Last year, a friend asked if I would like to do the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. When I asked what it involved she replied that I would need to take about seven weeks vacation to walk the nine hundred miles to visit the bones of Saint James in the Cathedral at Compostela. The pilgrimage would be rough but I would receive many spiritual benefits and remission for my sins. It sounded tempting. My sins are numerous.
However, apart from the time involved and what it would demand of my feet, I know quite a bit about Saint James. I have been a director of the archaeological dig at Bethsaida, the birthplace of James, for seventeen years. There is no evidence whatever that James ever went to Spain. A legend dating to the 12th century claims that he found his way to the Iberian Peninsula, where he preached and died and was buried. His bones were discovered in 814 by a bishop, Theodomir, in northern Galicia. Theodomir was guided to the spot by a star, or so they say. The relics were then brought to Compostela and the pious have obtained remission for sins (at a price) ever since!
Actually, James never left Palestine. He returned to his hometown, Bedside after the Ascension and preached there. He was executed (beheaded) by Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem in 42 A.D. at which time most of the other Christians fled Jerusalem in terror. Anyone who has been to Jerusalem has seen the magnificent church of Saint James in the Armenian quarter where he is buried. I expect that in the 12th century, the coffers of the Bishop of Compostela were running dry and what better than a star to guide penitent sinners to his church in Spain. About 35,000 pilgrims make the journey every year.
I decided against the pilgrimage. I would carry my sins a while longer, and opted instead for week at Camp Biche (on the pilgrim route) in France, where not so much penance was required. Anyway, three weeks of digging at Bethsaida had surely given me more insight into Saint James than would Compostela. On a lovely June day, I saw my students off from the dig, attended services at the Saint James Cathedral and the next day I left Jerusalem early in the morning.
Craig Resnick (who was to be my host) picked me up at Toulouse airport and we drove the thirty miles or so to the luxurious 13th century mansion in Lauzerte which would be my retreat for a week. Craig and his wife Libby had left the stock market world in San Francisco in 2003 and bought a farm in France to tend sheep and raise chickens. They still keep the farm. But two years ago they bought an 800 year old house close by and established Camp Biche, a fitness retreat. It is now rated among the ten top in the world.
Lauzerte, built on a rock pinnacle, is an historic bastide or fortified village going back to the thirteenth century. The Treaty of Paris (1229), permitted landowners to build new towns in their crumbling domains. These “bastides” were an attempt to generate revenues from taxes on trade rather than tithes (taxes on production). Farmers who elected to move their families to bastides were no longer vassals of the local lord — they became free men. Thus the creation of bastides thrust forward the decline of feudalism. The new inhabitants were encouraged to work the land around the bastide, which in turn attracted trade in the form of merchants and markets. The Count of Toulouse built aabout two dozen such towns and became quite wealtlhy from taxes and tolls. Lauzerte was oen of them. Many of the old buildings have been restored to preserve the heritage of the village. History oozes from the stone walls and gothic windows. The houses are all tucked cozily together, around the market square, window sills overflowing with flowers. Stress-free people wonder about with time to wish each other “Bon Jour” and sit and sip coffee and pastice. And Lauzerte is a stopping off point on the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela.
Camp Biche is the place to go if you want the really ultimate experience of the good healthy life. Their philosophy “We believe and teach that eating should bring great pleasure and that physical exercise creates bliss. Each day centers around an extensive and exhaustive hike through the gorgeous French countryside.”
Though eight hundred years old and steeped in the past, the house has all the modern conveniences of a luxury hotel (except television!) The rooms are magnificently decorated to capture a feeling for its history. Libby and Craig exude levity and wit and the staff is well trained to see to your every requirement ( Yoga anyone? Massage? Another hike? Swim?) The food is worthy of any five star restaurant but not fattening. (I think I lost five pounds in weight.) Good eating habits are emphasized and no snacks between meals.
The day starts at six thirty, (after a cup of tea), stretching exercises for half an hour. (One man lost his stomach in three days doing “scrunches”). Then you do aerobics ( yes I said aerobics, no messing around) for an hour with Louique. At eight thirty a well earned breakfast of tea, granola, fruit and yogurt (organic of course). And then, when you are all set to relax, three to four hours on the trail….up hill, down hill, over very rough terrain, sliding down slippery slopes and wending through the most beautiful countryside. Signs indicate that you are on the Compostela trail but the two Collie dogs, Antoinette and Attila, know it all by heart and are expert at rounding up any who stray. You can of course, pray to Saint James and do your meditation along the trail just as the pilgrims do.
The afternoons, after a beautiful lunch by the pool and a short rest, bring water exercises, yoga, massages and naps. Interspersed, there may be wine tasting at the local vineyard, marketing in nearby little villages, soaking up the sun by the pool while the Italian chef is busy in his kitchen creating a six course gourmet’s delight fit for any Count De Toulouse. Wine flows freely in the candlelit stone walled dining room lined with books.
Then sleep in luxurious Egyptian cotton sheeted beds in an ancient haunted room where a ghost sits on your bed. Your dreams are soothed by the scents of lavender and jasmine. Wake up early and see the pilgrims already setting out past your window. They look weary, and still have seven hundred miles to go! Go back to sleep.
Since I was the special guest that week, we dined out one glorious evening at Le Moulin de Dausse, an ancient mill, Kir Royal for an aperitif (just like Maxime’s ) and then feasted on foi gras de canard, salsa aux tomates, rillettes de poisson, air au piment, tnrecote de boef marinee ant une espuma de betterave rouge, saumon fume amison servi avec perles japon et un mayonnaise saux crevettes, then gigot d’ agueau, tarte tatin au aubergine et sa sauce au porto det a la cardomome followed by dessert romanoff, creme au balsamique, glace maison aux cerises, mousse au chocolat blanc avec gelee aux tomates, and assortmend de fromages, of course. Top that…just a simple little French meal! Where did American cooks go wrong?
I met many of the locals and several expatriates; English and American, all in love with the French lifestyle, writers, musicians, artists…not the usual Club Med Cancun crowd. What a joy to hear French spoken, and to contemplate all that has happened there over the centuries. What I most miss in America is the lack of a sense of history. There is so little of it here. .
We attended an organ concert of Mozart, Bach and Schubert in the ancient church on Saturday evening. The haunting strains soared to the lofty vaulted ceiling, engulfing its hearers in rapture. Every little village and town in France celebrates the summer solstice by concerts. Music was played in the village square all day and indeed well into the night. Tres, tres delectable.
France has been the best friend of America since the beginning..
“Lafayette we are here” said General Pershing at the tomb of the great Marquis in 1917, thereby saying that, Americans were now repaying a debt to the French, who had helped the United States gain its independence. Indeed our debt to France goes well beyond that.
I came home all senses alive and well feasted. I resolve to continue with my exercise and meditation program, read more French books, drink more wine, and just be!