23 Dec 22
Pilgrimage on Le Chemin du Puy
Melbourne hiker Bryan Mears completed Spain’s Camino Francés in 2017 and Japan’s Kumano Kodo in 2019. He recently returned from walking Le Chemin du Puy – France’s magnificent pilgrim route that begins in Le Puy-en-Velay.
I was keen to get moving again. Almost 3 years in the making, my pilgrimage from from Le Puy-en-Velay in southern France to Roncesvalles in Spain was about to start, finally. The distance is about 800km. My plan allowed for 39 days with a couple of rest days thrown in.
Buen Camino has morphed into Bon Chemin. Walking the Camino Francés can feel somewhat like a sideshow to the socialising you experience meeting many pilgrims along the way. Le Chemin du Puy is very different and offers the promise of challenges, new experiences, great food, brilliant wine and a very different cultural experience compared to Spain and Japan.
The focus is very much on the walk and as a result I found a rewarding immersion into the rich history of the region. The countryside was often breathtaking especially during sunsets on the magnificent high plateau. There are fewer pilgrims, mainly French, usually walking short sections of a week or two. Some days we walked the entire day without seeing a single person on the trail.
There are fewer pilgrims, mainly French, usually walking short sections of a week or two.
Starting from Le Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne, the route runs through the hills of the Velay region to the foothills of the majestic Pyrenees to join with the Camino Francés at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Our plan was to cross the Pyrenees via Napoleon’s Way into Spain and finish at Roncesvalles.
Arriving in early August by train into Le Puy from Lyon was a breeze. Loading up the Airalo app and e-sim into my iPhone proved to be perfect for our communication needs over the next 39 days.
Le Puy is one of those places you just have to visit if you can. As the jumping-off point for the Le Puy route (aka Via Podiensis), it offers the ideal preparation for the challenges ahead. Emerging from the Le Puy Notre Dame Cathedral following the 7am blessing of the pèlerine has to be one of the most unique and memorable starts to any pilgrimages anywhere in the world.
Emerging from the Le Puy Notre Dame Cathedral following the 7am blessing of the pèlerine has to be one of the most unique and memorable starts to any pilgrimages anywhere in the world.
I was ready and raring to go; I thought I was fit (I wasn’t); and all the minor details were sorted. What could go wrong?
Maybe time for a disclaimer and a reality check. Firstly, no-one controls the weather; there is only so much you can plan for. Whatever you think or imagine will happen, won’t. Things you couldn’t believe will happen, do. People sometimes act strangely and do the unexpected. But that is why we are here isn’t it – to be out of our comfort zone. For the most part though, you will experience wonderful kind gestures, friendly locals and the company of fellow walkers.
Back to day 1. There was a massive thunderstorm the night before we set off and details were emerging about a heatwave passing across northern Spain that would soon hit southern France. It was the third of the season, and unexpected. We walked straight into searing dry heat, which usually peaked around 38–40°C by mid-afternoon. The heat remained for most of the first week. When reviewing the 800km walk to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port the first 200km from Le Puy to Conques promised be the most consistently challenging. Steep ascents and descents characterise this section. I hasten to add that everyone has different fitness levels and we all deal with the trail in our own way. I find that when I have trained and lifted my level of fitness before a walk, I enjoy rising to the challenges.
A heatwave passing across northern Spain would soon hit southern France.
The French countryside is beautiful; the villages and towns are simply awesome. The entire route is filled with pilgrim churches, historic monuments, abbeys and cathedrals. The Camino Francés cannot compare for preserved architecture, especially the churches and cathedrals. Another difference is that all the churches are open. I visited as many as I could. Many were centuries old and still functioning. The first 200km to Conques were the most gruelling time I’ve spent walking due to the 40°C+ temps and terrain. However the beautiful villages along the way made up for any discomfort. Which brings me to Conques. This is a very special place and a wonderful snapshot of medieval life frozen in time. I can’t describe it adequately; simply put – go there.
The entire route is filled with pilgrim churches, historic monuments, abbeys and cathedrals.
Crossing from Conques to Cahors over the high plateau we passed through charming untouched historical towns and villages. Beautiful scenery was punctuated by the many farms and herds of the most pampered and pretty cattle I’ve ever seen. Cahors, located on the Lot river, is another magical place featuring the magnificent 14th-century Pont Valentré described as the best preserved medieval bridge in France.
The route winds further west onto Lectoure, a distance of about 120km. The route crosses the Lot and Garonne valleys and is a very pleasant walk through beautiful countryside filled with more crops as the terrain drops from the plateau. From Lectoure to Aire Sur L’Adour is a further 120km. This part of the route featured the Armagnac region and hectares of vineyards. This area is the source of the famous and excellent Armagnac brandy. I had to try some for research purposes. Magnificent! Following the red-and-white stripes of the GR65 is easy. Passing the backdrop of sunflower crops and heading ever westward towards the Pyrenees was a wonderful experience.
Passing the sunflower crops and heading ever westward towards the Pyrenees was a wonderful experience.
As I completed my pilgrimage I felt I had achieved a sense of peace and a fitness capable of carrying me onto Santiago. City life and the attendant myriad issues faded. On this trail it’s just you and your thoughts. There’s a calmness and the ability to think unimpeded by distractions.
Le Chemin du Puy is a gentle walk through French history, while savouring French foods, speaking French with the locals, and meeting some pretty cows. Highly recommended!
Through RAW Travel I booked daily luggage transfers, and this remains one of my better decisions. They also booked all our accommodation along the route to our final stop in Roncesvalles.
All text and photos courtesy Bryan Mears.
VIEW ALL TRIPS: Le Puy Camino (France)