This week we passed back into France – a country that always feels like home from home. An invisible border welcomed us back after 5 months touring Spain and Portugal. With the halfway mark of our current adventure now behind us, we decided to make a hasty drive towards the south coast. A seasoned traveller might smile at our naivety, for anyone who has travelled this route will know, that you cannot simply pass the midi Pyrenees without being completely humbled by her splendour, intensity, and glory. It was to be a first meeting we will never forget.
Our first stop-over was a little town called Saint-Jean Pied de Port. We parked up and followed the path through the quaint village to a citadel sitting staunchly at the top of a hill overlooking the town and surrounding countryside. It was our first glimpse of a landscape that would capture our hearts and minds.
On our homeward decent, we ambled through a bustling street of colourful people cautiously balancing overloaded backpacks on hunched shoulders. Hiking boots, teddies and tied bouquets of heather dangled from carefully packed belongings like souvenirs or treasured keepsakes, together with scallop shells – a long-held tradition to symbolise a pilgrim’s intent to walk the pilgrimage trail from Saint-Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela.
As I watched walkers from all nationalities queue for their pilgrim passport – a possession that would entitle them to stay at pilgrim-only hostels along the 770km route – I felt slightly envious. Their faces were full of excitement, anticipation, anxiety, and determination. They had a goal. They were about to embark on a personal pilgrimage across Northern Spain that would undoubtedly change their life.
Now, I am not religious. Some people who embark on these pilgrimages are obviously doing it for religious reasons – but not everyone. I can totally understand its attraction. Regardless of whether you are looking for some sort of spiritual enlightenment or personal insight, this type of intimate challenge guarantees space, time, fresh air, solitude, companionship, beauty and peace in which to dig deep and discover answers to important life questions. I can only imagine that every troubled mind, lonely heart, searching soul and disillusioned spirit will discover a small sense of themselves with every kilometre walked. With only the dependable presence of majestic mountains as company, your life on this planet will surely gain some perspective.
I made a pledge to one-day return and join the queue at Saint-Jean Pied de Port. I want to know how it feels to arrive, tired, aching but incomprehensibly proud at the other end. To know I have joined over a million other people in history, who also made the physical and mental journey.
The Camino Trail has been added to my bucket list.
Our next stop was Lourdes. The drive to Lourdes was indescribably beautiful. Yellow rapeseed fields glowed against majestic white snow-capped mountains. Just like our short lives, the shadows from the afternoon sun drifted past timeless mountains in a blink of an eye.
Lourdes was unsurprisingly more forthright with its religious observations. Unlike the quiet understated spiritual intimacy of Saint-Jean Pied de Port, the countless tawdry souvenir shops at Lourdes detracts from the essence of this holy place.
Known worldwide as a major catholic pilgrimage site, Lourdes is visited by over 6 million tourists each year. It is the second most important centre of tourism in France, next to Paris. Lourdes is also host to thousands of disadvantaged and disabled children from around the globe who venture to Lourdes each week to celebrate love and friendship. We were able to see many of these colourful, energetic groups as they embarked on their annual pilgrimage to the Grotto of Massabielle, where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to Bernadette Soubirous on 18 separate occasions.
Being a Humanist, I visited Lourdes, more to see the spectacle, if I am honest. I wanted to see the miraculous spring that has reportedly cured more than 66 documented patients who bathed at the altar. I wanted to see the Basilica.
I was not disappointed. Quite the contrary, I was rather impressed. The Basilica is a splendid building. And whilst I renounce religion and its peculiar practices, I do appreciate the comfort that Lourdes offers its worshipping guests. I saw people taking strength from each other. I saw gentle hands stroking the faces of disadvantaged children. Young people signing for young children. Children smiling and singing to songs. Grieving siblings being comforted by caring strangers. It was not necessarily religion that connected complete strangers, but something far more tangible – kindness, care, and compassion.
I do not need to agree with the religious sentiments of Lourdes (and I don’t) to understand that people take strength from their faith. That’s their own prerogative. That’s their right. But I’d like to think Lourdes is more about people than it is religion. It’s about people from all cultures, social classes, and backgrounds, coming together in one place to appreciate and savour life in all of its complex, crazy and glorious forms.
From Lourdes, we travelled deeper into the Pyrenees mountains stopping overnight at a campsite with unrivalled views over ageless snow-covered cols. With two sun chairs strategically placed to succumb to their power, we drank chilled wine and watched in silence until the early evening.
There is something so awe-inspiring and mesmerising about their presence, that no words can adequately sum up how they make you feel. Here they have stood for thousands, if not millions of years. Every day the sun rises and sets. Every day the clouds dance gracefully around them. Yet they stay silently still like a constant observer to a fleeting, ever-changing ephemeral world. To them, our lifetime must pass like a short commercial break on fast-forward.
