Since finishing our walk along the Via Podiensis and heading home we have been reflecting on the many different experiences and adventures we had along the way. One of the most common questions we have been asked upon our return is whether it was 'as good as' the Camino Frances, which we walked last October, and whether we "liked it" as much. Surprisingly, it is rather difficult to provide a simple and succinct answer to that question. In short, the Via Podiensis was stunningly beautiful and very different than the Camino Frances, and we enjoyed it enormously. As to how it compared to the Camino Frances ... here are some of our initial thoughts and impressions, largely unorganized and in no particular order ....
The main trail from Le Puy en Velay to Roncesvalles is 774 km, which is similar in length to the Camino Frances. However, we found the terrain to be far more challenging, especially during the first two weeks.
The trail begins in Velay, where volcanic spires and peaks rise above a hilly landscape. It then traverses a very deep forested gorge created by the Allier River before entering Margeride. The countryside in this region includes granite highlands and meadows, pine covered slopes, and peat bogs. From there the trail climbs onto the Aubrac plateau, which presents a vast and open landscape where the volcanic and granite earth shows through pastureland that is home to some 50,000 head of cattle. The open fields turn to thick beech and oak forests as the trail descends into the beautiful Lot River valley, some segments of which are designated as world heritage sites. On the far side of the valley the trail enters Quercy, which is a dry limestone plateau called the Causses that is famous for its pigeon lofts and the small stone huts the shepherds built there. Next the trail slowly transitions to the more fertile lands of Gascony where agriculture dominates the landscape and the vineyards of Armagnac are prevalent. In the final days the trail enters the rolling hills of Basque country, with the red and white buildings and flocks of sheep, and of course the grand finale consists of crossing the Pyranees into Spain.
There are also ten monuments along the Le Puy Way that are recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites and are considered milestones on the way to Santiago de Compostela. These include the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Hotel-Dieu (Le Puy-en-Velay), the pilgrim's bridge on the Boralds (Saint Chely d'Aubrac), the bridge over the Lot River (Estaing), the Abbey Sainte-Foy and bridge over the Dourdou (Conques), Saint Etienne Cathedral and the Valentre bridge (Cahors), Saint-Pierre Abbey and its cloister (Moissac), and the Saint-Jacques gate (Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port). In addition, the trail passes through numerous fortified villages, many of which have achieved the designation of one of the most beautiful villages in France, through medieval villages with their bridges and gates, past chateaus, old castles, and numerous chapels, churches, and cathedrals.
Although the Le Puy Way took us through drastically different landscapes, and we passed numerous monuments along the way, for some reason we felt it lacked the milestones of the Camino Frances, and we felt at times that we weren't really making progress. This struck us as interesting, and made us think about how our expectations are shaped, and how our experiences are in turn affected by our preconceptions. We had read a lot of about the Camino Frances before we left, and "knew" that we would cross the Pyranees, then have to traverse the Meseta, and then climb O Cebreiro and enter Galicia, and we had read about how the physical changes in the landscape could mirror our inner journeys. We also "knew" there were large towns and cathedrals in Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon that marked our progress and helped divide the journey into thirds, and we had heard of the templar castle in Ponferrada and the ritual at Cruz de Ferro. Since we didn't decide to walk the Le Puy Way until a few weeks before we left, and we were unable to find much information on it in English before our departure, our expectations were pretty much summed up by the phrase "stunningly beautiful and extremely physically challenging." We had no idea sense of any milestones to look forward to along the way, so we simply walked and accepted whatever we encountered. It was a wonderful experience, and in many ways left us very free to discover everything as it came, but it was certainly a different experience for us than what we encountered on the Camino Frances.
In terms of physically navigating the GR65, we found the trail to be very clearly marked from start to finish, with the possible exception of entrances and exits to a few of the larger towns. However, unlike the Camino Frances, for most of the way the trail markers are the red and white bars of the GR65, which are supplemented by official signs with more detailed information that affixed to their own posts. The markers are less frequent and more sophisticated, and it isn't really until after Cahors that we really began to see the blue and yellow shell markers and other signs of the Camino at all. The large and ubiquitous yellow spray-painted arrows of the Camino Frances were nowhere to be seen in France.
