Tag Archives: France

Walking the Voie d’Arles and Camino Aragonés: An Interview with The Solitary Walker


[Mountain view]

Between Jaca and Santa Cilia on the San Juan de la Peña detour of the Camino Aragonés. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

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.

[Sarrance]

Sarrance, France. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

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:

[Horses]

White horses of the Camargue. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

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.)

[Camino Aragones]

The lunar landscapes of the Camino Aragonés. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

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.

[Toulouse]

A monastery turned art museum in Toulouse. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

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.

[The Solitary Walker]

Robert and a GR balise (way mark), on a tricky part of the Voie d'Arles after Sarance.

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?

[Limestone pleateau]

The limestone plateau above Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. Photo courtesy The Solitary Walker.

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.

The worst?

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!

[Puente la Reina]

The famous bridge in Puente la Reina, where the Camino Aragonés meets up with the Camino Francés.

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!

* * *

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.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:29 am
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A Slow Camino: Interview with Robert Townshend


[Stone wall]

The Causses in spring: a great place for a slow walk.
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

I recently came across Robert Townshend’s SlowCamino blog, which he describes as “an account of one pilgrim’s sluggish progress toward Compostela.”

Rob, an Australian, walked from Le Puy-en-Velay to Pamplona in April and May 2009, and his blog documents the journey in retrospect.

Rob describes himself as “a dawdler, a daydreamer, a mucker-about. An impurist.” His blog is a mix of travelogue, practical advice, history, and observations on slow Camino travel—which, in his case, involved walking the Chemin du Puy in about sixty days without, he claims, losing any weight.

As I started reading SlowCamino, I thought I might like to interview Rob. When I read the following, I was sure of it.

I distinguished myself in the company by having travelled half the distance of the other pilgrims at our large table. They must have been impressed, since they all wore surprised expressions when told I’d come only from Estaing. I was then treated with a kind of embarrassed benevolence, especially when I declared my intention of stopping at Senergues the next day, only twelve kilometres distant.

I must admit to a tinge of competitiveness the next morning. A young lady was dawdling in the foyer, in an obvious attempt to be the last to leave.

That’s my gig, honeybunch!

When I e-mailed Rob, I discovered he’s about to embark on the next leg of his slow journey: Pamplona to Santiago on the Camino Francés, and Santiago to Tui on the Camino Portugués.

But he answered my questions quite speedily.

[Bread and cheese]

Rob writes: 'My lunch! One of the great edible joys of southern France is brebis, sheep's milk cheese. I love it in all its forms, Roquefort, Basque, Corsican or other—unpasteurised for preference.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

Anna-Marie: What made you decide to do a very slow Camino? What are the advantages of travelling so slowly?

Rob: I didn’t decide to do a slow Camino. I’m constitutionally slow, and merely build upon this god-given quality by heavy eating, aimless chatter, drinking lakes of tea, watching Fox etc. The advantage of travelling slowly is that you meet more people, and none of them feel badly about a person who is so easily overtaken. In particular, English males are delighted to get the best of an Australian in a physical pursuit—it happens so rarely!

You said on the forum: “Please be advised that serious dawdling requires a massive lack of focus and determination.” How did you maintain that lack of focus and determination?

Well, Anna-Marie, tonight’s preparation for the Frances and Portugues consisted of eating beef casserole, sunk into a lounge while watching the original 1974 Death Wish on an enormous TV screen. The combination of stewed steak and Charles Bronson has made me little more than an amoeba with hair.

This is ideal mental preparation for dawdling.

How many rest days did you take? What were your criteria for a good rest day location?

I’m guessing I took five or six rest days, usually in towns with a good food supply. In nice rural gîtes, like Montredon and that of our friends at Gîte Dubarry, one can be underfoot on a rest day. In towns, one can be out of people’s way.

[Snow on the Camino]

Even slow pilgrims have to trudge through snow. Writing about Aumont-Aubrac, Rob says: 'Wind, rain, snow, sleet, ice, mud... Did I leave anything out? Here’s the view from our last shared accommodation.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

Do you think a slow Camino is particularly difficult for men? What advice would you give men who wanted to cultivate, as you say, an Omega male attitude?

