20 Dec 22
Le Puy Camino – a taste of pilgrim life in rural France
A solo to walk on a stunning section of the Via Podiensis (Le Puy Camino) through south-west France was one of the best weeks of my life. Here’s why.
I’d been thinking about the Camino for years. It is the longest, most spiritual walk in the world. Medieval pilgrims took to the ancient trail in their thousands, seeking atonement or pursuing a fertility rite. I liked the idea of a romantic walk and a certain level of solitude, so I chose the Via Podiensis (Le Puy Camino) – an oh-so-quiet and stunningly beautiful trail through rural France, with intact medieval villages, isolated farm settlements and, of course, magnificent food.
I knew the route would a physical challenge. I also knew that the few walkers I was likely to meet would be French. Standing on the iconic Valentré Bridge in Cahors, the starting point of my modest journey, I wondered how I would reach my end point, Condom, 155km away in the midst of Armagnac country, without too many faux pas.
The entire route is 745km. It begins in the pilgrim town of Le-Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne in Central France and runs through the volcanic hills of the Velay region finishing in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foothills of the Pyrenees. From there, it merges with the Camino Francés (the most popular of all the Camino routes) and extends another 780km to Santiago de Compostela in western Spain.
Day 1: Cahors to Montcuq and a candlelit breakfast
My rather modest pilgrim journey began on the iconic Valentre Bridge in Cahors. I looked up at the little devil trying to pull a stone from a corner of one of the sumptuous square towers of the bridge before taking my first step onto the GR65 as a modern pilgrim.
My first day was a fairly gentle and flat walk to Montcuq, about 30km (8 hours) away, through the Quercy Blanc and rolling green hills of the Garonne River plain. With each passing hour, the scenery grew more impressive. Navigation was easy because the trail is very well-marked with the frequent (and comforting) horizontal red-and-white stripes of the French Grande Randonée network. ‘Wrong direction’ signs (red-and-white crosses) are nailed to trees or painted on rocks. The GR65 also goes to some lengths to make sure that walkers avoid tarmac.
I put away my guidebook (with its very specific route instructions) and map (with its altitude profiles) and began enjoying being in nature. I was about 16km in when the world-famous Camino camaraderie kicked in. Taking a petite pause at the charming little village of Lascabanes, I exclaimed bonjour! and sat down next to a handful of other French walkers sipping beers in the hot afternoon May sun. Marguerite, a social worker seeking respite from the hurly-burly of Paris, walking her third Camino, welcomed me with open arms, kissed me on both cheeks and ordered two grande glasses of refreshingly cold beer (deux bière)!
I walked with Marguerite for the remainder of the day, exclaiming ‘magnifique’ and ‘superb’ at the unfolding landscapes, and enjoying lengthy French exchanges with other walkers (Marguerite generously and patiently translating for ‘the Australian who has come so far’).
The GR65 conveniently brings walkers directly into the charming hilltop village of Montcuq – an absolute treat with its medieval alleyways, buildings with arcaded half-timbered facades and remarkable doors. A few more steps and I arrived at my accommodation for the night – a noble and luxurious establishment with four guest rooms, where the 15th-century architecture blended seamlessly with its contemporary interior design.
French hosts Bob and Claude were formerly fashion designers. Immaculate, slender and dressed in black, they welcomed me with excitement and enthusiasm and starting speaking French super fast. Lightspeed fast. When French people see that you want to speak French, they’ll assume you can speak French, and will start speaking French like they do with their friends – fast. The couple’s love of refinement and attention to detail was on show here. The candlelit breakfast the next morning was lavishly chic and included Claude’s famous brioche.
Day 2: Flasks of tea and a medieval mirage
My second day of walking was much shorter. A mere 14km to medieval Lauzerte. The trail followed an undulating path through farmland, cultivated fields and orchards – a landscape that allowed plenty of time and space for contemplation. Along the way, there were several impromptu ‘cafes’ for pilgrims/walkers set up by French landowners in their gardens – usually thermos flasks of tea and coffee, plus water and baskets of fresh oranges and apples (donation 1 euro). The French know a thing or two about hospitality.
Many of the long paths were dotted with crosses and chapels – all of them unlocked, so you can stop at each one to reflect or pray.
