Guide to the Via Podiensis (the most famous Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago in France)

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This extensive guide is based on my first six-stage experience on the Via Podiensis, the most famous Way to Santiago in French territory. In those six days I was able to walk 130 kilometers between Sainte-Eulalie-d’Olt and Cajarc, mostly in the department of Aveyron. This experience that I told in my Instagram, and that so many followed with enthusiasm, was more than stimulating to me, besides serving to unfold in this post the answers to all the doubts that were approaching me by messages, the advices that I want to transmit to them, and the opportunity to clear all the doubts that I believe are presented at the time of organizing our stages for the Way of Santiago, marking the differences that are presented in France.

Photos (*) Matías Callone / arriving at Estaing

Introduction to Via Podiensis

(Most usual way to Santiago in France). When I told about my brief adventure on the Via Podiensis in France, many asked me in astonishment how the Way of St. James could go beyond Spain, thinking that it only involved stretches in that country. So I’m going to make a very basic introduction. As a centuries-old pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James (or Way to St. James) branches out like a tree through several European countries. Perhaps the most famous route in Spanish territory is the “French Way” that crosses Spain from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela. The Via Podiensis would be the section of France connecting Le Puy en Velay with Sant-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Therefore, it would be one of its main extensions, but not the only one. In fact, in France there are many roads of the Way of St. James, and the Via Podiensis is only one more, but the most famous. The Via Podiensis is also known as the Path of Le Puy. However, there are more roads or sections prior to Le Puy-en-Velay, for example, the Gebennensis road is a new branch that extends through Switzerland and Germany. So we could make an extension and start walking from Geneva, go through Le Puy-en-Velay, and continue to Sant-Jean-Pied-de-Port to continue along the French Way to Santiago de Compostela. Via Podiensis is indicated as a GR 65 long-distance trail all the way.

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Do you know it’s the Way of St. James (in what I did in the Via Podiensis)? It’s not a trip for me. It’s more. And I’m not talking about what his spiritual or mystical side would be. The road is an adventure of thousands of people simultaneously. A goal that slips through paths that do not know monotony, the possibility of walking without maps, of forgetting the telephone. The camaraderie and the greetings, the faces that repeat themselves and the greetings for the sake of it, the temporary friends who make a place for you at the table. The Way is the overcoming day by day: of personal barriers, of fulfilled goals. And the good vibe as they say in Spain, the good vibe or vibrates (or whatever name it is). It’s spending days among people who find it less difficult to smile than in the cities and in everyday life. It’s also a cheap way to travel around Europe. The hostels are “cheap”, transport costs only a few ampoules and a strip of ibuprofen. The food looks like home if you find the right shelters. The way is to enjoy eating without guilt and lying in bed (also without guilt). And above all, breathe pure, listen to the mornings and enjoy them, know villages and charming places every day, remember that it is not necessary so much. And it doesn’t matter the goal nor is it a career…it’s a way to enjoy life…with blisters (my obsession these days)…after all what would life be like without blisters? All that is the way…and what I lack to learn. #CaminodeSantiago #viapodiensis #Aveyron #Lafrance

A shared publication of 101 Incredible Places (@maticallone) on 1 Jun, 2019 at 1:05 PDT

How many roads are there in France? The answer is several (or many), as is the case in Spain.

And then, why is Via Podiensis the best known? (a bit of history?.) In the year 950 0 951 is documented the itinerary made by the bishop of Le-Puy-en-Velay (Gotescalco) on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, being the first non-Hispanic pilgrim to make this journey. At that time he was not alone, but accompanied by a procession that included artists, barons, or even armed guards who defended the procession. Although this itinerary is the subject of discussion, today this first pilgrimage is followed in an approximate way. And far from doing it with armed guards, today there are as many pilgrims as there are hikers who follow and follow the route behind the tracks that left so many centuries: sanctuaries, abbeys, hospitals, bridges. In the twelfth century there is already a guide to the Pilgrim with some indications.

How many kilometres does the Via Podiensis travel through France? There are a total of 742 km from Le Puy en Velay to Sant-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The total distance from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostela is 1506 km.