I find pilgrims of both sexes to be sprinters, men for obvious male reasons, women because they’re all a bit hyperactive. (Did I just break a Canadian law?)

Men who wish to cultivate an Omega male attitude should watch a lot of Humphrey Bogart movies … but model themselves on the Peter Lorre characters, not the Bogies. Just lying around watching old movies is pretty Omega.

As much as you can call any day on the Camino “typical,” how would you describe a typical slow Camino day?

You meet heaps of people. Really.

You write in your blog about walking twenty-seven kilometres in one day to keep up with friends, but many of the people you met ended up ahead of you. Were you ever tempted to permanently abandon your slow philosophy to keep up?

[Pilgrims]

Rob says: 'Here we are before the descent to Cajarc. The lady on the left was born in Clochemerle, which I had always believed to be a fictional town, subject of Gabriel Chevalier’s wonderful novel of small town politics centred on the erection of a public urinal. It seems that Clochemerle is real ... and the urinal is still there! More lessons of the Camino.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

It happened that my three friends that day were all doctors and had achieved much in their lives. I find achievement very fatiguing.

Maybe one’s Camino reflects one’s career and outlook, regardless of usual disclaimers about leaving accustomed life and attitudes behind. I was so lucky to link up with those three special people … but, no, I wasn’t tempted to abandon my dawdling. It’s what I do.

The big problem with dawdling is not losing friends, but having to make new friends daily. My chemin from Le Puy was a bloody conveyor-belt of acquaintances. Those who go slow will know.

What do you mean when you describe yourself as an impurist?

I’m a very conservative type in most things, so I believe in codes. I just don’t believe in manufacturing codes to make life more bothersome than it need be. The Camino should be fun, unless someone is paying you to do it in a certain way or to take on certain responsibilities.

At times I felt that there was some kind of Camino Calvinism in operation, directed at people who were taking it easy, using luggage services, taking easy routes. Also, though many of these purists are charming people, in conversation they can be a touch single-minded. They need to lay off, lighten up.

[Pamplona]

Pamplona, where Rob ended his last Camino ... and will begin his next Camino later this week. Stay tuned for his next blog installment.
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

You’re heading back to Pamplona to continue your trip to Santiago at the end of this month. Are you going to continue your blog?

I blog when I get back home. Nothing must interfere with the dawdling when it is being dawdled.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention? Do you have any other advice for aspiring slow pilgrims?

The great golfer Ben Hogan refused to help younger players because he felt he was self-made and shouldn’t have to create competition for himself. I feel the same way. It will be a bitter day for me when someone completes the Chemin du Puy in over sixty days.

I know it will happen eventually, but why should I help someone steal my crown?


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:41 am
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The Chemin du Puy with No French: Agnes Chun


Agnes

Agnes Chun, relaxing in a gîte d'étape after a long day's walk.

A lot of pilgrims on the Camino Francés speak very little Spanish, but it’s harder to get by on the Chemin du Puy with only a few words of French. It’s even more difficult when your first language isn’t English.

But my Korean pilgrim friend Hyun-Jung (Agnes) Chun managed it, when she walked from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela in autumn 2008.

Earlier this month, Agnes kindly agreed to answer my questions about her journey on the Chemin du Puy.

Anna-Marie: Was it very difficult walking in France without speaking French?

Agnes: As you know, I only know few French words. I can’t even make any French sentences. However it worked to survive there.

We can live there carrying just a 10kg rucksack, and language is exactly like belongings. The key is in our sincere heart to communicate. Of course if I could speak French, I’d have had richer experiences definitely. But the conclusion is never changed. It’s difficult but it’s not difficult to walk in France.

How did you communicate with hospitalier(e)s, shopkeepers, and other people you really needed to communicate with?

