On the way from Le Puy-en-Velay
How could I resist? I was sitting in the French town of Golinhac sharing a meal with three French women. The conversation was faltering, largely due to my limited language skills but with a great effort I leaned across and asked the question that continues to attract debate around the world: “So, how do French women stay so thin?”
I was in France to walk part of the Chemin du Puy also known as the Le Puy Way (in English) and Via Podiensis in Latin. The route connects to the town of St Jean Pied de Pont on the French side of the Pyrenees, and then joins with the ever-popular Camino Frances that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walk each year towards Santiago de Compostela. I walked the Camino Frances in 2015 and wrote about it here.
While Le Puy-en-Velay to St Jean Pied de Pont stretches for 736 kilometres I only had time to walk what is considered the prettiest part of the walk from the volcanic landscapes of Le Puy to the town of Conques, 210kms away.
Panoramic views from a 12th-century cathedral
This stretch of the camino passes through spectacular scenery that includes historic towns with their abbeys and cathedrals as well as the natural beauty of mountain tops and plateaus.
Before starting my walk I took a day to look around the town of Le Puy. The 12th-century cathedral provides its own challenges with its 268 steps. Here you can get your pilgrim passport stamped and attend a pilgrim mass. The mass is conducted in French but the haunting songs hold everyone’s attention until the end.
After the cathedral visit, a walk up to the Notre-Dame-de-France is recommended for the panoramic views of the city and its surrounds. Built in 1860, the statue is one of the many landmarks of the town and sits atop a 132-metre volcanic spur. This steep climb prepares you for the next couple of days walking – which is steep and strenuous and very rarely flat.
Most people who undertake a camino are concerned about getting lost. The fears are generally unfounded, which is what I found with the Chemin du Puy. A marked pathway or Grande Randonnee (GR) has replicated the traditional route. While it’s difficult to get lost it’s very easy to get distracted by the awe-inspiring scenery. The waymarkers of red and white stripes or the traditional shell are easily found on trees, poles and buildings. And if you do wander off route, a friendly local usually waves (or yells loudly) to indicate you’re heading in the wrong direction.
Preparing for Le Puy Camino
This is plenty of climbing after you leave Le Puy but by day four things flatten out a bit as you pass through the mountainous region of the Aubrac plateau – at 1300 metres – before descending to Conques. The final steep rocky terrain as you head into Conques is challenging but generally forgotten by the time you reach this fairytale town.
Unlike the Camino Frances with its many cafes and albergues, the Le Puy camino is one you need to prepare well for. There are some very long distances between food stops and limited places to obtain money. It also makes sense to book at least one day ahead for your accommodation, especially in the busy summer period, with the common choices being gites, chambres d’hotel and hotels as well as an increasing number of pilgrim-only facilities.
A basic understanding of French also helps although for the first four days of my trip I met largely English speakers. Which brings me to my three French women and the question that has sparked the production of many articles and books.
“How do we stay slim?” one of the women responded looking serious. “Listen carefully. It is very simple. We do not eat between meals and what we eat is always natural.”
Aha. So easy.