And in how many stages or days is it done? At this point, I would like to make a clarification. The journey is made in as many stages as one wants to organize. There’s no rhythm or number. The ideal is to do it at the right pace for each one. However, there are a number of reference stages to consider. To make the 742 kilometers of Via Podiensis there is a suggested 29 stages, with a daily average of approximately 25 kilometers.

Can I do some stages? Of course I do. One can choose to make it complete, or to make the stretch that one chooses to total freedom. In fact, it is most common for many walkers to make this path in stretches over several years, as is the case with the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago. That is to say, for example, to make a week (seven stages) one year, the following seven others or whatever they are and so on. Each one looks for the rhythm and the most suitable form for his times, physical or whatever.

More usual stages. It is not that they are the most recommended because there are many beautiful stages. But many usually start the road in Le Puy and make the stretch to Conques. This Le-Puy to Conques itinerary is one of the most realized. Above all for those who are thinking of continuing the journey at other times of the year, or in subsequent years.

Where can you see the details of each stage? A website that I used to see the details, distance, the profile of slopes, and even the hostels of each stretch was the website I leave you the link to the stages of the Way of Le Puy.

Initial advice and preparations. The first thing I’m going to tell you is that once I (in my case) decide to do several stages of the road, I’m about to read websites with road tips that usually display extensive lists of recommendations. I think that was one of the first things that overwhelmed me at the beginning of the road. That’s why I’m not going to make a huge list of recommendations that overwhelm us, and even make us desist from moving forward with the idea of doing the Camino de Santiago. The essential thing you need to start the journey is a minimally reasonable physical condition (you don’t need an athletic state, but some training just to walk for hours). Although it is obvious, I say this for the fact that many would imagine arduous days of previous training, but no, it is not necessary so much. The path does not have to be a sacrifice that with the mere idea of what awaits us makes us give up. It’s about enjoying even the previous “training”.

And how much weight do I have to bear on the way? Believe me, rather than wondering what it is that you have to take to the road, you should ask yourselves what it is that you believe you should take and that you really should not take. The minimum luggage is essential, and should not exceed 8 kilos (I will explain below how to do it and why it is possible to do it with so little weight).

Do I need a lot of planning? There is also no need for exhaustive planning (I did not do it with too much anticipation, much less with exhaustive organization). We don’t have to impose on ourselves a plan of stages to be followed to the letter. The best plan is flexibility. Believe that I have seen how some hikers have been throwing away their printed sheets with plans of stages that are then modified day by day. Nor should we think of the road as a fast race to follow. If you don’t have much time, don’t try to start the journey with a demanding work schedule. Reduce the number of stages. If the plan is to do only a few stages, leave a margin to be able to flexibilize that number of stages. The important thing more than to impose a hard rhythm of stages, is to enjoy the way, that is the essential thing. And believe that if you’re going to plan a tough schedule of stages, you’re likely to stop enjoying it early.

Things to wear, yes or yes. Although in the point about “supporting the weight of the backpack” that is below I explain it again, here I am going to anticipate that it is very little that we need yes or yes. The clothing, which is the minimum of one of these dismountable hiking trousers, another bermuda trousers, a light coat (polar or micropolar), a waterproof wind jacket, and the changes of t-shirts and underwear that are no more than four. Clothes can be washed in the hostels along the way. In addition, in almost every minimally important village you will find pharmacies, hiking shops, markets and mini-markets, boulangeries, regional product shops. I’d say there’s practically nothing you can’t get in the way.

Summary of Preparations. Then, and in summary what is essential in the previous preparation?, a minimally reasonable physical state, to have ready our credential to collect the stamps of each place (also I will explain it below), to learn from the one we are going to that our load needs much less than we imagine, an attitude of overcoming, will, and above all, many desire to enjoy the way.

