500 miles in a pilgrim's footsteps

Special to The Times

"My friends all think I'm crazy: 'Why would you walk 500 miles?' " lamented Jan.

Most of us in the little hostel along the Grande Randonnée 65 in southern France had walked that far, some considerably farther. Occasionally we each asked ourselves why.

The reason was clearer for those who came 900 years before. In about 814, bones unearthed in a Roman cemetery in northwestern Spain were proclaimed to be those of St. James the Apostle. How a Galilean fisherman came to be buried there is the subject of much legend; suffice it to say that between the medieval cult of relics and some canny local promotion, Santiago de Compostela became a destination for Christian pilgrims second only to Jerusalem and Rome. All of Europe beat a path to the tomb along the Camino de Santiago, or, in French, the Chemin de St. Jacques.

The path's popularity peaked in the 12th century, but pilgrimages continued well into the 18th. The route has undergone a renaissance over the last two decades as people from around the world seek a journey of spiritual significance. Today's walkers take the trail for physical, cultural and, yes, spiritual reasons — some to walk a month or two, some to go only as far as their time allows.

My friend Patrick and I walked part of the Spanish route in 2003 and were so captivated that we decided to try one of the French paths. Like many, we sought a path that offered a long, contemplative walk as well as significant religious sites.

Part of France's extensive system of hiking trails, the GR65 approximates one of the four historic Chemins de St. Jacques. From Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy-en-Velay and Arles, the trails converge in the Pyrenees and join a single path that crosses northern Spain. The GR65 starts in Le Puy, about 70 miles southwest of Lyon in the Auvergne region, and wanders 500 miles through wildest France over the Pyrenees to the border.

Parts of the original route are now highways, while other segments have been lost altogether. But pilgrim paths always shifted; what remained constant were the shrines and relics along the way. If we couldn't always follow in the pilgrims' footsteps, at least we were seeing the same sights in Conques, Moissac or St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

We arrived in Le Puy, a red-roofed town of 29,000, in mid-June. Le Puy was a destination long before Santiago was, and later pilgrims who strung pilgrimages together would stop here before facing the perils of a journey to the end of the continent. The red-and-white stone cathedral, Romanesque with Mozarabic tendencies, still houses a stone reported to cure fevers and a Black Madonna statuette.

We dutifully visited the cathedral, attended a folk accordion concert, then hoisted our packs. We stepped out onto the Rue St. Jacques heading southwestward out of town with the vague goal of reaching St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port — about 500 miles away at the foot of the Pyrenees — in about seven weeks.

Trail turns rugged It was not difficult to follow the red-and-white blazes painted on tree trunks, stone walls, even houses, that mark the GR65. What was hard was being plunked down without preamble in the Massif Central, France's central mountain range. The mountains are not very high, but they are extremely steep, dissected by valleys and watercourses. We spent the first two weeks huffing up mountainsides and down dry streambeds (the GR has an odd idea of what constitutes a trail), feverishly jettisoning our already minimal supplies. Used to walking 12 to 15 miles a day in Spain, we barely managed 10 in this region.

Our second day found us scrambling straight up a rocky knob overlooking the river Allier. (The GR also eschews switchbacks.) At the top, two ladies with daypacks gazed upon a tiny pilgrim chapel from the 11th or 12th century.

"Is it open?" I said, gasping from the exertion.

"Oh yes. Very refreshing," answered one, looking at me with concern.

Inside, it was blessedly cool and dim. One arched window let in enough light to identify a statue of St. James (St. Jacques in France, Santiago in Spain) on the apse wall. I thought of medieval pilgrims struggling up this same hill, looking at the vast surrounding forest and feeling very far from home. The view obviously served secular powers as well; next door, the keep of a ruined castle commanded the river in both directions.

French authorities are making efforts to keep country chapels along the way open, and they are one of the pleasures of the journey. The churches, which are frequently cared for by volunteer parishioners, represent vernacular variations on the great Romanesque and Gothic themes — a curved wooden ceiling like an upturned boat, a plump peasant Madonna — and welcome stops for rest and reflection.

We hiked 35 miles through Auvergne, up cliffs and down valleys. We walked through forests and wheatfields, cow pastures and silent stone villages. We hiked cattle trails and the high, deserted plains of the Aubrac among blond, sloe-eyed cows.

