Shell motif Camino de Santiago

The pilgrimage routes to
Santiago de Compostela
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Le Puy route
Overview
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This overview was kindly provided by Denise Feinberg and Patrick Roberts of Oregon who first walked the Camino in 2002 (see her article on our Contributed Articles page) and returned to make a longer pilgrimage from Le Puy on 19 June 2003 and reached St. Jean-Pied-du-Port on 26 July.

She describes her journey in this article which appeared in the Los Angeles Times in September 2004.

The CSJ Pilgrim Guide and other guidebooks are available from the Confraternity of St. James bookshop


“My friends all think I'm crazy. 'Why would you walk 500 miles?'.” lamented Jan.

Most of us in the little hostel along the Grande Randonnée 65 in southern France had walked that far, some considerably farther. Occasionally we each asked ourselves why.

The reason was clearer for those who came 900 years before. In about 814, bones unearthed in a Roman cemetery in northwestern Spain were proclaimed to be those of St. James the Apostle. How a Galilean fisherman came to be buried there is the subject of much legend; suffice it to say that, between the medieval cult of relics and some canny local promotion, Santiago de Compostela became a destination for Christian pilgrims second only to Jerusalem and Rome. All Europe beat a path to the tomb along the Camino de Santiago, or, in French, the Chemin de St. Jacques.

The path's popularity peaked in the 12th century, but pilgrimages continued well into the 18th. The route has undergone a renaissance over the last two decades as people from around the world seek a journey of spiritual significance. Today's walkers take the trail for physical, cultural, and, yes, spiritual reasons -- some to walk a month or two, some just as far as their time allows.

My friend Patrick and I walked part of the Spanish route in 2003, and were so captivated that we decided to try one of the French paths. Like many, we sought a path that offered a long contemplative walk as well as significant religious sites.

Part of France's extensive system of hiking trails, the GR65 approximates one of the four historic Chemins de St. Jacques. From Paris, VézelayÖ, Le Puy-en-VelayÖ and ArlesÖ -- the trails converge in the Pyrenees and join a single path that crosses northern Spain. The GR65 starts in Le Puy, about 70 miles southwest of Lyon in the AuvergneÖ region, and wanders 500 miles through wildest France over the Pyrenees to the border.

Parts of the original route are now highways, while other segments have been lost altogether. But pilgrim paths always shifted; what remained constant were the shrines and relics along the way. If we couldn't always follow in the pilgrims' actual footsteps, at least we were seeing the same sights in ConquesÖ, MoissacÖ or St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

We arrived in Le Puy, a red-roofed town of 29,000, in mid-June. Le Puy was a destination long before Santiago, and later pilgrims who strung pilgrimages together would stop here before facing the perils of a journey to the end of the continent. The red-and-white stone cathedral, Romanesque with MozarabicÖ tendencies, still houses a stone reported to cure fevers and a Black Madonna statuette.

We dutifully visited the cathedral, attended a folk accordion concert, then hoisted our packs. We stepped out onto the Rue St. Jacques heading southwestward out of town with the vague goal of reaching St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port -- about 500 miles away at the foot of the Pyrenees -- in about five weeks.

It was not difficult to follow the red and white blazes painted on tree trunks, stone walls, even houses, that mark the GR65. What was hard was being plunked down without preamble in the Massif Central, France's central mountain range. The mountains are not very high, but they are extremely steep, dissected by valleys and watercourses. We spent the first two weeks huffing up mountainsides and down dry stream beds (the GR has an odd idea of what constitutes a trail), feverishly jettisoning our already minimal supplies. Used to walking 12 to 15 miles a day in Spain, we barely managed 10 in this region.

Our second day out found us scrambling straight up a rocky knob overlooking the river Allier (the GR also eschews switchbacks). At the top two ladies with daypacks gazed upon a tiny pilgrim chapel from the 11th or 12th century.

“Is it open?” I gasped.

“Oh yes. Very refreshing,” answered one, looking at me with concern.

