Following my Cluny to Le Puy hike of 2019, Covid-19 barred any further chemins, until the summer of 2022. This time around, the weather is slightly cooler, but the solitude of 2019 is gone. Rather than meeting one pilgrim every 2-3 days, I’m joined by 2-3 dozen each day. Almost entirely French, bar a Belgian couple and a German duo.
Once again, I use the Fédération Francaise Randonnée guidebook. Great for topo maps and track notes, although Miam Miam Dodo has the better accommodation listings.
On my arrival from Paris, Le Puy’s huge Grand Séminaire, where I finished off in 2019, is full this time. I’m pointed to a smaller gîte that’s also up in the Haute Ville. At breakfast, we’re all enjoined to sing “Ultreia”, the Camino theme song.
The first day to Montbonnet is an easy 16km through open but drought-stricken landscapes. With August high season stretching accommodation, I’m beginning to wish I’d prebooked beds for the whole run, not just Montbonnet.
Isolated Roc des Loups, Aubrac
Fortunately, Gîte L’Escole makes me very welcome. Its ebullient host finds me a bed for the following night. This sets a pattern, of generous hosts and pilgrims lending assistance. I’ll only sleep under the stars for one night, happily at that.
Montbonnet is memorable for a long conversation, with a young Bordeaux couple, who work for Orange telco. Next day, past Saint-Privat-d’Allier, it starts to heat up. I’m exhausted by the big, long climb out of Monistrol, whose river beach looks alluring. A chap with two young sons revitalises me. Even totes my pack, on the last bit into Saugues.
My gîte is tricky to find, on the edge of town, and all I can stomach is pumpkin soup. But host Jésus is a champion. In the morning, he straightens out my pack and tells me I’ll perk up. I remember to send him felicitations, from Figeac.
The next day is nine hours, mostly in cool forest. I settle on my thirst-quencher of choice, cold Oranginas at €2. The large, isolated inn at Le Sauvage is full. Jésus has squirrelled several of us into an off-track gîte further on, at Lajo. Host Rachel collects us, at Chapelle Saint-Roch.
Her Les Bouleaux Nains is a great night. We go around the table, to background ourselves. I’m the only one, using French as a second language. Meanwhile, nurse-pilgrim Pascal, who looks rather like US actor Frances McDormand, makes an impressive running repair to a fellow-pilgrim’s huge blister.
Late-night restaurant scene, Nasbinals
Next day is long and hot, with little forest cover. Our tireless Lajo host has winkled four of us into a spiffy modern gîte, 3km off-track from Aumont-Aubrac. Surprisingly, we have the place to ourselves, sharing dinner in the front garden.
Back at Le Puy, I’d seen two chaps affecting white habits, starting off with a youthful group. Exiting Aumont-Aubrac, I chance upon the same group. Turns out, the guys are genuine Dominicans, and their flock is having daily services. After a couple of pleasantly forested hours, I enter Aubrac ‘badlands’. An unshaded stretch of stony, grazing country. The drinks stand at Rieutort d’Aubrac is a godsend and, shortly thereafter, River Bès looks inviting for a swim.
I press on regardless, to the big Gîte NADA, in pretty Nasbinals. No evening meal is offered, so in town I have the local potato-cheese dish, aligot, washed down with a pinte. The morrow is a downhill run, but temperatures hit the very high 30s, as I reach St Chély d’Aubrac mid-afternoon. The tourist centre confirms all rooms are booked. But I can bed down on grass, offered by genial host Fanny at Camping Vert. The adjacent stream finally affords that cooling swim. A kindly couple from Verdun in the north invite me to their tent for dinner, with Aubrac brews. At 5am, I finally spot one of the étoiles filantes (shooting stars) we were expecting.
The next 17km to St Côme d’Olt is pleasantly forested. Once again, it’s very high 30s, when I reach the 12thC church midtown. I’m resigned to eking out the night at the spartan pilgrim-refuge, but a chemin friend comes to the rescue, and upgrades me to her nearby gîte in a private home. I do pizza and wine, at the town square. Lovely, apart from the ubiquitous cigarette fumes of outside tables in France.
