Pilgrimage through France’s Prettiest Villages
Walking The Chemin St Jacques
Climbing Out of St Jean by Karen Campbell
Whether you are in for the long haul or a short crawl, France’s GR65 is a treasure chest of the prettiest towns in France. Stretching almost 800 km from Le Puy en Velay to the Pyrenees, this Grande Randonnee is just one filament in a network of walking trails that crisscross the country. The GR65 follows the traditional “Chemin St Jacques” – or the Way of St James. It connects up to the better known Camino de Santiago at the tiny border town of Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. And like the Camino in Spain, the GR65 boasts excellent way-marking and a well-established infrastructure to host walkers. In fact, most of the Gites d’Etape (shelters for the stop) are downright luxurious compared to the pilgrim refugios of Spain, and only slightly more expensive. Of course, if budget is no object, elegant country inns abound to cater to your tired feet and hearty appetite.
To walk the entire GR65 requires over a month for the average, fit walker. My friend and I completed the 800 km GR65 in 36 days, including 4 days off for sightseeing and foot maintenance and two days of cheating by taking public transport.
Le Puy en Velay, the launching point for our expedition and a traditional gathering point for pilgrims, is famous for its elaborate lace, green lentils, and Black Madonna. What impressed me most about Le Puy, however, were the dramatic land formations. The region is rich in ancient volcanoes, now eroded to towers of concentrated steepness. Two such towers are right in the heart of Le Puy. The 500 ft (152 m) Mt Corneille is topped by a giant statue of the Virgin Mary; the 10th century Chapel of Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe crowns the second spike of land. A visit to this grotto-like chapel is worthwhile for the panoramic views and the 271-step climb provides good training for the rolling mountains of the GR65. Another not-to-be-missed site, the 11th century Notre Dame Cathedral, holds a special pilgrim mass each morning. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of many important monuments along the “Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France.” Le Puy’s Amis du Puy host regular welcome events for walkers where you can share a glass of wine, meet fellow ramblers and glean helpful, practical information about the route. We spent two days in Le Puy to see the sites and beat our jet lag before stepping onto the GR65.
From Le Puy the trail soars up and lurches down repetitively through several days of mountainous terrain before gaining the Aubrac plateau. This high, bitterly cold and blustery region impresses with its desolation. Thick clumps of wind-whacked daffodils blanketed the region when we passed through in early May. An arduous descent out of the Nordic ski hamlet of Aubrac had me concerned for my creaky knees but the weather was glorious and the distance to the medieval town of St Côme d’Olt turned out to be shorter than our untrustworthy guidebook indicated.
St Côme delights with its well-preserved manor houses, quaint shops and labyrinthine alleys. It is the first of six “prettiest villages” in France on the GR65 route. The Association of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” has been maintaining an official list of prettiest villages since 1982 and requirements to join are stiff. An appropriate tag line, each “prettiest village” beckoned us to linger and soak up its unique charm and ambiance.
My favorite “prettiest village,” Estaing (population 610) - hands down the best castle town on the GR65 - was a wonderful surprise for us. Approaching Estaing, we scrambled over a relentless series of dark forested hills interspersed with boring sections of highway. Rounding a final switchback on the highway we were suddenly presented with a towering fairytale castle just across the river Lot. Postcard perfect. Locals in one of the several bars in town were quick to point out to us that President Giscard d’Estaing was not related to the original Counts of Estaing who built the castle back in the 15th century. The locals claimed Giscard’s father bought the title after the war but I read other accounts that said the Giscards claimed the title in 1922 on the “pretext” of a remote connection in the female line of the family. The real counts, unfortunately, had died out. Naval admiral Charles Henri Hector d’Estaing, the last in the old Estaing family, was found guilty of a friendship with Marie Antoinette and lost his head in 1794. Although the castle is only open occasionally to the public, the cozy village, nestled in the forest and embraced by the Lot River, welcomes visitors all year long. It was a tough town to leave.
Next in the series of prettiest towns is Conques – about 14 day’s walk from Le Puy. Conques was one of the few places along the route where we encountered tour groups. No surprise given its mountain setting, winding cobblestone streets, ancient houses trimmed with cascading wisteria, and the magnificent St Foy Abbey (where walkers can stay). Conques protects its historic atmosphere; there are no modern buildings or signs here, but there are several excellent restaurants, cafes and inns.
After Conques, we slogged through a couple of rainy, muddy days and I sprouted a beastly bouquet of blisters. Toes and heels on both feet were afflicted so there was no moment in my step that wasn’t excruciatingly painful. Slowing our pace from 30 km per day to just over 20 helped but we also indulged in rest days in Figeac and Cahors, both well-preserved, historic cities with all amenities. Cahors’ striking 14th century Valentré bridge is the oldest fortified bridge in Europe.