Lauzerte, one of the most beautiful villages in France (there are 156 spread over 14 regions), appeared like a mirage. I found myself hypnotised by the vast panoramic views of the landscape below and uncharacteristically gawping at the splendid baroque altarpiece in the Church of St Bartholomew. The superb rectangular main square (Place des Cornieres) is surrounded by old stone and timber-framed houses and makes a gratifying place for people-watching. Wrought-iron signs hang from the exteriors of many buildings (a nod to its lively artistic community).
Day 3: Majestic Moissac and a tapestry of beautiful souls
After arriving in Moissac the following afternoon (28km), I settled into a feast with many of the pilgrims I’d met the previous days. Some were walking the full 1600km all the way to Santiago. Others were back for the third or fourth time, walking a different stage every year. Most were French, including two pilgrims with ailing horses, but there was also a just-retired policeman from Chicago, a widower from Hamburg, and a primary school teacher from Switzerland – a tapestry of beautiful souls.
Nestled in an epicurean landscape dominated by orchards and Chasselas grape vines, Moissac was the second most important sacred site (after Conques) for medieval pilgrims. It is famous for its majestic Abbey Saint-Pierre, one of the most beautiful Romanesque buildings in France. The cloister, used by medieval monastics for walking meditation, dates back to 1100.
It was a beautiful place to receive my first pilgrim blessing. I am not religious, but Marguerite encouraged me to come along to the 6pm mass and enjoy the spiritual experience. She translated much of the priest’s blessing and instructed me on what to do. Later we took an evening picnic together on the banks of the nearby canal and talked about our lives, families and plans for the future.
Day 4: Introspection on the way to Auvillar
On day 4 the rain and wind arrived. I swapped my singlet and trekking shorts for head-to-toe wet weather gear and set off early along the flat towpath of the canal of the Tarn and Garonne rivers, headed for Auvillar (20km). It was an introspective walk for the first 2 hours until I caught Alain, a charismatic French pilgrim from Brittany whom I had met on day 1. He was unrecognisable at first – a large red pilgrim poncho draped over himself and his pack, flapping in the icy wind.
We walked at the same pace, pausing briefly to sing happy birthday to a 73-year old French man on his fourth Camino and then again for sustenance in a small town where I witnessed old-fashioned Frenchness – morning drinking, cigarette smoking and cheek-kissing.
The last stretch was along quiet roads through vegetable gardens and fields – clods of mud clung to my boots, making it more a trudge than a walk. After an uphill climb, we reached the small village of Auvillar and the Place de la Halle, a cobbled triangular ‘square’ lined with three rows of attractive arcaded houses, built in the trademark red-brick of the region. The centrepiece was the unusual circular market hall, where we took shelter and ate our picnic lunch in contemplative silence, alongside two other French pilgrims.
Day 5: Luxury in Lectoure
On day 5 it was time to leave Le Lot department and enter the beautiful rolling farmlands of Le Gers in the heart of Gascony. The journey started just before dawn and my walking companion was again Marguerite. Walking through lush fields was muddy, slippery and slow going in places. Underneath an overcast sky, the quaint hamlets of Bardigues, Saint-Antoine, Flamarens and Miradoux appeared at regular intervals. By this stage, I’d still seen more tractors than cars on my entire walk. I also noted that humans in Gers are vastly outnumbered by livestock.
After 32km (8 hours) we arrived in Lectoure, having walked through an undulating agricultural paradise of wheat, corn and garlic. The sweet aroma from the slopes is unmistakable. When the picturesque hilltop town came into view, our little band of pilgrims (swelling to four at Miradoux) was euphoric. We entered the historic walled town and made our way to the impressive Cathedral of Saint Gervais & Saint Protais. I lost track of how long we sat in the pews but I do remember an overwhelming feeling of calmness. Then we ate large slices of lavish cake and drank tea at the nearby salon de thé.
A lovely surprise was the luxurious French jewel where I would spend the night. Thierry, the owner, warmly welcomed me into his opulent ‘hotel’ (four magnificent suites in a restored 17th-century mansion) furnished with exquisite artwork and stunning décor. Adding to the style and magic: a wine cellar with exposed stone walls and arched ceilings, an outdoor pool and huge indoor jacuzzi, and an epic breakfast spread.