I’ve always been entranced by rolling, crashing waves, but I have to admit the magnetism of the mountains captivated me in a way that I have never felt before. They made me feel insignificant, like an infinitesimal pin-prick in a colossal universe. My 80 years (if I’m lucky) on this planet will pass like a momentary breeze. My brief stop on this earth means nothing to these timeless wonders.
81.5 years – that’s the average life expectancy in the UK – it’s nothing. Let’s say it was only 81 months. Approximately 352 weeks. If we were only alive for 352 weeks, how many weeks would we sacrifice to work? How many would we waste, hoping next month will be our month? How many weeks would we spend dreaming of a better life? How many weeks would we waste on a doomed relationship? How many weeks would we work to own a house or buy a car? Would those things even hold the same importance?
If we thought about our life in terms of weeks, rather than years, I think we would be more selfish with our time. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I realise after this trip, that I don’t want to waste a moment more. I don’t want to let life pass me by, or gift it to a corporate world for any longer than is absolutely necessary. As much as it pains me to say – nobody remembers John Smith for 25 years of loyal work, even 6 months after John Smith leaves his organisation.
I have already dedicated the last 24 years to work (1251 weeks), spending the last 12 years (625 weeks) supporting vulnerable victims of sexual and domestic violence. With the help of a fantastic colleague (now friend) in the council, we launched the first ever voluntary-led sexual assault referral centre in England.
When it was first opened in Plymouth, it was recognised as national best practice. I raised over £2m in charitable funds during my time to keep it going, winning two awards for innovation and community service. Do you think anyone will remember that? No. And why would they? I wouldn’t expect them to. Because we all move on. We are all replaceable. That’s why we must prioritise ourselves.
I don’t want to waste any more years trying to own more or have more. Instead, I want to use my precious time seeing more, experiencing more, spending quality time with my family, exploring the world. Is that selfish?
Perhaps not. Not when you consider that my family want the same thing. But what if they didn’t? What if I had a different dream? Would it be selfish to want to allocate more time to pursue my own desires?
If there is one thing I have learnt from this trip, it is this: fulfilling a dream, or reaching a goal, brings a sense of accomplishment; a sense of calm. It creates a happy heart. People who are happy, are better to be around. Sometimes we have to be selfish in order to benefit everyone we love.
I remember once sharing my greatest fears with my husband. I explained that I feared living and dying in Plymouth. I always dreamed of travelling but I felt trapped, unable to achieve it. The feeling of being trapped made me feel resentful and unhappy. To compensate I always sought new challenges. Each time I achieved a goal, I set another. Each goal was another distraction from my true ambition. In truth, I always had an itch I could never quite reach. I moved us all to Cornwall in an attempt to scratch the itch – but it only served to be a temporary fix. In the end, the only thing that scratched the itch was to pursue the dream.
Does it feel good? Hell yeah! We can all dance around our hopes and desires, but until we actually fulfil them, or, at least, attempt to pursue them, we never really know how good it feels to tame the inner voice and make peace with ourselves.
As I sat, mesmerised by those mountains, I smiled. I thought about our older generation and the stories they have to tell about their time here. Despite the horror of war, survival stories have captivated generations ever since.
My own great-grandfather, Septimus, was a sniper with only a couple of weeks’ life expectancy. He was a crack shot and survived. But it’s only a great story to our immediate family.
I wonder, what our own stories will be. I imagine myself sat in an armchair, old and grey, whispering, ‘Do you know, I once sold everything and travelled the world…’. Even if nobody listens, I know I will feel content with my life. I will look back and smile because I have a story I’m proud of.
‘What will your story be?’
Over the years, I have listened to so many people talk about their dreams and aspirations. Most of them are life enhancing rather than life changing. They don’t require huge risks or great financial commitment. They muse, retrospectively, about what they would achieve if they had their time over – they would learn to play a musical instrument, master a foreign language, live in Italy, ride a horse through the Grand Canyon, study history, write a book, walk a pilgrimage or run a marathon…
My advice to them is this: Be selfish! Pursue it. Make it a plan. Your life is not over! You could have another 20-30 years on this earth. For the love of John Smith, die whilst you are still living! Don’t give up because you have 20 years behind you. Pursue it because you still might have 20 years ahead. Who knows, you could be a concert pianist in 20 years’ time!
If all else fails, at least, try and sit overlooking a mountain. Take a flask and spend a day just looking at it. It will help you to realise that we only get one chance. This is not a rehearsal.
Whether our life stories are sad, shocking, mad or incomprehensible, everyone deserves to be able to reflect on their life with a warm smile and whisper ‘I made the most of it’. And if the people in your life love you enough, they will want that for you too.
Looking after yourself, loving yourself, and making your happiness a priority is not selfish. It’s a necessity – even if you can only justify it the once!
As for us, well, we are going to take our foot off the accelerator. It doesn’t matter if we don’t see every country this time around. We’ll save and return again. The Pyrenees make you want to stop and take stock for a while. Why rush the moment we have worked so hard to achieve?
We’re just breathing it in.