In June 2010 I decided to walk from Montgenèvre, on the French/Italian border in the Alps, to Pamplona.
Leaving Australia in early June I landed in Paris and took the lift down to the TGV station which took me to Valence, from which I took a local train to Briancon. Heading further east I noticed, with some trepidation, the hills and distant still snow-covered mountains. I arrived at Briançon late afternoon and asked directions to Le Fontenil, my gite for the next 2 nights, and was told it was a steep 5km climb to the old city, then a descent to the small village. I was made most welcome by Walter, the owner, who told me that only three weeks earlier the whole area was under snow, so I had timed my visit well. My plan was to walk back up to Briançon then catch the navette (shuttle bus) to Clavière, about 10kms away and then walk back to Briançon via Montgenèvre.
Clavière and Montgenèvre are very large and popular ski resorts but in June were deserted except for the continued new construction and the small tourist office from which I obtained my first stamp. As I started walking I noticed a plaque commemorating the Via Domitia/GR 653D which had directions to Santiago, 2010kms and Rome, 914kms—the Via Francigena. The scenery was alpine with pine-covered mountains, snowcapped peaks and the origin of the River Durance, which I was able to step over, which quickly became a raging torrent.
One thing I quickly realised about this route was its ‘scenic’ aspect. It seemed that the GR went out of its way to avoid any easy sections. Often I would be led up the mountain only to go back down to the valley and climb up the other side. I did look enviously at times at the flat road along the valley floor. At this stage I was staying in chambres d’hotes and gites which often gave me a discount. An early highlight was the 12th century Abbaye de Boscodon where I stayed, on my own, in the dormitory.
The following day was wet and miserable, a pity as I was crossing the picturesque Lake Serre-Poncon. I had intended to stay in the camping site at Chorges but was unable to find it and so headed for the only hotel only to be told it was closed but that there was another nearby. They offered to phone for me, and the hotel came and picked me up. The hotel ended up being a welcome stay as I was soaked through and needed a rest but got a shock when found out it was 80 euro a night! In for a penny in for a pound I opted for the half pension at 100 euros which turned out to be a very good dinner.
The next day was overcast but cleared by 9.30am so I headed off to Gap for the night then on to Venterol passing by the hilltop castle of Tallard and some very hard climbs. The Gite L’Asphodele at Venterol was a beautiful stone house perched overlooking the valley I had just walked up. As usual I was the only person there but the owner, who had taught French in Scotland, said that he had regular diners from Gap come to his restaurant which served organic food. It is worth mentioning that the marking is generally quite good, but on the day I left here a vital marker was missing and I took the wrong turn and ended up back at the gite!
Some days later my, by now, varying accommodation was a very small timber chalet set amongst a horse riding school. Here I shared with a German pilot who was so interesting that we ended talking at breakfast until I thought I should be on my way as it was 10.30am. Later on I stopped at Sisteron which is dominated by the impressive citadel and was sacked by the Ostrogoths. Also worthy of mention are the city walls, cathedral and bridge spanning the Durance.
One of the unexpected highlights was the profusion and variety of cherries found along the way and littering the ground. I even had a car throw out a small branch of cherries to/at me, a most welcome snack. Terrain was flattening out somewhat and places such as Saignon and Celeste were picture-perfect French villages with small fountains, ateliers, restaurants and quaint small stone houses. Something else I chose to notice which would have been missed in a car were the number of roadside shrines and memorials dedicated to those executed during WW2.
Clearing yet another mountain crest I saw, in the distance, Les Baux De Provence which the sign post said was one of the “plus belles villages de France”. All around the base were numerous cars and coaches attesting to its popularity. Arles was one of the highlights with its impressive amphitheatre, baths and church of St Trophme all located on the banks of the Rhone. Walking from here on included walking through the Camargue which was flat, hot, and even included rice fields, all quite a contrast from the scenery in the Alps.
Montpelier proved to be another large city, a bit of a shock after the small villages, but full of impressive sights. Probably one of the most memorable was Saint Guilhem Le Desert, a medieval village located up a deep gorge.
