Tuesday 5 July 2016

The Le Puy Route - Part 1

Marcheurs in the Margeride - Le Puy to Les Faux

Day 1: Arrival – Le Puy-en-Velay


So, on the very day the UK goes to the polls to decide its ongoing relationship with the European Union (with hindsight, there may be an irony in there somewhere) here we are making our way to Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne region of France to begin the next stage of our Camino trekking – 9 days south westerly towards Conques.

View over Le Puy from the statue of Notre-Dame de france

This route goes by a number of different names – the Via Podiensis, the GR65 or the Route St Jacques being the most well-known – and runs for approximately 730km from Le Puy in south-central France to the Spanish border at St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees, where it links with the Camino de Santiago and forms a continuous pilgrim route of some 1500km between Le Puy and Santiago de Compostela.

Our plan was again to walk this route in sections, probably 3 in all, and link up with the Camino in a couple of years’ time.

Back to the present, and our plane was running about two hours late due to that stalwart of travel delays - French Air Traffic Control strikes – nothing to do with the EU, actually it’s a dispute between the French Government and the ATC.


Not to worry, we eventually arrived at Lyon and transferred to Le Puy without further ado. And one thing we noticed straight away: it’s hot! The forecast in the lead up to departure had been varied, with stormy weather predicted, much like we'd been having at home. But the reality is much better, and if it stays like this our water-related issues will be about sufficient to drink, not battening down the hatches against torrential rain.

We reached our hotel mid-afternoon, checked in, then went for a look round. Le Puy is an old town with some dramatic scenery, especially the church and statue perched on top of pointed hill tops.

Church of Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe

We set off first round the eastern edge of the old town, and gradually worked our way past shops and cafés and houses to the Cathedral. Here, we found the Pilgrim’s Office and had our pilgrim passports stamped – the first of many, we hope, chronicling this phase of our journey.

Next, we walked up to the statue of Notre-Dame de France, perched high on top of the hill, for great views over the town – a mix of steep paths and steps took us to the summit, followed by an eight-turn spiral staircase inside the statue to reach the top.

Statue of Notre-Dame de Paris

At just after 5pm, we were back at the Cathedral, listening to the afternoon mass – a blessing before our departure – before retiring to the Pilgrim’s Café for beers and a bite to eat, a cool, calm haven on a hot afternoon.

In the Pilgrim Cafe gardens

Strolling through the streets back to the hotel, we rehearsed our route for the morning and checked out opportunities to stock up on bread and fruit. Then it was back for some much-needed sleep, for tomorrow is set to be an exciting day.

Day 1: Le Puy en Velay to Le Chier

23.25km / Ascent = 888m / Descent = 399m

We both slept fitfully, but by 8.00am we had packed, breakfasted and set off on what promised to be a glorious day. Skies were already blue and cloudless, and even this early, beneath the cool of morning, there were hints of the heat to come.

Looking out from the Cathedral at the
official start of the route

Our first move was to hit the trail – but the wrong way, back through town to pick up some lunch and make our way to the official start at the Cathedral. After a quick selfie, we were properly on our way. We passed a group of workmen, one with a large pair of bolt-cutters – perhaps symbolic and/or ironic on the morning the UK had elected to leave the EU – were we being cut adrift?

We decided that if we weren't allowed back into the UK, there were worse places to be stranded.

Anyway, 30 minutes after setting off, we were passing our hotel again, this time heading up hill and out of town. In fact, uphill was to be a feature of the day's walk, as over the course of 11 miles or so we were to climb from 625m to just over 1200m.

Wooden statue of St James on the way out of Le Puy 

It wasn't long before we reached open countryside and relatively level walking on the way to our first village of the day, La Roche. We passed a communal bread oven, and as if reminded of just how a light breakfast we had inside us, we stopped for a pain au raisin and a drink overlooking the deep, steep-sided valley where somewhere below, hidden in the trees, the River Gazelle tumbled past.

View from our first lunch stop at La Roche, with stepped
basalt layers and flat plateau evident

This is a volcanic area, and from here it was easy to see the layers of basalt that had built up one on top of the other after each eruption to form the level plateau over which we now walked. A ravine-side path led us into trees along a shady walled lane and just before the village of Saint-Christophe-sur-Dolaison we pulled into a wayside bar for a cool drink as the day was already warm.