Another difference we noticed was that the GR65 is not a central part of the communities it passes through. In Spain we found that many small towns catered to pilgrims, and bars and restaurants vied to be the first ones at the edge of town, or attempted to re-direct the camino past their business establishments. Bars offering coffee and take-away foods like croissants or bocadillos were virtually non-existent in the villages of France. Many towns had fantastic bakeries and delis that were happy to supply hikers, but it was clear that their main purpose was to serve the local community, and they closed in the middle of the day. In many instances the GR went past villages and towns without going through them as well. In Spain it seemed like the Camino was routed through all the small towns, and almost always took pilgrims past the church in the middle of each community. This was not necessarily the case in France, and many of the chapels and churches we passed were closed. Another difference was that in France there was no difference between the condition of buildings and amenities on and off the Way, whereas in some Spanish villages it seemed like signs of poverty were much more prevalent off the Way than on it. When we were hot and wanting a cold drink, or hungry and tired, the comparative scarcity of amenities sometimes felt inconvenient, but most of the time I think it was nice to feel that we were visiting real French communities, and not traveling along a route that existed mainly to meet the real or imagined needs of the pilgrims.
The Community of Hikers
We had read that some people encountered only a handful of pilgrims along the whole trail, and would often walk all day without seeing another hiker. This was not the case for us at all! The pilgrim's mass in Le Puy, which we attended before setting out, must have had nearly 100 pilgrims in attendance. However, despite the energy and relative crowds of people setting off from Le Puy, the proportion of walkers who considered themselves pilgrims was perhaps comparatively small until after we left Cahors.
The community of hikers on the trail primarily consisted of French people, followed by Germans. Many French people seemingly choose to complete the Le Puy Way over the course of a few years, walking for 2-3 weeks a year. So, in contrast to the Camino Frances, the vast majority of people we met were not walking the entire Le Puy Way in one go, and only a handful were planning to go all the way to Santiago de Compostela this year. In addition, many people we met before Cahors did not consider themselves to be pilgrims at all, but were simply out hiking along the GR65 for a weekend, or a couple weeks. As a result, I think we met and spoke to far more people on the Le Puy way than we did on the Camino Frances, but we spent a far shorter length of time with most of them. So, in some ways the sense of common purpose that exists on the Spanish portion of the Camino, where many people are hoping to make it to Santiago de Compostela, was not as strong on the Le Puy Way. Also, the community of familiar faces you see every day from beginning to end was not as consistent on the Le Puy Way. This in no way diminished our experience - we met some extraordinary people who shared amazing stories, and I think it also helped to put the trail in perspective. We spoke to people who started walking in Slovakia, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere, and who had chosen various routes to end up at the point where we met them, and various points for their final destinations. This gave us a new perspective on the questions "What is a true pilgrim?" and "What is a pilgrimage?" that are much debated on the Camino Frances. On the Camino Frances it can be tempting to get arrogant in the last 100 km kilometers before Sarria, when the bus pilgrims started to pervade, if you have "walked the whole way", by which you mean you started in St. Jean Pied de Port. Walking the Le Puy Way, where there is no certificate of accomplishment at the end, and no door of forgiveness into a final cathedral, and where people come from all over Europe on a vast network of GR trails to join The Way, you are left to answer these questions differently.
Another difference on this trail is that many people do not speak English. Almost without exception everyone was extremely nice to us, and went out of their way to help us. The spirit of the Camino was present and strong throughout. We did meet some people who were English speakers, but often during the communal dinners in the gites we found ourselves largely excluded from the lively and interesting sounding conservations, because they were simply too fast for us to follow in French. Unlike on the Camino Frances, where we found that much of the conservation in the albergues was conducted in English, this was not the case on the Le Puy Way. We certainly managed quite well speaking only English, and found lots of interesting people to share stories with, but at times it was a little isolating.
