Reserving ahead: The great debate

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This stunning depiction of pilgrim life was part of a wall-length painting by Herve Vernhes in the Notre Dame des Pauvres, Aubrac.

To book or not to book? This is the question that preoccupies many a pilgrim and conversation on the way.

On the one hand, not-booking is freedom. You get to stop in whatever village you want, whatever lovely gîte (pronounced zheet) you like with whomever lovely person you met throughout the day.

On the other hand, booking gives you the comfort of knowing you will have a warm, food-filled (if you go for demi-pension) and not-too-expensive place to sleep each night.

For me the deciding factors are French holidays.

The French love to vacation in families and groups. As cool as this is, it means one large group can book out an entire gîte for a night, skewing the normal pattern of openings. This Sunday, the day before Lundi de Pentecôte, the entire 96-bed dormitory at the Abbey in Conques is booked out.

(Quoi? Comment est-ce possible???)

(Il est possible, mon ami.)

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I would not have eaten cheese off a roof tile had I not booked ahead at Fabienne’s fabulous Gîte d’étape Pélerin in Liris.

Usually, traveling alone, I don’t book. I am free. I am rogue. I figure nearly everyone has at least one spare bed if not an extra mattress to pull out. Traveling this way, I can stop when I’m ready, visit the listed gîtes personally and pick one where I feel a good vibe.

Reality is sometimes less elegant, though. I usually arrive at the intended village exhausted and hungry at around 1 p.m., can’t always find a village map, and the épicerie (grocery store) and tourist office are both closed till at least 2:30. Not having a cell phone, I either sit and wait, swallowing the remaining crumbs of gluten free bread and calculating how late I’ll arrive at the next town if all the places are booked and I have to set out again at, say, 3 – or else I badger a stranger for a call to one of the listed gîtes. Might as well have asked someone I knew to do that the day before, right?

But then again, freedom…

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