Inside it was blessedly cool and dim. One arched window let in enough light to identify a statue of St. James (St. Jacques in France, Santiago in Spain) on the apse wall. I thought of medieval pilgrims struggling up this same hill, looking at the vast surrounding forest and feeling very far from home. The view obviously served secular powers as well; next door, the keep of a ruined castle commanded the river in both directions.

French authorities are making efforts to keep country chapels along the way open, and they are one of the pleasures of the journey. The churches, frequently cared for by volunteer parishioners, represent vernacular variations on the great Romanesque and Gothic themes -- a curved wooden ceiling like an upturned boat, a plump peasant Madonna -- and welcome stops for rest and reflection.

We hiked some 35 miles through the Auvergne, up cliffs and down valleys. We walked through forests and wheat fields, cow-pastures and silent stone villages. We hiked cattle drove roads and the high deserted plains of the Aubrac among blond sloe-eyed cows.

This part of the Auvergne, the Aubrac, is one of the emptiest quarters of France, with only isolated farmsteads and an occasional village on the rolling hills and grassy plateaus. In the Middle Ages it was more wild, a lair of bandits and beasts -- fearsome territory to the pilgrims. One, a Flemish nobleman named Adalard, narrowly escaped death here about 1120 and founded a travelers' hospice on the spot. It became a massive monastic complex that hosted pilgrims until the French Revolution. Little remains today but the imposing stone church, some fortifications, and the present village of Aubrac.

No one was at the Tour des Anglais in the village when we arrived. The 14th-century tower, built during the Hundred Years' War, now serves as a gîte d'étape, or hikers' shelter. “Installez-vous,” read a sign on the door, so we made ourselves at home.

Each floor was one square stone room, with the bathrooms on the ground level, so it seemed prudent to seize beds on the first floor. As we explored the slightly modernized kitchen, a young woman darted up the stairs and announced a free supper in her barn.

The barn, when we turned up, recalled hippie habitats of North America, but the fare was distinctly French. Aline, with her mother and infant daughter, served a hearty soup, rustic bread and wine, followed by crêpes. We consumed it all at a long table with several German and Swiss hikers, and slept soundly in the tower.

Four days and another 43 miles of rivers, forest and back roads brought us to the town of Conques. Actually they brought Patrick. Ten days of pounding had taken a toll on my feet, and on the 11th I hitched a ride with Transbagages, a van service that carries bags for hikers who would rather not. For an additional fee they also will transport the hiker.

I was glad, for ConquesÖ clings to the wall of a ravine so steep that even while descending you don't see the town until you're right on top of it.

Conques was for centuries the object of enthusiastic pilgrimage to the relics of the child martyr St. FoiÖ (Faith), killed in Agen by the Roman governor in the early 4th century. In the middle of town stands the great abbey church of St. Foi, begun about 1050 and, I think, the most harmonious of the entire route with its red-gold stone and luminous, layered arches. Traces of paint are still visible on the exquisite tympanum. Despite its somber theme -- the Last Judgment -- the figures are so tenderly rendered that even the demons are endearing.

Cool water awaited us in the courtyard of the massive guest house just behind the church, run by a community of Norbertine priests. A cadre of friendly volunteers processed the guests, after which we were shown up a spiral stone staircase to our quarters.

Our room was shared with a young German pastor, a Breton, two Canadians and assorted late arrivals (the doors are never closed). We took a rest day and spent it wandering the steep flowery streets, discovering new breath-taking perspectives inside the church, sitting in the cloister and gazing up at the mountainsides. In the evenings we enjoyed a four-course family-style dinner in the refectory chatting with other, mostly French, hikers.

On a warm overcast morning we departed up the canyon walls, toiling over boulders and roots. The climb seemed interminable; though only two miles, it rises about 1,300 feet.

The mountains of Aveyron gave way to the limestone plateaus of Quercy, which broke into rolling hills covered in oaks. Often in the woods we came upon old stone foundations telling of villages abandoned to forest, or neolitihic dolmens hinting at older settlements. Once a red deer appeared in a green meadow; when I reached for my binoculars it leapt away. 

