The Chemin du Puy, starting in Le Puy-en-Velay, France, is the most popular of the Camino de Santiago routes across France. It joins up with the Camino Francés, the most popular route in Spain, at Saint-Jean-Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees.
I walked the whole route from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela in 2008. I really enjoyed both routes, though in some ways they were quite different.
This isn’t intended as a judgment of either route. It’s just meant to give you an idea of the differences between the two so you can decide which to take, or, if you’ve already walked one, you can decide if the other is something you might like to do.
It’s all based on my experiences, and of course yours might be quite different.
France was definitely more expensive than Spain. In France (remember this was in 2008), dorm accommodation (in gîtes d’étape) generally cost between 7 and 15 Euros. In Spain, the refugios were usually 3 to 7 Euros.
The gîtes in France might have been more expensive, but they were also generally nicer than the refugios in Spain. Dorm rooms were usually smaller in the gîtes, there were sometimes single beds instead of bunk beds, and the bunk beds were never shoved together so people had to sleep right next to strangers, as in some cases in Spain.
Also, the gîtes rarely had a time when walkers had to leave (and it was around 10:30 a.m. in the one I can think of that did), while many refugios expected pilgrims to be out by 8 a.m.
Eating and Supplies
In both places, many shops closed for siestas or long lunches. I am convinced there is no single time in Spain when every single shop is open, but I actually found France more difficult in terms of getting supplies. Some shops and bakeries were closed on Sundays, and others on Mondays, or even Thursdays. On the days they were open, they might open for a few hours in the morning, and then close until 5 in the evening. Sometimes they were open Sunday mornings, but closed in the afternoons.
I didn’t actually eat out in France, but I did sometimes get demi-pension at private gîtes, which included a bed in the dorm room, a four-course dinner and a breakfast (usually bread, butter and an assortment of jams and hot drinks). This usually cost 25 to 30 Euros and was always excellent.
In Spain, I sometimes had dinner at a bar (which is like a combination café/pub). The menu de peregrino (pilgrim’s menu) also usually included four courses, but the food wasn’t usually as good as that in France.
In both places, many of the gîtes/refugios had kitchens where walkers could prepare their own meals. In Galicia, however—though this might have changed—many of them didn’t have pots and pans.
On the Chemin du Puy, when I was there in September, the vast majority of the walkers were French retirees who were walking for about two weeks (many planned to do the entire route over the course of three years). Many of them saw themselves more as walkers than pilgrims, and only a small number planned eventually to walk to Santiago.
There were also a number of Canadians of all ages from Quebec, and the occasional German, Swiss, Belgian or Dutch walker, many of whom had walked from their own countries.
On the Camino Francés, more people saw themselves as pilgrims, and many were walking the entire route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela. The route was much more international, with pilgrims from all over Europe, Asia, and North America, and a few from other parts of the world.
In general, I found locals quite friendly on both routes. They were always helpful when I had to ask for directions in my mangled French or Spanish, or bought supplies.
Along the Chemin du Puy, there were a number of yards with signs where people left out drinks—and in one case tomatoes—available to pilgrims by donation. Especially closer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, there were also a lot of pilgrim decorations in private yards to encourage us on.
My only bad experiences on the Camino Francés were in Castilla y León. Three times—once alone, and twice when I was walking with a female friend—I had men expose themselves to me. I never felt like I was in any danger, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant. My friend and I also had a guy call us bad names as we waited to cross the highway into León.
On both routes, it was helpful to know some of the local language, since many of the locals don’t speak English.
On the Chemin du Puy, I found French was also necessary for talking with the majority of the other pilgrims. On the Camino Francés, on the other hand, a lot of the pilgrims spoke reasonable English or were travelling with someone who could translate.
Both routes were a mix of big cities and villages; hiking paths, country roads, and highways; forests, farms and urban centres.
The Le Puy route was a tougher walk. The first two-thirds or so had a lot of steep ascents and descents, since most of the route was high up, but the towns were generally in valleys. The views were spectacular. Around Moissac it got quite flat, but the views weren’t as incredible. At the right time of year, the vast fields of sunflowers would be pretty amazing, though. Closer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the Pyrenees foothills, the terrain got more difficult (though not nearly as hard as closer to Le Puy) and the views quite wonderful.
I could be wrong about this, but I suspect the Chemin du Puy had more parts where I had to walk right on a highway. I think the Camino Francés involved more highway walking overall, though—it’s just that much of it was on a special senda del peregrino, which was basically a paved sidewalk next to the highway.
The Camino Francés had some difficult ascents and descents that were worthy of the Chemin du Puy, but not nearly as many. There were a number of absolutely beautiful parts, particularly at the beginning and end of the route. The big cities were generally larger and more industrial than the big cities on the Chemin du Puy.
To compare the elevation profiles of the routes (which give you an overview of the ascents and descents), visit the Camino Planner.
Garbage and Graffiti
There was almost no garbage or graffiti along the Chemin du Puy, apart from the occasional toilet paper patch.
Garbage was—and I suspect still is—a real problem on the Camino Francés route. It also seemed that every region I walked through wanted to separate from Spain, and the vast amounts of graffiti on parts of the route reflected that.
The Chemin du Puy is waymarked as any other GR (long-distance route in France) with red and white marks on trees, fences, signs, and just about anywhere else. In some regions, there are signs giving the distance to nearby towns, or to Santiago. It’s marked so you can walk it in both directions. (Embarrassingly, this was actually a problem for me one day when I somehow got turned around and walked a few kilometres in the wrong direction.)
The Camino Francés is waymarked in one direction with yellow arrows, scallop shells, and other pilgrim signs.
On both routes, I found the waymarking quite good, though on each there were a few spots where it was relatively easy to get lost.
Churches and Cathedrals
Many of the churches along the Chemin du Puy were open for pilgrims to pray, escape from rain and heat, light a candle, and/or pray. There was never an entrance fee to the cathedrals.
On the Camino Francés, churches were often locked, and there was usually an entrance fee to see parts, or even all, of cathedrals. Instead of real candles and a donation box (as in France), there was usually a machine where, if you put a coin in a slot, a bulb lit up on a candle.
The Routes’ Ends
There’s something incredible about arriving in Santiago de Compostela—a pilgrimage destination for so many centuries. For me, anyway, arriving in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and ending a journey there couldn’t match entering the plaza in front of the Santiago Cathedral.