Gîtes d’étapes in France are hostels for hikers or walkers. I’m writing about the ones along the Chemin du Puy (GR-65) because those are the ones I’m familiar with. I’d imagine the gîtes on other routes are relatively similar.
If you’re used to Camino albergues in Spain, you’ll find gîtes downright luxurious. If you’re used to five-star hotels … gîtes are a few steps down from that. They always have dorm rooms, and some have private rooms at a higher cost.
Gîtes vary quite widely. Some have bunk beds for dozens of people in a single dorm (although in my experience this was the exception rather than the rule), while others have four—or occasionally even two!—single beds. Most have kitchens you can use, and some provide meals. When I was there in 2008, they generally cost 7 to 15 € per person per night.
They all (in my experience) provide blankets, but they don’t have top sheets, so if you don’t have a sleeping bag, you’ll at least need a sleeping bag liner. Also, if you’re travelling in colder weather, you’ll probably want a sleeping bag because there might not be enough blankets to keep you warm.
There are gîtes at regular intervals along the Chemin du Puy. The only problem with the spacing is that sometimes you have to choose between walking around 15 kilometres and walking 25 or more kilometres. And if you’re not in great shape to start out with, 25 kilometres feels like a seriously long way when you have to traverse steep slopes.
Unlike most albergues in Spain, you don’t have to leave French gîtes by 8 a.m. or so. If there is a check-out deadline, it’s around 10 a.m. or later. Most people seemed to leave around 8 a.m. anyway, though, at least in fall when I was walking.
When I walked the Chemin du Puy two years ago, few gîtes had Internet access. In cities, you can always find Internet cafés, although they may not be close by. In Conques, the tourist information office has a few Internet stations. In smaller places, you’re probably out of luck if you want to get on-line.
There are two main types of gîtes: municipal (gîtes communaux—singular: communal) and private (gîtes privés).
Municipal gîtes are generally cheaper than their private counterparts. They tend to be—but aren’t necessarily—more bare-bones than the private gîtes. Some are in gorgeous historic buildings, while others are more basic.
Often you can let yourself in, and a local person stops by to collect your money, although occasionally you have to find someone to let you in.
Municipal gîtes don’t usually offer food, although some in villages without grocery stores have a small selection of food you can purchase.
These are usually more expensive, and tend to feel a little more luxurious. All the ones I stayed in were in nice buildings.
Usually the hospitalier(e) (I don’t think there’s an exact English equivalent for this—it literally seems to mean the person who offers you hospitality, like hospitalero/a in Spanish) lives in the building. They almost always offer food: breakfast and a multi-course dinner. Demi-pension, or half-board, includes both meals and a bed. When I was on the Chemin two years ago, this cost around 30 €.
In my experience, breakfast was pretty bare-bones, with coffee and tea, white bread, butter, a variety of jams, and sometimes yogurt. Sometimes the hospitalier(e) left it out, so you could serve yourself when you woke up. I thought dinner was always wonderful—though some (non-French) walkers complained about it being too rich.
I stayed at a few places where the hospitalier(e)s were really devoted to the Chemin/Camino, with Camino books and pictures or statues of Saint James. In two cases, they even had a little pilgrim talk/service, which I couldn’t really understand because my French isn’t that good.
Gîtes are great places to meet other walkers, and in some cases, local people.
The best source of up-to-date information about gîtes and other accommodation on the Chemin du Puy and some other routes are the Miam Miam Dodo guidebooks. The books on the routes from Le Puy and Arles are available from the Confraternity of Saint James bookshop, under “Books from Other Publishers.”