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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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