This part of Auvergne, the Aubrac, is one of the emptiest quarters of France, with only isolated farmsteads and an occasional village on the rolling hills and grassy plateaus. In the Middle Ages it was wilder, a lair of bandits and beasts — fearsome territory to the pilgrims. One, a Flemish nobleman named Adalard, narrowly escaped death here about 1120 and founded a travelers' hospice on the spot. It became a massive monastic complex that hosted pilgrims until the French Revolution. Little remains today but the imposing stone church, some fortifications and the village of Aubrac.

No one was at the Tour des Anglais in the village when we arrived. The 14th century tower, built during the Hundred Years War, now serves as a gîte d'étape, or hikers' shelter. "Installez-vous," read a sign on the door, so we made ourselves at home.

Each of the four floors was one square stone room; with the bathrooms on the ground level, it seemed prudent to seize beds on the first floor. As we explored the slightly modernized kitchen, a young woman darted up the stairs and announced a free supper in her barn.

The barn, when we turned up, recalled hippie habitats of North America, but the fare was distinctly French. Aline, with her mother and infant daughter, served a hearty soup, rustic bread and wine, followed by crepes. We consumed it all at a long table with several German and Swiss hikers, and slept soundly in the tower.

Four days and another 43 miles of rivers, forest and back roads brought us to the town of Conques. Actually they brought Patrick. Ten days of pounding had taken a toll on my feet, and on the 11th I hitched a ride with Transbagages, a van service that carries bags for hikers who would rather not. For an additional fee they also will transport the hiker.

I was glad, for Conques clings to the wall of a ravine so steep that even while descending you don't see the town until you're right on top of it.

Conques was for centuries the object of enthusiastic pilgrimage to the relics of the child martyr St. Foy (Faith), killed in Agen by the Roman governor in the early 4th century. In the middle of town stands the great abbey church of St. Foy, begun about 1050 and, I think, the most harmonious of the route with its red-gold stone and luminous, layered arches. Traces of paint are still visible on the exquisite tympanum. Despite its somber theme — the Last Judgment — the figures are so tenderly rendered that even the demons are endearing.

A spirit of kinship Cool water awaited us in the courtyard of the massive guesthouse just behind the church, run by a community of Norbertine priests. A cadre of friendly volunteers processed the guests, after which we were shown up a spiral stone staircase to our quarters.

Our room was shared with a young German pastor, a Breton, two Canadians and assorted late arrivals (the doors are never closed). We took a rest day and spent it wandering the steep, flowery streets, discovering new breathtaking perspectives inside the church, sitting in the cloister and gazing up at the mountainsides. In the evenings we enjoyed a four-course family-style dinner in the refectory chatting with other, mostly French, hikers.

On a warm, overcast morning, we departed up the canyon walls, toiling over boulders and roots. The climb seemed interminable; though only two miles, it rises about 1,300 feet.

The mountains of Aveyron gave way to the limestone plateaus of Quercy, which broke into rolling hills covered in oaks. Often in the woods, we came upon old stone foundations telling of villages abandoned to forest, or neolitihic dolmens hinting at older settlements.

As we arrived, by stages, in lower country, we found ourselves in step with certain fellow pilgrims for weeks at a time, our paths braiding and parting, sharing wine at a gîte d'etape in the evening or hurried breakfasts in the morning. Wild cherries gave way to wild plums along the trail, supplemented by ripening figs. (Any fruit hanging over the path was fair game.) Towns hugged the rivers for trade or perched on hills for defense. Leaving the hilltop bastide of Lauzerte, we missed a marker and were lost the rest of the day, consigned to plodding 15 miles of local highways into Moissac. A day of rest in Moissac was welcome. The 12th century abbey church of St. Pierre has been a pilgrim center from early times, and its cloister capitals, riotous with decorative birds and leaves or sober with biblical scenes, are among the best preserved in Europe.

From Moissac we took a shady canal towpath along the Garonne River, then crossed into Armagnac, part of the Département du Gers and the land of a million sunflowers. Because of the intense heat, we were usually out before dawn. Already the sunflowers faced expectantly east. All day legions of them cheered us on our way. Almost as numerous were the cornfields, which reportedly provide inadvertent habitat to wild boar, and vineyards.

