If your heart is set on a pilgrimage or walking tour in France, and you don’t want to pay a commercial touring company, where can you look for help with travel planning? It’s not always as easy as you might think.
Hundreds of thousands of people will hike the month-long trail across Spain’s Camino de Santiago this year. Meanwhile, only one-tenth as many pilgrims will traverse the French trails that lead to the SJPDP trailhead for the Camino Francés (from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the base of Pyrenees and then across northern Spain.)
Because the audience for French pilgrimages is 90% smaller, it takes skills and commitment to find relevant and timely resources to prepare for those walking tours. The best guides have been written en français, and require at least intermediate reading and comprehension skills in French, supplemented by Google Translate and other interactive translation dictionaries.
Scarce resources for niche travelers
The French trail system for camino pilgrims is off the beaten track, far from the larger or well-known cities.
In these out-of-the-way locations, services are provided by family-scale or very small business enterprises, located in hamlets with few other options. The travel season is short, May to September. Change is a constant, given how hard it is to earn a living at such a highly seasonal business, with funding coming from such a small population of tourists and visitors (many of whom are on very tight budgets.) As a result inns, chambres d’hôtes, gîtes and bistros that appeared to be thriving last year may no longer be in business this year…
For people who want the comfort of room reservations before arriving in France, advance planning is essential. Luckily, my hiking buddy has done this before, knows the constraints of the Chemin du Puy, and thus made sure to book room reservations months in advance. She also knew where to look for help.
Specialized Facebook groups offer helpful, sometimes personalized and up-to-the-minute resources for aspiring pèlerins — a godsend for English speakers. For example, I’ve joined the FB group devoted to the Via Podiensis (the Way of St. James that begins in Le Puy). Group members (past, present and future pilgrims) share photos, packing lists, recommendations (or places to avoid), prayers and so on. On any given day there’s a lively Q‑and‑A conversation taking place.
Some members publish links to their blogs and travel memoirs. A few dedicated volunteers share detailed worksheets with tips and links to lodgings, cafes, bistros, pharmacies and other essential resources for pilgrims.
These online travel resources are invaluable for French pilgrimages, due to the fast-changing nature of les hébergements.
When Facebook is not enough
I spend almost an hour most days keeping up with my FB groups’ latest updates, but now I want less “random” pointers… With just six weeks before flying to France, I make time to work through a handful of books/guides, and practice my rusty French.
Here’s what’s on my active bookshelf right now:
- From Here, You Can’t See Paris: Seasons of a French Village and Its Restaurant, by Michael S. Sanders, © 2002
- Miam Miam Dodo: Saint Jacques de Compostelle, Le Puy-en-Velay / Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (GR 65), 2016 edition
- TopoGuides: Sentier vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle via Le Puy (GR 65, 651, 652)
- Chemins de Compostelle: Le Puy-en-Velay —> Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Michelin Guide), largely focused on maps
- Advanced French, Hugo edition, DK publishing, © 2009
- Southwest France: Dordogne, Lot, Bordeaux (Cadogan Guide), © 1998
These are not books you’re likely to find on the shelf of the typical bookseller. Even Amazon.com may take a few weeks to deliver some of the French guides. Half the books on my list were sourced from overseas booksellers so I had to wait 2–4 weeks for their delivery. If you want similar books on your shelf, it pays to plan ahead…
Bon chemin à vous!