The Abbey of Gellone, along with the nearby Pont du Diable, were designated UNESCO World Heritages sites in 1999 and a part of the cloister of the monastery was moved to The Cloisters Museum in Manhattan. The small square is surrounded by several souvenir shops and cafes but the main feature is the centuries-old tree located in the centre.
At this stage I met up with Andre who was walking in memory of his girlfriend who had committed suicide some months earlier. By way of commemoration he was leaving a postcard he had of himself and his girlfriend at every gite and church along the way. One day we came across a large abbey located in the middle of nowhere and decided to take a guided tour which was just about to begin and proved to be a worthy diversion. The abbey dates back to the 12th century and has a unique cloister as well as an impressive prehistoric dolmen in the grounds. Another contrast to the accommodation so far was the Gite at Joncels which included a pool. My self contained flat included 3 single beds, bathroom, and a sitting room with TV and a kitchen.
Scenery now varied between walking alongside a lake, through forests and some steep sections. By now I had also met a young French couple so we were usually 4 at the end of the day, but problems soon arose with the woman who insisted on a half-hour shower in the morning and evening so I quickly made sure I was first for my 3-minute shower, as did the other two men! Castres is a picturesque town with colourful houses flanking the river and is home to the Goya Museum of Spanish painting.
I was walking on my own by now as the couple decided to return home and Andre was walking much slower. This stage was along the Canal du Midi, a very pleasant, shaded path with the occasional barge chugging along. Toulouse was a 2-day stay due to the many sights to be seen such as St Serrin, Jacobin Convent, Museum of St Raymond and the Cathedral of St Etienne with a chapel of St Jacques. Leaving Toulouse I met up with a German, Alex, and Marcel, a Puerto Rican/Spanish man, and walked with them on and off for a week or so. We seemed to have the same relaxed attitude to leaving in the mornings-one day not leaving until 12.30!
The next major town was Auch which is impressively located on a hill with the imposing Cathedral dominating. Here I stayed at the presbytere, a huge building with several large rooms with single beds and met Walter, a German, and with the other 2 catching up there were now 4 of us.
Accommodation for the next day was a problem as there seemed to be nothing within a reasonable distance of Auch. The two ladies at the presbytere rang around and found that Alex, Marcel and I could stay with a farmer in Montesquiou who would also pick us up. This stay was memorable as we all had separate rooms in the farmer’s house, ate in the kitchen and drank the homemade wine. He was also very proud of his pigeon coop which provided him with both food and fertilizer.
From Lescar onwards the Pyrenees were within sight and staying in the wellequipped gite in Oloron Sainte Marie was a welcome rest before tackling the route over. This area was similar to the start in Montgenvre in that it had an alpine look and was very green with prolific farms and fields. The route over the Pyrenees, via the Col du Somport, was approached with some trepidation as I had read that it was quite dangerous with lots of road walking but this proved to be only partly true. The route varies between going on a very narrow, slippery track above the river to walking on the road which, except for one or two short stretches, was not as bad as I expected. It probably also helped that I was walking on a Sunday morning so traffic, especially the dreaded trucks, was minimal.
Near the top the mist-shrouded route went through forests to come out at the border between France and Spain where a most welcome Coke was had in the cafe. From there it was downhill to the amazing Canfranc Station built in the 1920s and comprising over 75 entrances, more windows than days in the year and a very impressive 241 metres long. In 1928 it was the largest train station in Europe but is now closed off and, up until 2006, open to vandals. Surprisingly, the gite was full, as were all the hotels and it is then that I realised that from here on I would encounter more pilgrims. The next town, Canfranc, had a gite which was empty when I arrived but later on Walter arrived, as did several others, but the gite was by no means full.
The next day was an easy walk to Jaca, another large town with imposing city walls, cathedral and the Church of Santiago. The gite, at 1pm, had a whole line of backpacks lined up outside and was not due to open until 4pm so Walter went to a nearby hotel and each had a separate room for 34€. Some days later I passed through Artieda, a hilltop town, and Ruesta a deserted town with lookout towers and a semi ruined castle. Finally, on 8th August I arrived in Pamplona.
In summary I would recommend this route: it has, to me, the blessing of being devoid of the madness encountered on the Camino Francés, has a great variety of scenery and will reward with a real sense of achievement.