Two bridges reflecting, at Espalion
Overnight storms blow the heatwave away. Crossing the River Lot in an early morning squall, I climb rocky Puech de Vermus, with its statue of the Virgin. Descending, the ancient Église de Perse gateways the attractive town of Espalion.
Past there, the bar in Saint-Pierre-de-Bessuéjouls hamlet is our refuge, in another rainstorm. Marching on, I’m enjoying the prolific wild blackberries and plums found en route. Mid-afternoon at Verrières, another chemin friend rings ahead, to book me into her gîte in the picture-postcard town of Estaing.
She’s waiting by the old bridge into town, to ensure we both find the cryptic location. Oddly, women and men sleep at separate addresses, but come together at one table, for perhaps the tastiest dinner of all. A rich daube laced with prunes, dished up by a suave young local fellow.
Starting out of Estaing, it’s cloudy, walking along the river. As we begin the ascent to Montegut-Haut, once again I’m passed by young Marlene, as fine a person as you’d meet.
But she surges on, straight past the sharp uphill left. I holler, turn back. “I was in my mind,” she explains in English. I’ll keep on chatting with her, till the very last day into Figeac.
To reach Golinhac is an easy 14km. I lunch in town, with a couple from the Lajo night. Their hotel’s full, but Camping Bellevue has beds. And a pool! Which eschews the strict swimsuit rules of Paris pools. Their local rule? Your own footwear is forbidden, inside the pool enclosure.
Next morning, I leave, too early to have breakfast. But Espeyrac épicerie sells fruits and cheeses. Not much further on lies the equally pleasing village of Sénergues. Then it’s a rocky, forested, descent to picture-postcard Conques.
Coming into Espeyrac
Adjoining Abbaye de Sainte Foye is the Accueil Pèlerins, with nearly 100 beds. I only have a moment, to farewell a chemin friend heading straight back to Paris. Upon quizzing the abbey volunteers, I splurge 25 euros for a private room.
Time enough to have a pinte, and check out the quite-respectable bookstore before communal dinner, pre-addressed by a young friar. The meal’s fine, with red wine, but the ‘salad’ is big bowls of radishes. Who does that?
Despite a drenching electrical storm overnight, I will enjoy dry weather thereafter. Leaving in semi-darkness, the cobbled downhill left, just past the abbey, leads me onto medieval Pont des Roumieux and over the River Dourdou.
Whereupon I face a steep, forested ascent to tiny Chapelle Sainte-Foye. The top plateau is not that much further on.
Now, it’s pleasant, open country, coming into Noailhac. After lunch, I decide to push on four extra kilometres, past big Decazeville. With another Orangina break, a long, forested path takes me downhill, across the wide River Lot, and into Livinhac-le-Haut.
I’ve made the right call about Decazeville. Gîte Le Chant des Étoiles is engaging, with communal dinner in the garden. I take early breakfast, as it’s still 25km (nigh on nine hours for me) into Figeac. A fine ramble, not spectacular, just weaving back and forth through variegated hamlets and fields.
The épicerie in Montredon being closed, I figure the roadside gîte a bit further on, can whip me up an inviting French omelette. Wrong call – it’s a panful of congealed egg, no seasoning. Not to worry, the buvette behind the church of Saint Jean-Mirabel improvises an off-menu salad for me.
Conques, abbey on left
Marlene glides past, one more time. Then it’s an easy run down into Figeac. Accommodation is very heavily booked, but eventually I circle back, to find gîte Le Coquelicot. Not so far from the train station that I’ll need early in the morning.
Completing 250km in 12 days, I take in a celebratory hotel dinner of agneau de Quercy, on a terrace above the river. In four hikes since 2015, I’ve covered 900km, from Cluny north of Lyon, down to Aire sur l’Adour in the south.
What comradeship! Memorable days. But maybe this is the last rodeo, for le monsieur agé, as they dubbed me this time around. On future trips into beloved France, like that for the Paris Olympics, it might just be day walks for me.