It’s possible to survive walking the Chemin de Saint-Jacques from Le Puy-en-Velay if you speak next to no French. I met two Austrian students who walked part of the route, and gleefully got by snorting like pigs to order pork in a restaurant, and miming their ailments in a pharmacy. I also walked for a day with a Korean woman who spoke no French apart from the tiny amount she’d picked up while walking. She made it all the way to Santiago.
That said, the Chemin du Puy is a lot easier—and more companionable—if you speak French.
The Miam-Miam Dodo guidebook has the most comprehensive information on accommodation and places to eat and shop for food. It also has some very nice maps.
It’s completely in French, but it uses easily-understood symbols to portray lodgings and more, so if you know a very basic amount of French, you’ll probably be able to muddle through.
If you got your Miam-Miam Dodo a few months before your trip, you could even look up the important words (they tend to repeat) in an Internet translation program and write them down.
The only English guidebook that I know of is Alison Raju’s Way of Saint James—France. It’s been updated this year, and I can’t comment on the new edition, but the previous edition didn’t have nearly as comprehensive information on eating and sleeping as the Miam-Miam Dodo has. However, it did have historical information and very detailed descriptions of the trail.
Asking for Directions
The route is generally well waymarked, but I occasionally had to ask for directions to it—especially in the mornings—or ask directions to a gîte d’étape (a small hostel for walkers).
I could ask for the directions easily enough (“Pardon. Savez-vous ou est le gîte d’étape?“). Unfortunately, I couldn’t always understand the answer. In that case, I would walk in the direction the person I talked to pointed in for a while, and then ask someone else. It’s not the most efficient method of getting somewhere, but it worked, especially since the gîtes weren’t usually that far from the walking route.
You don’t actually have to speak French in stores (although a bonjour is friendly), since you can usually select your own items or point to what you want. Of course, if you can’t read the packaging in pharmacies you might have to resort to my Austrian friends’ methods and act out your problem.
The price will either come up in euros on the till, and if it’s a really small place with no till, the shopkeeper will probably write down the amount for you.
If you can’t read the menu and have no one to translate, I would think you could use the age-old travellers’ stand-by of pointing to what’s on someone else’s plate. You could also use my Austrian friends’ method of snorting like a pig, or acting out some other sort of animal.
Booking Accommodation in Advance
I find it’s harder to speak a foreign language on the telephone because there are no visual cues. Nonetheless, I managed to make reservations from payphones or gîte phones a number of times.
When I met other pilgrims with cell phones who were going to the same place as I was, they never minded booking a bed for me, too. Sometimes the hospitalier(e)s offered to phone, too. I would imagine you could ask people to phone by pointing at an entry in a guidebook and miming.
I’ve heard the people at tourist information offices are very helpful about booking rooms, as well, though I never thought to try it. I would think they’d be more likely to speak English than others, but I don’t actually know how much English they tend to speak.
Pilgrims, and Others You Meet Along the Way
When I walked the route (mainly in September), the majority of walkers were retirees from various parts of France. They didn’t speak much English, although the some did try a bit of their school English after I’d known them for a while. The second largest group was French Canadians. The younger ones especially often spoke nearly-fluent English.
Then there was the occasional pilgrim from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands or even Asia or beyond, who often—but not always, especially if they were older—spoke good English. I only occasionally met a native English-speaker, and only two of those (out of five that I can think of) were planning to walk the entire route.
It was definitely a relief every time I met people who spoke English, because communication was otherwise a lot of work, especially when I was exhausted from the walking. Meeting native English-speakers was particularly exciting, since that meant I didn’t have to slow down and focus on using simpler words. (Not that I minded doing that at all—after all, the people I was talking to were usually making even more of an effort to speak my language, and spoke it much better than I spoke theirs. It was just nice—and strangely surprising, since I wasn’t used to it any more—to find communication really easy on the six days or so I had a chance to speak with native English-speakers.)
Many nights in gîtes it was me and a bunch of French-as-a-first-language speakers. Some (definitely the minority) of them could speak quite fluent English. But I know I missed out on some really interesting dinner-table discussions because I couldn’t follow the French.
It would have been nice to be able to talk about more things with local people I met along the way, as well. Of course, this might have been tricky even if my French was better, since there are different regional dialects of French spoken in the different regions the Chemin passes through.
Learning As I Walked
I speak enough French to ask where things are and carry out other basic conversations. If the person I’m talking to makes an effort, I can discuss somewhat more involved topics. I didn’t have any problems communicating when I really had to, but it would have been nicer to be more fluent.
I did find that after two weeks or so, the French I did know was becoming second nature. My grammar and vocabulary weren’t wonderful, but I could speak what French I did know without thinking about every word. It was so engrained by the time I got to Spain that I said “Bonjour” to the woman in the tourist information booth at Roncesvalles, and then had to speak with her in French even though she probably spoke good English.
Have I Missed Anything?
I know this isn’t completely comprehensive. If I’ve missed something that you’d like to know about, or if you can contribute information, please leave a comment.
I had a wonderful time on the Chemin du Puy and wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but it would have been even better if I’d spoken better French.