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Wandering Loose in France: the Chemin de Saint Jacques

December 26, 2021

I usually write blog posts from the trail, but on this last trip, I couldn’t come up with anything to say. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it all: the beauty of the landscape, the beauty of my fellow pilgrims, the beauty of the hospitality. Better late than never?

Retrospective walking time

In the last 5 years I’ve had 7 adventures I call once in a lifetime trips. I have the time, the health, and the money (albeit, not that much money is required), so I go. My prior adventures were usually backpacking in the mountains of the American west. This last August 15 through September (2021) I spent 6 weeks on the trail in France, out the door every morning and into a different door in the afternoon. For the first few weeks I walked with Kenton and David, friends from prior trails. They felt they needed a guide for a walk in France and mistakenly believe I speak better French than I do. We went in the usual fashion, no reservations for anything after we got off the train in Le Puy en Velay in far eastern France. There was a lot of ‘pent up demand’ and the trails were busy, and finding a bed for the night was a challenge. However, we always found a place to stay, most of which were typical of the French system of Gites d’Etape: amazing. Kenton left us after two weeks for pressing business at home, but David continued until his full month was up, leaving us to party with the Three Musketeers in Condom. In Moissac we were joined by friends from prior trails, Josette and Anne Marie, who had organized the last 3 weeks by reserving a bed for us each night months earlier.

Robert, David, and Kenton at the Eiffel Bridge in Monistrol D’Allier

The first section of this trail is hard, with steep ups and downs every day; several days we gained 2,500 feet in the first couple of hours. Some days we walked a mere 10 or 12 miles, some days 20. The weather was perfect for walking, and we only needed our rain gear on one day late in the trip. The condition of the trail in France is generally very good, and when we walked on paved roads, there was little or no vehicular traffic. Most often the vehicles were slow-moving tractors with courteous drivers. The first part is called the Aubrac, and the scenery includes high, windswept plateaus, where the trail goes between low rock walls and wildflowers. As with all of this trail, there were always far more cows than people.

Aubrac

This is the most popular section of the trail, with amazing scenery and fabulous villages.

Église Saint-Médard de Saugues

I stop in every church along the way, appreciate their artwork and the role it has played in the lives of so many people, and usually light a candle for someone. If Anne Marie is there, she will sing.

At L’Alchimist Gite with Anne Marie and Josette

The rest of the trail, which ends in Saint Jean Pied-de-Port close to the Spanish border, was seldom flat, almost always undulating hills of corn or sunflowers, interspersed with limestone hills covered with pastures and oak forests. For me the great joy of this trail is being immersed in rural French culture, and we had plenty of opportunity to experience it. I found the people who support pilgrims on the Chemin, just like the pilgrims themselves, to be up, happy, positive people.

Host Laurence at La P’Tite Grain, Auvillar

Lodging on the trail includes hotels and chambres d’hotes and bed and breakfasts, but most nights I’ve been able to stay in hostels called gites d’etape. Guests are primarily walkers, and typically they have beds for 10-15 people. Sometimes all the beds are in one room, sometimes only two or three beds, and sometimes you can have a private room. There is often only one bathroom for all the guests. I always arrange for a bed the day before, three or four days before if it will be a weekend in a popular tourist town, by calling the host on the phone. You don’t give a credit card number; I just tell them I’m Robert from Texas. We usually arrive at 3, and the host has you sit down at a table outside and brings you water with flavorings (that is a European thing, I’ve never seen it elsewhere). I think they are getting you to chill out and cool down. I take off my boots as they are not allowed inside and put on my after trail sandals. Then the host, who is often making preparations for dinner, comes and sits down at the table with you.

We spend a lot of time in the afternoons this way.

The gite hosts are tres sympathique and often ask you about your day, then they explain their system. Boots here, packs here, put the things you need in this tub to take to your bed, the shower is here, the commode here, the clothes washing sink and clothesline are here (lately they have washing machines and sometimes dryers!), and here is your sleeping room. Dinner is at 7:00, there is beer and wine and soda in this fridge (there is a price list too, and a small tin for your coins). Seldom is payment made at this time; traditionally the guests line up at the end of the dinner to pay the tarif and get a stamp in their credentiale. The host will not likely be at breakfast and they will point out where to find the breakfast items. Often the first pilgrim to breakfast turns on the coffee pot. The tarif is usually around 40 Euro, about $50. If you are in a village, pilgrims seek out the local bar, and you will make lots of new friends and catch up with old ones (old friends on camino are people you met at least the day before!). These beers are only about $3 each.

The cheese plate!

