Embarking on the Remarkable Journey from Le-Puy-en-Velay to Aumont-Aubrac
We did it! What an amazing experience, but believe me, this route is reserved for seasoned and exceptionally fit travellers. The concept: “after every downhill, there will be an uphill,” takes on a vivid meaning along the Chemin Le-Puy, also known as GR 65, or for modern-day pilgrims, the Via Podiensis in France.
The trail is impressively marked with the characteristic white and red bands, symbolizing the extensive French long-distance hiking routes known as the Grande Randonnées. Therefore, unlike the Camino de Santiago, where pilgrims uniformly move in one direction, on the Via Podiensis, you might encounter fellow hikers coming towards you at times.
This journey commences amidst the volcanic splendour of the Velay mountains, traverses the serene expanse of the Aubrac Plateau, meanders through the picturesque Lot river valley, and skirts the enchanting brandy vineyards of Armagnac, concluding in the captivating Basque region of the Pyrenees, where the Camino Francés embarks. I refer to this unique pilgrimage as the “Two Beginnings Camino”: the first 100 kilometres of the Podiensis followed by the initial 100 kilometres of the Camino Francés, commencing from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and in our case, ending in Pamplona. I’ll save more about that part of our journey for my upcoming post.
Much like the renowned Camino Francés in Spain, numerous segments of the Chemin are honoured with UNESCO World Heritage recognition, acknowledging their pivotal role in facilitating religious and cultural exchange during the later Middle Ages. Notably, the most formidable stretch of this route appears to be the initial ten days, characterized by the most challenging ascents and descents. Indeed, I can attest to this first-hand!”
Much like the renowned Camino Francés, the Via Podiensis has its roots deeply embedded in medieval texts. The earliest documented pilgrimage to Santiago from regions beyond the Pyrenees can be traced back to Bishop Godescalc of Le Puy-en-Velay, who embarked on this spiritual journey in the years 950-951 AD. However, the idea that Le Puy would become the starting point for pilgrims en route to Santiago primarily emerged during the 20th century. This transformation was greatly facilitated by the establishment of a long-distance hiking route in the 1970s, known as the GR®65. This modern-day trail faithfully recreated the historical pilgrim’s route from Le Puy to the Spanish border.
Our Journey started on the 22nd of September 2023. We started the journey appropriately attending the 07:00 am pilgrims mass, a truly wonderful experience! and when our group of eight intrepid travellers commenced our pilgrimage adventure with a challenging uphill climb out of Le-Puy-En-Velay. And yes, the higher you ascend, the more breathtaking the views become. Le-Puy boasts a collection of remarkable monuments that tower above the picturesque cityscape, thanks to the region’s volcanic geological features. Within a few kilometres, you have the most spectacular views over the city!
Day one of our journey took us from Le-Puy to Saint Privat D’Alier, covering a lengthy yet exhilarating distance of 24 kilometres. Our first break only came after a demanding 10 kilometres at the Eglise Saint-Christophe-sur-Dolaizon church. In this quaint village, we encountered a public toilet and only one bar, where the bartender raised his eyebrow at our request for coffee. At 11:00 am all his other customers were having a mid-morning beer or glass of wine! It quickly became evident that coffee stops along the way were not as abundant as those found on the Camino routes. Thus, Tip number one: Bring a coffee flask and some zip-lock bags to pack your own mid-way snacks. Breakfast in France is usually a croissant, crepes, sometimes cheese, yoghurt and apple mouse. So if you need protein, do stock up at the local café.
The final 2 kilometres presented a steep downhill descent on treacherously loose gravel. Tip number two: Bring two hiking poles! Walking the Chemin Le-Puy without these essential companions would be a dangerous challenge.
Saint Privat D’Allier, a charming little town, offered limited dinner options. Pizzas, baguettes, cheese, and ham from the local café on the corner, is the go-to here. We opted for the latter and had a fun “hotel room picnic”. This leads us to Tip number three: Bring a corkscrew from home – wine is readily available in France, but screwtops are nowhere to be found!
Day two, as we were warned, proved to be quite the challenge. Normally a 20-kilometer stretch may not seem daunting, but we soon discovered that appearances can be deceiving. Our journey from the previous day’s descent continued for about 2.5 kilometres before we reached a brief plateau, offering a “breath catch” moment. Then comes a formidable ascent that stretches over a relentless 8 kilometres. This uphill climb soared 800 meters in total elevation. Some advice: Begin your day quite early, and take it slow. Ensure you have an ample supply of water and snacks with you. What’s intriguing about this route is the “WC’s” (toilets) along the way. Every so often, you’ll encounter a wooden shack marked with a WC sign. Surprisingly, these “dry toilets” are environmentally friendly, quite clean and actually odour-free.
The next two days continue to pose challenges in terms of refreshment stops; they are few and far between, almost non-existent. Therefore, Tip number 4: Stock up on refreshments for your hike the day before. Bringing snacks from South Africa is not advisable, as the luggage transfer limit is set at 13 kilograms per day, making it impossible to transport loads of snacks with you. But all the villages have ‘supermarchés’ so buying fresh fruit, baguettes, cheese etc. is very easy.
We concluded the first part of our “Two Beginnings Camino” in Aumont-Aubrac, a stunning town that stands out as a highlight along the route. However, our journey did not end without a minor hiccup. We received notice the day prior that our train for the following day had been cancelled due to strikes – a typical occurrence here in France. So, I mustered my best French to explain my predicament to the lovely and friendly lady at the tourism office. She reassured me, saying, “This is quite usual for us. But do not worry, a bus will come to pick you up. The timing has changed slightly, but you will not be left behind!” And indeed, the bus arrived! Hence, here’s Tip number 5: Don’t stress about train cancellations in France. It’s rather common and you won’t find yourself stranded.
In summary, the first 100 kilometres of the Via Podiensis were marked by challenging terrain, but the exquisite French countryside more than compensated for the difficulties. Croissants, baguettes, cheese, wine – the French cuisine and lifestyle are truly captivating. It was a delightful experience. Now, on to Spain and my beloved Camino Francés!