So this is an article that I’d proposed to a couple of publications about the Camino in France, to no avail! (I’ve been writing for a while now, I am used to the ‘no’s) Not wanting to waste it, I thought I’d post it here…
In 2014, the Camino de Santiago saw a whopping 238,000 pilgrims walk along one of its many paths to Santiago to receive a Compostela, the certificate awarded at the end. The surge in popularity has been fast and furious: step back into the late 1980’s, and the annual number of pilgrims was less than one thousand.
Thanks in part to films such as The Way, as well as popular books and guides, around 70% of pilgrims opt to start the walk somewhere along the Camino Frances, dubbed the ‘original’ pilgrimage route to Santiago, which begins at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and takes in Spanish cities such as Burgos, Logroño and Leon.
In the spring this year, I walked the Camino de Santiago from Le Puy-en-Velay near Lyon, France before joining the Camino Frances, the Camino de San Salvador and later the Camino Primitivo. Two and a half months, four different Camino paths, over 1,600km walked and a bout of tendonitis later, I am now back in the UK readjusting to post-Camino life. A question I am often asked is: “what was your favourite part of the Camino?” Normally this would be a difficult question to answer: each section of the Camino, whether in France or in Spain, has its own unique identity, which is inevitably coloured by the individual experiences had there, and the people encountered. So how do I answer this question? I don’t, I rephrase it:
“If I had just a couple weeks to spare, which part of the Camino would I happily retrace?”
This makes everything much easier, and the answer, for me at least, is surprisingly simple: I would begin again in France, at Le Puy-en-Velay. A route known as the Via Podiensis (and also the GR65), the Camino from Le Puy-en-Velay has been walked by pilgrims for over one thousand years, most notably by Godescalc, the Bishop of Le Puy, back in the winter of 951 AD. It takes in 730km of French countryside before joining up with the beginning of the Camino Frances in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Whilst a well-known getaway for French nationals, with handfuls of Parisians walking sections during their holiday periods, the Via Podiensis is less frequented by British and Irish pilgrims.
If you are looking for a pilgrimage route, or simply some memorable country walking here are five reasons why it is worth considering a couple of weeks on the Via Podiensis, even if time constraints mean that you might not make it to Santiago. After all, if there’s one thing I learnt whilst on the Camino, it’s the following: it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.
1. The Via Podiensis is the ideal pilgrimage route for those who wish to escape the beaten track
Less than 2% of Santiago-bound pilgrims begin the camino in Le Puy-en-Velay, which means if souvenir shops, queues, and 300-bed hostels of the Camino Frances aren’t your thing, you’ll appreciate the tranquility of this route through French countryside. Solitude and peace are easily sought amongst the vineyards and luscious forests that you’ll travel through, and pilgrims are rewarded with frequent Haltes des Pèlerins: tables, chairs, coffee and cakes set up at the side of the way by generous locals, who often accept a simple donation in return for their kindness.
2. The scenery is both stunning and varied along the entire route
Whether it be the dramatic, austere landscape of Aubrac – somewhat reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales, with its moss-covered drystone walls- the quaint villages ensconced in the Valley of the Lot, or the view of the cloud-like Pyrenees from one of the many vineyards in Armagnac, the scenery along the Via Podiensis is some of the most breath-taking along the entire Camino de Santiago. This makes for varied and interesting walking: along clifftops, through shaded country lanes or alongside stretches of canal, with no two days resembling each other. A real feast for the eyes.
3. Fewer pilgrims make for more personalised accommodation
Whilst generally a little more expensive than in Spain (10-20 euros, as opposed to 5–10 euros per night) the range of accommodation options along the Via Podiensis is rich and plentiful, with a number of little gems amongst the gîtes d’étape, chambres d’hôte and Acceuils Chrétiens where the welcome is warm, and the experience, personal. Highlights include La Chapelle des Ursulines in Aire-sur-l’Adour: a converted church, with dinner served in the Nave to the sound of rousing classical music, and beds in the side chapel; La Maison Philosophale de Navarrenx in Naverrenx: home of the ‘Alchemist’ of the camino, where the evening can be spent relaxing in the garden hammock before enjoying a vegetarian supper by the fireplace; finally, the Gîte de la Boulangerie Broussé, Arthez-de-Béarn: where breakfast is served by the local boulanger in the kitchen of the boulangerie itself – expect hot coffee, and a veritable feast made up of freshly baked croissants, cakes, buns and breads.
4. Each department along the way has a rich gastronomical tradition: in other words, thefood is delicious
Nothing is more important to the seasoned pilgrim than sustenance, notably of the edible variety. With regional specialities such as the famous ‘L’Aligot’ of Aubrac (a rich mixture of mashed potatoes and melted cheese, mixed until it becomes stringy), the foie gras and confit de canard of the Valley of the Lot, not to mention a whole host of regional cheeses, wines and brandies, the pilgrim on the Via Podiensis never goes hungry. What’s more, many hosts invite their pilgrim guests to partake in breakfast before setting off for the day, and it’s not unusual to be offered a selection of fresh, homemade bread and jams. At La Halte de Larressingle, near Condom, pilgrims are even offered the option of Yorkshire Tea by its Anglophile hostess.
5. Le Puy-en-Velay, the starting point of the Via Podiensis, is easily accessible, as are many of the prominent towns and cities thereafter
From the Gare de Lyon in Paris, there are regular TGV trains which take you to Saint-Etienne, where there is a local train connection to Le Puy-en-Velay. Trains also run from Paris to Figeac, Cahors, Moissac, Decazeville and Aire-sur-l’Adour allowing pilgrims to begin, or continue, their walk further along the Via Podiensis. Plane connections are also available to Lyon for those who are time-pressed. This makes the Via Podiensis an ideal route for those who are limited to shorter holiday periods, as the walk can be split into accessible sections and continued over a number of months or years – as many pilgrims do.
And that is why my fondest memories of the Camino lie not in Santiago, or in the days leading up until my arrival, but rather at the very beginning of the journey, in France. I’d heartily recommend this section to walkers and pilgrims with a couple of weeks to spare, and a yearning for a rich new experience. If you are interested in finding out more, a number of guides are available, with two of my favourites as follows:
The Way of St James: France (Le Puy to the Pyrenees) – A Cicerone Guide by Alison Raju
Miam Miam Dodo: Saint Jacques de Compostelle (GR65) – Les Editions du Vieux Crayon by Lauriane Clouteau and Jacques Clouteau (in French, containing exhaustive list of all accommodation, and facilities along the way, updated each year).
What was your favourite section of the Camino? Let me know in the comments below 🙂