Wayside shrine

The next stretch took us through the hamlets of Tallode, Liac and Lic, through countryside not unlike the upland areas of the White Peak in Derbyshire – pasture separated by walled paths and tracks. It felt good to be out on the trail, and although our bodies were still a bit unused to the heat and the effort, we were really enjoying it.

Colourful hedgerow

We had lunch sitting on a shaded wall just outside Ramourouscle, and stopped for a look inside the Chapelle Saint-Roch near Montbonnet. Then there was more climbing to be done, towards the wooded ridge on the skyline near Lac d’Oeuf.


Chapelle Saint-Roche

Woodland track near Lac D'Oeuf 

After a steady decent to Le Chier, it was time to call it a day, so we arranged to meet our hotelier (our accommodation being off-route) who came to pick us up (we will pick up from the same spot tomorrow).

La Grangette was located in a beautiful spot at 800m, high above the valley. Our hosts, Jacqueline and Philippe, welcomed us in, showed us to a lovely room, simply furnished and with a view over the valley.

Dinner was a communal affair with us, a French couple from Normandy, a young Belgian couple and a single Frenchwoman sharing a delicious meal of fish in tomato sauce, pork with mushroom sauce, Strawberries and cream, a choux bun, coffee and the biggest cheeseboard you have ever seen!

All the talk was of Brexit, and there was much bemusement from our hosts and fellow diners as to how it could have happened, and why? We were at a loss to explain it, too ……   

Day 2 – Le Chier to Saugues

23.61km / Ascent = 1032m / Descent = 1056m

Heavy rain had been forecast for today, but we awoke to find it had already fallen. There was plenty of mist hanging in the air, in the way that it can do in mountain areas, but the skies were clearing, with blue patches peeking between the dark clouds.

Le Chier, early morning

After a lovely communal breakfast, we said farewell to our companions and got a lift back to Le Chier – ready and walking by 8.30am.

Early mist clearing

Woodland path on the way to Saint-Privat d'Allier

The path to Saint-Privat d’Allier was downhill all the way – quiet, through shoulder high vegetation still soaked from last night’s rain, the verges teeming with rabbits and air full of the chatter of birdsong.

Arrival into Saint-Privat d'Allier

Saint-Privat d’Allier is an attractive village and a local walking centre, with many routes seeming to converge here in the upper Allier gorge.

Church and Chateau, Saint-Privt d'Allier

Heading out of the village, we took a contour path through woodland with a distinct alpine feel on an undulating route that brought us out by the tower at Rochegude, where there were great views into the valley.

Tower at Rochegude, remains of a C13th castle complex

A long descent followed, at first through woods, then across fields, towards Monistrol-d’Allier, a modest town with a few basic shops and a café where we bought goats’ cheese sandwiches and cokes for lunch.

Bridge at Monistrol d'Allier, built by Gustave Eiffel

It was good to have a rest before the steep-ish climb out of the valley – 450m back up on to the plateau. We took our time as there was no rush, eventually reaching the village of Montaure at about 1.30pm.

Looking back to Monistrol d'Allier from the
steep climb up to Montaure

Looking back into the valley, we could see heavy rain not far away. We missed the worst of it, but pretty soon we were donning waterproofs to fend off a steady drizzle. It soon brightened up though, and by the time we reached Le Vernet the sun was out again, temperatures warm, and the bar with cool beers welcome. Here, a rarity occurred: we were served by a man who spoke less English than I did French!

Pilgrim statue at the bar in Le Vernets

Beyond Le Vernet, we walked level paths for half an hour before beginning the descent to Saugues and catching another brief shower just forceful enough to warrant putting jackets on again. In the fields all around farmers were busy gathering hay, obviously hoping to finish before the grass was spoiled.

A brief shower on the way to Saugues

Wayside artwork on the descent to Saugues

The last few hundred metres were a bit steep, but then we were there – briefly bumping into our single lady chum from last night on the way. We decided to tour the village: I had inadvertently left our adaptor plug at the first hotel, thus rendering all our electrical devices almost useless.

If by the odd chance there was a shop selling a replacement, we didn't want to find it later closed! By some minor miracle, there was an electrical shop: and yes, they had just what we were looking for! Sometimes, you just get lucky!

Afterwards, we found our digs and were greeted by a friendly woman who immediately offered us a cold drink. We settled in, got ready for dinner, then nipped out for a better look round town. As well as finding a second electrical retailer (like with buses, you wait and wait and then two come along at once) we popped into the main church where the relics of St Benilde are held, a local man whose remains were kept in a small casket on display in the church.

