Walk This Way

Estaing, with its hilltop chateau, stone streets and bridges and cafe terraces overlooking the Lot River, is one of many picturesque villages on the Compostelle trail in southwest France.
Estaing, with its hilltop chateau, stone streets and bridges and cafe terraces overlooking the Lot River, is one of many picturesque villages on the Compostelle trail in southwest France. (By Robert V. Camuto)
By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Along one of Europe's oldest pilgrim routes, in beautiful Middle-of-Nowhere, France, you encounter three main types of people.

First there are the true believers, who walk as part of a spiritual quest from village to village along the Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle -- the Way of St. James. The route consists of four paths that meet around its southwestern border, where they form one route, the Camino de Santiago, which traverses northern Spain and ends at Santiago de Compostela, near the Galician coast. The full trip of about 1,000 miles -- crossing lands dotted with trail-side shrines, medieval villages, monasteries and a rich collection of Romanesque churches -- takes two months or more, about equally divided between the two countries.

The second type of people you meet is also in for the long haul. They are the wandering souls right out of a Jimmy Buffett song, who -- spurred by early retirement, life change or wanderlust -- leave their lives behind and set out on the road.

Type three are the hiker-tourists like my family and me: the people taking a week off from planes, trains and automobiles to walk among some of the prettiest scenery and rural villages of France and eat some of the country's heartiest comfort food. We're the ones who want to experience nature but at the end of the day want a shower, clean sheets, a cold drink and a good meal with wine.

As one fellow trekker put it, "Here, you can hike long distances, but you don't have to worry about bears or taking big risks. You don't have to be miserable."

Misery avoidance was the prime prerequisite of our recent family trek. My wife is allergic to camping. My back can't stand to sleep on hard ground. And my nearly-13-year-old son likes to nest in the evenings on a soft bed with a good comic book.

During five days in April, the three of us set out with a topographical map and guide and lodging reservations from a French travel agency to walk a 53-mile section of one of the oldest legs of the Compostelle trail, on what is also known as the GR (Grande Randonnee) 65 long-distance hiking route. The trail starts in Le Puy, about 70 miles southwest of Lyon, and crosses southwest France. Our small piece of it, chosen for its beauty and the relative ease of the hiking, stayed mostly in the mid-Pyrenees region. It turned out to be one of our most memorable, rewarding and relaxed family vacations in a long while.

Okay, maybe there were a couple of instances (on one grueling day) when my son whined about walking and threatened patricide. Yet for the most part, we experienced far less travel stress than we would have dealing with crowded cities, lines for tourist attractions and high prices. We have lived in France for six years but had never seen the country up this close and at such reasonable prices.

We walked anywhere from 3 1/2 to seven hours a day, stopping in a different place every night as we made our way along the trail. We were among tens of thousands who do at least some portion of this trail in France every year. Our load -- and the potential for misery -- was lightened, literally, by a service that transports hikers' bags daily by van to their next hotel or hostel destination.

Greener Pastures

Our journey began on the high plateau area known as the Aubrac, in the village of Nasbinals, about 120 miles northwest of Montpelier. The Aubrac stretches out at about 4,000 feet in altitude at the southern edge of the center of the country. As you drive up through the Languedoc region, the landscape quickly changes from Mediterranean scrub and olive trees to high meadows, each a richer green than the last.

Finally, in the Aubrac we arrived at something that resembles Switzerland: infinite rolling pasturelands that seem to bend to the curve of the earth, carpets of wildflowers, ancient stone farmhouses, barns and rural ruins with sloping roofs made from flat oval schist stones. In winter, some small regional ski and cross-country stations operate, but there is precious little else in the way of modern development.

We arrived in Nasbinals on a Sunday evening. The accommodations at our two-star (normally as good as it gets in this countryside) hotel run by a local family were basic but clean. Bath towels, par for the course, resembled something between cotton and sandpaper. It beats pitching a tent, I reminded everyone.

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