- Camino(s) past & future
- First: Camino Francés 2002; most recent: Via Podiensis 2015
I recently returned from this year's student pilgrimage. We had 10 high schoolers in France, walking the GR-65 from Le Puy to Lectoure and then following a series of other GRs to get to Lourdes and back to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. We also walked to Rocamadour and then through the Célé Valley. We finished in Rocamadour. I had my gps with me, so I'll have precise figures for everything at some point, but I really need to buckle down and focus on some other stuff before cleaning up those tracks. For now, we'll keep things breezy and impressionistic! Assorted thoughts...
- This was my first time seeing the light show in Le Puy and it was special--well worth a later-than-expected night before starting the walk. We have a much tighter turn-around than most (we landed at CDG at noon, walked across Paris for a couple of hours and got food, traveled to Le Puy by train and arrived around 10pm (longer than expected due to a bus replacing the train for the last leg), and then dumped our packs in the hostel and immediately checked out the lights. Then, up early the next morning for mass, breakfast, the Needle, the statue of Mary, and a 10am start for Montbonnet. I'm sure some people are cringing at that, but I love it--none of us end up feeling much jet lag and there's an intensity to the start that makes for a definitive transition
- While there were 40-50 pilgrims at the Le Puy mass, it never felt like there were more than 10-15 other pilgrims around us on the road. (Of course, we brought our own crowd everywhere.) Gite owners kept telling us that June is the dead month--numbers drop off dramatically, as the spring peak has passed and the vacation months haven't officially begun. Seems like a great time for those who want flexibility and good weather (indeed, we only had a single day of rain on the GR65--our last, walking to Lectoure--and while it was certainly warm, it was never oppressively so)
- The lone time we deviated from the GR65 in the first week was when we detoured to the Cascade du Déroc. This was a huge win and I encourage everyone to do it. It's pretty easy! 2km after Rieutort, and immediately after crossing the memorable bridge over the Le Bés, turn left. You'll follow that road most of the way, continuing straight through a messy intersection (the road curves right uphill after passing by possible left and right turns) and then taking the next left. Google Maps can give you a good feel for this. There are no waymarks in this stretch, but after you pass the falls you'll encounter a bar. Red/white stripes pick up immediately after that and carry you on to Nasbinals. I don't think this added more than a km or two to the walk and the falls were awesome. This was already one of my favorite days of walking and the falls only served to accentuate that
- This was my first time walking to Rocamadour. I've been eagerly anticipating it since we visited Rocamadour by bus as a day-trip last time around. The walk was... ok? The first 10km leaving Figeac were pleasant in the early morning, passing through a narrow, foggy valley with all kinds of farm animals lining the way (and a bunch of peacocks, for some reason!). I'm not sure what makes Cardaillac one of the "most beautiful villages" in France--it's nice, don't get me wrong, but it feels a bit disjointed. The next 35ish km to Gramat were fairly unremarkable. I have a hard time remembering too much from this stretch, though Lacapelle-Marival was a nice town. Hospitality in Gite du Gramat was great, so that was a highlight. The last bit of the route from Gramat to Rocamadour was fantastic--it's definitely the best part of this walk--following the Alzou river through a narrow gorge and passing a series of old mills. Seeing Rocamadour appear above us was really good... but it kind of pains me to note that the appearance is much more striking (to me) from above. Our bus arrival a few years ago absolutely floored us; this... impressed us.
