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Authored by Tom Caley

The idea to attempt a long walk had been in my head for some time. The book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, came into my hands, shortly followed by Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts; two autobiographies which detailed epic adventures across magical landscapes on foot.

It became clear to me that something very special happens to a traveler in this situation, so I decided I had to be involved. Though having never walked long distance before, I had to figure out where I should start.

The obvious choice for most travelers these days is the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James. One of the most popular long distance routes made famous by films such as The Way with Martin Sheen, thousands come from all over the world to walk it every year. I imagined I’d probably be one of those thousands until – surprisingly – I started to learn a little bit more about European pilgrimage routes.

I Walked The Camino, But Not in Spain

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It turns out that the Camino – the route westwards from the Pyrenees through Spain – is in fact only a convergence point of many ancient pilgrim ways. In the Middle Ages pilgrims would walk from all over Europe, and for this reason paths can be traced through many major European countries.

Some of the more interesting routes for the modern day pilgrim, I found, lie in France. My eyes turned to a route called the Via Podiensis, a 750km hike from Le Puy en Velay in the Haute Loire to St Jean-Pied-de-Port – the traditional starting point for most Spanish pilgrims.

After some time reading about the variety, wild country, quality of the route and wide availability of walkers’ hostels, I shelved plans for Spain. France was to be my starting point, and I looked forward to a quieter, more rural, less trodden Camino experience.

The Le Puy route starts off in the volcanic landscape of the Loire. Outcroppings of igneous rock – called plugs – rear from the ground. Often an old chateau or chapel will sit atop these cliffs, perched like Dracula’s castle over the villages below.

National Trail 65

Le Puy’s Bishop Godescalc was the one responsible for popularising this French Way of St James – he set off with a large entourage for Santiago in the tenth century. From then on, the popularity of the walk grew and grew.

Like in Spain, pilgrim shrines, wayside crosses and hospitals to cater for travelers sprung up along the route. Indeed, one of the best things about the Via Podiensis is the medieval villages, towns and cities it visits. Walking this trail is a tour through French history. Well-curated and lovingly maintained, the path is designated a so-called Grande Randoneé (or National Trail) number 65. Signposting is excellent for the whole length of the trail and infrastructure for walking is ideal.

Out of Le Puy, the route takes you into the high country of the Margeride. Steep valleys demand a lot of the uninitiated pilgrim – new boots are being broken in, heavy packs are being adjusted and the signs of blisters make their presence felt.

As the trail quickly reaches its highest point – 1300m – the landscape changes to dense forests and sweeping plateau. It’s around these parts the so called Beast – or Bête – of Gevaudan once stalked – a huge grey wolf said to have killed hundreds of local villagers in the 18th century.

New boots are being broken in, heavy packs are being adjusted and the signs of blisters make their presence felt.

Wild Plateau, Medieval Towns

Broken rock, open grasslands and gorse signal your entry into the Aubrac – another high plateau marked by its limestone scars and herds of huge brown cattle. The heffers chew the cud, looking quizzical on as you pound down a path towards the next croissant and coffee.

Down from the heights and weeks 2-3 take you to the heart of loveliest medieval France. In a single day I remember trekking the 34-odd kilometres through three most spectacular historic towns – St Côme d’Olt, Espalion and Estaing. Each has its medieval core fully intact – all have designated UNESCO status.

The scale of things gets grander in the cities of Figeac, Cahors and Moissac. These 1000-year old places (or older) boast gothic cathedrals, medieval cloisters and winding alleyways and alcoves. A local patisserie may be crammed into a corner, or a local cafe laid out in the town square.

Cahors in particular is unforgettable – the trail brings you high over the town along a ridge, and you don’t catch sight of the city until the last minute. Suddenly, you’re over a crest and there it is – the old medieval core wound up by a meander in the river, the stunning Pont Valentré spanning the gleaming flow.

Cahors in particular is unforgettable

Cahors in particular is unforgettable

Cathedrale de Cahors, Lot, Midi-Pyrénées, France

Down towards the Basque country in weeks 3-4 things start to gradually change. Rolling fields of endless waving wheat are dotted with picturesque villages, and in the middle of nowhere you’ll find a monastery to rest at for the night. Pretty soon the houses start to change – large, squat, with huge rooves and the typical Basque colour scheme of whites, browns and reds.

The first sight of the Pyrenees brings an ecstacy of excitement – after all you’ve walked 4 weeks for this, over 600km. The entire horizon seems taken up with gigantic glistening peaks.

Your Fellow Pilgrims

Part of being a pilgrim – you quickly learn – is the role you play and companionship you provide to others on the trail. Like in Spain, walkers of all nationalities take on the trail. Some walk part of the French route, some all of it, and many plan to go all the way to Santiago.

Being a pilgrim is strange and delightful, not at all like anything I’d experienced on my travels before. A great honesty is to be found among your trail buddies. You find yourself walking beside people with great dreams, recent hurts or huge challenges ahead.

Something about the sheer beauty of the landscape encourages the most spectacular conversations with people who were complete strangers an hour ago.

Being a pilgrim is strange and delightful, not at all like anything I’d experienced on my travels before.

Trail companions are invariably very interesting, kind and patient people. A great amount of gift-giving goes on – of food, drink, medicine and other kindnesses.

The French who host you on the trail are well-versed in the idiosyncracies of the Pilgrimage and extend all courtesy to you as you arrive, weary and dust-covered from the trail.

Around the table in the evening wine, fabulous French food and laughter is shared as people tell their anecdotes and tease each other mercilessly. This experience is the most incredible slice of delicious, addictive life in raw form.

