Many people think that El Camino is one trail. It’s not. In fact there are numerous pilgrimage routes crossing France, Spain, Portugal and other countries. The most popular, and the basis of films such as The Way, and books such as The pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho, is the Camino Francais. By far the most famous path for most who take on the Camino, in recent years, due to its popularity, other routes such as the Camino del Norte have proved more popular for those wishing for a queiter experience away from the crowds.
Another is the Via Podiensis route, which I have hiked twice and is the subject of my first book – The Journey in Between. Guest blogger Tom Caley also walked it this year, and I’ll now hand over to him to tell you about it.
This summer, looking for some freedom, space and time to think, I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago or Way of St James. Say that to a lot of people and they assume you’ve been on the famous Camino Francés trail in Spain – the route westward from the Pyrenees. In fact, the Camino in Spain is merely a convergence point for the numerous trails which feed in from its neighbour, France. After finding out the ‘Way’ needn’t necessarily begin and end in Spain, my starting point as a pilgrim saw me setting off from Le Puy-en-Velay, along the route known as the Via Podiensis.
Le Puy is a beautiful cathedral town set in the volcanic country of the Haute Loire, and shares a long association with the pilgrimage of St James. The first prominent pilgrim to set off from here was its bishop, Godescalc, who set off in the tenth century with a caravan of clergy and servants. Over the Middle Ages things became more established, with pilgrim hospitals and an established route for travellers to follow. Nowadays the route has gained a small following among Francophiles and long-distance walkers, and is known for its beauty, variety and relative isolation.
All of these features I found to be true – the Via Podiensis is one stunning long-distance trail. Named the GR (or Grande Randonée) 65, the path is carefully maintained as part of a network of national walking routes. For this reason, there’s plenty of walkers’ accommodation, amenities and excellent signposting for the length of its 750km.
Out of Le Puy, the trail reaches as high as 1300 metres as the pilgrim passes into the high forests and plateau of the Margeride. Soon windswept grasslands, broken rock and gorse herald your arrival in wild Aubrac. Herds of huge brown cows chew the cud, looking quizzical as you stride down the trail. The high country eventually gives way to rolling fields of golden wheat and fairytale villages – each with a ruinous chateau or church. On the way to the Basque Country – and that first ecstatic sight of the Pyrenees – you pass through the medieval wonders of Cahors, Figeac, Moissac and Auvillar.
Of course, every pilgrim’s experience is unique, and my own time in France (HERE) seems like a dream to me now. Some days alone, other days with a trail buddy or group, I’d walk entranced through some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever witnessed.
Walking accommodation, or gites, are a little more expensive than the Spanish albergues in Spain, but still offer that same camaraderie, welcome and spirit of the Way. Plus, there’s usually the option of having your meals cooked – an amazing opportunity to indulge in the finest French gastronomy!
Any fan of history, French culture or the outdoors would simply love the Via Podiensis, I guarantee it. It’s something a bit different, a bit special – and if you are fixated on walking the Francés, all you have to do is keep walking when you get to Spain! As for me, I certainly got my time to think, to wonder at the beauty of our planet and to connect with some pretty special people. That’s the thing about walking long-distance: it leads to discovery, healing and growth – of mind, body and spirit.
Pilgrim – go well. I wish you bon chemin!
Tom Caley walked the Via Podiensis from May-June 2016. His website: IndieLifestyle.net helps people expand their horizons and better their lives. His favourite past times include push-ups, long days in the mountains and reviewing books about heroes.