- That said, we loved having a lot of time in Rocamadour, and it was particularly atmospheric in the evening. There's a grocery store near the village at the top and (if you're looking for something completely different) a monkey sanctuary nearby. If I were going to splurge anywhere on a trip (and didn't have a large group with me), I might have tried to book a hot air balloon ride here--seems like the right place for that life experience
- We bused back from Rocamadour to Figeac using Bernard Taxi. It's our second experience with them and they are prompt and reliable. Highly recommended
- The Célé Valley is one of my favorite places to walk anywhere. That was the main reason for us to bus back and not keep walking--there's no way I'm skipping the Célé. That said, this was a tougher experience in large part because there was a massive bug infestation in the Célé--caterpillar-like bugs that hung from trees all along the trail, dangling from webby threads. We started calling them silkworms, just because of the feel of those webs as they wrapped around us as we walked. Having poked around a bit online, it looks like they might be box moth caterpillars. Anyway, it was bad. And unlike spider webs, the first person through wasn't able to clear the route for others; I walked at the front with a couple of large sticks and emerged coated, but everyone else still faced the same gauntlet. We ran into a couple of pilgrims in St. Gery who bailed on the Célé and skipped ahead because they were so tired of it. I've been in the Célé twice before around the same time of year and never encountered this, but maybe the late spring pushed it back? Maybe it's a growing infestation? I still loved the Célé and would still return, but it definitely made the walk more of a struggle at times. We did encounter the "silkworms" a few more times later on, including briefly in the Pyrenean foothills, but never in anything approaching the same magnitude as in the Célé
- The waymarks were almost always reliable and clear. The lone place where things got really messy was between Pasturat and Cahors. I've done that route twice before and thought I had a good handle on it. Pride goeth before the fall.
- A quick note for fans of the train bridge: my goodness, was it overgrown this year. We had to abandon it shortly after landfall because the brambles were so thick and the descent was... adrenaline-inducing
- The hospitality in gites is one of the absolute highlights of this walk and, if anything, it's even more special when you get to return for a second (or third!) time. We felt so grateful to be back at places like Gite L'Escole in Montbonnet, Gite del Roumiou in St. Come d'Olt, Gite du Gua in Figeac, the Relais du Pasturat, Le Nid des Anges in Lascabanes, and the Gite Communal in Lauzerte. Special mention has to go to Gite Ultreia in Moissac, with Rom and Aideen. Add us to the list of pilgrims who have been in need of something above and beyond, only to have Rom and Aideen provide it without hesitation. My suggestion list of where to stay on the GR65 will always begin there
- It was also fun to stay in some new places this time! Among our new stays, we were particularly impressed and touched by Gite Papillon in Cahors, Gite Vita e Bella in Livinhac, and the Gite Ferme Equestre Pech Merle after Cabrerets (makes for a good stop after an afternoon visit to Pech Merle)
- While the small gites with personal care and wonderful dinners are great, the gite communals are often a great change of pace--usually low cost, often with very good kitchens, and in many cases left open so that you can self-check-in at any hour. We had a great time at these places in Saugues, Nasbinals, Espagnac, and Auvillar (a 5-star gite communal)
- Unpopular opinions: a) I think the GR65 is easier than the Camino Francés, b) don't be persuaded by the absolute necessity of trekking poles unless you are older, have joint issues, and (most importantly) have actually trained with and know how to use them effectively--they're a placebo for lots of people out here, c) I like Decazeville (great Carrefour supermarket, good bakeries, really nice stamp in the tourist office) and don't get the disdain for it at all
- Mondays created more problems for us on this trip than Sundays
- After Lectoure, we left the GR65. We then followed the GR de Pays “Coeur de Gascogne” to Auch over two days... sort of. The route bypasses Fleurance and I thought that was pretty silly, so I figured out an alternative approach that took us through the city and then along a dirt track to Montestruc, reconnecting with the GR there. We hit Fleurance on a market day and it was really impressive--one of the best I've encountered on a pilgrimage. The organ was booming in the church, too. Accommodation is very limited around Montestruc, but we found a good airbnb option. Auch was fantastic, though there were no food options between Montestruc and there
- From Auch to Maubourguet, we followed the GR-653 (the "Arles route"). We stayed with Edna in L'Isle de Noe and at Gite Laoueillou in Marciac. Both were memorable, enjoyable experiences. Edna was unceasingly generous, offering us another cup of coffee at every turn and managing our large group with ease. Her place is definitely showing its age, but we loved our time there. Meanwhile, the Marciac gite was on the outskirts of town and included an Algerian dinner and beds in a tower. One of our students forgot his credential; without calling, the gite owner showed up in Maubourguet the next morning, finding us there and dropping off the credential as he drove by
- After Maubourguet, we transferred to the GR101. Something funky happened with the route--we continued to follow maps I had made, following a trajectory through Larreule and Caixon, but the waymarks disappeared. Then, they reappeared at the end of Saint-Lézer. May have been our failure, but everything worked out.
