[Above illustration is from “Atlas: Des Chemins De Compostelle” by Patrick Merienne.]
Camino de Santiago (aka The Way of Saint James) is a network of trails that lead to the tomb of Saint James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela in Northwestern Spain. It is a pilgrimage people have been making since the 9th century. In 2017, 301,036 people presented themselves to the pilgrims office at Santiago to receive a certificate of completion for the Camino (see http://www.csj.org). Today, the Camino Frances (aka French Way) is, by far, the trail most utilized by pilgrims (aka Peregrinos) with 60% of pilgrims using that trail. The second most used Camino trail is the Camino Portuguese with 20% of the Camino traffic in 2017. The Camino Frances begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, passing into Spain in a few miles, then continuing across Spain a little short of 500 miles. Donna and I walked the Camino Frances in 2017, along with 180,735 other pilgrims. Yep, that’s a lot of pilgrims.
Being the faint-hearted extrovert that I sometimes am, I think it is great to have the 2017 number of pilgrims on the trail. For me, company means security: both physical safety and the security of knowing one’s basic needs could be easily met. Along the Camino Frances, there are hundreds of cafes, restaurants, pharmacies, toilets, and lodging accommodations (albergues – hostels for pilgrims, pensions & hotels). An initial concern I had was where to find a toilet. As it turned out, I wasn’t even tempted to use the great-outdoor-toilet until mid-trip, and then it was only because I was impatient and the line for the women’s toilet at a cafe where we had stopped was too long (a universal for women’s toilets it seems). To be fair, if one is traveling with limited funds or are a bit tight, the great-outdoor-toilet would be more necessary. Everywhere there are signs that the toilets are for paying customers. But, it doesn’t take much; 1 euro for water or coffee and, bingo – you are a paying customer.
[A popular cafe for pilgrims in the village of Burguete in the Navarre region of Northern Spain.]
Primary to physical security on the Camino are the pilgrims themselves. It is usual to be able to see pilgrims ahead of you, behind you, or beside you. If you get to a place where there are no pilgrims, all you have to do is sit for a few minutes and one or more will probably appear. Pilgrims take care of each other. They offer medical assistance if needed and they are sources of advice on an abundance of subjects: how to treat blisters; which path is slippery, steep, scenic, or rocky; the weather forecast; and where the last bedbug was thriving or had met it’s fate.
And, the local people do their part. Most are very gracious and helpful. On Camino Frances, pilgrims are a way of life and a way to make a living. I doubt that private albergue and cafe owners get rich off 10-15 or so euro for lodging and 8-10 euro per pilgrim’s meal, but they can apparently sustain a business in an area, mostly remote, where they want to live. Pilgrims also provide business to pharmacies, medical providers, sporting goods stores, masseuses, pensions, hotels, and grocery stores (many albergues have kitchens where pilgrims can cook). And aside from making a living, the people I met seemed genuinely fond of pilgrims. It’s a good situation.
Although I never noticed much of a police presence on Camino Frances, from what I have read, it is a priority in pilgrim country to keep the pilgrims safe. I certainly felt safe and had nothing but pleasant or at least reasonably polite experiences with fellow travelers and others.
Yet, according to the statistics kept by the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos, the number of people traveling on the Camino in recent years has increased every year. Many people, including my sister, Donna, would like to walk a less populated trail and fear that Camino Frances will soon be overpopulated.
I said all the above in order to explain why I spent a month this year in Carcassonne, France, 520km from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port by trail, 241km by car. Even though I like a populated trail, it occurs to me that walking will likely increase in popularity over time as people shift from materialism to experientialism. I asked myself, “Wouldn’t it be exciting to participate in the development of lesser known Camino trails?”
Carcassonne happens to be on a lesser known French trail called the Chemin du Piemont Pyréneen (meaning the Camino of the Pyrénées foothills). The Chemin du Piemont Pyréneen begins at different places – Montpellier, Narbonne, or Carcassonne – depending upon who you ask. From Carcassonne on, the Chemin du Piemont follows a reasonably well marked path called the GR 78A or GR 78. GR paths are known in France as Grande Randonnee’s. They are a network of long-distance footpaths and are marked with a white stripe above a red stripe. According to the website, CSU.org.uk , the Chemin du Piemont Pyrénées is probably the most beautiful Camino trail in France. It runs South of and mostly parallel to a more populated trail, the Chemin d’Arles.
[Illustration above is from “Atlas: Des Chemins De Compostelle” by Patrick Merienne.]
There are about 5 primary Camino trails in France that join with Camino trails in Spain in a small area in the Southwest of France / Northeast of Spain. There the trails bottleneck, some meeting the Camino Frances – others meeting alternate trails, but all heading to Santiago de Compostela.
So, Donna came to France in September with the intention of exploring some of the trails in the bottleneck area. Then she joined me in Carcassonne to check out the origin of Chemin du Piemont Pyréneen. After Donna returned to the States, my cousin/friend, Christiane and I took a rental car journey along much of the Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen. We went as far as Oloron-Sainte-Marie which is near the bottleneck area and where the Chemin d’Arles and Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen cross before meeting up with different trails in Spain.
