By region

Region 5: Tarn-et-Garonne

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A German artist brought her solo show about the life of Camille Claudel to this renovated church in Moissac. European performers sometimes take shows to people, playing a night in each village of a region, rather than expecting people to travel to their central theaters.

 Main cities and villages along the way

  • Lauzerte
  • Moissac
  • Auvillar

The landscape

Wake early and power it to the villages, so you have time to shower, hand wash laundry and wander before dinner. The ancient buildings, exquisite churches and quiet gardens in this stretch are more worth your time than the road.

A typical route

If you’re staying in Lauzerte, I highly recommend the campground before the village, where you can rent a yurt bed, swim in the pool and use an outdoor grill for the same cost as a dorm, about 15 euros a night. Ask the campground manager about the shortcut for hiking up the hill to Lauzerte. The city’s cobbled main square is grandiose, and the cafes around the perimeter offer a tasty local grape juice. A pilgrim’s garden a short walk from the square provides lovely views of the surrounding countryside.

In Moissac stay at the Carmelite abbey on the hill. The abbey provides simple but clean dorms, grounds with views and an gorgeous cloister full of chirping birds. If you reserve ahead, you can ask about whether they offer foot rubs to pilgrims. The city is full of churches from many eras. One, across the river, has been converted into an art space where you can sometimes watch shows.

The way from Moissac follows the shady canal, a blessed relief if temperatures are getting up in the 90s. Take a minute to soak your feet before tackling the hotter stretch to Auvillar.

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Hobbits might have stocked this pantry in a 15th Century hotel in Auvillar.

One of the very best places I stayed was the 15th Century home and hotel of Gerhart and Marie-Josie, located near the Office de Tourisme in a corner of the Place de la Halle, Auvillar. You will see a clay statue of Saint James with a dove of peace over the lower roof. This place offers pilgrims’ dorms and prices for upstairs lodging in this incredibly beautiful historical building. Most valuable, though, are the conversations with Gerhart and Marie-Jo. They love their home and city, and they eagerly share meals, knowledge and stories with pilgrims in French, German and English.

Auvillar itself is one of the ‘plus beaux villages de France.’ It’s set atop a hill overlooking the green Garonne River. Wander down for a rest on grassy lawns if you can bear climbing that hill twice! The central square, or triangle, sports an ancient, round, covered marketplace, and farmers and artisans still come to sell wares on Sundays. A park just off the square offers extraordinary views of the green countryside, river and a couple of nuclear power plants in the distance. (No todo es color de rosa.)

Don’t miss

Art! Watch for signboards on walls of the mairie or office de tourisme and ask at your hostel. Performers and artists often take great art on the road in France, and you might be lucky enough to catch a play or exhibition while staying in even a small village. Most pilgrims do not pay attention to such things, so you’ve got to be proactive. But you are traveling in France, soaking in the life and wisdom along le Chemin. Don’t turn the walk into work!

In Moissac I saw a solo show by a German performer about Camille Claudel, artistic collaborator and betrayed lover of Auguste Rodin. Watching a play in a foreign language can be daunting, but for me the artistry of the performance, the body language of the actors and the opportunity to watch well-dressed audience members mingling in a happening space make watching shows in foreign countries a favorite treat.

In Auvillar I wandered into a small chapel and caught a display of hanging clay stones. A local artist had made white stones of clay and hung them on long strings strung in rows from the rafters of the church. The small, earth-toned room was damaged and mostly unadorned except for an altar cross and a blue-gold picture of the Virgin Mary, but the window light caught the white stones and created a mystic affect, like stars had dropped inside the holy place and were lighting it up from inside.

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The morning begins with birdsong in the cloister of the Carmelite abbey in Moissac.
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Region 4: Lot

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Rocamadour 01
Early morning light on road from Rocamadour.

  Main cities and villages along the way

  • Figeac (point of decision for variant routes)
  • Cajarc
  • Varaire
  • Cahors
  • Labastide-Marnhac
  • L’hospitalet
  • Lascabanes
  • Montcuq (ask a French person to tell you the joke about this city’s name)

The landscape

The trail winds along the Lot River, through the Lot Valley, one of the oldest wine regions in France. It’s beautiful and lush but also distinctly more modern than some of the earlier regions. Figeac and Cahors are big cities that might prove delightful if you need to shop or annoying if you still want to pretend you’re walking through the Medieval France. You’ll find yourself following the trail along more roads, and the markers appear less frequently. By this point, you’ll probably have met many of the other pilgrims along the way, and walking with these new friends can shorten the painful stretches along hot roads.

A typical route

This region is distinct for it’s enticing variations. I highly recommend doing a little research before ploughing through the most standard route. Rocamadour, for example is a two-or-three day detour, but it’s one that a lot of pilgrims choose to make.