Church in Saugues with relic of Saint Benilde

Inside the church

Back at the house, dinner was ready. Earlier our hostess was slightly confused in that she was expecting three of us, not two. No problem, by the time we all sat down to dinner there was her, her husband and a dozen more more of us, so a right house full.

And we had a lovely meal - vegetable soup and pasta, salad, beef with carrots, potatoes and we think turnips, great cheese and custard to finish, all washed down with wine and water. Much of the veg and salad was home-grown.

It was another fantastic, convivial, communal meal, with our hostess holding court over her charges – telling jokes, explaining where the food came from – a memorable night where we appreciated the food, chatted (again, mostly about Brexit) and enjoyed the company and brief friendship of a small band of travellers who, for one moment in time, shared a dinner table.

Day 3 – Saugues to Les Faux


Breakfast was another experience. As well as coffee, homemade yoghurt and milk from their own cows, there was also bread and homemade preserves – a wide choice, according to our hostess: “Six different sorts of jam” she said, “all of them containing Rhubarb!”

She also explained how the milk from their cows went into the high-quality “Mont Lait” milk brand of the Massif Central mountain highlands. It was a great start to the day, and we ate well before saying our farewells to our hostess and fellow Caminoers – we would be going a little further than them today.

Looking back to Saugues, overcast skies

The skies were overcast as we headed out of the village, and bundles of dark cloud were massing close by. But then, in a matter of moments, they had dispersed, and blue skies dotted with fluffy white cloud ensued as temperatures rose.

We began the 7.5km stretch to Le Clauze on quiet lanes before picking up sandy tracks through quiet woodland filled with birdsong. A few other walkers were out, but by and large we were on our own until we passed the single Frenchwoman (SFW) we had dined with on the first night and shared a brief hello.

Le Clauze

Signposts typical of this area

Approaching Le Falzet

More quiet lanes followed. In Le Falzet, we stopped at a lovely farm for drinks – large cups of café latte – and briefly chatted to a Swiss gent who had, in stages, walked from Geneva. SFW also turned up, and we had a relaxing half-hour stop.

Moving on, we passed through a couple more pretty villages. A sign informed us our intended lunch stop was closed today (we think for hay making) so we made a brief side trip to Chanaleilles for beer and sandwiches at the local bar – it was nice to see a local bar in a working village, not just a touristy one on the route.

Hedgerow near Contaldes

Carrying on, we began the climb towards Domaine du Sauvage. If the morning had been characterised by pretty villages and agricultural pastures, the afternoon was mostly spent walking through sun-dappled woods and summery glades, with just the quiet and a soundtrack of birdsong to accompany us.

Woodland track on the way to Le Sauvage

The Domaine du Sauvage is a former hospital run by the Templars, dating from the C13th. The name itself suggests it's out in the wild – it is – but it's an austere building: it may well have offered shelter from the elements and safety from brigands in this “wild” countryside, but even on a sunny summer afternoon it looked a bit gloomy. Mind you, it is at 1292m!

Many of last nights’ companions were stopping here for the night, but we were going further. More woodland followed – we are steadily collecting a list of wildlife sightings, including some of the more colourful ones like Red Kite, Green Woodpecker, Black Redstart, Grey Wagtail and Goldfinch.

Fountain of St Roche

Soon we reached a road, and followed this past the fountain and chapel of St Roch. Then began the steady descent towards Le Rouget and our overnight stop at Les Faux – still at an altitude higher than pretty much anything in the UK outside Scotland. Although we were tiring a little it was beautiful in the late afternoon sunshine, and we eventually arrived in Les Faux about 5.40pm – time for a quick shower before dinner (mushroom omelette, salad, bread cheese and a chocolate fondant to finish).

Cattle meadows near Les Faux

WiFi for the first time in two days had allowed us to catch up on sports results and the political situation. This Brexit thing seems to be a right mess! I rang my Mum who reckons David Cameron has resigned and we barely have a functioning government or opposition …..

These first few days have seen us cross the Margeride from Le Puy to Saugues, get back into the “Camino” spirit, readjust to the slower pace of life, discover the enjoyment of communal dinners, discuss more on Brexit than we thought possible, and prepare ourselves for the days ahead. By tomorrow night we will be on the high level plateau of L’Aubrac.

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