Walking the Pilgrim's Trail in France

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

Finishing the Chemin de Saint Jacque de Compostelle

I recently checked off one more item on my bucket list: to hike the entire 500-mile French portion of an ancient pilgrim’s trail, “Le Chemin de St. Jacque de Compostelle”. The trail begins near Lyon, France, in the village of Le Puy-en-Velay and finishes in St Jean Pied-de-Port on the Spanish border. Another section (called the camino) continues on to Santiago de Compostela in far western Spain. The ending point is a cathedral where the remains of St. James, brother of the apostle John and a cousin to Jesus, is allegedly buried.

The chemin is clearly marked and easy to follow

The “chemin” is a well-marked trail that travels through rural France, passing through villages every 5 or 10 miles, villages with cafes and hostels for the hikers and pilgrims passing through. This is NOT like the Adirondack Trail – there are place to stay all along the way. I slept in a bed every night, though sometimes in a dorm full of snoring hikers. And I ate well –most hostels serve dinner and breakfast.

Long views are common on the chemin

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela began over a thousand years ago when the Bishop of Le Puy walked it in AD 951.and then promoted it (with his town as the starting point, for good economic reasons).  The pilgrimage was recommended for reaching spiritual enlightenment, or to atone for sins. At its peak of popularity during the 11th and 12th centuries over half a million people are said to have hiked it every year. My partner, Cindy Heath, and I spent one night in a hostel, a huge stone edifice, which had been built as a hospital by the Knights of the Templar in the 13th century.

A tranquil foggy morning

I did not hike it for religious reasons, nor to atone for my sins. I was introduced to the trail by my sister, Ruth Anne, in 2007. She had already walked parts of the trail in previous years, and thought it would be a good brother-sister experience. She and I began the walk in the middle, where she had left off the previous year.

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That first year I paid 5 Euros and got a “carnet’ or pilgrim’s passport at the first town, Moissac. Every night when we checked into a hostel, we had our carnet stamped to show we had reached there on foot. In some of these hostels, you could not spend the night unless you had a carnet.

Typical dorm room

The cost per night of these hostels? This year we paid $15 to $20 for a bed in a dorm room and $35 each for a private room with a bath down the hall. One night Cindy and I stayed in the equivalent of bed-and-breakfast for $45 each – and got to use an outdoor hot tub! Breakfast – generally coffee, yogurt, bread and butter with homemade jams, is generally included with the rooms everywhere. Most night we paid an extra $15 to $25 dollars for dinner - a wonderful 3 or 4 course French meal, with plentiful local wine included.

Luxury is available, too.

You don’t have to carry all your own things when hiking the chemin. There are transporters who will schlepp your pack from one night’s lodging to the next for about $8. Cindy and I walked with 8 or 10 pounds each in day packs – lunch, water, raincoat, camera, sweater and a folding foam cushion to sit on during lunch. I carried a book to read during siesta, and my journal. We shared one bag that the transporter delivered for us each day.

 There are guide books to help. The Way of St. James by Alison Raju is an excellent small guide in English that tells the essentials: how far it is to the next town, and what facilities and services are present. It has lots of maps showing the trail and explaining what to look for, including interesting cultural tips. Then, in French, is Miam Miam Dodo by Lauriane and Jacque Cloteau. Updated every year, it has phone numbers and details of all the hostels and B&B’s (in French), and even more detailed maps. I speak French, which helps along the way, but it’s not essential – English is the international language.

Village churches are open for visits

Cindy and I started the chemin in 2010 at Le Puy. There are actually many starting points, with some pilgrims starting in Paris, Bordeaux, Vezelay, Brussels, Geneva and even farther afield. Those trails are not necessarily well marked, nor as well supported with hostels.  

At the hostel in Le Puy we were told to attend the 7 AM mass. I had asked repeatedly where the trail started, and was always told to just “go to the 7AM mass, and you will see.” So we ate an early breakfast, packed, and walked to the cathedral even though neither of us is Catholic. After the mass the priest invited all those starting the chemin to approach the alter. We did, all 50 of us. He blessed us, and gave us each a small medal to carry.

Pilgrims leaving the cathedral at Le Puy

Then the floor of the cathedral behind us opened up. Big iron grates swung up, exposing stones stairs going to a lower level. “Go with Peace,” we were told. So we shouldered our packs and descended.

These stone steps were worn down by the feet of the uncountable pilgrims who had started just as we did. The edges of the steps were deeply worn. I suddenly felt connected to those who had gone before. Young men, old women, seekers, believers, adventurers. Centuries of them. We walked down a short hall and - in a flash - we were outside in the bright sunlight, going down more steps and on our way towards Santiago – a thousand miles away.

Sign along the way - still far to the end

So this year we walked the last section of the chemin de St Jacque in France. Like the others parts we had hiked in previous years, we mainly walked on a worn path alongside open fields, through small villages and hardwood forests, although sometimes walked

Unusual village church

along quiet paved country roads. We chatted with other hikers each night at our hostel, and slept well on army cots or sometimes in the luxury of a private queen-sized bed.

Most days we had breakfast and started our daily trek around 8:30, finishing for the day in the late afternoon. We generally hiked 10 to 12 miles, but on two rainy days we hiked less. We usually rested for an hour at lunch –which consisted of fresh fruit, a fresh baguette, local cheeses (often goat or sheep cheese) and some finger-thin hard sausages that we found very tasty. After eating I liked to sprawl out in the grass on a strip of cloth I brought for that purpose, looking up at the clear blue sky and overhanging oak branches.

Bars sell inexpensive lunches

Many hikers walked faster than we did, and took fewer breaks. Some even seemed obsessed with hiking as many miles as possible each day, striving for 20 or even more. Not me. I like to stop to take pictures, enjoy long views, and chat with farmers along the way. Ten miles is plenty.

There were cows all along the way

We stopped in just about every church along the way. The architecture and the quiet spaces appealed to us. Most churches allowed you to buy a candle and place it, lit, in a designated area. We did this while thinking of friends and family that needed a blessing or a change in luck. We understood that the Euro or two we paid for a candle would not make our wishes come true. But I knew that for many churches along the way, our Euros helped with the upkeep. Much of rural France is underpopulated, and quite poor.

Henry and Cindy arriving at the city gates of St Jean Pied-de-Port, the last stop of the chemin

When we reached St. Jean Pied de Port, the last town on this multi-year trek, I felt a surge of excitement when we reached the opening to this walled city. Here I was, 70 years old, having just completed the last part of a 500 mile walk. It was more than a series of adventures or vacations. It had also been a chance to spend time thinking, learning, and feeling a spiritual connection with all those pilgrims who had walked it before me.

St Jean Pied-de-Port, the last town on the French portion of the pilgrim's trail

Years ago, when I was starting the trail in Le Puy, an old French woman saw us with our packs and wished us luck. Have courage. Have a good trip, she told us in French. And we did.

Door to the cathedral in St Jean

Like this travel story? Click here to read about my trip to Italy to see Christo's Floating Piers. Or here for a recent trip to Montreal

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Henry is the author of 4 gardening books.  Visit my personal website by clicking here.  


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