Stained glass rocamadour 03Don’t miss

Rocamadour. This holy site is one of the most visited in France. It’s overrun with tourists and lined with leather-handbag sellers and overpriced ice cream, yet I still recommend the trip. The city is built in three tiers on a cliff. The lowest tier belongs to the shops, restaurants and hotels. The topmost is a castle with accessible ramparts overlooking the whole valley. There’s a monastery offering cheap lodging behind it. The second tier, built into the cliff, supports a massive church with multiple chapels that hold mass in various languages throughout the day. Two nuns live on this level and also host pilgrims.

The stained glass window in the Chapelle de Saint-Jean is one of my favorites of the whole trip. The black statue of the Virgin Mary, though, is the draw for most visitors. Those praying at Rocamadour are said to receive miracles and revelations. I can say for my own experience that this was true.

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A sheep pasture near Rocamadour.

Region 3: Aveyron

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Conques
The way into Conques is lined with roses.

Main cities and villages along the way

  • Aubrac
  • Saint-Chély-d’Aubrac
  • Saint-Côme-d’Olt
  • Espalion
  • Estaing
  • Golinhac
  • Espeyrac
  • Sénergues
  • Conques
  • Noailhac (as part of an alternate route)
  • Decazeville
  • Livinhac-le-Haut

The landscape

This stretch of the way has less elevation change than before, and the landscape is still fairly rural. Most often the way follows farm roads through fields and sometimes forest paths full of chestnut trees. Frequent low hills provide lovely views of the river Lot winding through country villages and fields. An abundance of Medieval villages and churches provide lovely stops every few miles.

A typical route

It’s useful in this region to research ahead and plan which villages you can’t possibly miss because there are so many lovely possible stops and detours. In one convent off the beaten path live nuns who make famous chocolate.

Don’t miss

Conques is a major destination for many pilgrims and tourists because of the steal-your-breath-away Medieval village and high forested hills all around. The Abbey-Church of Saint-Foy is a gem of 12th century Romanesque architecture, and it runs a unique and rigorous schedule of prayers and activities. The brothers present a pilgrims’ benediction every evening, and sometimes pilgrims read scripture in multiple languages. Afterward, a brother or the abbot hosts a chuckle-inducing explanation of the tympanum decoration over the main church doors, which depict contrasting lifestyles in heaven and hell. Finally, there’s an evening service of organ music, and paying tourists are allowed into the upper floor for a perimeter tour of the column capitals, each uniquely carved in patterns and figures. After all that came before, though, and with the thundering chords of “House of the Rising Sun” echoing in the vast church, it’s hard to study minutia. It’s enough to just walk around, jaw hanging, and wave across the church at travelers you’ve met along the way.

Conques tympanum talk
Tympanum talks draw crowds at the Abbey-Church of St. Foy (Faith) in Conques. They are not translated in English, so try to make bilingual friends.

Region 2: Lozère

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Main cities and villages along the way:Aubrac 06

  • Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole
  • Les Estrets
  • Aumont-Aubrac
  • Lasbros
  • Finieyrols
  • Montgros
  • Nasbinals

The landscape:

The hike over the plateau from Aumont-Aubrac to Nasbinals was the most beautiful yet. The trail maintains a fairly level altitude, peaking at 1257 m at Roc des Loups, a giant cracked boulder on top of a grassy, windswept hill with a view the whole countryside.

A typical route:

St. Alban, Aumont-Aubrac and Nasbinals all have tourist offices (meaning the general conveniences of wifi, a small grocery and usually people to talk to in English), plentiful gîtes (hostels) and beautiful churches.

Don’t miss:

Aligot d’Aubrac, the traditional side dish of cheese, potatoes and garlic, is served at just about every restaurant in this region. Normally, I wouldn’t love this kind of food, but after a long day of hiking, it hits the spot. Ask at a tourist office for a restaurant recommendation.

Aubrac 03  Aubrac 04

Aubrac 05  Aubrac 07

Region 1: Haute-Loire

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First view of Saint-Privat-d’Allier.

Main cities and villages along the way:

  • Le Puy-en-Velay
  • Saint-Christophe-sur-Dolaison
  • Montbonnet
  • Saint-Privat-d’Allier
  • Monistrol-d’Allier
  • Saugues
  • Chanaleilles

The landscape:

This area is formed by volcanoes and glaciers. The vegetation is lush and low-growing, abounding in wildflowers. You will walk over wooded peaks and through stream-filled valleys. Probably the most breathtaking sight, for me, was the fairytale-like view of Saint-Privat after a long first day of hiking.

A typical route:

Many people plan a medium-to-light first stage of travel stopping in Montbonnet for the first night and next in Monistrol. The more confident go straight to Saint-Privat and then to Sauges. The more ambitious should plan their own routes!