La Voie du Piémont Pyrénéen – the fifth way through France
Crossing France, there are four main routes, but this year, I chose the ‘fifth way’, La Voie du Piémont Pyrénéen. Here’s what I found.
The Grand Randonee 78 (GR78)
In 2015, I walked from Arles to Col du Somport along the Via Tolosana. I broke the golden rule of walking, twice. I took side trips by train to Carcassonne and Lourdes. When I was in Lourdes, I realised it wasn’t just a pilgrimage site for the sanctuary and Saint Bernadette, but it also sat on a Chemin de Compostelle, known by its Grand Randonee number, GR78. I made a mental note.
Later in that walk, just before Oloron-Sainte-Marie I stopped for morning tea at a ‘petite pause pour pelerins’ in someone’s yard under a gorgeous oak tree. The woman returned home with fresh bread and offered me coffee and biscuits. When I explained how much I enjoyed Lacammonde and the ancient church and pilgrim hospital there, she raved about the ancient pilgrim stop of L’hopital Saint Blaise, once again on the GR78. My interest was really piqued now.
In 2018 when I walked the Le Puy route, just before St-Jean-Le-Vieux, there was a signpost to the left. GR78. “I wonder what that way would be like,” I mused. By this stage, I’d researched and decided I would definitely walk this route known as the la voie du Piémont Pyrénéen one day.
Where does the Piémont Pyrénéen start?
The plan finally came to fruition in May/June 2022, and I began in Montpellier. I’m the opposite of the ‘prepared pilgrim’. I tend to decide to leave, and then three weeks later I’m walking. So, I didn’t know how I’d go. Luckily I found a great bookshop that stocked every book imaginable on walking in France, and I found the Lepere/Terrien Guidebook, ‘Chemin de Compostelle – La Voie des Piémonts’. Originally, I was thinking to walk to Beziers then to Narbonne Plage (beach), where it’s also possible to commence. This route goes past the abbey of Frontfroide, but by the time I’d started walking, a detour to the beach didn’t make much sense.
Instead, I left the bustling city of Montpellier with its fascinating old town streets, for a couple of weeks of vineyards, olive groves and some stretches of road built by the ancient Romans. It was dry and exposed and there was quite a lot of road walking. From Beziers to Carcassonne, stretches along the Canal du Midi brought a different character, where I waved at people on their canal boats, holidaying retirees passed on their electric bikes, and the path was flat and monotonous. The Pyrénées are visible from Beziers, however after Carcassonne, the way gets progressively hillier, and I caught glimpses more often. I also began walking through patches of forests, beech and oak, and the way became more wooded, and the farm tracks grassy.
What to expect on the GR78
One feature I came to expect was 12th Century churches. I make it a habit of entering churches. Along the Le Puy route, many have visitor’s books, and part of the fun is following characters you are walking a few days behind. This time along la voie du Piémont Pyrénéen there weren’t so many of those, but the attraction was more that chapels of some sort had occupied these sites for a thousand years. It fascinates me to think of that amount of time, and the religious history it entails. The area around Carcassonne is known as a Cathar area, so in just about every town there is a ‘rue des Cathars’, then later on as you enter the Ariege region, there are templar sites such as Audressein. And, of course, when the sites are historically significant, you find the UNESCO World Heritage List badge. And there is no shortage of these on this route.
The Ariege region was my favourite walking and the hills started to get challenging. The stunning old town of Mirepoix, had me in awe as to how the huge wooden-beamed medieval houses perch above their arcades. Le Mas d’Azil, with its gaping cave mouths big enough for the road to go through, was the first cave on the route, except I had already broken the golden rule to go off route for one day to Foix and the prehistoric Grotte de Niaux cave just days before. After Saint Lizier the route took me up a valley for two days until I reached Portet d’Aspet, which at 900m felt like a mountain cul-de-sac. Deep in forests now, it was over the saddle into the Haute-Garonne region where more significant hill climbs followed and the UNESCO sites of L’eglise Saint-Just de Valcabrere and Saint-Bertrand de Comminges came into view.