My Fellow Pilgrims

Being a pilgrim is strange and delightful, not at all like anything I’d experienced on my travels before.

Via Podiensis Practicalities

Speaking practically, the Camino in France will cost you more than its Spanish cousin, the Camino Francés – but not by much. It’s very possible to walk the Francés from the Pyrenees to Santiago for €800-1000.

A simple bunk bed in the albergues in Spain costs only €6-8. French walkers accommodation – the so-called gites – cost me around €15 per night for a bed, with food and sundries another €10-15 per day. Though it’s still possible to spend 4-5 weeks walking across wonderful rural France for under €1200.

And it’s a very French experience you receive on the Via Podiensis. The hospitality is wonderful – your hosts in private accommodation will insist on feeding you, hearing your stories and drowning you in local wine and cheese. Eating and drinking together is an accepted – an expected – part of the experience.

Memories that Last

My time on the Way in France will remain with me forever – I often think of it with a smile. I left the trail in Pamplona, three days into Spain, so at some point in my life I’d like to think I’ll finish my walk to Santiago itself.

Long-distance walking though, is a bug. Once you catch it, you may be hooked for life. Now I dream of longer, more rugged walks. Could I really take on something like America’s Pacific Crest Trail…? For now, I dream.

BACKPACKS WE RECOMMEND: CLICK FOR BAG INFO ↓

Mardingtop 55L Internal Frame Backpack

 

OutdoorMaster Hiking Backpack 50L

 

Mountaintop 65L Internal Frame Backpack

 

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Tom Caley walked the Via Podiensis from May-June 2016. He runs IndieLifestyle.net, a website which focuses on the topics of travel, fitness and personal growth.

Tom’s real drive is in helping people to expand their horizons and better their lives. His favourite pass times include push-ups, long days in the mountains and reviewing books about heroes. Catch up with him on Twitter.

Photo credits: Le Puy de Dome by Jean-Francois Phillips. Chapelle Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe by Brigitte Djajasasmita. Cahors photo by Marcel Musil.

    20 Comments

  1. What a great experience!! I would love to live it :-) Your photos are amazing as always!! And these backpacks are so useful!! Great post, thanks for sharing with us

    • Glad you enjoyed reading about Tom’s journey Hra! And happy that we could help out with some backpack recommendations too :)

  2. What a great experience – and a challenging, but rewarding hike. I like the sound of the camaraderie between fellow trekkers and your French hosts – I’d certainly appreciate the wine they offered as a reprieve/reward!

    • Camaraderie between trekkers and hosts on the Camino is something everyone says is a very special part of the experience … the sense of community along the trail is something which is a shining example for what our interactions in society could be :)

  3. Walking the Camino sounds like a huge challenge. Congratulations for making it! Love the photographs. It looks like a scenic route that is rich in history and a trip you’ll always remember.

    • Definitely a challenge, and something which needs a lot of preparation beforehand. But an absolutely amazing and rewarding journey for those who take it on … and the scenery is pretty amazing too :D!

  4. I didn’t know much about this trek until recently when a friend of mine began researching it. She was considering the Spanish route. It sounds absolutely amazing and I bet you can find epic photos along the way!

    • Let her know about the French route as well if she’s interested in a less trodden path :) Pass on our best wishes for her trek!

  5. An incredible and (possibly) a once in a lifetime experience I am quite sure. I have a friend who did this a few years back. She trained for what seemed like ages to be prepared for it. I loved reading about the engagement with fellow walkers and could only imagine the friends you would make and the stories that would be told. I’ve never really thought about doing this myself but have to say I am now intrigued.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post Kerri, and have hopefully been inspired to consider the experience yourself!

      Definitely a challenging journey, and one which requires a lot of preparation beforehand, but an absolutely amazing and rewarding experience which you’ll definitely remember for the rest of your life!

  6. Hi Meggan, thanks for putting this together. I had no idea about this route. In Spain, we don’t like to think that the Camino de Santiago belongs to France as well ;) But actually, there are many alternatives and many starting points for the Camino de Santiago. My home village is a starting point as well. It’s 1,250km from Santiago de Compostela. If you wanna Google it, it’s called Roses (Girona Province). It’s right next to the French border and it’s probably the furthest point from Santiago

    • Haha I can see how national pride kicks in in claiming something like the Camino :D

      Thanks for the tip on Roses, how amazing to have grown up at one of the starting points of the Camino! I’m going to check it out, because I would love to complete the journey myself, so need to start thinking about the route I want to do.

      Being the furthest point from Santiago, that sounds like a pretty option for a starting point to be able to say you’ve completed the whole thing :)

  7. Walking tours are our all-time favorite! We did a lot of walking during our visit to Spain. Looks like you also had your share of fun while walking the Camino. The pictures look amazing!

    • Spain has some wonderful long distance walks, obviously the Way of St James being the most famous! If you have the chance to visit France, definitely consider this Camino :)

  8. I’ve never done a pilgrimage hike before but can imagine the personal growth you must feel after such an accomplishment. Congratulations. I love meeting new people and hearing their life stories and think this type of getting to know people on their pilgrimage creates long lasting friendships!

    • So glad you enjoyed reading about Tom’s journey Jimmy & Tina! I’m right there with you in your thoughts :)

  9. What an amazing walk you have described here! The Loire valley is beautiful and the route you talk about seems utterly divine. The hilltop chateaux an chapels and that lovely bridge….I feel like going right away.

    • Definitely something which needs proper planning and preparation, but glad Tom’s journey has inspired you to consider the same!

  10. Wow what an incredible descriptive story about an amazing experience! The pictures make me want to go even more!

    • Definitely something which needs proper planning and preparation, but glad Tom’s journey has inspired you to consider the same!

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