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Keep on Walking – France Awaits

October 9, 2019

When I reached the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in 2017, after walking five weeks on the Camino Francais, I asked my trail friend Kay if she would ever do that again.  She didn’t hesitate.  “No.  Would you?” I said “No.” A year later we stood in the same place after walking Camino Portugues from Lisbon. This year we met there once again after Kay re-walked the Camino Francais solo and I finished a month of walking with the Camino Ingles.

GR Trail Marking

Perhaps you’ve stood in the Praza do Obradoiro in Santiago, and now you are back home, and the Camino is calling again. There are many wonderful Camino trails; each is unique, and each requires the pilgrim to adapt to a different system. The Bishop of Le Puy en Velay in France made a pilgrimage to Santiago in the year 951. Pilgrims from Germany and Switzerland often came this way, and still do. Chemin de Saint-Jacques has two popular loop options off the main trail: GR 6/GR 46 (La Voie de Rocamadour) and GR 651 (La Voie de la Vallee du Cele). My personal experience is GR 65 from Le Puy en Velay to Moissac and GR 651 Figeac to Moissac. The entire route is 740 km or 460 miles.

The section from Le Puy to Conques is most popular and goes through dairy country. I found the numbers of pilgrims dropped substantially after Conques, and it drops again after Moissac. The city of Cahors is the center of a wine producing area, but generally all of GR 65 is rural with small villages and few people. These routes are all busiest in the summer. Both of my trips were in September and October, and I found the weather perfect, generally 65 to 85 degrees, with no rain. Another advantage of this time is that many fruits and vegetables ripen in September, and the trail offers wild blackberries, figs, plums, apples, grapes.

Grapes ready for harvest

What makes this trip different from other Camino trails are the gited’etape serving pilgrims. Many are in rural areas where there are no restaurants, bars, or grocery stores, so they offer dinner and breakfast. We reserved beds the day prior, as these rural gites would fill up. Gites can be found in the Miam Dodo (eat-eat-sleep) and other guides, as well as on a list tacked to the wall in some gites. I found little other information available about the gites, most aren’t listed on any kind of Yelp or Trip Advisor type website, and each are unique experiences. They generally offer beds in a hostel-type setting with a bathroom down the hall, and seem to average about a dozen places. What makes them special is this: dinner is at seven.

Serge

Just a block across the river from the main part of the old and historical city of Cahors is Le Relais des Jacobins. If you arrive before 3:00 PM, as with most gites, the door is locked, but there is a garage with lockers to store your pack and cold water for refreshment. Leave your pack and explore the city. When you check in with Serge after 3:00 he will assign a bed and give you instructions – pointing out the toilet and shower and dining room. The gite is in an unimpressive old house, and much of the décor is hand-written notes with instructions or information thumb-tacked to the wall. Pilgrims follow the traditional routine – take a shower, wash clothes, and hang them on the clothesline, then rest, visit with pilgrims in the garden, drink a beer from the fridge (1 Euro), update your blog, and so on. Promptly at 7:00 PM pilgrims gather around the dining room table.  Serge, a tall, intense Frenchman, begins by pouring an aperitif in glasses around the table. Not all of the dozen pilgrims take a pour from the clear, unlabeled bottle (this seems to be often plum liquor made by a friend). Then glasses are raised for a toast, and all take their seats. Serge begins by asking each pilgrim to introduce himself/herself and say something about their pilgrim journey. When it comes to me I stumble through my introduction in rudimentary French, then Serge briefly introduces himself. He seems to have walked every major pilgrimage route in the west!

Dinner at Relais de Jacobins

He has made our dinner, baked pork chops with a sauce of onions and garlic cooked in white wine. There is also bread, a salad, and later, a cheese plate and dessert. The wine is Vin du Cahors and the conversation is all in French, except that occasionally Serge breaks into English for me. I asked Serge more questions about himself, and learn that he has owned this gite for 9 years, and that each October 15th he locks the door and walks to Santiago. The food isn’t extraordinary here, but the conviviality is.

IMG_3658

After dinner Serge passes around very small cups of another aperitif and closes the dinner, after which he collects the tarif (about 35 Euro) and put his stamp in each credencial, along with his signature. Then we head for our beds, warmed with food, entertained by stories, happy with new friendships, and ready for sleep. Breakfast is self-serve, and I am the first up and start the coffee. Serge comes to the dining room to give us each a goodbye hug, and soon we are out the door in our walking shoes, packs on our backs.

We head for old downtown Cahors and then a sharp left turn to cross the famous 14th Century Pont Valentre bridge. The bridge has six spans and three tall towers, and our photos on it are just before sunrise. Minutes later we are climbing the steep limestone cliff across the river. There are other pilgrims on the trail with us, and the trail takes us about 100 meters almost straight up. But we have been on the trail for a while, and we are breathing hard, but undaunted.

