Reserving ahead: The great debate

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pilgrim mural 01a
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.)

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…


Finding the way

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The way 01The ways of St. James follow city streets, trails, mountain pathways and farm roads. These meander north, south, east and west in their generally westward quest toward Santiago, Spain. Every seven or so kilometers, the Via Podiensis way sends pilgrims through villages with toilets (wc) and drinking water (eau potable). Almost as frequently it directs them to ancient churches and holy places.

So how do we know the way?

The way is symbolized by the scallop shell, which you can see on markers embedded the streets, on walls and on official signposts telling the number of kilometers to the next town. More often, the way is just marked by a yellow stripe on a tree, sign or fencepost. Even more often, the way is marked by the red and white stripe of the Grande Randonnée 65 (GR65).

The GR 65 is a French walking trail that generally follows the same route. Occasionally, the ways diverge, but most pilgrims follow the GR 65, as it is the better marked and usually more direct route to the next destination.

The flag pointing right directs you to make a right turn, while left means left. The X (pic coming soon!) is a dare to just try and leave the trail and get totally lost or mired in mud.

Right sign  Left signx sign

Here you have a choice… Comfort or adventure?

the ways

This is obviously a dare…

way temptation

Choosing a guidebook

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Miam Miam Dodo has the most comprehensive list of places to stay.

Alas, there are no English guidebooks that I know of for the Via Podiensis. I’ve learned, though, that some of the confraternities publish their own material, so you might inquire.

The best guide for accommodations is the Miam Miam Dodo (baby talk for Yum Yum Doze). Don’t worry that it’s in French. You will learn the basic words in a few days, and you’ll need to know them anyway. You can pick this up at the tourist office in Le Puy or order it ahead.

Michelin guides present distance, elevation gain, difficulty and rest-stops in a really easy format.

I also got the Michelin guide Chemins de Compostelle: Le Puy-en-Velay -> Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. This is fantastic for showing the elevation gain, distances and prospective time of travel every day. The guide is laid out to suggest daily walks if you want to arrive in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in 32 days. The first day was 23 km, about 15 miles, with a roughly 400 m elevation gain. Others are easier, or at least flatter.

Topo guides
Topo guides have great maps.

The Topo guides are another popular series. These have the most exact maps and some very nice information about each region.

You can also ask for information or publications at tourist offices and mairies (mayor’s offices). I’ve seen a few other guides published in various languages from various dates. Check the tourist office and the cathedral sacristy if you didn’t plan ahead. (Moi?)

Many tourist offices and mairies offer free local guides and lists of accommodations!

Don’t bring too many guides because it’s better to pack light and ask for help! You can pick up more guides at tourist shops, bars and tourist offices along the way.

Getting the pilgrim’s passport

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pilgrim's passportThis is the booklet you will carry with you from the beginning of your journey to end. Every place you stay will give you a stamp, and this is how you will prove at the end of the road that you walked your pilgrimage. You need this to get a certificate in Santiago, and you need it to stay in many of the cheaper pilgrim’s hostels. This method hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.

Most gloriously, you can pick up a pilgrim’s passport after mass at 7 a.m. from the cathedral Notre Dame on top of the hill. The late risers (Qui moi?) can get them at the Sacristy inside the cathedral from generally 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Never make assumptions about lunch break.)

The Miam Miam Dodo guidebook (which you can get at the tourist’s office) offers a couple of other addresses in the city, a tobacco shop and a hotel.

You can also plan ahead and order one from an association or confraternity connected with the Way of St. James.

Navigating Le Puy

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Going to Le Puy: Upon arrival in CDG Airport, you can take the train straight to Le Puy. Just go to the ticket office or one of those ticket machines. Trains leave several times a day and transfer through Lyon and St. Ettiene. Depending on where you buy your ticket, you might need to transfer by bus to another Paris station, so make sure you have at least a half hour or more to spare.

Le Puy Map
Le Puy-en-Velay with the splendid Chapel de St Michel in the foreground. If you see nothing else in Le Puy, visit this chapel.

If, like me, you want to kick around for a couple of days in Paris, you can similarly order a ticket from any Gare (train station) or the SNFC website. Again, be sure to pay attention to the departing station. The signs inside the station will tell you which hall to go to, and the platform number will appear 20 minutes before the train leaves.

The ticket cost me 92 euros. The info man told me it would have been a lot cheaper if I’d booked it two months in advance. Who does that?

Staying there: I stayed my first night at the hostel Auberge de Jeunesse, which was half a km from the train station close to the cathedral in the Centre Pierre Cardinal. It seems you can’t book ahead online, but there’s an email and number at their site. It was spare but clean and only 15 euros.

Le Puy 04
View of St. Mary from the pilgrim’s hostel.

Even more delightful was the Gîte de le Pèlerin at 28 Rue Pierre Cardinal, located in an old stone building even closer to the Cathedral. You must have a pilgrim’s credential to stay there (see next post). The accommodations are run by incredibly kind and friendly staff, who I believe are volunteers connected with the Amis de St. Jacques in Le Puy. They serve breakfast at little round tables. The sleeping arrangements are beds in private cubicles within one great dormitory. I highly recommend wearing earplugs! The night I slept there, some pilgrims were leaving by 3:45 a.m. The cost is by donation  – “donativo”. (Literally, you can pay nothing or whatever you’re able, but if you’re able to pay, some tell me a good benchmark is 10 – 30 euros.)

Of course, there are many other wonderful places to stay in Le Puy. The tourist office is especially helpful (and English speaking).

Le Puy 0777Seeing the city: This is an old and lovely city, well-worth a day-long tour. Go to the tourist’s office, get a historical map and take a walk. If you miss everything else, however, don’t miss the Chapel de St.-Michel on top of the rock peak on the other side of the statue of St. Mary away from the old city. It’s a 10 minute walk from the cathedral and possibly another 10 minute climb (after buying a ticket). The difficulty of the climb gives a bit of seclusion and a feeling of holiness to the asymmetrical sanctuary. And the effort is nothing to that of the people who built the chapel stone by stone in the 10th Century.

First things first – choosing a trail

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Santiago 01This is a blog about hiking the pilgrimage toward Santiago from France. This walk is hundreds of years old, and thousands of pilgrims trek it every year. I’m an American woman figuring it out for the first time with little knowledge of French or Spanish, so I if you’re similarly green, I invite you to walk with me.

You can begin the pilgrimage from just about anywhere in Europe, including your front door. If you want to receive a certificate in Santiago, though, then you must start at least 100 km away. If you want to be an official pilgrim and stay in pilgrim hostels, then you must get a pilgrim’s passport “créanciale” from an association, travel office, cathedral or  confraternity.

Le Puy map 01The classic French starting point is St. Jean Pied de Port., but if you want to start further into France, there are four starting points dating back to Medieval times: Tours (or Paris), Vezelay, Arles and Le Puy.

I picked Le Puy because it is well-marked, well-traveled and, reportedly, as beautiful as a fairytale. This route is called the Via Podiensis, and it generally follows the French walking trail Grande Route 65.

Here are some sites I found helpful:

This isn’t comprehensive, but hopefully it gives you a start!

Bon chemin!


french routes