A walking tour in France is a great way to take a holiday with a difference. A chance to feel at one with nature and to enjoy the changing landscape, pretty villages and stunning views. This way of taking a holiday in France is undergoing a huge renaissance as more people discover the joys of an adventurous walking tour and pilgrimage, something which has been popular in France for many centuries. There are three major identifications for walking paths in France: GR (Sentier de Grande Randonée), PR (Chemin de Petite Randonée) and GRP (Grandes Randonées du Pays).
One of the first tourist guidebooks we know of, was by Amery Picaud, a French scholar and monk who wrote the Pilgrim’s Guide covering the walk of the Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela. In days of old, pilgrims would have found it a hazardous route. Clashing with robbers and unsavoury types at pilgrim hotels along the way, wearing uncomfortable clothing and footwear. Some would undertake extreme actions to prove their faith such as hitting themselves in the face with lumps of wood as they walked.
Judy Colineri of Spanish Steps Walking Holidays explains that there is none of the danger or hardship involved in today’s pilgrimage tours but it can be can be just as life changing. Travellers throughout history have found that the best way to see a country is on foot. By following paths that are well travelled as well as off the beaten track, it is possible to experience the daily rhythm and the rich culture of the people. If you have ever wanted to go on a walking journey or a pilgrimage in France, but are unsure about how to start, Spanish Steps will help you to prepare for a very special and rewarding guided walk.
Le Puy en Velay to Conques
It’s 250 kilometres from Le Puy en Velay (which is close Lyon), to Conques and Figeac in Aveyron along the pilgrimage route known as Le Chemin de Saint Jacques. A quiet footpath in the Massif Central through a rural part of south-central France, the adventure of a life time, and says Judy an extremely beautiful way to see this part of France. The route has been walked for hundreds of years taking in ancient Roman roads and the Way of St James (GR65). Spanish Steps runs many pilgrimage walking tours and this is just one of them and it is one of the most popular walks in France.
Today’s walkers and pilgrims wear comfortable clothing and hiking boots; Spanish Steps arranges comfortable accommodation in hotels and inns. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are arranged in advance – every stop along the way has been tried and tested and passed Judy’s exacting seal of approval. As a trained culinary chef – she is quite particular!
The Le Puy en Velay to Conques walk diverts into off-the-Camino side trips to historical sites, chateaux, picturesque villages, fabulous forests, past vineyards and famous locations. Judy says “the walk appeals to all sorts of people of all ages”. Those who love the peacefulness, the safety of a group, the camaraderie, school groups, individual, families. “For some it is a religious undertaking for others it is about the walk, food, wine, shopping and a chance to become immersed in the surroundings and daily life of this very beautiful part of France” explains Judy.
To the pilgrims of medieval times, completing a pilgrimage would mean a remission of their sins and entry to Heaven. Today’s pilgrims and walkers experience an adventure with a hint of historical authenticity, spirituality and self-discovery. Judy, who has led more than 100 pilgrim walks, says “I love the pace of simply walking and discovering these rural areas. Walking into a small village and chatting with an old lady about what she’s growing in her garden… You don’t get that on a bus tour. People in rural France will take the time to tell you about their village or the area… they welcome pilgrims. You may be offered a drink by someone wishing you a ‘bien camino’, heart stopping scenery, combined with acts of kindness – there is noting quite like it”.
This particular tour is 14 days long and follows the Via Podensis and the Way of St James across the mysterious Monts d’Aubrac region and into deep river valleys. Luggage is carried by van and for those who need a rest, transport is available. At the end of the trail is the superb medieval pilgrimage site of Conques (classified a UNESCO world heritage site), with its abbey-church which remains one of the most important centres of art and spirituality in the western world. Thanks to the relics of Sainte Foy, a young Christian martyr brought here from Agen in 883, Conques became one of the main stops on the Saint-Jacques de Compostelle pilgrimage route from Puy en Velay. This is still the case today, numerous walkers take to this historical trail, stopping in the heart of the village where they are welcomed by the monks.
From Conques the journey continues to Figeac, a charmingly preserved medieval town and one of the best kept secrets of the area. Cafés such as Le Sphinx or Le Champollion, opposite the stunning Champollion Museum of Egyptology (named after the famous decipherer of the Rosetta Stone, Jean-François Champollion, the town’s most celebrated son) abound, and it is the perfect place to spend the last day of this fantastic tour.