Although it is not absolutely necessary, hikers are encouraged to make reservations at the gites at least one day in advance along the Le Puy Way. I think this was largely so that gite owners could plan the meals, as many accommodations offer 'half-board' or 'demi-pension' options, which is a bed, dinner, and breakfast. In some ways it felt like this requirement reduced the spontaneity we found on the Camino Frances, but it did give an entirely different atmosphere to the whole experience. Unlike Spain, the gite owners not only knew how to take a reservation, but they also knew how to keep one, so once you had booked, you knew you had place to stay the following day. The gites typically didn't allow hikers in until 3:00 - 3:30pm, so there was not absolutely no hurry to arrive early. This meant that most people got up at 6:30 or 7:00, enjoyed an hour long breakfast, and then headed out. The 4:00 am alarms, followed by the hour long scuffle as everyone dropped everything while trying to pack in the dark didn't happen. Many people seemed willing to explore monuments, churches, viewpoints and other sights that were slightly off the trail, and many people also stopped for a leisurely lunch or picnic break around noon. As a result, the days were relaxed and unrushed, and there was never a race for a bed.
The gites themselves were also very different. Dormitories typically had 6 beds or 10 at most, and in many cases these were single beds, not bunk beds. Compared to Spain, there was a huge amount of space! There was also often a bathroom for each dormitory, making the ratio of people to facilities much lower than in Spain. When we went, there were often only 2 - 4 people in each dormitory room as well. Towards Basque country the gites became more like Spanish albergues, but they were still typically much roomier and much cleaner.
The hospitality was also very different. Hikers were typically greeted with a cold drink at the door, and sometimes a small cookie or biscuit. The drink was often cold water with a choice of fruit, mint, or anis syrup, which was very welcome. After the cold drink, introduction, and a chat, hikers were shown to their rooms or beds and left to clean themselves and their laundry and rest. Payment and the stamping of the pilgrim passport were frequently done after dinner, or sometimes after breakfast the following morning.
During the first part of the trail, to someone from North America, the food and beverages seemed like gourmet offerings. Dinners consisted of 5 courses - soup and baguette, green salad, a main course consisting of some kind of meat, a cheese plate, and a desert. Each course was fantastic and usually very artistically presented. Unlike Spain, where the pilgrim's menu was generally the same day after day and sometimes was constructed from ingredients out of a can, the French meals often featured a local delicacy (such as aligot in Aubrac, duck or foie gras in Quercy, nut cake, or armagnac), and were extremely good! There was often a great deal of pride exhibited in the local produce, and it was always well deserved. Towards the end of the hike, as facilities became more reminiscent of the Spain experience, the food became more streamlined as well (e.g., orange juice came from a dispenser and wasn't fresh), but it was still good and quite varied.
The cost of walking the Le Puy Way was higher for us than the cost of walking the Camino Frances, but it is difficult to say exactly by how much. In many cases half-board (bed, dinner, and breakfast) was offered for 30 - 35 Euros a night, so I think it would be reasonable to budget 35 Euros a day plus lunch, plus a bit extra for admissions, etc. In Spain we opted for a double room in many of the albergues, which was usually 40 Euros excluding food. Since food is very cheap in Spain, it probably didn't cost us 30 Euros for dinner and breakfast for two, but we aren't sure exactly what it did cost. So, for us it was a bit more expensive, but possibly not that much more. A bed for one in the dormitories in France was usually around 15 Euros, which is only slightly more than in Spain, but in many cases the meals were also 14-15 Euros, and there weren't a whole lot of options in some towns if you didn't want to opt for half-board. Even if you didn't mind cooking your own dinner, or eating a picnic, there wasn't always an open grocery store in the smaller towns. There were a few instances where we ended up staying in hotels because everything else was either booked or closed due to local festivals, and these rooms were a bit more expensive again - generally 75-90 Euros for two, including only breakfast. I think it would certainly be possible to keep the costs lower than we did, but it would require much better advanced planning. It is possible to camp most or all of the time as well I think, which also would reduce costs, but would take some planning to ensure you had food. We made a point of staying in as many of the pilgrim hostels that operated by donation as we could, and these turned out to be some of our best experiences. We always donated the same amount we would have paid in a regular gite, and this is highly encouraged, but you are free to donate whatever your financial circumstances allow, which could be another way to reduce costs if you really have no other options. My recommendation would be that if you are on a very tight budget, it might be a good idea to book as much as possible in advance to ensure there is space at the accomodation of your choice, and you don't end up paying more than you want to. My feeling is that it would still likely be a little more expensive than Spain, but perhaps not too much more. We found that the prices listed in the Miam Miam Dodo guide were generally spot on to what we were charged, so I would say this is a good resource to use for planning a budget.