Walk This Way
On an Ancient Pilgrim Route in France, Hikers and the Faithful Cross Paths

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.

Dinner featured sliced, tender duck flank and a regional dish called aligot -- a rich and delicious off-the-calorie-charts puree made from potatoes, butter, cream and tomme cheese. When made right and served warm, as it was in this case, it has the elasticity of pizza dough.

The following morning, after a breakfast of croissants, bread and more butter and cheese, we set out our bags in the hallway and hit the trail, stopping on the edge of town to fill our water bottles from the first of many spring-fed fountains.

The main season for walking the Compostelle trail is May through September. In May, wildflowers are in bloom, the risk of rain is minimal and hikers avoid the heat of summer and the risk of hiking on afternoons with triple-digit temperatures. On our trip in the second half of April, we had no rain and benefited from days in which the temperatures climbed from the 50s to touch 80 degrees in the afternoon.

That first day, our topographical guide informed us, meant about 4 1/2 hours of walking. The first 2 1/2 hours would take us to the village of Aubrac. From the start, the GR 65 was well marked, with an insignia of a white bar over a red bar affixed to street signposts or painted on trees, fence posts or rocks.

We walked through high pastures covered with wild daffodils and violets and divided by low, gray, dry stone walls that snaked to a brilliant blue horizon. A constant light wind blew, and the only sound came from a chorus of what seemed like thousands of swallows darting above us. We crossed small streams in the grass, walked through moss-covered forests of beech and oak trees, and came upon several religious shrines and crosses where pilgrims and other walkers had built piles of small stones.

We were told that the population of Aubrac could be counted on both hands. Yet there is something majestic about the way this diminutive burg sits at the top of a gentle rise in the landscape, with its church towers and a shelter for pilgrims that dates to the 12th century.

What Aubrac lacks in population it makes up for in lunch options, with four restaurants. We sat outdoors in a courtyard, ate fresh cold meats and local cheese and baguettes with fresh butter, all washed down with red wine. Then we walked on for another two hours to the serene village of Saint-Chely-d'Aubrac, set in a small river valley. As promised, our bags awaited us inside the door of the local inn.

In Saint-Chely, there is one cafe in the one square in town. Later that afternoon, we ordered cool drinks and sat at one of several plastic tables set in the sun. I chatted in French with a stranger I'd said hello to that morning in Nasbinals. On this route, with most everyone headed in the same direction, you tend to encounter the same travelers over and over again -- on the trail, at breakfast and dinner at the hotel, cafes such as this one.

He was in his 50s with gray hair and a beard. He explained that he'd begun his journey eight days earlier in Le Puy with the idea of taking a month off from his job with a security company in Dijon to walk to the Spanish border. Now, he said, he was convinced he could not go back -- even if it meant quitting his job -- before finishing the two-month trek to Santiago, Spain.

"Once you start," he said, draining his beer, "you have to go all the way."

We parted ways and then something strange happened.

About 40 minutes after we left the cafe and headed back to our hotel, I realized that I had not paid our cafe tab. In this tiny town, I wondered, would someone be coming after me?

I hurried back to the cafe and explained the situation to the bartender, apologizing profusely for walking out.

"Really?" he responded. He, too, had forgotten that I hadn't anted up.

He calmly waved his hand and told me not to worry about it. "It doesn't matter anyway -- anybody with a conscience would come back."

I paid the bill and wondered just how far removed Saint-Chely was from the modern world. And then I thought that probably was why we were here.

Age-Old Hospitality

It's rare to find a local hospitality industry that goes back more than 1,000 years.

Yet from about the 9th century -- after the remains of the apostle James were said to have been miraculously discovered buried in Compostela, Spain -- travelers have made their way there from neighboring France and beyond. A shrine was built on the spot, and later a cathedral. During the Middle Ages, the trip became one of Christianity's most important pilgrimages, along with Rome and Jerusalem.

Hospitals, monasteries and accommodations for pilgrims were built along the route, as well as an impressive collection of Romanesque churches. In the 1990s the Compostela/Compostelle pilgrimage routes in Spain and France were added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.

Many of the pilgrims and hikers carry walking sticks and backpacks decorated with the traditional symbol of a scallop shell. From our experience, the locals -- though English speaking is limited -- are more than willing to help.

The second day of our walk, we descended into the Lot Valley. The landscape changed as we walked up and around hills covered with young wheat and corn, through evergreen forests and stands of chestnut trees. The trail during that week would vary from anything from a foot-wide path muddied by the trickle of a spring to a regional two-lane road.

More than once, locals on foot or in cars stopped as we passed through town to give us directions. We really didn't need much help. By Day 3, we easily made our way in four hours from the bustling river town of Espalion to what would be my favorite stopover, Estaing (population 600), with its hilltop chateau, stone streets and bridges and cafe terraces that overlook the Lot. After that, I put the guide away, and we simply followed the trail markings.

The last two days, we pushed on to the town of Conques, set into a deep gorge. It's considered one of France's most historically important medieval sites, with its grand Romanesque abbey and elaborate sculpted stonework. The abbey still puts up travelers in hotel-style rooms and dormitories.

We toured the abbey with a fellow hiker, a fit 74-year-old widowed grandmother named Bernadette who gave us her address in northeast France and promised to cook us a meal if we came to visit her.

She said in French that she would be coming back another time to continue the trail.

"I'm a pilgrim," she said, her crystalline green eyes beaming. "I believe in miracles."

For pilgrims of old, Conques was a major stopover. For us, it was the end of the line.

We awoke there to the cries of roosters and brilliant sunlight that lit up the heights of the town. After breakfast, conditioned now as we were to walking, we took a stroll to the edge of town. We watched as groups of hikers continued on the road and then banked and disappeared in the trees.

It was odd. I was glad to have finished our goal and to be going home. Yet at the same time, I felt the pull of the road and wanted to keep going.

I thought of a phrase I had read on a French trekkers' Web site: "You don't take the road of Compostelle. It takes you."

Robert V. Camuto, a writer and author living in France, is a frequent contributor to Travel.

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