But the Camino had not finished with me. It had gripped me. It had got under my skin. It called me again this year. It drew me back. Be warned, Camino lovers, it does not let you go.
– Robert, The Solitary Walker, introducing his pilgrimage from Arles.
Robert’s wonderful blog, The Solitary Walker, has thoughts on walking and philosophy, poetry and life. It also describes his three pilgrimages to Santiago. The second of these began in Arles, along one of the four major Camino de Santiago routes through France.
Three of the routes meet up just before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The Voie d’Arles or Via Tolosana, the southernmost route, crosses the Somport Pass and continues through Spain as the Camino Aragonés before meeting up with the Camino Francés at Puente la Reina.
Robert walked the 870 or so kilometres from Arles to Puente la Reina in 46 days in 2008. He was recently kind enough to answer my questions about the route.
As usual I had no real strategy. My preparations were fast and minimal. I would see in the due course of time what might unfold, what the Camino might reveal…
– The Solitary Walker
Anna-Marie: How did the landscapes and terrain, and the difficulty of walking, compare with the Camino Francés and the Le Puy route?
Robert: Well, first of all, both routes are absolutely lovely—very rural, sometimes quite remote—and I’d walk them again like a shot. They are different, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly, despite various landscape features common to south-west France:hills and gorges, woods and forests, flat and rolling farmland. Whereas the Le Puy route starts in the hills of the Auvergne, the Arles route begins on the flat, drained deltaland of the Camargue, a strangely haunting area of rice fields, black bulls, white horses and exotic wading birds. But it’s not long before you’re high up on the breezy plateau of the Causses, with its deep gorges and spectacular limestone outcrops.
On the whole, the Arles route is probably more difficult: it has steeper climbs, more extensive forests, fewer waymarks, a more rigorous descent from the Pyrenees. (To balance this, however, there are three days of flat and easy towpath walking along the Canal du Midi.)
On the Spanish side, before the routes join at Puente la Reina, the difference in the two trails is quite marked. The Vía Aragonés takes you from the awe-inspiring, high-sided mountains of the Spanish border to the little-visited, lunar landscape of the Aragon valley west of Jaca: a lonely and remote, undeveloped, captivating region of low hills and terraces, deserted villages and friable, grey rock.
From reading your blog, it sounds like there was a lot of pilgrim accommodation. What was it like, in general?
In September I had no difficulty finding pilgrim accommodation and never booked ahead (of course you don’t reserve places in the Spanish albergues anyhow.) I can imagine, though, now the route is becoming a little more popular, a few places will be extending the range of their accommodation to cope with demand. Having said this, I met with only a scattering of pilgrims (and weekend walkers and mushroom gatherers!). Indeed, sometimes I even had a gîte or albergue to myself—or perhaps shared with just one or two others). The standard varied enormously, as usual, but I was pretty impressed—Lacommande, Boissezon, Borce and Santa Cilia come to mind—and a gîte in Lodève was more like a boutique hotel, complete with lifts and an hospitalier who was also a talented chef (not the norm, I might add.) At the other end of the scale, the basic gîte in Barran had flea-ridden bunk beds and a kitchen solely consisting of two rusty electric rings which took an age to heat up.
The Arles route goes through a more touristy part of France than the Le Puy route does. Were there more people who spoke English than on the Le Puy route?
I suppose this is true, though to be honest very few parts of the route are ‘touristy’. Of course there were lots of tourists in Montpellier and Toulouse (you pass through these superb cities on the Arles route—well worth spending an extra night in both) and in some historic towns such as Castres.
As for English being spoken, well, it just isn’t—except in some of the tourist offices. Luckily I’m reasonably fluent in French, and can get by in Spanish, so the language barrier isn’t a problem.
You mention being bitten by mosquitos at the beginning of your trip. Was that a problem throughout the route, or only at the outset?
No, only at the outset. The marshy, low-lying Camargue area in late summer teems with mosquitos. Go prepared with a good repellent. I didn’t have any other issues with biting insects for the rest of the trip.
You say you lost the route fairly frequently. Was it usually easy to find again?
Did I really say that? Come to think of it, I suppose it’s true—I often lose my way briefly, though rarely seriously. Quite frankly, if you have a guide book, you’re not going to get lost. Also there are plenty of signposts and red-and-white striped balises and reassuring conchas. I lost the path once in the vast forests of Bouconne, but manged to retrace my steps. Truth to tell, I’m lazy—sometimes I just trust to my instincts rather than bother to get the map (especially if it’s raining!)
Were there serious differences between walking in France and Spain on the Arles route/Camino Aragonés?
The main difference was the utter contrast of landscape, climate and culture between France and Spain—which became immediately apparent as soon as I stepped down that precipitous path from the Col du Somport. As far as difficulty goes, when you’ve crossed the Pyrenees (which isn’t that difficult, in fact) the rest is plain sailing.
What was the best part of the walk for you?
Oh, so many wonderful places and people encountered, it’s hard to pick out the best. The high, airy limestone plateau above Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. The wooded valley of the Aspe gradually rising up to the Col du Somport. The banks of the Aragon river. Meeting up again with young Spanish pilgrim friends in Puente la Reina. Sharing raw, freshly picked wild mushrooms anointed with olive oil with some friendly walkers from Lyon. So many great moments, so many rewarding experiences.
Well, it would have to be that day and night in Barran, wouldn’t it? You can trace it on my blog if you want the whole, sordid tale! Total physical exhaustion, a thunderstorm, and a flea-ridden mattress. Need I say more?
If someone was having trouble deciding between the Arles route and the le Puy route, what would you tell them?
For someone new to walking Caminos I’d recommend the Le Puy route first—slightly easier, more frequented, more plentiful accommodation, better signposted. From the very start you’re in beautiful countryside—peaceful villages, country churches, gentle hills and valleys. After that you’ll want to return to do the Arles route as soon as you can—I promise you!
Is there anything else you’d like to mention to people who are considering walking the route?
If you don’t know any French or Spanish, you’d be amazed how just a few words and phrases—along with a friendly smile and an inquiring expression—make all the difference. If you can learn more than this—perhaps go for a few French or Spanish lessons beforehand—I guarantee you won’t regret it, and you’ll have a far deeper and more meaningful Camino. Buen Camino, everyone!
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You can read more about Robert’s journey along the Voie d’Arles (and see a lot more photos) on his blog. Scroll down to the bottom on each page and click “Newer Post” to navigate through the entire pilgrimage.