What time is best to do it? It is undoubtedly best to avoid the winter, or more extended, avoid from late November to late March. Spring in many parts of the road is not usually very spring in terms of temperatures. But unlike winter the minimum temperatures will change above all, we will have more sunny days, and a greener and more lush landscape that will fill us with more energy. The intermediate stations will be ideal not only for the climate, but for the balance of walkers without massiveness (which translates into less busy hotels). Peak summer days would be best avoided because of the heat. While there are many stretches of shadow, and alternative shadows along the way. In heat peaks temperatures can be above 30 degrees. I’m not saying we should give up either. In those dates it is more important to get up early and take advantage of the first hours of the day with fresher. More water will also have to be provided, although there are points where drinking water can be carried in almost every village along the way. For more extreme decisions, some hikers told me that in summer, if the forecast is very hot, some choose to do stretches or stages at night, this is walking for example from 3 or 4 in the morning to reach our end of stage before noon and the most abrasive sun.

Avoiding excuses for the Camino de Santiago

This section I think will be very uncomfortable for those who want to make excuses for the road :).

I’m not the right age. If anything caught my attention as I advanced my first days on the road, it was that the average age of those who made stages was over 60 years old. I have come to cross lonely hikers who were advancing at a slow pace, and I could estimate the age between 70 and 80 years. Age is not a reason to desist from making the path or stages of the path. Everyone can find their own rhythm, or complete partial stages (there are always hotels every few kilometers). The important thing is not age, but to be physically fit to walk (and to do so in a reasonable way in relation to your physical endurance, adapting distances to it).

I couldn’t bear to walk so many miles every day. I may repeat myself in many of these explanations, but the stages (averaging between 20 and 30 kilometers per day) are only suggestions. Throughout each stage there are usually several villages where there are accommodations. And there are also accommodations in the middle of the rural landscape. On average, there is accommodation every 5 kilometers. This means that we can program to do the amount of kilometers per day that motivates us to do. If we want to do ten kilometers or fifteen a day, there is no reason not to be able to do it, it is only a matter of programming our lodgings every that distance. If we want to do only six kilometers because we are tired, it can also be done. I have even been told by some hikers that they programmed two nights of accommodation in a row at the same point to rest, or that they made one day a stage, and the next day they rested. Everyone can look for their own rhythm, and above all their own way of enjoying themselves.

I’m not in good physical shape. Although this point is related to the previous one, you will be surprised if I tell you that it is not necessary to be in excellent physical condition to make the journey. Of course, you have to be in a minimum physical condition, and you could only know that if you do some extensive test walks before starting the trail. For example, I would recommend doing two walks 15 days before the road (for example a weekend), one Saturday and the other Sunday, of about 15 kilometers each. At the weekend before the road, do a Saturday 20 kilometers, and on Sunday, 20 kilometers more. It is a way of measuring our body, of preparing our feet for the walk, etc. Of course, if the starting point is a physical state in which we do nothing for a long time, the previous training should start even several months earlier. But it’s not training to break or kill oneself with effort. The thing to train for the road is resistance “at a slow pace”, not accelerated efforts. Even walking and trying to make short climbs, etc. That said, don’t think that along the way I saw people in a formidable athletic state, far from it. A reasonable minimum physical condition, willingness and desire to improve day by day is essential.

I don’t have time to train before I make my way. To train for the road you don’t need to have hours every day. Sometimes it’s just a matter of starting to change attitudes several months earlier. For example, start to stop using elevators, escalators, use less car and public transport and start walking everywhere or even using bicycles to improve your body’s endurance. For example, although it may seem very basic, go out early to work and walk (whenever possible clear). In short, putting our head in “walking mode” in our daily lives will be a very good workout.

I couldn’t bear the weight of the backpack. There are two clarifications on this point:

Point one: you can go with a very light backpack. One of my first lessons in doing my stages was that my backpack was overweight. My back would feel it every day after several hours of walking. The truth is that in my case I had not “designed” my luggage in a way optimized for the road. I was on a trip through France in which I had suddenly decided to make some stops along the way. And I carried two backpacks, and all my photographic equipment (including the reflex camera, the drone, their corresponding spare batteries, etc.). With all that plus clothing for different climates, I can assure you that my weight totally exceeded the recommended. To make the journey in the spring or summer season, it is not necessary to wear more than a long detachable trousers, another style of hiking bermuda, a coat, a raincoat, and changes of clothes for four days. That’s it, and I repeat, that’s it. Add the basics of personal hygiene, a very minimal first-aid kit (there are pharmacies in almost every town), and I think that with that we could well be around 8 kilos. That’s enough. If the concern is how I will wash my clothes, it is good to know that in each Gite d’Eta accommodation or in the hotels for pilgrims there are places where we hand wash our clothes, places to tend to the sun clothes, or even washing machines and dryers.