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie

The GR 651 variant in the Cele Valley is 10 days of extraordinary beauty; picturesque stone villages, mile after mile of oak and cedar and stone walls and dramatic views of the river below. Several of the villages are among the plus beaux villages de France. This title is well-deserved, and they are very busy on weekends. Gites d’etapes aren’t just for walkers, so when you are going to arrive in these villages on a weekend it is best to reserve a bed several days in advance.

Out in the country a few days later we come to Gite Ferme Trigodena. We arrive with several others at 2:00, before official opening at 3:00, and catch Remy napping. We visit at the doorway, as Remy wipes the sleep from his eyes, then soon are headed for the showers upstairs. Remy lives in the house across the driveway, and he converted the old stone sheep barn into a gite. He is a farrier, and looks quite muscular, and a bit rough, with a full beard and piercing eyes. I can see from a photo book in the common area that the construction was by Remy’s large, rough hands. Soon the gite is complete with a dozen pilgrims. After showering and washing clothes pilgrims gather at a table under a large oak tree. We soon deplete Remy’s supply of beer from the ice-box as lots of stories are told.

Remy

Once again, dinner is at 7:00 and replete with stories and laughter and good food.  We have served ourselves the dinner from the gite’s kitchen, and when we are through Remy joins us from his house across the yard. After a few minutes of conversation, Remy takes a seat at an old upright piano and begins to play. Those big, rough hands make music that brings tears to my eyes even now, when I see the stamp in my credential, and remember that evening.

Pasquale

At Ferme Equestre du Pech-Merle we had a wonderful long dinner with owner Pasquale, and the following day took a tour of the 29,000 year old Peche Merle cave drawings (reserve in advance, tours sell out). The beautiful village of Espagnac-Sainte-Eulalie has a famous Gite Communal but it was closed to pilgrims, as the entire village was taken over by a wedding party, so we stayed a short distance out of town in Gite Celezen. We were waiting outdoors in chairs when the owners arrived at 4:00, and for five minutes listened to instructions and rules. I couldn’t understand all that was said, and it was a little off-putting, but over a truly gourmet dinner (almost entirely from their garden!) with just the three of us and the owners in their kitchen, we once again closed the gap and parted warm friends after another marvelous experience. We came back to reality right after breakfast with a long, steep up another limestone hill. I have an empty spot in my credencial for the stamp we didn’t get, which we later called “the gite not to be remembered”, which was the only less than wonderful experience (Deux Vallees I think, in an abandoned train station). Not all gites are small, the memorable Abbaye in Conques has 90 beds and a big communal meal followed by an organ concert in the abbey.

Fresh from the garden!

I have only met a few Americans in my five weeks on GR 65 and GR 651, and most of the pilgrims seem to be French or German. Don’t let the lack of ability to speak the French language deter you, Google Translate and a smile will get you everything you need. Costs are somewhat higher than in Spain; I spent $50 per day average. There are few places on the trail to buy food, pick up something for lunch at your gite or at the bakery before you leave the village. Somehow on my first trip on GR 65 I met people I have now walked with again; Michelle (Canadian) and Tyler (American) and I walked the chaotic European Peace Walk and Via Postumia in Italy in May/June, and then I walked two weeks on Via Podensia in September with Josette (Belgium) and Ann-Marie (Swiss).  I will certainly complete the GR-65 from Moissac to Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port next fall with my friends, all of whom were a delight to be with. You can get to Le Puy by train from Paris (there is a station in the CDG Airport) or by train from Toulouse.

Parting at the train station. Au revoir!

Every day on the trail holds new surprises. I don’t know how I got so lucky.

From → Blog Posts

6 Comments
  1. Leslie Starr Hart permalink

    Thanks for sharing your gifts of writing and photography…I enjoy traveling with you and your fellow pilgrims in heart and spirit. Bon Chemin

  2. Always nice to read pilgrim’s story. As I was also on the GR65 and GR651 this spring ( May/June) I know it is a special time and i understand we want to go back and be pilgrim again. When you’ll walk after Moissac you’ll find it much easier ( not many hill). I enjoyed it and the Basque Country was wonderful to walk even when there was a bit of mist. Don’t stop in SJPdP…keep going and walk the Pyrenees, it was a magical day for us . Then, you can take the bus to come back to STJPdP . We sleep in Roncevaux and then took the 11 AM bus. 5 euros. Anyway, I will tell all my story on my blog..a new post every Tuesday – (I think you follow me now) and if you read you’ll know what I like and did not. When you read my blog, leave me a short comment if you have time. Thanks

  3. I enjoyed the summary of your experience walking the Camino. We will be walking our first next year and I’m looking forward to it!

  4. Simply beautiful, Robert – didn’t know this was in my inbox till just now-

    Does bring tears to the eyes and the heart beat stronger, doesn’t it all?

    Thank you for a great piece of writing of which now i can relate to a bit better

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