Because we couldn’t get reservations in any town on the route within walking distance of Cahors, we took the train 70 km to Moissac, where a charming former convent now makes walkers welcome for the night (they even have free washing machines!). Moissac’s Abbey Church of Saint Pierre, formerly a Benedictine abbey founded in the 7th century, is famous for its 12th century cloisters. But I remember Moissac for the game of boules we watched with some local men and the fellow we met who was walking the GR65 with a donkey named Lupin.
Leaving Moissac the GR65 levels off and meanders along canals hosting a variety of barge traffic before it abruptly scales a rocky hill into the “prettiest village” of Auvillar. The predominantly red brick architecture here dates from the 17th and 18th centuries – including the buildings in the main square, which is really a triangle that encloses a distinctive circular covered corn market. A nearby park offers sweeping views over the Garonne river valley. Auvillar also boasts the most luxurious municipal gite on the GR65 (and still only 10 euros per person).
The final “prettiest village” along the GR65 is Montreal de Gers, three or four days walk from Auvillar. The trail to Montreal de Gers runs through Condom and Armagnac country. Some of the Armagnac producers advertise free samples. I found Armagnac a bit strong for my taste but the wines of the GR65 region I can recommend wholeheartedly. Montreal de Gers dates from the 13th century and is a fortified town or bastide. Arcaded shops, cafes and restaurants rim the central square. A fountain and buckets of red geraniums put the finishing touches on its appeal.
Although the official list of prettiest villages ends at Montreal de Gers, we found the remaining towns along the route had much to offer. We had looked forward to the few days of level trail on the GR65, but after endless flat fields of grain, we celebrated our arrival on the undulating patchwork quilts of Basque country. The local Basques are fiercely proud of their culture but separatist graffiti was rare here compared to the Basque region of Spain. Our gregarious host in Ostabat entertained us with songs in Basque and French. After generous pourings of the local Muscatel it didn’t take much to encourage his guests to sing along, resulting in one of our most memorable evenings.
I was thrilled to finally arrive in the historic town of St Jean Pied de Port, a traditional gathering place for pilgrims crossing the Pyrenees and a UNESCO World Heritage site. As it is the last town on the GR65, we rewarded ourselves with a comfortable room with private bath – and tub – at a venerable inn on the Rue de la Citadelle. Accommodations dating back centuries line this street – our hotel dated from 1602.
The final 24 km stretch of the GR65 leaves the comforts of St Jean behind and launches steeply up over the barren, isolated Pyrenees and sharply down into tiny Roncesvalles, Spain. Our topographical map made the trip look daunting so we were surprised at how quickly we had Spain in our sights. Having 700 km already under our belts undoubtedly helped us tackle this last leg of the GR65 with ease. Our crowning celebration included a couple of rounds of Pacharon, a Basque liqueur I highly recommend. Be sure to sample some if you venture to the end of the GR65. Bonne route!
If you go
Le Puy en Velay is served by frequent trains from Paris and Lyon. From Roncesvalles, you can easily walk to Pamplona in a day, or take a bus (only 1 per day).
When to go:
May to September. May is the busiest month on the route but is great for wild flowers and is generally a good walking temperature. Summer can be very hot. The route passes through acres of sunflowers and vineyards so both summer and early fall do have their advantages.
Gite accommodation ranges from basic dormitories of up to 8 beds per room to private rooms for two. Bathrooms are almost always shared. Prices range from 9 to 14 euros per person per night. Rural inns are also an option. We paid from 45 – 80 euros for two with breakfast. Lists of gites are available from regional tourist offices, but most guidebooks provide the information. In France, reservations are strongly recommended. You can walk at a relaxed pace assured you have a bed for the night – but you need to have an itinerary and stick to it. In Spain, the pilgrim refugios do not take reservations so you just have to trust chance – and get an ultra early start to the day.
Restaurant meals in the small towns are often set meals and can be a bit pricey for the budget traveler, but the wine and beer are cheap and it is easy to buy ingredients for picnic lunches. The majority of the municipal gites have kitchens for “self-catering.” Gites in more remote places usually offer hearty dinners that are great value. The dinners are served family style and are a perfect way to get to know the other walkers and practice your French. We found our fellow walkers incredibly tolerant of our mangled French phrases.
If walking with a pack is not your style, there are baggage transport services that will pick up from one gite or inn and drop off at your next destination. They’ll take passengers, too.
Miam Miam Dodo, by Lauriane and Jacques Clouteau - French only but recommended for English speakers, too;
Sentier de St-Jacques-de-Compostelle GR 65 : Le Chemin du Puy - Moissac - Roncevaux (Broché) de Guide FFRP - French only but good maps;
The Way of St James by Alison Raju – English directions but no accommodation details;
Cofraternity of Saint James booklet #3. Le Puy to the Pyrenees by Alison Raju –English accommodation information but no maps or route directions. Note: this booklet is not as useful as the booklet the Cofraternity publishes for the Camino de Santiago in Spain – which is all you really need for the walk in Spain.
St Jean Pied de Port
Valentre Bridge, Cahors
Le Puy en Velay
Montreal de Gers
on 12 April 2007.
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