Point two: there are companies that make the logistics to move our luggage or backpack from hotel to hotel, while we walk along the way with a small backpack in which only carry water, food and little more. If we do not want to make an extra effort, assuming that we will increase the daily cost (it is not much either), well we can do the way using these services that make it easier for us to travel more than light, almost with what we put on.

I’m not willing to sleep in hostels with shared rooms. In some comments on networks or my instagram made it clear to me that many are not willing to share a room. The truth is that along the way hostels are not only cheap accommodation, they are also the way to make it economically possible to make a crossing that requires several days or weeks. Hostels are places where people arrive with energy for little less than dinner, and lie down to rest. They are quiet places, where people in general are respectful and cordial with each other’s rest. If we are not willing to use hostels and shared rooms, there will always be hotels with private rooms, and at relatively reasonable prices (from 50 euros onwards for two people).

Moments of crisis along the way. Believe that in several days a whole mental process is covered, physical and even a cycle of energy in the way. It is probable that the first three days are relatively easy, that the body does not take great bill. The key is that on the way all the weight, effort, muscle overload, accumulates day by day. That is why it is essential not to pretend to make the road as if it were a race against time. Always relax, take short breaks whenever you feel your body asks for it. Longer breaks should also be allowed. In stretches of 24 kilometers, starting at 8 a.m. I would end up having a kind of anxiety to arrive. You have to be immunized against that anxiety. Most of the time my stage ended at two or three o’clock in the afternoon, so I almost always did it faster than I thought and concluded that I had rushed senselessly. You have to allow yourself breaks, walk quietly and enjoy yourself. The stages do not consist of getting to the end of the day quickly, but in enjoying the whole journey. Even so, it is likely that someday, especially at the end of the stage, you will feel that tiredness will win you over, or that there will be some pain that gives the feeling that you will not be able to follow the path. Believe that once we reach our end of stage, hours of rest and recovery will come. Times when we are overwhelmed or too tired are not the best times to make decisions. Wait till the next day. When you wake up you will notice how the body after rest has an amazing resilience. In fact I had gone from not being able to believe in the morning as I had recovered from my “calamitous state” on a previous day. I repeat, my calamitous state was, a total tiredness, added to my excess weight in the backpack, and above all, some blisters that for doing things wrong I could not prevent (because you can prevent them). If you feel overwhelmed at the end of a stage, all you have to do is rest, recover and wait for the morning. The energy, and even our spirits, will be different at the beginning of the day.

Where do I get my badge to collect the stamps on the way? One of the most enthusiastic points on the Camino is collecting the stamps for each stage. These stamps of the Way of St. James are made in hostels, tourist offices, abbeys or even churches along the route. In order to obtain the credential, one of the usual ways is to buy it either at Le-Puy-en-Velay in the church, or in some churches near the road, or in associations of friends of the road. I bought my credential in a church in Aurillac (which by the way is not part of the way). My recommendation is that you ask at tourist information offices about where you can get the credential at a nearby point. You can buy the same in Spain before leaving, consulting churches, tourist offices, or looking for info on the web.