Limestone moss rocks with damp forests seemed to signal more cave sites beneath the surface with Grotte de la Bastide (more for kids) and Esparros (absolutely stunning formations if you do the tour like I did) on either side of a steep hill. The tracks got slippery and dangerous. The Baronnies valley was the last relief before the terrain each day began to climb in steep sections. I made a mistake with my calculations between Esparros and Bagneres-de-Bigorre and ended up hitching or ‘stop-ping’ as the French call it, for the last 5 kilometres as I was exhausted by the 30-kilometre day. I was getting really tired of the hills.
Bagneres-de-Bigorre, in the Hautes-Pyrénées department, had a real spa-town feel (probably because it was), but it is not particularly pretty and I dodged the longer and steeper mountain way to Lourdes and instead took a shorter road route, that turned out to be just as steep. Despite the throngs of Bernadette pilgrims, I always find there is a holy calm in Lourdes, perhaps the millions of souls in prayerful contemplation does something to a place? Walking next to the river Ousse river was stunning – a teal/aquamarine water that looked magical.
During the next stretch to Oloron-Sainte-Marie, accommodation was a challenge, and I ended up walking further each day than I’d wanted to, and diverted off the route by five kilometres to a small town, Arudy to find a place to stay. In the Presbytery, the earnest priest welcomed me by washing my feet, and it was a very special spiritual moment. Approaching Oloron, I was also nearing the Pays Basque region with a tell-tale pelota court in one of the small towns. It was great to stay at the Relais du Bastet gite in Oloron-Sainte-Marie for the second time – it is such a well-run establishment. A few short days, including the much-awaited L’Hopital-Saint-Blaise, and I was finished in St Jean Pied-de-Port after two more big climbs. But, what did I expect? It is the Pyrénées!
La voie du Piémont Pyrénéen, the fifth way through France, is resplendent with numerous UNESCO world heritage sites, 4 cave sites, Cathare, Huguenot, Templar and Roman history. And so many 12th Century chapels, I lost count! It took me 34 days (with one rest day in Beziers and the one-day cheeky detour to Foix and Grotte de Niaux). I can’t help myself when there’s caves involved.
But this chemin is also magnificent for its natural beauty, if a little challenging vertically for the last third. At times the path feels a bit hairy with goat tracks on the sides of steep drops through the forest, so I walked very gingerly a couple of times, not daring to stop for even a photo.
When to walk the Voie du Piémont Pyrénéen
It was especially beautiful in May, with the heady smells of honeysuckle, jasmine, and pretty wild orchids and other flowers in full bloom. The beech and oak forests are magestic and will always be my favourite thing about it (apart from the magnificent views of the Pyrénées which become huge and breathtaking when you’re walking through the Ariege). It wasn’t too wet with only a couple of days walking in drizzly weather.
I supplemented the Lepère guidebook with information from online because the first section to Carcassonne is not clearly signposted. There are many accommodation options listed in the Lepere, so I stayed in everything from a cheap hotel in Lourdes (E60/night), to communal gites where I was the only person there (for E12 a night), monasteries, chambres d’hotes, and donativo accommodation with Christian families.
The Confraternity of St James has a great web page summary of the route with the various French guidebooks listed. The Office de Tourisme along the way provide a wealth of knowledge and are très helpful. The Saint-Lizier staff have produced a printed accommodation list for the route from there on, and the monastery in Betharram had also collected contacts for the coming days rest places. It was my feeling that things are still returning to balance after the past three years of upheaval and the tourist establishments are keen to make it as easy as possible to encourage walkers back. I am always so impressed that even the tiniest villages in France having amazing tourist offices.
And the best thing, in my opinion, is the solitude. J’adore!
And yes, for those who know me, I sketched.
I posted a more detailed daily story with my sketches on Instagram @a_path_with_art if you would like to read about my trip in more detail.
Librairie Sauramps Comédie – Centre commercial Le Triangle, 26 All. Jules Milhau, 34000 Montpellier, France
Chemin du Piémont Pyrénéen (Confraternity of St James)
Voie du Piémont (traildino)