Here’s a summary of what we found in comparing Camino Frances with Chemin Piemont:
Trail markings: Below, see examples of trail markings on the Camino Frances. There were many and it was difficult, most of the time, to get lost.
On the Chemin Piemont, although the GR 78 is marked well, there is only an occasional Camino marker which is a welcoming sight for pilgrims. And in larger areas like Carcassonne and Oloron-Sainte-Marie, we found even the GR marking challenging to follow.
Above is the only Camino shell marking we found in Carcassonne. This marker is at the foot of the walking bridge that goes to “La Cite”. You can see the Camino shell is shown with the GR 78 signage. Thuy and I followed this trail for approximately 2 km out of Carcassonne and were able to do so fairly easily, although we were following the GR 78 signs, not Camino shell or yellow arrow markings. Two weeks later, Christiane and I walked around Oloron Ste-Marie looking for the location where the Chemin Piemont and Chemin Arles crossed. We think we found it – we found a large metal pilgrim, however, there were no signs/markings there and we were only able to locate one GR sign at the base of a bridge. The pictures below show two other places along the Chemin du Piemont where we found markers of the Camino. The top picture was a sign in the small village of Montjoie that acknowledges both the GR 78 and the Chemin du Piemont. The last three pictures are from the picturesque walled village of St-Bertrand-de-Comminges where the Camino shell markers were in evidence.
Trail population: We saw very few pilgrims in Carcassonne or elsewhere on the Chemin du Piemont Pyréneen. While one can never be sure if a stranger is a pilgrim, they can usually be identified by their clothing, backpacks, and walking sticks. We saw very few people thus outfitted. I saw no one with the shell that traditionally identifies pilgrims on the Camino Frances.
Accommodations: Although the larger towns along the Chemin du Piemont, such as Carcassonne, Lourdes, and Oloron Ste-Marie, have plenty of hotels and cafes, we saw few pilgrim albergues and almost no pilgrim meals that most pilgrims traveling for 1-2 months could afford. If the population of pilgrims traveling the Chemin du Piemont increased appreciably, lodging and affordable meals would need to increase.
I do want to spotlight a marvelous place for pilgrims to stay in Carcassonne. It’s not right on the GR 78 trail but if pilgrims find it, they will be happy for having done so. It’s in an old abbey, called “Notre Dame De L’abbaye.” When we visited the abbey, the staff member there said there were currently 3 pilgrims staying overnight. It is a lovely, peaceful place from which one can view La Cite (the old walled city of Carcassonne).
Guide books: We could not find any guides for the Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen that were in anything other than French. On the Camino Frances, which is mainly in Spain, guidebooks are available in multiple languages and while Spanish is the most common language spoken on the trail, English, German, & Italian were also commonly spoken and written. If the Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen were to become more popular, the current guidebooks would need to be translated into other languages or new guidebooks would need to be written. The one guidebook (in French) I could find is pictured below.
Conclusion: The Chemin du Piemont Pyréneen has good potential for growth and Oloron-Sainte-Marie would be a good place to develop a pilgrim’s center (albergue, cafe, & research center for translating and/or developing guidebooks). This is my opinion, obviously, but sometimes I just like to make statements as if they were a fact 🙂 . But why? Well, first, the Chemin du Piemont is a spectacularly beautiful trail. Many have commented that the first few days out from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPP) on Camino Frances are the most beautiful of The Way. That’s because that part of Camino Frances is in the Pyrenees. The Chemin du Piemont is the foothill’s trail that follows the Pyrenees all the way to SJPP. It is amazing. There are also many interesting and diverse towns/villages along the Chemin due Piemont, starting with Carcassonne, home of La Cite. Mirepoix is a quaint little market town with lots of character. St-Bertrand-de-Comminges is breathtaking. Lourdes is an international Catholic pilgrimage, which, according to Wikipedia, hosts around six million visitors every year. In France, (in 2012) Lourdes was second only to Paris in terms of tourism and hotel capacity. I am sure there are many other interesting and beautiful places along Chemin du Piemont as well.
Why Oloron-Sainte-Marie? Two reasons: 1) The Chemin du Piemont Pyreneen and the Chemin D’Arles intersect at Oloron-Sainte-Marie which should mean it already has more Camino traffic than other Camino trails in France; 2) Oloron-Sainte-Marie is only 4-5 walking days from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, so would be a good place to begin to develop a trail for people who want to walk just a little further than the 4-5 weeks which are usual for people walking the Camino Frances.
If you are still reading this post, thank you and bless you heart! I realize I am in the weeds here – the Camino weeds. Crazy I know, but not just everyone is interested in the development of Camino trails. And, what are you thinking? I would love to know. Here is a farewell scene for you. May your days be peaceful and meaningful. Buen Camino!
[Below is a village seen from St-Bertrand-de-Comminges.]