Main cities and villages along the way
- Noailhac (as part of an alternate route)
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.
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.
I’ve always loved Paul’s outburst to the Corinthians, urging them to “run in such as way as to get the prize.” But in these last few days I’ve been thinking about that in a new light.
I tried to step up my game last week, wanted to keep up with the European 60-year-olds, and pulled a couple of 20-miler days with something like a 30-pound pack, food and water included. I did OK, rubbed some new blisters, sweat out any remaining toxins and had only one hysteria breakdown when I couldn’t find gluten free food in the small no-restaurant, no-grocery-store village where I’d stopped for the night. All in all, I thought I’d stepped up to a new level. But then my feet wouldn’t stop hurting.
After a day of rest and a short Monday, I was still hobbling in flip-flops, and I discussed the problem with some veteran walkers. “Take another day off,” they advised, “or get a taxi to carry your bags.” To my grimace, they added, “If you injure yourself now, you won’t finish.”
The I-haven’t-yet-checked stat backing up their warning was that only 3% of pilgrims leaving Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French Way actually make it to Santiago. Yikes…
I dumped some extra weight (down to just one hiking outfit now) and took another slow day. Today I’m resting in a yurt in a campground with a swimming pool, a trampoline and trees. Not bad.
I think about John Bunyan’s Pilgrim and his progress sometimes. Am I getting distracted, having too much fun on this journey toward the cross? Or are fun and rest part of the pilgrimage too?
My conclusion is that, more often than not, it’s better to stop, bandage the feet and call a friend. I want that prize, yes, and that’s why I’m making sure I stay in shape to finish.
The French are a delightful, friendly people who love to engage, make little jokes and walk down and back up very long hills just for bouquets of flowers. Indeed, I wish I knew the language and culture better than I yet do, but for now here are a few tips on loving the French:
French people say hello all the time but only once a day to each person. Be attentive! Say, “Bonjour!” when you first meet anyone, when you enter a shop and even when you pass an elderly couple (or anyone) in the street. Always say hello to waiters or shopkeepers before anything else. The second time you see someone, it’s nice to say, “Ça va?” And if you see someone in the evening, you can say, “Bonsoir,” even if you’ve already said, “Bonjour.”
Get used to French time
Rural French shopkeepers tend to open from around 8 a.m. – 12 p.m., close for lunch, then open again from around 3 – 7 p.m. Sundays they might close entirely or just open for a morning window.
If you find this annoying, ask the shopkeeper who runs the place morning to night, seven days a week, and maybe you will suggest he or she should close more often.
Use and buy graciously
I haven’t asked, but I don’t think the American motto of the customer always being right carries over to France. If you want to try on a shirt, ask first. If you stay the night at a hostel, fold the linens you used and wash and dry all your dishes.
You can tell a French person from a distance by the smile wrinkles. Crows feet sprout from even many of the young. While Americans might stretch their cheeks outward when they smile and get those vertical cheek lines, the French tend to smile upward, squinting their eyes into mirthful little half-moons. The lips, puckered a bit to make the tricky nasal sounds, might curve up or down or twist both ways. I’m suspecting a capricious sense of humor, but I haven’t figured that out yet.
What I have noticed is that they love to talk about others. I have just to sit in a restaurant, and already several pairs of eyes are usually studying me and sometimes quietly muttering possible nationalities. When I order my food, conversations about gluten intolerance ripple outward. Once, after just surviving a stressful string of telephone reservations, the other guests at my hostel began repeating my script – “Je m’appelle Lainie. Je suis une pèlerine.” – hyper slow and giggling.
When I made sounds of indignation (I am so articulate), they laughed even louder and told me I spoke really good French. It was not true, but it was, somehow, sweet.
I love the French.
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.)
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…
The 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.
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.
Here you have a choice… Comfort or adventure?
This is obviously a dare…
- Les Estrets
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.
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.