reach the shrine attributed to the apostle Saint James the Great. It is located in the crypt of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in Spain. It has been and continues to be the oldest, busiest and most celebrated route of the old continent.

I cannot contradict the claim that Europe was born on the Way of Arles. For me, it is always beautiful to admire the old cities along the way and admire. For me, pilgrimage is an expression of the longing of modern man for slowness. After a freedom that hardly exists in everyday life, it is the freedom to live in today and to determine the rhythm itself. For many of us, pilgrimage is the kind of meditation that makes it possible to think. To work through problems and to think of new goals.

I will work through the Via Tolosana as part of this blog as I experienced it. I do not want to write a guide. But it is important to me to convey social and historical facts. Via Tolosana is the Way of St. James from Arles, via Toulouse and Somport Pass to the Spanish town of Jaca. There, the Tolosana meets the Camino Catalán or the Aragonese Way. The Camino Catalán begins in Barcelona more precisely in Montserrat and is likely to be the Catalan name of the Camino Aragonès. The path leads in any case in Puente la Reina in the Camino Francès in Santiago de Compostela better still in Finisterra to end.

This post is dedicated to the Celtic part of Via Tolosana. In contrast to the Via Podiensis or the Camino Frances, this variant of the Way of St. James is taken by relatively few pilgrims. And although this route is rich in cultural treasures and scenic beauties. For many of us, it is a romantic-spiritual goal to arrive in Santiago de Compostela once in our life.

The month is April, we are under Easter. The first true Celtic stage on Via Tolosana begins from the Gite. We first go through a ford, then after some ups and downs to the village of Usclas du Bosc. Usclas is well-known for its discoidal steles that should be looked at. Otherwise, there is only once again in Lacommande (just before the Somport Pass) the opportunity to look at these mysterious grave stelae.

Usclas seems to be the gateway to a very mysterious region. My reasonably trained archaeological-prehistoric eye has discovered in a small space of monuments that are hardly anywhere else to see in their density. It's a fact for me that there are so many power spots here. Continuing through vineyards, after some time we reach a pine forest along fairly steep forest roads, at the end of which we find a signpost to the Saint-Michel de Grandmont Priory.

The Saint-Michel de Grandmont Priory was founded in 1128. As it turns out, it is a passage that had already been chosen as a place of worship by pre-Christian religions. The interior of the Prieuré gives the visitors a feeling of being returning to the Middle Ages. Not far from it, however, stone settings can be admired, as I have only seen them in England and Scotland. Dolmen, stone bowls with channels and a huge sacrificial bowl with drainage channel with a view of the unreally beautiful landscape below the cult place.

Way of Saint James through Celtic Lands images

Located less than 200 meters as the crow flies from the Prieuré, this prehistoric site emphasizes that not only in France but in ancient times, Christians did seize ancient places of worship. On the one hand to use the energy of such places. On the other hand, to convert the pagan devotees to Christianity. Considering that Celtic Druids were active in parts of Europe until the 10th century AD, this theory can certainly be applied to the Prieuré, which was founded at the beginning of the 12th century.

On the following descent to Lodève we exactly follow the GR 653 signs. Otherwise, it can happen that you miss the narrow but faster descent through an oak forest to Lodève. After this hot stage, we cool off with red wine and a good, self-cooked meal. Because the next stage will be pretty intense again.

I would not have thought so. After the somewhat sweaty ascent along the river Mare of Saint-Gervais through fragrant forests, we reach a kind of pass. At a few hundred meters, the landscape changes, as if we were in a theater with a revolving stage. Instead of the scrubland with its barren plants and dry shrub meadows, there are green, lush meadows. They are framed by hedges, as otherwise found only in Scotland or England.

The air is changed, too. It is visibly moist. Clouds move over the pass at some speed, then dissolve into nothing. Murat-sur-Vèbre is the first place with Atlantic windward climate. While fog is just as uncommon in high summer as precipitation is a few kilometers further to the east. Symbol of this climate and weather divide are also the windmill parks in Murat-sur-Vèbre.

It was clear to me that I had to spend a culture day in Murat-sur-Vèbre. Obviously, the town was a center of megalithic culture in this part of France. It was the opportunity to visit the worked stones and climb the holy mountain called Montalet. I could not miss. Pilgrims usually strive hard and move ceaselessly towards their destination. Any day that does not bring them closer to their destination (Santiago de Compostela) is usually considered as 'lost'.

It's similar to me. With the exception that I take a rest day in culturally interesting towns. And Murat-sur-Vèbre, the small canton town in the department of Tarn (Midi-Pyrénées), has been one of the most interesting cities on the Via Tolosana ever since.

The very name of the hostel I stayed in pointed to the Celtic past. A conversation with the operator couple of the Gite woke then completely my interest. In addition, they offered me an excursion to the surroundings of Murat-sur-Vèbre to visit the menhirs and dolmens in their original place.

There are usually two critics who characterize this cultural epoch, which reaches from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age to the late Iron Age. The large 'standing' stones and dolmens are prehistoric burial sites. It must be added that there was no uniform megalithic culture in Europe. Why are the menhirs of Murat-sur-Vèbre so intriguing? Because it is partly about figurine menhirs. So sculpted stones.

The region around Murat-sur-Vèbre is dominated by a mountain that has most certainly been worshiped by prehistoric cultures. The Roc de Montalet. I had the opportunity to climb the mountain. On the summit, today is a figure of Madonna. And yet, as once in the Middle Ages, hundreds of thousands of people annually make their pilgrimage in the direction of the religious-sentimental goal of Santiago.

