A few weeks ago I shared my five favorite albergues on the Camino Frances, the path from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago. But that only covers half of my Camino. Now I want to step back and look at the five most unforgettable gites of the Chemin du Puy, the Camino route from Le Puy to Saint Jean.
This was actually a harder list for me to write, and I may have to come back with a runners-up list in another few weeks. Every place we stayed in France was unforgettable, with its own magic. (Eric’s Top 5 list, for example, is almost entirely different than this.)
The pilgrim’s experience in France is also very different. In Spain, the albergue was basically a hostel, providing a bed, a bathroom, and sometimes a kitchen. Most nights in France, we were guests in smaller settings with no more than a dozen other pilgrims, hosted by an individual or family in every sense of the word. We didn’t just sleep in gites; we ate family-style dinners and breakfasts there, too. (Demi pension was one of the first French phrases I learned, and one of my favorites.) And so food becomes a much more important part of the equations.
So here we go, again in the order we were there.
Walking through Aubrac, Eric said, was like walking through the stories he loved as a child. These are the high plateaus of the Massif Central, irregular rolling hills of open country marked only by miles—er,kilometers—of stone fences made from the boulders that dot the landscape. We were a few days out from Le Puy, and I was still suffering through the earliest, most miserable days of toughening my feet. I arrived in Fineyrols, a cluster of houses too small to be a village, footsore and miserable. But the place has a wild, remote magic that pierced through my sulk almost as soon as I sat down.
Les Gentianes is, by necessity, all inclusive: they have private rooms in a chambres d’hotes and several dortoir rooms over a giant barn. There were no markets or churches to explore, but the front desk sold snacks and beverages, including an aptly-named local brew called Antidote, which I enjoyed on their patio during a long, sunny afternoon of watching kids make friends with the shaggy ponies in a field nearby.
But it was the food—oh, the amazing French food—that pushes this to the Top 5. The dinner they served their guests was one of the best of the entire trip. This is where I first tasted aligot, the marvel of mashed potatoes with local, fresh cheese and garlic. And every bit of the three-course meal, from the creamy vegetable soup to the tender beef tips to the fresh bread on the table, was just as good, made with just as much care. Breakfast the next morning was the same, going beyond the traditional French white-bread-and-jam with a spread of multiple breads and yogurts and enough strong coffee to send us out for another day in the high country.
I wrote a bit about our unexpected arrival in Saint-Come-d’Holt here. I was delighted as soon as we walked into the village, medieval and walled, and then discovering that our gite was actually IN the city walls sent my history-deprived American mind into giddy rapture. The narrow staircase that wound up five floors was worn concave by all of the feet that went before us. The rooms were low and narrow, with casement windows looking past the courtyard and over the rooftops and the famously twisted church spire of the old city. Saint-Come-d’Holt is tiny, just the right size to explore in an afternoon on foot with plenty of time to sit in an outdoor cafe with a Leffe and a journal.
But as much as I loved the history-filled building and the busy town, it was our hosts, Sylvain and Sabine, who made this the best night. He is Canadian, and his wife is French. They walked the Camino together in 2010, and their Compostellas hung on one wall. They were generous with their time, and not only did Sylvain teach us about Radio Camino, he also spoke with understanding about our struggles with language, distance, and settling into the whole culture of the Camino. There were only a handful of pilgrims there that night, and we stayed for hours at the kitchen table after dinner, laughing and sharing stories.
When we entered, they knew that we were “the Americans” (the only ones out there). When we left, I felt less like an outsider, and more like a pilgrim.
We walked for more than two weeks, more than halfway across the French portion of the Camino, before we took our first rest day. We’d been talking about it for a week, and I was exhausted, but somehow the timing or the location was just never right. As we approached Lauzerte, we weren’t sure what to expect. It was a Saturday, and when a fellow pilgrim had offered his phone to make reservations for us earlier that morning, we’d found that the first three places in our destination town were already fully booked. Villa Venou was the fourth place we called. They advertised that they were a couple of kilometers off GR 65, the Camino path, but we could call when we got to a certain shopping center, and they would come pick us up. It all seemed complicated, and maybe even a little sketchy, but what choice did we have?
Getting off the beaten path turned out to be one of the best things we did.
Villa Venou is a centuries-old farmhouse in the country with a rolling lawn, several out buildings (including a tower with guest rooms), and a lovely, glassed-in porch where we could eat and rest, looking out over yellow fields of safflowers to Lauzerte rising on its hill. Our hosts, a Belgian woman named Frederique and her husband, provided Eric and I with a private room with a double bed, an absolute luxury after two weeks in twins and bunk beds. They opened their kitchen if we wanted to cook, or offered to make our meals if we preferred that. We knew right away that this was the perfect place for a rest day, and they were happy to let us stay an extra night. We spent a long, lazy, rainy Sunday napping, reading, and watching the light play off the city on the hill.