Day 6: La Romieu and the grinning cheese farmer
La Romieu was my next stop, a mere 4-hour walk (18km). The trail took me along quiet back roads to Marsolan, a tiny village on a steep hillside. Then it was easy walking through woodland and out on to vast open fields, dotted with round bales. The air was filled with the smell of hay, wild grass and damp earth.
After the chapel at Abrin, the route goes northwards to La Romieu. Distracted by unchained barking dogs, I missed the turn off and instead, unknowingly, headed directly to Condom, as medieval pilgrims would have done. An hour later, while taking a picnic lunch under a tree, the French couple I’d met that morning enquired about my day and pointed out my error. I had two choices – walk back uphill through the muddy fields (4.5km) or stay on route for Condom (10km). It was drizzling and I was struggling physically with a tender right ankle and a wretched toe blister.
They offered me arnica tablets to ease my pain and then accompanied me slowly towards Condom. Within half an hour, they had flagged down a small van and secured me a lift with a grinning French cheese farmer who unhesitatingly and effortlessly delivered me to a bustling La Romieu. He then carried my backpack through the narrow streets and helped me find my hotel for the night. Merci beaucoup!
La Romieu is an incredibly pretty, flower-bedecked medieval village, which every year receives a large number of pilgrims on their way to St Jacques de Compostela. The small village (530 inhabitants) began life in the 11th century as a stopping place for Benedictine monks on pilgrimage to Rome. I’d arrived on the day of the superb annual rose market, a unique event in the region held on the third Sunday of May. The main square was overflowing with lively banter and roses in all colours, scents and shapes.
I did a tour of the magnificent 14th Collégiale St Pierre, with its sumptuous cloister, and then settled in for a few hours at a charming restaurant/bar situated right on the village square – a good place to drink beer and spot the whimsical stone cats prowling along roof lines and curled up asleep against the alcoves.
Day 7: A gothic cathedral and a bus to Biarritz
The following day, after an easy 13km, I was standing beneath the superb Gothic cathedral in Condom, the end point of my Camino journey. If I’d had more time, I would have tasted the rare vintage of Armagnac, the centuries-old brandy, but I had a bus to catch to Biarritz on France’s Basque Coast – another story!
I’d just experienced a week of glorious walking under big blue skies on winding forest tracks, through rolling countryside exploding with vivid red poppies and waving fields of wheat. It was a romantic, life-affirming walk in unspoiled nature where time seemed to slow down. Evenings were as much a part of the journey as the walking. After arriving in a lovely French village, I’d check into my hotel, slip into sandals and re-emerge for the pleasure of the first aperitif, lively conversation, abundant local wines and, with luck, more of the illustrious Rocamadour goat cheese.
I understand now what it is about the Camino that brings people back. The physical challenge for sure. The accomplishment is worth every blister and aching muscle. The camaraderie of course. On the Camino, as in life, people are everything. Strangers one minute, family the next. If you are open, the connections are rich and meaningful.
WALK NOTES | SELF-GUIDED LE PUY CAMINO (Cahors to Condom)
Time: 7 days
Day 1: Cahors to Montcuq (30.5km, 7 hours)
Day 2: Montcuq to Lauzerte (14km, 3.5 hours)
Day 3: Lauzerte to Moissac (28.5km, 7.5 hours)
Day 4: Moissac to Auvillar (21km, 5.5 hours)
Day 5: Auvillar to Lectoure (29km, 7.5 hours)
Day 6: Lectoure to La Romieu (18.5km, 4.5 hours)
Day 7: La Romieu to Condom (13.5km, 3.5 hours)
* This trip can also be completed at a much slower pace over 13 days.
* Allow 40 days for the full route from Le Puy en Velay to St Jean Pied de Port (745km).
A version of this article was first published in the Great Walks Annual 2020.
NEED TO KNOW
RAW Travel are Australia’s Camino experts. Our Camino itineraries are self-guided, so you can depart on a date of your choosing. We specialise in tailormade trips, so you can request additional nights and/or alter the walking distances to suit your timeframe and fitness levels. Luggage transfers are included, so all you carry is a light daypack. We offer real-time advice, book the best accommodation on the routes, and we have staff members on the Camino to provide support.
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