The evening is one of those that I cannot easily forget. After leaving the car in the square of the beautiful shelter of Celtic huts, I am going to walk alone. I and my jacket, as the old, used to say when they wanted to stress that they were really alone. It's eleven at night and, after having dinner with the specialties made by the friends, I go out to admire the heavenly vault dotted with bright stars.

There is seemingly intermittent light, similar to a Christmas light. The night is magnificent, illuminated by the glow of the round moon, that evening particularly large and full. I do not pull a breath of wind and the snow, now crystallized by the spring weather, bun under my feet, allowing me to walk quietly without gaiters or crampons. The foot does not slip minimally as if almost on the ground there was some sandpaper. However, I have with me the snowshoes that I leave tied to the backpack.

After experiencing the frontal light, I try to switch off all forms of artificial light, relying on the magic of light and dark night. I am happy with the choice and walking I enjoy the simple and atavistic pleasure to walk by sharpening the eyes. Going up I feel very well the breathlessness of the breath and the beats of the heart, so the silence is perfect. Although I know the path is betrayed by the reflection of the snow.

Excited by the particular experience, I stop to reflect to continue or not in one direction or another. I cannot orient myself, I focus well and then get heartened, as I recognize a familiar section of the path. Through the tops of the beech trees, still, without leaves, the stars shine like many distant light bulbs. Sometimes I turn back as if I was followed by someone. Then I go down the first ridge on a slight slope. As I ascend to the rhythm of the sticks and my steps, I think of all those who in the past have had the same experience.

With these men, I feel I share unique feelings soaked in charm and magic. I'm not afraid, or rather the darkness, just penetrated by the soft moonlight, welcome me in a kind of womb, in which I feel strangely protected. Still, a few steep stretches and here is the big beech. I dig a hole in the snow and I deploy a special waterproof sheet that I had put in my backpack. I lie back inside, also protected from the light night breeze. Stuffed in the down jacket I look at the starry sky. There are thousands of visible stars.

Thanks to the particular clarity of the air, they shine strongly, far away but powerful. The moonlight gives an aura of romance to the whole night. While I admire the creation I lose myself in meditations and various reflections, until I fall into a great nothing. Almost in ecstasy and I fall asleep like a child who is not afraid of the wolf in the ogre.

The glow of the aurora and the pungent cold that accompanies me bring me back into the world of men. They bring back the mind to the childhood when in the house we did not have any type of heating except a cheap wood stove. We went to bed with the warm fire full of embers and at night, when I woke up, I felt a great cold face.

It was an unusual dawn. While I prepare some hot tea with the help of some woods, I witness an exceptional but recurring spectacle: the sunrise. The "red ball" comes up over the ridge, behind the imposing pyramidal mass of the mountain. Even if only for a few minutes, the shape of the mountain creates a long triangular shadow. The landscape is truly unreal and the magic of the moment completely involves me. I do not understand well if I'm dreaming or, as I believe, living an unrepeatable moment. An instant of complete communion with nature and its most ancient manifestations.

With the warmth of the sun's rays that now enlighten me with strength, this magic seems to vanish, on tiptoe, as indeed it had come. The grazing light becomes widespread and the landscape, although lit up better, loses its incisiveness. It appears devoid of that primal charm. Even the sun, first bright red, is now a blinding white ball that is unwatchable! I eat some cookies and reflect on the existence and its mysteries.

I feel I have been filled up with healthy emotions, and I go down swinging like a miracle. A pattern in the snow makes me turn around. As curious as I am, two roe deer stop to look at me and to study my moves. As soon as I take the camera, the two ungulates quickly take the path of the slope. A moment and their white little ones disappear in the forest's gloom. I was glad to have met these two creatures of the woods. I exclaim: "good morning friends!" And I resume the descent.

This time I cut each bend of the path, jumping down to the maximum inclination. Maybe I want to imitate the two wild animals and anyway, in this childhood game, I really enjoy myself. Jump after a jump near the forest road covered with snow and ice it soon leads to the square of the hut from which I had left. In returning to the heat of the room I think of the attraction this mountain has to me and many other enthusiasts.

There are many sacred mountains in the world such as the Kailash in Tibet, consecrated to four ancient religions, or the Mount Sinai of the Jews and the Mauna Kea of the Polynesians and many others still. The particular huts with a typically Celtic architecture, similar to those still present today in Brittany and Wales) that I saw are a testimony to this.

This is the last stage on Via Tolosana/Camino Aragonés. In Puente la Reina, the path leads over the Somport Pass into the Camino Francés, the French Way of St. James. As if it wanted to get used to the good pilgrims, the Camino Aragonés already shows itself in those colors that are, as it were, the natural color palette right up to the O'Cebreiro. There are ocher and shades of brown in all shades. In fair weather brightened by a barely to describe, beautiful azure sky.

The best hostel in Puente la Reina is located at the western exit of the city. I approached this last stage on the Via Tolosana or Camino Aragonés with some sadness. However, what had cheered me up all day was the prospect of seeing the beautiful and mysterious church of Eunate.

The stage of Monreal leads away on the slope, sometimes a few meters above the valley floor. The view is awesome, the way beautiful. Today we pass small villages, actually rather large farms like Yárnoz, Guerendiáin or Otano. Only after about 12 km the first major city, Tiebas. There are restaurants, water and everything our heart desires.

It was very hot here. Anyway, I was glad to have a hat with me. Because from Tiebas to Eunate there is no shadow anymore. The valley of the Rio Lobo leads to Mirarte de Reta after Eneriz and finally to the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Eunate with the incredibly beautiful church.
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