Tag Archives: Chemin du Puy

Gîtes d’étapes: Budget Accommodation on the Chemin du Puy


[A gîte d'étape]

A bed in a gîte communal in a historic building in Saint Côme d'Olt . (There were other beds in the room.)

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).

[Laundry outside a gîte d'étape]

My laundry hanging outside the same gîte pictured above, in Saint Côme d'Olt.

Municipal Gîtes

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.

Private Gîtes

These are usually more expensive, and tend to feel a little more luxurious. All the ones I stayed in were in nice buildings.

[A private gîte]

A dorm room in a private gîte, the Gîte Dubarry, on a farm between Nogaro and Aire-sur-L'Adour. The building wasn't much to look at from the outside, but the owners were restoring it beautifully inside, with carvings and stained glass. I fell completely in love with it.

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.”


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:55 am
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Chemin to Camino Culture Shock


[Saint-Jean Sign]

A sign that told me I was a few hours from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

I went out for a walk today and just wanted to keep walking. I suppose I could have done it, too, but eventually I would have had to turn around. Walking around home is fine—I try to do it every day—but it’s not exactly the same as being on the Camino.

So I was feeling a little melancholy as I headed home, and I guess that’s why I started thinking about the transition between walking the Chemin du Puy in France and the Camino Francés in Spain. Mentally, it ended up being one of the most difficult parts of my journey.

Before I started walking, I basically saw the Chemin du Puy as an extension of the Camino Francés, which I’d read so much about I thought of as the real Camino. I walked from Le Puy because the 780 or so kilometres from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port didn’t seem like far enough.

Of course, all that had changed by the time I actually reached Spain. After almost six weeks in France, I appreciated the Chemin in its own right.

My last few days in France were particularly wonderful. I met some great people, and began, more or less, to leap small hills in a single bound. But I was still excited to reach Saint-Jean. I didn’t see it as the real start of my Camino any more, but I knew it would mark the beginning of something new.

What I’d forgotten was how difficult transitions can be. On the Chemin du Puy by the end of September, the fairly large number of walkers had slowed to a trickle. But crossing the Pyrenees, I was suddenly surrounded by pilgrim hordes, so many that it was hard to talk to any one person.

And there were so many other contrasts between the Chemin in France and the Camino in Spain. In retrospect, I can’t say I preferred one of the other, but rather enjoyed them both—sometimes in different ways. But for a few days after starting the Camino Francés, I really missed France.

I missed the cleanliness and the beautiful gîtes d’étapes that didn’t make me sleep right next to strangers. I missed the open churches where I used to stop and think. I missed the red and white waymarks of the GR-65 and rather resented the yellow arrows that had replaced them.

And it seemed like I had just grown used to speaking French when I had to make the transition to Spanish. My second night in Spain, I wrote:

My speaking is a mess. I try to speak Spanish, I know I know the words, but French comes out. I hadn’t realized how … not fluent, but at least how used to French I’d become…. I speak in this weird mélange that more or less works for now, but I have to train myself to automatically say “gracias” and “si” instead of “merci” and “oui.”

At the time, I’d also lost track of all my Chemin friends (I did catch up to some of them just after Pamplona), and I missed them. On most of the Chemin du Puy, I’d shared a common background with the other walkers, even if we’d never met. Now, I had no one to talk to about past experiences. I couldn’t say, “The Pyrenees weren’t as bad as the road out of Conques,” to the new pilgrims without sounding arrogant and irritating.

It was also strange to be at a different stage of my Camino than most of the people around me. I was at the halfway point, and beginning to really think about the experience and what it had meant so far. Everyone else was just starting out. It was such a relief to have someone to talk to about all this when a Frenchwoman I’d met once on Chemin du Puy walked into the refuge at Zubiri.

Of course, I soon got used to the Camino in Spain, and learned to love it—and its yellow arrows—too. I made more friends, most of whom had started in Saint-Jean, and we soon had a Camino history in common, too.

The biggest culture shock of all came when the Camino ended. The transition from France to Spain was from one part of the Camino to another, but going home meant returning to another world.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:51 pm
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Bon Courage and Buen Camino


[A Pilgrim in France]A few hours out of Le Puy-en-Velay on my first day on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques (Camino de Santiago), a white-haired Frenchman stopped me. We talked—briefly, since my French isn’t very good. And when I set out again, having told him I was walking to Santiago, he said, “Bon courage.”

