The Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St.James, les Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, is not strictly a French path. And no, it's not at all on the French Riviera.
Why talk about it on AzurAlive.com where we scout offbeat crowd-evading spots in Southern France?
To many in France and beyond, le Chemin de Compostelle is mystical. During medieval times, it was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages. Since 1140, pilgrims, the curious and the brave have embarked on it by foot, on horseback or more recently by bike to reach a site considered sacred by many, the site of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Four main paths cross France and lead pilgrims from all across Europe to Santiago de Compostela: the "via Turonensis" that goes through Tours, "via Lemovicensis" through Vézelay, the "via Podensis", the oldest and most popular route and the one that crosses Puy-en-Velay and finally, the "via Tolosana" going through Arles.
Turonensis, Lemovicensis, Podensis all meet up at Ostabat in the French side of the Basque country to continue on into Spain as a single thread. Tolosana or the Arles route, rejoins them shortly after at Puente La Reina in Spain. The four then continue west as one to Santiago, as the Camino Francés or French Path.
I've recently talked with Susan Alcorn, hiker and author of "Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago." Camino Chronicle is a personal account of Susan and Ralph Alcorn's 500-miles 34-day hike across the Spanish side of the Camino to Compostela.
AzurAlive: Not everyone goes out and hikes 500 miles across an ancient pilgrimage trail and then comes home and writes a book about it. What was the spark that triggered the adventure?
Susan: One Sunday several years ago, we read about the pilgrimage walk on the Camino de Santiago in the our local newspaper's travel section. It sounded interesting, but my husband and I were both still working full time. I filed the article with the dozens of other destination pieces I've saved.
A couple of years later, as we were both considering retirement, the idea of walking the Camino resurfaced.
We were already backpackers — in fact our hike on the Camino was just weeks after we completed our final segment of the John Muir Trail, which is a 221-mile trail through the highest mountains of California. I guess we just figured that although it was more miles than we had ever walked, we also had more time than ever to do it. I was very leery about doing the meseta — I took the "Nine months of winter, three months of Hell" (referring to the extremes of weather) to heart. Because I had visions of perishing in the brutal heat, we had talked about our alternatives — one was that Ralph would continue walking and that I would bus ahead.
As it turned out — which is usually the case — my worries were unwarranted. The meseta, though indeed a land with scant vegetation and relatively few people, had its own rewards. I found its "plain-ness" provided the opportunity to meditate — to think about anything that came to mind, or nothing. I liked the way that small things — a single flower alongside the trail or an egret in a nearby field — could be noticed. I was intrigued by the fact that a row of trees lined the trail for miles. The trees, as well as occasional stone benches, had been placed in order to provide shelter and relief for Camino walkers. And finally, enjoyed the way that the miles of the flatter terrain seemed to zip by.
AzurAlive: How did you prepare for the trip?
Susan: We live in a hilly area and have moderate weather so we have the benefit of being able to walk in the hills pretty much year-round. We can be "couch potatoes" during the "off-season," but when hiking season approaches, we definitely start our training hikes. Four to six weeks before a major trip, we start taking hikes of increasing miles and difficulty. Ralph like to take these longer hikes carrying his backpack; I should do this too, but I rarely do! And because we are hiking long-distance trails in the U.S. as well as in Europe each year, we are either training for, or going on, long hikes much of the year.
AzurAlive: Did you write the core of the material during the trip?
Susan: I kept a journal during our 2001 walk on the Spanish Camino and that became the core material for "Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago." However, because I wanted to know more about the trail and its history than I could pick up during our walk, I did a lot of research after we returned home. The book combines my journal entries, cultural information, and legends of the trail. I also included practical information such as how to pack and how to prepare for an extended trip away from home.
AzurAlive: Tell us about your hiking in France. Did you start on the French side of the Pyrenees?
Susan: That sounds like another book -- and someday that may well be! We found our Camino experience so interesting that we wanted more. We decided to walk the French route from LePuy (GR65) across to Spain. We walked the route in three sections from 2004 - 2006.
Although we saw many wonderful sights throughout France, I think that the section from LePuy to Figeac was the most beautiful. Of course that was partly due to time of year — it was springtime and we were blessed with snow (exciting!) and daffodils everywhere! Our 2005 and 2006 trips were in the fall, so it was hotter and drier, but the climb out of St. Jean Pied du Port and over the Pyrenées was stunningly beautiful!
We enjoyed hiking in France so much that we are planning on returning this fall and hiking a portion of another Camino route — the one from Arles to Puente la Reina.
Thank you Susan and Bonne Randonnée, wherever your next hiking adventure may take you!