Superb bouquet In Armagnac, a subdivision of Bordeaux wine country, most of the grapes go into the mellow Armagnac liqueur. Here we made the happy discovery of Floc de Gascogne. On a torrid evening we sat outdoors with fellow walkers, a French family of seven, and opened a copious supper with Floc. It looked like white wine, but oh, it wasn't. Made of fresh grape juice blended with Armagnac and fermented for about 10 months, the liqueur flowed down the throat like a distillation of summer flowers. (Floc means "bouquet" in the local dialect.)

Between the flowers and Floc, the Gers became one of my favorite départements. It was hilly enough to be interesting but gentle enough to walk 12 to 15 miles in a morning without exhaustion. Chapels to little-known saints stood open to wayfarers. The people were likewise sunny and welcoming; one village priest launched into extemporaneous paeans to Franco-American friendship, dispensing with some more usual parts of the service.

By now we had been walking for a month. Fellow travelers reached their appointed goals and went home. The early part of our own journey seemed far away, and our normal lives receded to unreality. What was real were the daily exigencies of life on the trail: finding food, getting to shelter, caring for one's feet. It simplified the mind wonderfully.

We were approaching the border. One day the trail climbed a steep hill, and all the Pyrenees spread before us in the morning light. It was now only two days' walk to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Tourists and pilgrims jammed St.-Jean. Houses dating from the 1500s lined the streets and sparkling river Nive. We said farewells to our last remaining companions, noting the gîtes were full of new hikers starting their walk into Spain.

Despite our unhurried pace, we arrived at our journey's end two weeks before our return flight. Patrick and I looked speculatively at the Pyrenees. One morning before sunrise, we took the upward road. I allowed Transbagages to carry my pack and flew — relatively speaking — up the pass.

Forests disappeared and enormous griffon vultures glided silently overhead. At the top, pottok, an ancient breed of horse, roamed. The only indication of a border was a carved stele by the path reading Navarra. In the lee of the pass we ate bread and cheese with a new batch of pilgrims, then looked down on the towers of Roncevaux and marched on into Spain.

Two weeks later on a Paris Métro platform, a young man rushed up to us.

"Do you remember me?" he cried. "Don't you remember? We met in the Gers, in the little chapel!" We looked at him; light dawned. Yes, in the Gers. The trail was long, but the world is small.



On the trail to enlightenment


From LAX: Air France and Air Tahiti Nui offer nonstop flights, and Delta, United, American, Continental, Northwest, Lufthansa, KLM, Aer Lingus and British have connecting service to Paris. Lufthansa, Air France, KLM and Aer Lingus offer connecting service to Lyon. To both cities, restricted, round-trip fares begin at $570.


Trains: The TGV fast train leaves Paris hourly from Charles de Gaulle Airport or Gare de Lyon for Lyon (Part Dieu station), where local trains depart to Le Puy. Fares start at $95. (888) 382-7245 or http://www.raileurope.com .

Trails: The Grande Randonnée 65 includes footpaths, dirt roads, Roman roads (all rocky) and paved roads; unfortunately, the latter now account for a large number of miles.

Vans: Transbagages offers luggage transportation between Le Puy and Roncevaux from mid-April to Nov. 2. Charges about $5 per bag per day, $10 per passenger. 011-33-820-02-54-51 or http://www.transbagages.com .


Hostels: Gîtes d'étape, hostel-style facilities with dorm beds, bathrooms and kitchens, pop up every 10 to 20 miles. They may be public or private, cozy or gritty. $7 to $15. Reservations are generally required in summer. "Pilgrim passports" (créanciales) are available in Le Puy or other trailheads for a donation but are not required for lodging.

Camping: Campgrounds often rent trailers or tents. About $10 per person in a trailer or $17 for a two-person tent.

Hotels: Hotels and chambres d'hôte (bed-and-breakfasts) are readily available from about $37 a double. Accueil pèlerin are churches or private homes offering shelter specifically to pilgrims for a donation. Chambres chez l'habitant are rooms in private homes. Doubles start at $28.


France's villages are losing their cafes and grocery stores, so ask ahead about food availability on the road and carry an emergency supply. Most towns will have a creditable restaurant.


"Topoguide GR 65," three slim volumes in French, covers the route from Le Puy to Roncevaux, including directions, maps, history and accommodations. Available in Le Puy.

"Miam-miam-dodo," by Jacques and Lauriane Clouteau. Invaluable guide to food, lodging and shops along the trail. In French. Available in Le Puy.

French Government Tourist Office, (410) 286-8310 (for brochures) or (310) 271-6665, http://www.francetourism.com .

— Denise Fainberg

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