As we arrived, by stages, in lower country, we would find ourselves in step with certain fellow pilgrims for weeks at a time, our paths braiding and parting, sharing wine at a gîte d'etape (a hikers' hostel) in the evening or hurried breakfasts in the morning. Wild cherries gave way to wild plums along the trail, supplemented by ripening figs. (Any fruit hanging over the path was fair game.) Towns hugged the rivers for trade or perched on hills for defense. Leaving the hilltop bastide of Lauzerte we missed a marker and were lost the rest of the day, consigned to plodding 15 miles of local highways into Moissac.

A day of rest in Moissac was welcome. The 12th century abbey church of St. Pierre has been a pilgrim center from early times, and its cloister capitals, riotous with decorative birds and leaves or sober with biblical scenes, are among the best-preserved in Europe.

From Moissac we took a shady canal towpath along the Garonne River, then crossed into Armagnac, part of the Département du Gers, and the land of a million sunflowers. Because of the intense heat we were usually out before dawn. Already the sunflowers faced expectantly east. All day legions of them cheered us on our way. Almost as numerous were the cornfields, which reportedly provide inadvertent habitat to wild boar, and vineyards.

In the Armagnac, a subdivision of Bordeaux wine country, most of the grapes go into the mellow Armagnac liqueur. Here we made the happy discovery of Floc de Gascogne. On a torrid evening we sat outdoors with fellow walkers, a French family of seven, and opened a copious supper with floc. It looked like white wine, but oh, it wasn't. Made of fresh grape juice blended with Armagnac and fermented for about 10 months, liqueur flowed down the throat like a distillation of summer flowers. (Floc means bouquet in the local dialect.)

Between the flowers and floc, the Gers became one of my favorite d épartements. It was hilly enough to be interesting, but gentle enough to walk 12 to 15 miles in a morning without exhaustion. Chapels to little-known saints stood open to wayfarers. The people were likewise sunny and welcoming; one village priest launched into extemporaneous paeans to Franco-American friendship, dispensing with some more usual parts of the servicef.

By now we had been walking for a month. Fellow travelers reached their appointed goals and went home. The early part of our own journey seemed far away, and our normal lives receded to unreality. What was real were the daily exigencies of life on the trail: finding food, getting to shelter, caring for one's feet. It simplified the mind wonderfully. Insensibly we were approaching the border. One day the trail climbed a long steep hill,  and all the Pyrenees were spread before us in the morning light. Shockingly, it was now only two days' walk to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Tourists and pilgrims jammed St.-Jean. Houses dating from the 1500s lined the streets and sparkling river Nive. We said farewells to our last remaining companions, noting the gîtes were full of new hikers starting their walk into Spain. Despite our unhurried pace, we arrived at our journey's end two weeks before our return flight. Patrick and I looked speculatively at the Pyrenees. One morning before sunrise, we took the upward road. For once I allowed Transbagages to carry my pack and flew -- relatively speaking -- up the pass.

Forests disappeared and enormous griffon vultures glided silently overhead. At the top, pottock, an ancient breed of horse, roamed. The only indication of a border was a carved stele by the path reading Navarra. In the lee of the pass we ate bread and cheese with a whole new batch of pilgrims, then looked down on the towers of Roncevaux and marched on into Spain.

Two weeks later on a Paris metro platform, a young man rushed up to us.

“Do you remember me?” he cried, overjoyed. “Don't you remember? We met in the Gers, in the little chapel!” We looked at him; light dawned. Yes, in the Gers. The trail was long, but the world is small.