I listed just a few words to say what I needed. Sometimes I drew a picture or used my body when I had no idea of the French words. But I was not nervous about communicating with them because I met people who could translate for me whenever I need them.

How did you ask for directions?

In France, the way marking is very clear. Just followed red and white lines. But I lost the direction just one time in Pomps. I could not find any way marks or pilgrims. I was almost in a panic. It was an even worse situation when there was no one who could speak English. I met several old men who worked in the wheat field but they barely understood me.

Finally I showed them the shell on my backpack and shouted “Compostelle! Compostelle!” And then they pointed their fingers in the right direction.

Did you reserve your bed in gîtes d’etapes in advance? How?

Mostly I reserved beds in advance. I took my cell phone for reserving accommodation. Speaking on the phone was more difficult than “face to face,” but they could understand. For example, I just said like this: “Une pèlerine, demain, réservation!” It’s really ridiculous, but I didn’t have any other choices.

Sometimes I asked other pilgrims who could speak French to help, but otherwise I always said the above. But one of my friends told me the tourist office could make a reservation for pilgrims.

Did you meet many people you could speak English or Korean with?

Well… I’ve never met a Korean speaker in France. Koreans usually walk only the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. (But I met only five Koreans even in Spain!) It’s not difficult to find English speakers in France. Most pilgrims could speak English, especially the Germans, the Belgians and the Dutch. But I was sorry that I could not chat with locals.

Was it lonely often being surrounded by French speakers?

After dinner the “French Talking” started in the gîtes every night. For the first few days I tried to stay at the “French Talking table” but it was very stressful. For me, “English talking” is also very difficult… (English is a foreign language to me.) Oh God, French talking? Haha. Loneliness was the second matter.

A funny situation occurred in Spain. I had very close German friends in Spain. One night, there were eight Germans and the only Korean: me. We started to talk in English at first, but the main language changed to German. After an hour, I was a stranger again.

Would you recommend the Le Puy route to others who can’t speak French?

Sure. You should not miss a big and powerful present due to a very small obstacle. Don’t be a fool.

What was the most difficult thing about walking the Le Puy route?

It was a physical matter. Before walking the Camino, I’d walked less than five minutes a day during last seven years. I exercised for one month before leaving Korea, but it’s not enough to walk around 20 km per day.

I felt it would be impossible to finish this walking during the first few days. Stomachache, heartache, blisters, ankle pain and back pains… But I realized that it wasn’t only my own problem but it was the same for all others. I asked my friend who started from his door in Munich, Germany where the most difficult part of the whole way to walk was. His answer was “from Le Puy to Conques.” But don’t panic, it gets easier to walk. I am not sure if it’s for geographical reasons or because my body adapted.

[Cows in the Aubrac]

Cows in the Aubrac, along the Chemin du Puy.

What was the best part?

I think every moment, every single place and even my tears on the road were magnificent presents for my life. However, if I had just a couple of days to walk on the Le Puy route, I’d like to choose the Aubrac region. As I mentioned above, it’s a really hard course but it deserves to be walked again.

But I don’t want to meet the giant cows. I’m scared of them.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I met a French guy in Nogaro. He could not speak English but he was try to tell me something. In my understanding, he criticized my poor French. He said I would never understand their lives, their history or themselves because I could not speak French. He spoke in a very bad manner so my friends yelled at him in French, but I couldn’t help agreeing with him partly. If I spoke French better, I could communicate with French speakers, especially locals, and then get a broad and wide knowledge and experience. It’s irrefutable truth.

However, language is just a means and the open heart can get over all the language issues. My experience prove this….

* * *

You can read more about Agnes’s experiences in her blog. She hasn’t gotten around to translating it in to English yet, so you’ll need to either be able to read Korean or use an internet translator.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:11 pm
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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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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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My Camino Angels


I figure we all meet at least one angel on the Camino. It’s not necessarily dramatic. The angel might be the pharmacist-pilgrim who turns up with painkillers two minutes after you’ve hurt your leg, or a local who gives you water when you desperately need it.

