The pilgrimage from Le Puy or Via Podensis follows the French Grande Randonnee or long distance footpath Number 65.
Compared with the Camino Frances in Spain, the comforting red and white bars marking this path are more frequent than the cockle shells and almost as ubiquitous as the yellow arrows.
David Knowler and I from Adelaide, together with Jill and Keith Frazer from Canberra, arrived in Lyon and took the train to Le Puy en Velay in early September 2011. The first recorded pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, shrine to St James, was made in 951 by that town’s Bishop Godescalc, and the current route, with variants, is walked wholly or in part by thousands of mainly French, German, French Canadian and Belgian pilgrims annually. Starting after the French schools went back after the summer break, we thought, would give us the 800km route almost to ourselves. Oh yes, and it would be much cooler for walking. Not so, on both counts!
The weather was still very warm (in the thirties, with humidity) so an early start was very desirable, but not always achieved. We had to wait until the bakery opened to buy our pains chocolat or until our hosts served breakfast, and this meant that we were not on the road until 8.30 some days. This had the effect of slowing us down because by 11am the sun was high and it became difficult to keep up a reasonable pace in the heat. The upside was that it rained very little , and you could wash and dry clothing very easily overnight. We followed largely the stages set out in the French Topoguides and the excellent maps soon set us right if we strayed off the path after missing a turn. It was necessary to book ahead because we were four pilgrims, and after initially relying on a tourist office employee to make our bookings, we found that a quick call on a mobile phone usually secured us a booking in the gites d’etape (walkers’ hostels) or B&Bs along the way. In these cases, a little French and calm in the face of a voluble French answer goes a long way. We usually asked for demi-pension (dinner, bed & breakfast) because many remote villages have no cafes or shops.
We spent about 36 days walking to Pamplona, 3 rest days in Conques, Figeac (with a side trip to medieval Rocamadour) and Moissac. My breath was constantly taken away by the beauty of the landscape and the villages and towns. We followed the old cattle trails over the treeless rolling pastures of the high Aubrac plateau, walked along shady canals and rivers, quiet country lanes and dung-strewn local roads. It was harvest time – sunflowers, maize, millet, walnuts, tobacco (already drying) and the sound of farm machinery followed us often during the day. The meals were always a delight, as we moved between regions – Le Puy lentils, confit of duck, aligot (potato, cheese and garlic, a real heart-warmer), fresh melons, local cheeses and wines.
Do this walk as soon as possible – you will love every step of the way!