Do I need to book my accommodation? On the way through France, the accommodation system is somewhat different from what it is in Spain. To begin with, the average price is somewhat more expensive than hostels in Spain. We speak for example of a bed in shared room in a Gite dEtape (are the accommodations for hikers) had a price from 14 euros. This includes a shared shower and bathroom, a common space where you can normally cook. It is also normal that in all these hostels you will be offered a price for dinner and breakfast, in around 35 euros. The truth is, if you can afford it, it’s worth it, because the food is usually quality. On the other hand, although the “French breakfast” was of very good quality (bread, sweets, etc.), it was not so appropriate for me to face a day in which we required a lot of energy. I always prefer to eat fruit, protein, something more energetic. And most hostels offer you the classic coffee with milk, bread, butter, sweets. Reservations. A different matter with respect to Spain is that it is customary to book our accommodation at least one or two days in advance. You can do this by phone, or by email (in case you do it by email if it is better to write two or three days before). If the question is whether it is advisable or necessary, the answer is relative, especially according to the dates and luck you have. The truth is that those who run out are usually either the best valued or the most essential, such as the hostel of the Abbey of Conques, which is a classic. These hostels often have a minimum quota for those who arrive without reservation by order of arrival, in this case must arrive early. However, it is also possible not to book and to risk. But I think it is advisable to book for the fact that it is not good to reach our end of stage with all the fatigue and find that in several of these hostels there is no place. It can also happen that you make the way on days that are not massivity of walkers, but that coincide in your journey with a large group of hikers who are reserving and occupying all the squares of a hostel. If you want to be safe in the best rated hostels, it’s best to book. However, there are always alternatives along the way, hostels that are in rural areas, etc. But another risk is that by not finding a place in the cheapest hostels, you end up paying a much more expensive hotel night.

How are the slopes, are there many slopes on that stretch of road? I can only speak for my experience in stages especially in Aveyron. The biggest ascent I had was about 400 meters just after leaving Conques. Otherwise, they were always reasonable unevennesses and less than that number. According to the graphs with stage profiles, the difficulties are intermediate, and many times the difficulty of a stage is more related to the distance to be covered (more than 30 kilometres) than to the slopes. Even when we border the Pyrenees, the path is accompanied by the mountains, but does not go through major difficulties. The greatest difficulty awaits in the stage of crossing the Pyrenees after Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Can you do it on a bicycle? Of course you can, and there are many cyclists that you come across on the way. With those I could talk to a little, they told me that they did 80, 100 or even more kilometers a day. Now, I was also able to talk to someone who had done it both on a bicycle and while walking, and he said something to me that I think he would agree with: the best thing is to do it while walking. It’s the best way to connect with the magic of the road, the best way to make friends and acquaintances, and above all to follow the appropriate slow pace for the road. I give an example, one in each daily stage crosses about 3 or up to 5 villages, in addition to churches, abbeys. If we were to do 100 kilometers a day, all of these stop points would multiply, or we would pass many of them quickly by. There are people who really deserve to stop and appreciate them. However, if we cycle through 15 villages in one day, the density of places to see will multiply too much. I’m hoping to explain myself. I am not saying this to the detriment of such a beautiful way of moving as the bicycle is. There is also the option of making a bicycle, doing fewer kilometers per day, and lightening our load by carrying the weight on the bike. Everything can be evaluated and adapted. But I want to say that the essence of the path is precisely walking.

Level of exigency. Walking a stage may not be too challenging. The challenge in this type of roads is to accumulate physical demands day by day, accumulate tiredness, and the bill that is passing day by day the body. That’s why it’s essential to take advantage of our breaks, have dinner and go to bed early to wake up early the next day.

First-aid kit. On the way I was able to cross in each town of a certain size a pharmacy where they have something like a section for walkers with usual products. So while it’s advisable to carry a minimum first aid kit, there’s nothing you can’t buy on the road. The idea is always to lighten weight. Everything can actually be bought on the road. Do not forget that businesses and shops live on much of the walkers and are prepared to give all the solutions.

Variety of roads and surfaces. The path of the Way (GR 65) is a route that crosses all the variants of surfaces. It can be a stretch at the side of a road (they are the least), but in general, they are either stretches by rural roads, very secondary, or many stretches by paths only for walkers and cyclists between fields, pastures, forest areas, and so on. It is necessary to know that the way of Santiago through France does not always use the most direct way to get from one point to another. Many times it is a question of following itineraries that are diagrammed in function of places of interest, that will take us to old churches, villages, abbeys. Or simply stretches that will take us along more rural roads away from very urbanized areas. That said, it is not a way to do fast, but to enjoy and go basting the best attractions of each stage. As for surfaces, there are (most) sections on land, gravel, or some sections on asphalted rural roads. There will also be parts that are sometimes with some mud, especially on rainy days.