One of the realities of being a pilgrim is that every night is a surprise. Even if you plan a day or two ahead and make reservations, without TripAdvisor reviews or even websites with photos, the destination is no more than a name on a list. One of Eric’s favorite mantras of the trip was “sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” and there was nowhere that’s more obvious than where we stayed.
In Auvillar, we won. The village is another of “France’s most beautiful villages,” set on a hill, with green fields and winding rivers (and two incongruous nuclear power plant towers) stretching all around it. The town really was lovely, all warm red cobblestones, bright murals, and red-tiled roofs. Late April flowers bloomed around the circular granary in the center of town, and people sat outside watching old French men playing petanque, a bocce-like game with balls and sand pits and lots of drinking.
The communal gite (run by the city) turned out to be the most luxurious municipal lodging of the entire trip. There was a two-story building made of stone, possibly an old rectory, with a full kitchen and sitting area, and a loft full of books. Outside was a walled yard with thick grass and lawn chairs. Across the courtyard was a more modern wing with double rooms (two twin beds in each) with real sheets, as well as curtains on the windows and antique cabinets and chairs. And then the real miracle: a washer and dryer that we could use for free (although all of the settings were in French and Celsius, and I accidentally somehow set my clothes on a scalding water cycle that would last two hours; but that’s another story…). I’ve stayed in hotels that weren’t nearly as lovely, and they charged a lot more than 14 euros.
Although there was room for eighteen, there were just five of us there that night, and after wandering the town and sorting out the wonder of the washing machine, we all shared the kitchen and made simple dinners from what we could find in the town’s tiny market. To have such a lovely space of our own was a total luxury.
Every so often along the Way, there’s a curious place that offers beds, food, and hospitality to pilgrims, but charges nothing in return. We’d stayed in a donativo gite in Le Puy, run by the Friends of Saint James, and in another in Estaing, owned by the Catholic Church and run by two delightful nuns and a silent priest. But the heart and soul of the donativo experience, for me, was Gite Bethanie on the outskirts of Eauze, in a family’s home. Marcel and Pauline and their two small, adorable children welcomed us. Pauline, we learned, had worked for several years in the abbey in Conques, and she and Marcel had been part of the handful of residents who lived there in the off season. When they left (it’s hard to raise children in a town with only 17 year-round inhabitants, most of them monks), they wanted to continue to support pilgrims somehow. So they turned the second story of their home into a refuge, with a kitchen, dorm rooms, and bathrooms. “We want to treat everyone who passes through our home as if they’re Jesus,” he says, and my jaded heart melted a little.
There were three of us there that night—Eric, me, and our friend Amanda, who we’d been walking with for a week. Marcel brought us a simple, homemade dinner and ate with us while Pauline stayed downstairs with the kids. They alternated every night, he said, so tomorrow Pauline would visit with whatever pilgrims needed a place to stay, and he would eat with the children. He asked for our stories and shared his own.
I loved their honesty, their humility, and the simple way they lived out their faith. To them, this is still a holy pilgrimage.
Bonus (just a bit off the Way)
Just past Condom (yes, that’s the name, and no, the French didn’t find it nearly as amusing as we did), there’s a variante route that will take you off GR 65 for five kilometers or so to Larresingle, which was the bishops’ fortress in times of war…or it was their country estate. My translation skills were weak, and it was pouring rain when we walked through the walled town right out of a Renaissance festival, so there was a lot that I missed. But it’s a worthwhile side trip.
In Larresingle there’s also a private gite, La Halte de Larressingle, owned by a chatty, organized, take-charge, fluent-in-English woman named Martine, who walked the Camino herself in the 1970s, long before there were designated hiking trails or pilgrim accommodations. A few years ago she bought an old ruin of a house and renovated it all herself. Now she runs it all herself.
Her home is in the country, far from services and a kilometer or two from the tourist attraction of the Larressingle castle. This was where we saw the Pyrenees for the first time, faint shadows on the horizon, still almost two weeks away on foot. Staying here is the quintessential Chemin du Puy experience, and what sets the French Camino experience apart from the more popular, and populated, Camino Frances. At most, Marine can probably host a dozen people.It’s remote and quiet, with every detail carefully thought through and every need met right there, and not much to do except talk to fellow pilgrims and play with the dog. Martine herself is a blur of words and energy, making multi-course dinners every day while also filling us with stories, advice, and welcome company. The night we were there, she made seven of us an incredible dinner, of which the crowning glory was a dessert cup of preserved prunes, creme fraiche, sugar, and a generous shot of armangac, the local alcoholic specialty.
Eric still talks about that dessert.
How about you? If you’ve walked the Chemin de Saint Jacques in France, what are the places you’ll never forget?