Pilgrims on the Route St Jacques

10 June 2019 | 2 comments

Two journeys and many contrasts. Our first group of 9 set off on 9th May, an international group of Australian, Canadian, French, Israeli/British, Welsh and American. and the second group, all English, on May 23rd. This is their story, as the route unfolded. On a trail that’s been walked for over 1,000 years, was this a little more than just a jolly good walk, a physical challenge and some beautiful nature and countryside?

Polignac Castle

We start with time in Le Puy, a wonderful walk to the castle ruins at Polignac, discovering the Camino museum, the Virgin made of cannons from Sebastopol, the Hotel Dieu museum with apothecary and amazing modern ceramics display. The favourite was the St Michael chapel one the top of the spire of volcanic rock, a good introduction to the spiritual feel of the pilgrimage. Special mention to the stunning light displays on the cathedral and the rock spire, a somewhat dramatic navigational error by Julia, leading to an unplanned appearance of 4 Ramblers and an iPhone light in the centre of the Cathedral light display.

And off we go from Place du Plot. Just 205km to go.

We get into our stride, climbing out of le Puy, passing through St Privat d’Allier (meet Mr Grumpy) on to Saugues (of the mushrooms) and out testing 17 miles to Les Faux (lovely hamlet) and Aumont Aubrac.

Nasbinals. A quiet sleepy village with enough to keep us occupied for about an hour, plus the surprising Cascade du Deroc, sneaking underneath to get a good picture was fun.  Then there was the challenge of the Laundrette and braving the vets (of the epic taxidermy window dressing failure) to find washing powder. Fair to say, not many want to do more than relax and put feet up after 6 days of hard walking.

Random curiosities along the way included the bridge over the river Allier, designed by Monsieur Eiffel (we could see some similarities…), the tower perched on the rock (yet another tower from the 100 years war) and the most colourful barrel shaped tins for wine I had ever seen. The red sandstone carved into pillars like marble and appearing around windows, under crosses, here and there. The fabulous Lauze stone roof tiling. The exceptionally welcoming cheese farm. The pilgrims passports and the gathering of stamps.


The Aubrac. The cows and massive bulls dominate the landscape. One group get to see and hear a long line (maybe 50) of cows wandering up the valley in thier transhumance procession with French flags waving. Well done to the brave men who sampled the calves head (so so) and the calves tongue (tasty, if not pretty).

An Elizabeth‘s eye view of the village of Aubrac. Apologies to the first group – You were far too wet and cold to care!

We arrive at the high point of our pilgrimage, 1375m. One group huddle behind the shack, cold and dripping wet, feeling every misery of the plight of the pilgrims when in their heavy woollen coats with their tiny sacks and staff to fight off the beast of Guveryon. Two weeks later, the other group sprawl amount the wild orchids for their picnic, feeling just like in the Lake District on a perfect British summer day! For shade or for shelter, we all had a delightful time at Chez Muriel, the rickety farmhouse with the amazing view, and the stairs loo costing 50 cents. For the whole group.

Sometimes the unexpected moments are the most memorable: were it not for the rain, we would have missed the joy of meeting the amazing 90 year old ‘Mamie’, running the one and only village shop full of amazing useful stuff, including top quality bargain rain ponchos. Or indeed the encounter with fabulous tractor man (not much younger than Mamie) with his tiny dog in the crate, who insisted in demonstrating the ease with he could lift his tractor.

Stunning, peaceful, surprising, churches and chapels all along the way. I particularly loved the 900AD (ish) church at Bessuejouls, with the tiny chapel upstairs and inside the bell tower, fascinating Nordic inspired carvings. The very modern stained glass in the very old churches. The stark simplicity of the heavy stone arches.

The graceful twisted, and somewhat wonky spire of St Combe de l’Olt. Another winner of ‘the prettiest villages’, beautiful indeed, but where was everyone?? A delightful low key family wedding was taking place on the second group passing.

Espalion. Turrets, towers, the river Lot, the diving museum with some extraordinary (inexplicable?) exhibits, lovely Chapelle de la Perse in red sandstone.

Colours of the route

Sallly and Julia in the pool at Estaing

Estaing. Another little gem of a medieval village, but what an Auberge we had! I wasn’t expecting to have a swim then dinner by the pool. The 13 kg weight limit ensured that every garment was multi use, I found myself wearing what had passed a swimming costume one night, as evening wear the next.

Esperyac. Tiny village, just the one hotel perched on the edge of hillside.

Conques, what a grand finale, the jewel hidden away in the valley, feeling like the middle of nowhere, even the handful of touristy shops are tasteful. We listen to the priest’s explanation of the Abbey Tymponium, and laugh at the story of the canny friars wheedling their way into the community nearby who had St Foy’s relics, and then ‘taking’ said relics to honour them in the majestic Abbey at Conques. We take his advice to enter through the ‘hell’ door of the Abbey with all our anxieties, troubles, aches and pains and the rest, to spend 45 minutes immersed in the simplicity of the enormous space and the playful choice of organ music (from Greensleaves to House of the Rising Sun) contemplating our pilgrimage. And many of us leaving with a lighter and more peaceful heart, to watch another spectacular light display marvelling at history, art, imagination or just sheer technological excellence.

Scott with 4 of the magic mute pilgrims

Pilgrimage. Many people speak about the people they meet along the way, and the inspiration it brings. Our first group was unquestionably inspired by two remarkable groups: the French men who were mostly mute, and would magically appear in any combination at various points. They asked for help at one point to phone ahead for their next augberge…amazingly the logistics of such a journey did not seem to phase them one bit, and they were always smiling, laughing and full of joy. I hope the speedy one amoung them managed to complete his race somewhere south of Finesterre. And the family of 5 (or 6?) with their two donkeys, walking to St Jean Pied de Pont, in the most traditional way caring for these animals and pulling together as a family. What a gift for those children that journey will be. An honourable mention too, to the free spirited Scicilian, walking as far as he can along the route for the next 56 days (precisely), and as we cross a particularly lovely stream, he wanders away to strip off almost all his clothes, and jumps in.

Walking together

Finding peace in steady walking. The symbolism of taking just the smallest rucksack with you, the minimum of equipment, food and means, so that you have to ask for help. Do we get too hung up about being completely self sufficient? It made me think about humility in a different way. My lasting impressions will include the importance of treading lightly…we were all so delighted with the cleanliness and care taken of the landscape, the gardens and the paths.


  1. Julia

    Thank you,. It was grand!

  2. David Hunt

    Hello Julia, I just wanted to say what a good holiday I had in France. Your blog was a pleasure to read and see the photos and I’ve also taken particular pleasure in looking back at the Canyonlands trip. Both holidays have been excellent. Thanks very much.


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