Some history of the villages. The road goes mostly through villages (and most of them are beautiful). Many of these villages are sometimes remote, far from urbanized or industrialized areas. I think that also adds up a lot to make the road more beautiful. The stretch that goes from Le Puy, and goes into Aveyron (to Cahors), which was the most I could or know or I was told in addition to informing me, is beautiful, and many of these villages are listed among the most beautiful in France. For example, what I did was from Saint-Côme-d’Olt to Cajarc, and it’s precious, a collection of the most beautiful villages, preserved almost unchanged for centuries. Conques is one of the stars of the route, but I can affirm that Estaing, Espalion, or lesser known towns like Faycelles, are beautiful.

Times on bicycle and walking. Just as the average walking distance is 25 kilometers (or 30), by bicycle the average is about 80 or 100 kilometers. The walking times for 25 kilometers are about six hours.

Can it be done by car? This question was asked several times in my networks while I was telling my experience on the road. I imagine for various reasons, or lack of time on a trip, or doubts about physical conditions, or even mobility problems. The answer is that you can follow the route from village to village and stage to stage by road, but it won’t be exactly the route of the road. You can also experience the atmosphere of the road by staying in hostels or hotels in the stages. Many of these hostels accept guests who are not walkers or pilgrims. It’s a way of sharing the environment you breathe along the way.

Clothing. Although I spoke of this point earlier. The minimum recommended clothing is light clothing, detachable trousers if possible. If it is not a very hot season, use waterproof footwear (Goretex or similar) is wise. Many also prefer to wear comfortable, lightweight sports shoes, and it’s a good option as well, regardless of whether they can touch rainy days or muddy sections. Coats, the minimum necessary. Do not forget that on the way we will be in full physical activity and is more likely to be hot even with temperatures of 10 or 15 degrees in the day.

Indications and signs. On the road the signposting is very good, you do not need maps, telephone or GPS. The GR 65 trail is indicated in the classic mode with two lines (one red and one white). And the signage is not exaggerated, but always appears at points where there may be some doubt, such as detours, or crossroads. That’s enough signage so we never have to get lost. If in a long stretch there are no detours or crossings, it is not necessary to wait for the signal to appear at all times, it is only signposted when there are points that could lead to confusion. I’ve never made a mistake throughout my stages, so you don’t have to worry about that.

Official language of the way through France. Obviously it’s French, and most walkers are French. It is the language that predominates at the tables. I made my way in spring, and there was not too much variety of tourists from other countries, beyond Germans, some walker with knowledge of Spanish, or some hiker from outside Europe, cases very little significant. However, without knowing French, language was not a barrier to end up sitting at a table between Frenchmen, in a climate always friendly and cheerful in which you look for ways to communicate. Did you feel that you could not enjoy or make friends along the way because of it? Not at all. Not speaking French is not a barrier or obstacle to making your way in France. On the other hand, the alternative in my case was mostly English, although it wasn’t exactly a language spoken by French walkers.

How friendly are the people and the deal. Related to the above, the climate is more than friendly, a pleasure to enjoy days with people who are cheerful, enjoying and with a good predisposition to always greet, smile, or even invite you to their table.

Are there people all year round? . The road can be done all year round. But of course in winter it will be a rather solitary experience, and not exactly as stimulating as doing it with better weather.

Stage Saint-Come-de-Olt to Estaing. It’s a not-so-demanding stage. They are relatively few kilometers, and it has two sections in ascent of not great unevenness. You become agitated or tired in those two stages of ascent, but then you become flat, or in descent and you recover. This stage is equivalent to stage 7 of the Le Puy road. The beauty at this stage is very harmonious, there are beautiful villages that are truly unknown to those who do not make the way (like Verriéres), there are churches such as Saint-Pierre-de-Bessuéjouls that have almost a thousand years of history. In this section there are points where to reload hot water, and at least I could count two points of the stage where there were open cafes for pilgrims. By the way, one of these cafés was very nice, and it was in the village of Verriéres, almost at the end of the stretch. For its part Espalion is a town that deserves much to stop and explore, especially the old part on the river provides beautiful postcards.

Pueblos en el tramo Saint-Come-de-Olt > Espalion > Saint-Pierre-de-Bessuéjouls > Verriéres > Estaing

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