1. Youth hostel/gîte d’étape at Le Puy

2. Female pilgrim set in a wall at Le Puy

3. Wall sculpture, St. Michael

4. 10th-century chapel of St. Michael on top of a ‘puy’, or volcanic cone

5. Cathedral cloister, Le Puy

6. View of Le Puy from cathedral

7. Cathedral façade, Rue des Tables

8.Day 1, Gîte d’Escole, Montbonnet

9. Day 2, Field of wheat and cornflowers in the Velay region

10. Rest at a babbling brook

11. Still resting at the brook

12. Chapel of St. Jacques [Santiago] on a cliff overlooking river Allier

13. Chapel interior

14. Chapel as seen from Monistrol d’Allier

15. Private gite “La Tsabone” at Monistrol

16. Waymarks

17. Day 3, View of Saugues, entering the Gévaudan

18. Public gite in campground at Saugues

19. Farmhouse gite at La Roche in the Margeride

20. New house, old style

21. Day 4, Chapel of St. Roch

22. Pilgrim chapel with scallop shell above window

23. Resting in the gite, Aumont-Aubrac

24. Day 5, In the Aubrac

25. Modern St. Roch

26. Modern St. Jacques

27. La Ferme des Gentianes in the open spaces of Aubrac

28. Day 6, Trailside cairn, the Aubrac

29. Open Aubrac country

30. Here the GR follows a cattle drove road

31. Dinner provided in a barn, village of Aubrac

32. 14th-century Tour des Anglais, Aubrac—now a gite d’étape!

33. Domerie d’Aubrac—remains of a hospice that welcomed pilgrims after the perilous Aubrac crossing

34. Day 7, St-Chely-d’Aubrac

35. Gite d’étape in old quarter of St. Côme d’Olt

36. Day 8, Old houses on the river Lot at Espalion

37. Rustic Virgin and Child

38. Pilgrim bridge at Espalion

39. Estaing, at a bend in the Lot

40. Day 9, Colin, a volunteer at the Hospitalité St. Jacques—a lay community in Estaing

41. Day 11, Abbey church at Conques in the wild Aveyron

42. Pilgrim shelter at Conques—warm welcome and great food!

43. Day 14, Me at dolmen du Gréalou in Quercy

44. Day 15, St. Jacques in church vestibule at Limogne-en-Quercy

45. Ditto

46. Day 16, A garriotte (drystone shepherd’s hut)

47. They do have public toilets in France

48. Picnicking pilgrims Anna and Sascha had walked from Switzerland

49. Day 19, Another Anna at chapel of St-Jean-le-Froid near Lascabanes

50. Central place in the hilltop bastide of Lauzerte

51. Day 22, GR along the Garonne, leaving Moi

52. Pilgrim St. Jacques

53. Day 23, Nuclear power plant along the Garonne

54. Village w/furrows and sunflowers

55. Day 24, Thérèse, who opens her home to pilgrims in Miradoux

56. Old castle near Miradoux

57. Sunflowers in the Gers

58. After a day walking in 40-degree heat—Marsolan

59. Day 25, Country chapel (Ste. Germaine) rebuilt after destruction by Vikings

60. Church of St. Anthony—remnant of Antonin community like that outside Castrojeriz [this one should be on day 23]

61. Day 29, Column capitals at Nogaro

62. Home open to pilgrims at Nogaro

63. Day 30, Rest at Miramont-Sensacq

64.day 31, Gite at Miramont; Ermanno, at 75, was walking the Camino for the third time

65. Typical gite scene

66. Early baptismal font at Sensacq

67. Sensacq

68. Portal at Pimbo—spirals, fir branches, saints

69. Interior, St. Antoine (out of order)

70. La Vieille Auberge at Arzacq-Arraziguet. Lovely dinner.

71.Day 32, St. Jacques with a baguette, Arthez

72. Patrick with Pierre Langla, 90, at pilgrim reception in Navarrenx

73. Day 33, Béarnese house

74. Béarnese geese

75. Day 35, Cloister at Zabalik, a Franciscan friary at St. Palais, Basque country. Wonderful hospitality.

76. Day 36, Where the chemins from Paris, Vézelay and Le Puy meet, south of St. Palais

77. Climbing the foothills

78. Cross of Galzetaburu (18th c.) outside St. Jean Pied de Port

79. Day 37, The river Nive runs through St. Jean

80. day 38, Another typical gite scene, St. Jean

81. Day 39, Sunrise over the Pyrenees

82. Patrick tries to figure out where we are (going over the pass)

83. Pottöck, semi-wild horses in the Pyrenees

84. The border with Spain (marked only Navarroa)

85. The path down to Roncevaux





















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