How can you start planning for your Chemin de St. Jacques pilgrimage?
The two-park series (see Part 1 and Part 2) on my hike down the French national trail gave readers a feel for the 440-mile walk through the French countryside. So, how can you hike this trail? Let me provide some logistical help.
Can I Do It?
Of course you can.
All it takes is time, perseverance, and the ability to put one foot in front of the other. If you treat each day as a day hike - rain gear, food and water for the day, and low boots - you'll do fine. Most pilgrims are not hikers. It's not the Appalachian Trail, but it's still a trek that can be defined as between dayhiking and backpacking. OK, much closer to dayhiking.
You carry everything you need on your back but you stop at a hostel, hotel, or bed-and-breakfast each night. You don't need to carry a tent, sleeping bag, or a stove. I carried 20 pounds, which included two quarts of water, lunch, and snacks.
The ascents are much gentler than in Great Smoky Mountains National Park or Glacier National Park. In the U.S., the standard guideline is two miles an hour with an extra 30 minutes for every 1,000 foot of elevation gain. On Le Chemin, the guideline is 2.4 miles an hour (4 kilometers) and most times, you can walk faster without feeling you're racing. I walked about 15 miles a day and I had several 18-mile days. You walk out of your room every morning and you're on the trail, giving you a long hiking day and time to stop for attractions.
How Do I Know Where The Trail Is?
The GR 65 is well-blazed with red and white horizontal lines. A third line indicates a turn.
In addition, at busy trail intersections, a white and red X shows a wrong turn. You can get topographic maps of your route. On my trek, I never saw anyone open a map on the trail.
But Where Do I Stay?
Pilgrims have a choice of accommodations.
1. You can camp but few people do. Some villages have campgrounds, though you can't be guaranteed a place to camp every night. You could negotiate a spot in a field with a farm. I wouldn't recommend camping illegally.
2. Most people walk the independent way. They carry everything they need for the trek. They sleep in gites (hostels), Chambre d'Hotes (B&Bs), or small hotels, depending on their budgets and what's available.
3. No matter where you stay, you can contract with a local taxi service to take your big pack to the next town. Then you're day hiking. These services advertise on the trail, in town, and in gites. You leave your pack or duffle in the lobby of your lodging and put a tag on your luggage with your destination. You'll find it when you get in that afternoon. These services really work.
What Is A Gite?
"Gite" is usually translated as a hostel. In the United States, a hostel is mistakenly seen as a place for young, college-age folks, even though Hostelling International USA dropped the word "youth" ages ago. In France, gites are inexpensive dormitory accommodations for walkers of all ages. Individuals run gites as a business and villages operate gites as an extra source of income. Some gites are purpose-built, but most are in refurbished houses. You'll pay 13 to 15 Euros ($17.54 to $20.24) for a bed and breakfast.
In a gite, you can expect a bed with a clean bottom sheet, a pillow, and blankets. You bring your own towel and a sleeping sheet, a lightweight sleep sack available in all outdoor stores. You'll have a place to shower, make a cup of tea, rinse out your clothes and hang them outside on a line.
This is the best place to meet other pilgrims, share stories, and laughs. Most gites offer dinner and breakfast (demi-pension). You usually have the option of bringing your own food and cooking it in the gite kitchen. Other places provide you with food that you cook yourself as a group. If you're in a village with restaurants, some gites may not offer anything for dinner. In a gite, a three-course set dinner with wine is usually 12 to 15 Euros ($16.19 to $20.24).
I've slept in rooms with more than 15 people. A couple of times, I've been given a private room--but never a private bathroom. Yes, some people snore, get up in the middle of the night, or crawl out early in the morning, but that's part of the gite experience. Most pilgrims are in bed before 10 p.m. and wake up about 6:30 a.m. I found fellow pilgrims to be considerate and helpful, no matter what language they spoke.
Every once in a while, I treated myself to a hotel room with a private bath. This gave me a chance to spread out my stuff. A two-star hotel room, which can accommodate two people, will set you back 45 to 60 Euros ($60.71 to $80.95).
Reservations On The Trail
Some pilgrims don't make reservations. They walk as far as they want and then start looking for a gite. If they don't find a place they like, they keep walking.