I tried to translate that in my head, but all I could come up with was “Be of good courage,” which sounded archaic.

I didn’t think about it much then, but by the time I’d been walking through France for a few weeks, I decided English is seriously lacking in encouraging expressions with the word “good” in them. “Good luck” is the only one I can think of. We’ve appropriated “bon voyage” and “bon appétit” from the French, but rarely use them.

In France, when I would stop to eat a picnic lunch along the road, most of the passing walkers wished me bon appétit.

And of course I constantly heard “bon chemin” (the French equivalent of the “buen camino” you hear so often on the Camino in Spain) and “bonne route.” Both literally mean “good road,” but again we don’t have a great English translation. “Happy trails” is the closest I can come up with, and that sounds corny. “Have a good trip” sort of works, but it’s more general and doesn’t sound as good.

Maybe the solution to the lack in our language is to adopt more French sayings. And of course pilgrims to Santiago have already adopted “buen camino.” It really is easier to wish each other well, especially on vast undertakings like walking pilgrimages, when we have good words to do it with.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:39 am
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Speaking French—Or Not—on the Chemin du Puy


[The Road into Saugues]

The road into Saugues, near the beginning of the Chemin du Puy.

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.

Guidebooks

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.

Stores

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.

Eating Out

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.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:12 pm
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Music from the Camino: Fiddler Oliver Schroer


The late Canadian fiddler Oliver Schroer didn’t pack light for his trip along the Camino de Santiago in 2004. In his backpack, among a minimum of clothes and other essentials, he carried his fiddle—”… like a wooden chalice, like my own precious relic…,” as he describes it in the liner notes to his resulting album—and a portable recording studio.

He recorded himself fiddling in churches and cathedrals as he and three others walked 1,000 kilometres along part of the Chemin du Puy and all of the Camino Frances. Sometimes he was thrown out of a church after a few seconds of playing. Sometimes he stayed for hours.

His beautiful album, Camino, is the result of that playing. It mixes Schroer’s original compositions—some of them improvised on the spot—with Camino sounds like cowbells and pilgrims walking.

An Introduction to the Journey

In the following mini-documentary, Oliver Schroer gives his own introduction to his Camino experience and the album. The video also features one of his pieces from the album, and shows some of Peter Coffman’s photos, which also fill Camino‘s CD booklet.

The Music

The music is magical. Haunting. Gorgeous.

See—or rather, listen—for yourself.

The CD Booklet

You can buy the songs from Camino individually on iTunes. Don’t do it. The CD booklet alone is worth the price of the full album.

It has Peter Coffman’s beautiful photos, for one thing.

The writing, by Coffman and Schroer, is also gorgeous. It’s like a poem, changing from English to French to Spanish and back to English in the same sentence. There are also smatterings of German and Dutch.

Schroer’s part of the liner notes tell the story of his Camino and the music he made while walking it. Coffman writes about the Camino’s historical background, the experience of walking, and the music he heard Schroer play.

The Ending

Oliver Schroer died of leukemia in July 2008, some 18 months after he found out he had cancer. Even after his diagnosis, he continued to record and perform. His final concert, aptly named Oliver’s Last Concert on His Tour of the Planet, took place a month before his death.

I read about his dying about a month before I set off on my own Camino. It’s a hard thing to forget—not because it was terrible but because, like Schroer’s music, it had a haunting beauty.

You can buy Oliver Schroer’s Camino through Borealis Records or Amazon.ca. His Camino journal tells the story of his pilgrimage as he walked.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:48 pm
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The Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés: Similarities and Differences


Along the Chemin du Puy

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.

The Cost

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.

Dorm Accommodation

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

[Santiago Cake]

A Delicious Galician Treat: Santiago Cake

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.

Other Walkers/Pilgrims

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.

Local Welcome

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.

Language

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.

The Routes

[The Camino in October]

Along the Camino Francés

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.

Waymarking

[Yellow Arrows on the Camino Francés]

Yellow Arrows on the Camino Francés

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.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:52 am
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