- Abbaye Tarasteix is one of the most memorable stops I've had on any pilgrimage. The priest has been recovering the old abbey almost single-handedly over the last few decades, rebuilding huge portions of the buildings while also developing extensive gardens. The man has boundless energy and passion--he was a total inspiration. I thought we were taking this route in order to walk through Lourdes, but after this night I felt like Lourdes was a bonus and Tarasteix was the transformative place
- After Ibos, we followed a variant to Lourdes to shave off a handful of km, walking through Ossún and then following the Chemin Vert. We had a tight schedule and wanted to free up another hour in Lourdes and this worked really well. Most of it was unmarked, but it was easy enough to sort out on Google Maps and wikiloc.
- In Lourdes, we attended the Blessed Sacrament procession at 5pm, the candlelight procession at 9pm, and then used the next morning to provide time for interested people to bathe. Our group had radically divergent views on Lourdes, which I think is not unusual, but I'm glad to have witnessed it
- From Lourdes, we followed the GR78 nearly all the way to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (rejoining the GR65 shortly before St-Jean-Le-Vieux). Food is definitely harder to come by in this section, so you've got to plan ahead more or be happy with restaurants. (For example, we bought food in Oloron and carried it the next day to L'Hopital-St-Blaise to cook dinner there.)
- There are some fun/neat things to see on this stretch. We enjoyed the Grottes de Betharrám (a big cave complex with some kitschy elements), the Lindt factory store in Oloron (definitely not a factory visit--nothing to see here, just cheap chocolate), and the sound/light show at the church in L'Hopital-St-Blaise.
- We stayed in Arudy and that was a bit trickier from a route-finding perspective. While info online suggested we should break from the GR in the center of Sainte-Colome, we followed the GR out of town and then found a signposted detour to Arudy. However, after joining a highway the red/white stripes called for a left turn and these led us away from Arudy. We may have missed something. If you find yourself on the highway walking towards a large Intermarche, turn around! Leaving Arudy, there were no waymarks. After crossing a bridge at the end of town, we found GR78 waymarks calling for a left turn. Instead, though, we followed the instructions we had found online, taking the highway a couple more km and then joining the GR78 near the D232. This worked fine.
- Overall, I think I preferred this walk to the GR65 from Lectoure, which I find to be much less interesting than the parts preceding it on the 65 (not a criticism--it's all relative! I'd still be happy walking there!). In particular, I thought there was more variety here, with some surprisingly good stretches of walking on the GR78 where I anticipated the onslaught of corn fields that I'd encountered elsewhere in southern France. That's not to say we were corn-free, but there was enough variation to make it feel more pleasant when it appeared. Others may find the lack of facilities to be a turnoff, though. There were definitely some longer stretches without creature comforts and pilgrim accommodation was less frequent as well. This would have been more challenging if it were the first two weeks of our walk; by this point, though, we were road-tested and well-prepared for that.
- I never know exactly how to end this walk--it's the only route I take students on that doesn't end in "the" destination. Last time around, we took the GR10 from St-Jean to Hendaye/Irún, so that they would have the physical challenge of the Pyrenees, the ocean arrival in Hendaye, and the border crossing into Spain to all offer a sense of closure. And that worked well! Not being able to leave things alone, I decided to mess with it this time and end by crossing the Pyrenees into Roncesvalles and stopping there (we needed to make up a few days to compensate for the Rocamadour and Lourdes jaunts). I was nervous about this, but it was actually a fantastic conclusion. The students had a day to experience the Camino Francés and to also feel strong and accomplished--while everyone around them was huffing and puffing, they were singing and bouncing up (and down) the mountain. More importantly, having the pilgrim mass in Roncesvalles that night as a bookend to the Le Puy mass was a powerful note to end on, as was the fact that Roncesvalles is really just about pilgrims, whereas Hendaye/Irún (or St-Jean, even) are more tourist spots. This also left the students hungry to return and "complete" their walk later