Main cities and villages along the way
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.
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.)
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.