Dinners often start with an apertif of cognac or homemade brandy, followed by an appetizer, main course, cheese plate, dessert, and then another shot of brandy. There is wine and food on the table. Sometimes the first bottle of wine is a local delight, but after that it is box wine. However, its France, so the box wine is good. Dinner takes 2 to 3 hours and often the host eats with the pellerin (pilgrims). The conversation is all in French, so if you don’t speak it, try to sit next to someone who speaks both French and English. French Canadians are the best for this! Often the talk is about the trail; what was today like, what to expect tomorrow, what is the weather forecast. Sometimes it is local history, and sometimes you can find out some things about the host. You will get to know most or all of the pilgrims each day. Gites are typically open May through October, 7 nights a week, with a new group of pilgrims every day. Sometimes they have housekeeping and cooking help, but often it is a one person show. Hosts tend to know the other hosts in the area and can recommend the best ones if you ask. The food is usually extraordinary. The beds usually have a bottom sheet and a blanket only, towels are not provided. There are not as many bunkbeds in France as in Spain and Portugal.

This is Gite Ferme de Trigodena in the country a day’s walk past Cahors. The host, Remy, standing in the background wearing a blue t-shirt, is a carpenter and horseshoer who has a truffle farm for the off season. After dinner he often plays the piano for guests. The music may bring tears to your eyes and is purely magical. He wrote a song about the Chemin which is quite fun, as you know the places and some of the people in the song.

At the end of the trail with Josette

This Chemin began in Le Puy en Velay six weeks earlier, and here is the finish, 450 miles later, at the Port de Saint Jacques in the French town of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port. This is the starting point for the most popular section of the pilgrimage, the Camino Frances. This trail begins in France, hence the name, but by noon you are in Spain. All the Camino trails end up in Santiago de Compostela (Saint James of the Field of Stars) in northwest Spain. There are many other trails in this system and it is my goal to walk them all. Pilgrims in France greet each other with bon chemin and in Spain with buen camino. I often greet fellow walkers with my own version, happy trails.

With the Three Musketeers in Condom, France

Postcript

If you want to try this experience, I will be glad to help you get it together. The only essential items are a passport, a Covid vaccination card or electronic equivalent, and a debit card to get cash from ATMs. Everything else you can buy there. However, you will probably come equipped with a backpack (I have a 38 liter Osprey) and trail clothes designed to be hand washed in a sink and dried on a clothesline. I limit this to one pair of shorts, one pair of long pants, two t-shirts, two long sleeved shirts, three pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear. I carry a rain jacket and rain pants and a very lightweight down jacket. My walking shoes are low-tops (heavy backpacking boots are not necessary). If I take a sleeping bag it is 1 or 2 pounds only, my pack is 16-18 pounds and I do carryon only on flights. You are always going to have a bed, dinner, and a bathroom. A cell phone is very helpful for calling ahead for a bed; this didn’t used to be required, but has of late. I find a guidebook to be essential and can recommend one depending on the trail you are planning. Trails are well marked and you can usually find lunch and water on the way, and if that is not the case the guidebook will warn you to get your lunch before you leave the village. Lunch can be at fabulous restaurants and it can be a sandwich from the last bakery, and they are both wonderful. Americans walk spring and fall and Europeans in summer. The American Pilgrims on the Camino website and Facebook page provide lots of information.

If you want to join me, come meet me on the trail. I’m hoping for 2-3 trips in 2022, and Italy for all of May.

Happy Trails!

From → Writing Fiction

10 Comments
  1. Thanks, Robert, for this interesting post, and a belated Merry Christmas,
    Pit

  2. P.S.: Here’s the link to another blog I’m following [https://wp.me/p9JCMs-4jk#like-16574]. Just now it’s about the Swiss Camino!

  3. i will check it out. i meet many Swiss people , as well as Germans, on the camino

  4. Arlene permalink

    Thanks so much for this info. It is so helpful. I am hoping to do this Camino next year. What would be the ideal time to start? Also, I wondered a little about the dinners in the gites being 2-3 hours long. I have little French and a short attention span.

    • The best time to go is the day you arrive. Gites are open may through sometime in October. Dinner won’t be a problem, if you are overwhelmed you can leave the table. I predict this will not happen. Pilgrims will love you whether or not you speak French. If you can walk it will be ok. Go with an open mind and an open heart. If you have more questions we can talk about it.

  5. Hi Robert. Excellent description of what is the Chemin de Compostelle in France. As you know I was on this Camino in 2019. I think about this adventure often and I am still in touch with French pilgrims. I am not sure when I will go back on a Camino trail but I keep in shape in case life allow me and my husband to return ( either in France, Portugal, Spain or Italy). I have been thinking that Via Francigena could be interesting but I do not want to make plans now for 2022. I have learned to take it almost one day at the time during the pandemic. I am not quite ready to fly . I am not really waiting for a change in the situation we are experiencing since March 2020 but I take advantage of this time to live in the moment, here and now, to meditate, to enjoy my area. If you are on Instagram you can find me there with local photos. i have a private account but you can always ask ! https://www.instagram.com/francefehr/

  6. I enjoyed your post very much. What trails in the American west have you done?

    • In 1974, Yosemite. 1981 and 2015, Durango CO. 1982-2007, every year, Wind River, WY. April 2021, California Mission Trail, San Diego to Santa Barbara.

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