Confessions of a novice pilgrim

Claude Tranchant's pilgrimage from France to Spain

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Brisbane grandmother's walk from France to Spain a journey of healing and helping.



Claude Tranchant is gleefully honest. "I had no concept, none at all, what walking was about."

The French-born Brisbane grandmother is talking about her 2200km foot pilgrimage from France to Spain along the famous Camino de Santiago.

She began the journey on her 64th birthday, Easter Sunday, 2010. It took her three months to complete and is the subject of her internationally acclaimed book Boots to Bliss.

It all began, she said, at the age of 58 after her marriage of 34 years ended.

"I had to look for work. So I became a checkout chick in a food barn in New Farm. And I stayed there until I was 64.

"But in between, a lady asked me to walk St John's Way (the Camino) with her. And I didn't know what it was. I was not a walker as such.

"And I scratched my head - although I didn't show it - and I said, '240km? Oh, my God. In France? Oh, my God.' And I said to her, when do you want to do it?"

What Claude did not know was the actual length of the walk. She only found out when she happened to pick up a newspaper while on a visit home to see her family.

"For some odd reason, I felt I needed to open it. And in a centre page, I saw that the walk had another zero at the end! But I didn't want to be a chicken."

In the end, she set out on the walk in 2010, as it was a Holy Year. Sadly, her friend who planted the idea could not go.

She giggles as she confesses how unprepared she was.

"I thought the route was signed. The day I left my son-in-law said to me, 'Mum, have you learned to read a map?' I looked at him strangely. I said, no, I haven't. But it should be written, surely. How naive I was!

"I'm very bad at directions. If you want to get lost, follow me!"

She set out from the town of Vezelay in eastern France, where "something happened" that steeled her step.

"When I was registering at the abbey, a lady stopped me and began to talk to me in a language I could not understand.

"But somehow volunteering in palliative care has opened my heart more than usual. And I could feel that she was in distress.

"So she started to talk and talk until she took her hands and placed them on my heart. So I hugged her. And she cried on my shoulder. And then she left."

"I did not know what he was saying. But just I just felt her pain. So I carried that pain with me to Santiago. On this event it was common for me to do that.

"The next morning, there was blessing of the pilgrims. And a French lady was there waiting for me. She must have seen me the day before. And she said, could you hug me? Which I did.

"And she told me about a problem, a sadness. And I took all that with me in my heart. So that was the beginning of the of my pilgrimage."

Walking alone for so long made Claude revisit her life.

"The good, the bad, we all have a story. And at first I refused to go there. But gradually, I had to.

"And so bit by bit, I revisited my life and left it on the side of the road as much as I could.

"As I was walking, I felt so blessed and I understood why I was doing this pilgrimage, why I was led to do it. It was for me to heal, and when I was healed, to help others."

Claude said that starting out, it took three weeks just to feel happy with her body.

Plus there were other challenges. "In France, I fell down a little hill. And I had to get up because there was nobody around. But I obviously did some damage to myself."

A few doctors in places she passed through advised her to stop. "They couldn't believe me I would keep on walking. I knew I had a lot of determination to finish something I had decided to do. But I didn't know I was so stubborn."

She said that on her return, she "could not fit in the world any more". The result was Boots to Bliss, regarded as a must-read for Camino pilgrims, and later Boots to Freedom, about her treks around the world in her 70s.

Over the years Claude has organised many Q&As and launched various films about the Camino around Australia. In 2021, at the age of 75, she received an award for "French of the year in Australia - Sports and Culture".

For three decades she has volunteered at palliative care and cancer wards in Brisbane.

Visit her website here.