Most walkers make reservations a day or two in advance by phone. You never have to secure a booking with a credit card; they expect you to show up or cancel. Those without a phone or knowledge of French can ask the gite owner to book for them. Larger villages have active tourist offices with staff that speak English. They're more than happy to book your lodging ahead on Le Chemin. Even with my good command of French, I found them invaluable.
Meals And Snacks
You usually eat breakfast where you're staying for the night. French breakfasts are skimpy by U.S. standards: bread, butter, jam, and a hot drink. Sometimes you get lucky and a small pot of yogurt or a wedge of cheese is included. I always brought extra cheese and fruit to supplement.
You buy your lunch and snack supplies from the many food stores along the way. Some pilgrims eat lunch in village restaurants, though you can never be assured of anything being open when you get there. I always carried bread, cheese, ham, tomatoes, and fruit in my pack.
Drinking water (eau potable) is available on the trail, but you can't plan on it. I never wanted to worry about having enough water.
The GR 65 (Via Podiensis), the most popular El Camino trail in France, is a French experience. More than 80 percent of pilgrims are French and don't speak much English. The rest are northern Europeans who may speak more English. On my trek, I only met two Americans, several Canadians, two Brits, and a couple of Australians and New Zealanders. You can certainly use English to get a meal, a bed, and food to carry in your pack.
When Should I Go?
May to October are the best times. You can expect snow in the Aubrac (the first week on the trail) as late as April. On the other end of the year, many accommodations close by the end of October.
Is The Trail Safe?
In a word, yes.
No bears, wolves, or even poison ivy. I only saw one snake slithering off the trail as quickly as it could. You need to watch out for cars coming around corners. I started out by waving - Hey, I'm here - but several drivers got confused and stopped because they thought I needed help. I then switched to lifting my hiking poles up, victory style.
I was very worried about loose dogs on the trail. French dogs must be trained differently than growling American dogs. Dogs were either completely disinterested in walkers or safely behind a fence.
Even though I walked a lot of the trail by myself, I knew that pilgrims were walking behind me and ahead of me. You quickly develop a Chemin family, even though there's a large turnover of people.
What Is A 'Credencial'?
A Credencial is a small booklet to gather seals or stamps that you collect at various places along the Chemin to show that you're walking the trail. I got mine stamped where I stayed each night. The gite owner pulls out his money box (yes, cash is king on the trail) either before or after dinner. Everyone lines up to pay for their beds, meals, and extra beers. In return, the owner stamps your Credential.
The Credential is taken seriously. If you want to take advantage of pilgrims' rates and sometimes if you just want to stay in a particular gite and prove you're walking, you need to show your Credencial. You can get your Credencial on the web or at the welcome center in Le Puy where you start your trek.
How To Get Started
The Cicerone guide is the only English language guide for the GR65, Le Puy to the Pyrenees. Its introduction is very useful. The appendices include a summary of the route with mileages from village to village. I found that I never needed the trail description while walking.
The guide, Miam Miam Dodo, is invaluable. Miam Miam is the French way to spell out the sound made by smacking your lips. English speakers would say "Yum Yum." Dodo is a child's way to say, "go to sleep." Therefore, the Miam Miam Dodo translates to the food and lodging guide along the trail. Pilgrims refer to the book as the "Yum Yum book."
The left side of each page depicts the route showing roads, distances from town to town and interesting sites. The facing page lists every accommodation, restaurant, food store and tourist office. Even though the book is in French, the information is very easy to decipher.
I used the book to figure out how far I wanted to walk each day. Then I picked out where I was going to stay and made reservations. Each evening, I created a cheat sheet on a small piece of paper, which listed each village and the distance between them. In this way, I was able to keep up with my progress without having to pull out the Yum Yum book on the trail.
Ruja, Alison. The Way of St. James: Le Puy to the Pyrenees. Cicerone Guides, 2010.
Miam Miam Do Do: Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Published by Vieux Crayon. You can buy a copy in Le Puy when you start out. I bought my book in advance on the web from the publisher so I could study it and look up words at home.
On the Web
Americans Pilgrims on the El Camino focuses mostly on the Spanish trek but it has lots of general useful information.
Several Facebook groups may be useful. Search for:
Gite sur le chemin de st Jacques de Compostelle
American Pilgrims on the Camino