In 2004, Isabelle Fournier was about to turn 30. She was unhappy with her life, feeling claustrophobic in her Parisian one-room flat and unsatisfied with her job as a translator for film subtitles. So she decided to take time off to walk and reflect.
And what a walk it was. Isabelle went on a two-month hike from Puy in Southern France to St. James of Compostela in North-West Spain. But she did not reflect much: "I did not ask myself many questions on my life. The questions I would ask myself were where will I sleep tonight or what am I going to eat. I was very serene."
Nonetheless, by the time the trip was over in October 2004, Isabelle had a clear idea of what she wanted to do next in life: she was going to open a gîte to host pilgrims on the Way of St. James.
It took Isabelle nine months to make this dream a reality. In July 2005 "L'Etoile Occitane" was born in Lectoure, Southern France, along one of the four historical routes to St. James described in the 5th book of Codex – a book published in 1140, which remains to this day the definitive source for Compostela routes.
St. James of Compostela has, in fact, been attracting pilgrims for about a thousand years. Its cathedral is said to host the remains of the Apostle James, although some historians believe the body actually belongs to Priscillian, a 14th century Galician leader of an ascetic Christian sect and one of the first Christian heretics to be executed.
But whoever may be buried in its cathedral, a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela has, for centuries, represented an opportunity to start afresh. A thousand years ago, a murderer could make a clean break with the past and start a new life by going there: The pilgrimage won people the right to a plenary indulgence, so all their past sins would be forgiven.
Today most people no longer believe in indulgences, but tens of thousands still flock each year to St. James of Compostela from all over Europe – most on foot, some riding a bicycle, and some on horseback or on a donkey, taking a cue from their medieval predecessors. And this pilgrimage can still today be a turning point, changing forever the course of their lives.
"Many people have opened a gîte," Isabelle tells me, "after their pilgrimage to Compostela". Others have given their life a different direction: she cites the case of a young woman – one of her gîte clients – who had just finished her studies in marketing and had a job waiting for her when she got back. After the pilgrimage, she decided not to take that job.
Richard Bois, who used to be a sales director, also feels his life changed after his first pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela in 2000. Walking under a thunder-storm in a plateau between Burgos and Leon, he saw a typical Spanish whitewashed house with a tree next to it, and felt in a flash that he was entering a beautiful painting. "For the first time in my life I felt I was where I should be, and that I had the right to exist." The moment was so moving that Richard fell on his knees and cried. "My relationship to others and my vision of life changed completely."
No-one really knows why walking to Compostela is such a special, life-changing experience. According to Isabelle, "a long walk is therapeutic ". But, she says, "The difference with the St. James Way is that it's a historical route. Thousands of people have covered this route, so there is an energy."
In 2003 Richard, who is Christian, returned to St. James of Compostela. This time he started his journey from Jerusalem and walked for 22 months, crossing 15 countries along the way. He too talks about "an energy that exudes from this route". There was something special, he says, about the last stretch in Northern Spain – the part that actually belonged to the historical Way of St. James.
Richard was in a march for peace with Mahdi Alioui, who is Muslem, and Yoann Dobensky, who is Jewish, to show the world that people of different confessions could walk and live together in peace. "On our third day in Spain, having walked over 10,000 km together and with 800km to go, Mahdi and I looked at each other and said 'finally here we are, we are on the Way,'" he says." Is it the millions of pilgrims who have passed there? I don't know, but there is something."
He does offer another explanation. Perhaps, he says, "it's a land that has been blessed: During the Arab occupation, the three religions lived together in harmony."
Richard is now writing a book about his life, and regularly gives talks about his experience, showing a documentary he filmed along the way.
Isabelle is happy with her choice. She had always wanted to run a gîte or a youth hostel, although she did not know where and had never thought she would do it alone. The pilgrimage gave her the enthusiasm to make that dream come true.
But Isabelle's is not a life-long conversion. One year after opening her gîte she took up some subtitling jobs – the money she earned from her gîte was not enough. And, although she is glad to have done it, she knows that running a gîte is a "project" and not a "vocation" for her – she eventually wants to do something else in life. She will probably not need to reflect too much to discover what the next big change in her life will be; she may simply have to schedule another hike down the Way of St. James.