The Camino angels I remember best were a group of retired French siblings who rescued me one day on the Chemin du Puy.

The day started off badly. I was in a terrible mood that morning, as I got ready to leave a rural gîte d’étape (hostel for walkers). Part of it was because my walking companion of the last week and a half was about to go home to Belgium, leaving me alone. And then I was planning to stay at a tiny gîte with only seven beds that night. It was in Uzan, which I thought was basically in the middle of nowhere. And despite several phone calls, I couldn’t get through to the owners to confirm my reservation.

I was at my most neurotic that day. What, I worried, would happen if I ended up in this tiny town and the gîte was closed or full?

And then my friend seemed to take forever to get ready. I wondered if I’d even make it to the gîte before dark, and checked my flashlight just in case. It had burned out, leaving me even more paranoid, since I was now convinced I wouldn’t make it to Uzan before dark.

It was one of those mornings when you walk and walk and walk, but hardly seem to make any progress.

And then there was the rain, which started up soon after we got underway. It was the first serious rain I’d experienced so far, more than a month into my pilgrimage. And so, for the first time, I realized that my rain jacket wasn’t completely waterproof. So I was wet and frozen by the time we reached Arzacq-Arraziguet around lunchtime, only 8.5 kilometres beyond the farm where we’d spent the night. I still had about 16 kilometres to go.

With some help from my French-speaking friend, I found a headlamp in Arzacq, solving one of my problems. But, as we made our way to the gîte where she would spend the night before going home, my cold and miserable brain came up with new, increasingly irrational, scenarios. Even if I found a place to spend the night, things could get worse. What if it rained the rest of the way to Santiago? It was already the beginning of October. With my imperfect jacket, I would probably freeze to death.

There was no one around at the Arzacq gîte, so my friend and I settled down in the kitchen. I changed out of my wet clothes, and felt a little better. We went out to find a public phone and tried calling the Uzan gîte yet again. Still no response.

When we returned to the gîte kitchen to eat lunch, I suddenly realized I’d dug through my entire backpack in search of dry clothes and hadn’t seen my new headlamp.

I took everything out of my pack again. No headlamp. I looked in all the pockets, though I knew I hadn’t put it in them. It wasn’t there. I looked all around on the chair and the floor. Still no headlamp.

By this time, I was in a panic. And then finally, somehow, I thought to look at the inside of the top of my pack. The headlamp had got stuck there. I picked it up, tried out its lights—they still worked!—and put it down on top of my jacket.

A few minutes later, I grabbed the jacket, knocking the headlamp to the floor. I tried turning it on again. Nothing happened.

It wasn’t the end of the world, but in my current state, it felt like it. Although my friend was still there, she wasn’t going to continue with me, so I felt utterly alone with my problems.

That was when my angels came in: a group of four retired French siblings—three men and a woman—who had stayed at the same gîte as we had the night before. They were each taking a turn driving, while the other three walked. One of them looked the perfect French gentleman but spoke English with a British accent, and even used words like “chap.”

They noticed I was close to tears, and asked what was wrong. I told them about the headlamp. One of the brothers figured out how to open it up, and got the batteries back in properly so it worked again.

Then my friend explained about my problem getting hold of the gîte in Uzan. Immediately, the sister offered to drive me to Uzan to make sure all was well.

They must have gathered I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea (I didn’t like the thought of paying a lightning-fast visit to the place I’d then walk for hours to reach). So the same man who’d fixed my headlamp looked in the phonebook, found the number of someone with the same last name as the gîte-owners, and called them up. The person on the other end of the phone said there was no problem—the gîte was open, and even if it was full, his uncle and aunt, who owned it, would find me another place to stay.

And just like that, everything was all right again. Better than all right, even—not only, or even not primarily because I had a working light and a definite place to stay, but because of the way these four strangers had helped me.

I didn’t get their address. I never even learned their names, or got a picture of them. I hope they’re doing well. I hope they’re happy. Two years later, I still think about them sometimes, and their unhesitating kindness to a stranger.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 5:16 pm
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