The adventure began in Paris. Camille Desveaux had this project in her head since she was 14 years old. It was a dream, locked in a drawer, one she never talked about with anyone. Three years ago, she decided to share the dream with her parents. It didn't take long to convince them, but it would still be a while before she could leave. Meanwhile, Camille met Guilemette de Nortbecourt at university. They got along well and a friendship was born. Camille chose not to tell Guillemette anything about her project until they were renting an apartment together, after finishing their studies. When Camille did tell Guillemette, she understood they were both looking for the same thing. "At the same time, I was also looking for the absolute: I was thirsty for God. Camille was providential”. The idea of this pilgrimage on foot surfaced thanks to a priest, Fr Louis Hervé Guiny. Camille had no doubt about her own spiritual search, but her project was intended for one person, not two. It took them a week to straighten out the details. Then they decided, and left.
Notre Dame de Paris
Monday, 10 September 2018, 8.00am. They asked their priest friend, who accompanied the initiative spiritually, to celebrate Mass for their departure. Their families were there too: Camille’s three sisters and four of Guillemette’s ten brothers. They left straight after Mass, followed by the watchful and slightly worried eyes of their relatives.
They spent the first four days not far from Paris, making scheduled stops at the homes of friends and acquaintances. They still didn’t quite realize what this adventure held in store for them. It was on the morning of the fifth day, that they ventured into the unknown. They had no idea where they would sleep that night and, most importantly, they had not a single coin in their pockets. "It was a conscious choice", says Guillemette, "we wanted to strip ourselves of everything and abandon ourselves to God's will alone, because He is the one who made this journey possible”. They eventually arrived at a small village in the Loiret region, where they saw a castle: "It must be full of free rooms", they thought, as they walked up to the front door.
The humiliation of begging
This was still only day five and, for the first time, they had to ask for hospitality from a perfect stranger. Their request was rejected, politely, but it was rejected. They realized how humiliating it can be to beg. But they were determined, and not for a moment did they think of giving up. They knocked on another door that was opened by an open heart. According to Camille, they learned a lot from these encounters. “We were surprised by the extraordinary goodness of these people. Sometimes goodness hides at the bottom of our hearts and just has to find a way out". Veronica opened her home to them. In fact, she left the two girls alone in the house because she had already planned to go out and see a show. Camille and Guillemette settled down for the night. Next morning, over breakfast, they had time to get to know their hostess better.
Another evening, after crossing Switzerland, the Italian Alps, Slovenia and Croatia, they arrived in Bosnia Herzegovina. There they were welcomed by Pierre, an 80-year-old Serb with years of hard work behind him. He could not speak any foreign language. Fortunately, his daughter Slavica knew a few words of English, at least enough to understand each other. Pierre agreed to host the two girls. "He offered us a single bed," explains Camille. "When we woke up the next day, we noticed he had slept on the couch and left us his bed. I don't know if I could have done the same thing”.
Il papà di Guillemette, militare, aveva messo in guardia le ragazze dalla rigidità dell’inverno nei Balcani. Eccezionalmente, nel periodo del loro pellegrinaggio tra novembre 2018 e febbraio 2019, le temperature furono piuttosto clementi: mai sotto i -12° e insieme a questo, un susseguirsi di paesaggi straordinari. “In Bulgaria, per esempio, abbiamo passato una giornata con i piedi nella neve e la testa sotto il sole. Il paesaggio davanti a noi non poteva che spingerci alla contemplazione e a rendere grazie a Dio”, dice Guillemette.
Guillemette's father is a soldier. He had warned the girls of the rough winter they could expect in the Balkans. During the period of their pilgrimage, between November 2018 and February 2019, temperatures were exceptionally mild: never below -12° and accompanied by a succession of extraordinary landscapes. Guillemette remembers when they were in Bulgaria, for example: “We spent a day with our feet in the snow and our heads in the sun. The landscape before us inspired us to contemplate and to give thanks to God”.
Cultural differences can create problems for two girls on their own, accompanied only by their 10-kilo backpack and a good pair of shoes. No one was ever aggressive towards them, and they never feared for their safety, but they did have to put up with the stares of men. Two girls on their own can also be misunderstood: "They thought we were prostitutes", says Guillemette. "We had to change our approach and stop smiling at everyone we met”. Turkey was one of the more challenging stops on their journey, even if they found extraordinary signs of generosity there.
Churches, place of welcome
They found more than one door closed to them. But that meant nothing after the reception they were given by Catholic churches in France and Italy, the Catholic and Protestant churches in Switzerland, and the Orthodox churches later on in their journey. "Every time, in the parishes, we truly lived the culture of hospitality". From Serbia to Greece, when the language barrier became a problem, and when they could not host them personally, some Orthodox popes wrote letters of introduction for them to explain their project: these letters were like a real passport.
They were also welcomed in Muslim villages. They would always knock at the door of the head of the village first. He would either host the girls himself, or help them find room and board at the home of some other member of the community. In their 248 nights of pilgrimage, they never slept without a roof over their heads.
This was the thread that tied their adventure together. Camille and Guillemette had only one smartphone, which they used to send messages to their parents, in order to reassure them. As they continued to meet new people, the list of contacts on their phone got longer and the bonds they created became sources of constant support: "A bombardment of messages", says Guillemette. "These people had welcomed us and we had to respond. We did so, even though sometimes it took a while. And when we were feeling down, the messages of these people gave us courage”. Every night they talked about their project to the people who welcomed them. "Every morning we started an hour late with respect to our program: some new friendship held us back and we kept talking. We met extraordinary people," says Camille, her eyes still full of unforgettable memories. They have hundreds of photos of these encounters, and they have not forgotten any of them.