It is no secret that I am “high maintenance”- toujours habillée, coiffée et maquillée – so it is a bit surprising that one of my most cherished France experiences was spent sans those things, rambling through the verdure of Auvergne. Why would I choose an activity that was used as a punishment in the Middle Ages? Because there is no better way to experience France than on foot.
The countryside goes by in a blur when we travel by train or car. We see a beautiful castle or church, and it is gone. On foot, you have time to savor, and the Grande Randonnée trail system makes it easy to explore. It was the GR65, the St Jacques de Compostelle departing from Le Puy-en-Velay, that called to me.
I would sink my feet into the French soil and be completely immersed every step of the way.
Le corps: meeting my body
Day one was all about meeting my body.
I had trained for months, but I wasn’t sure how my 56-year-old bag of bones would meet the challenges of rugged and unknown terrain – in the rain. Someone in my training group had predicted that my biggest fear would appear on day one. And so it did. Descending the secret staircase of the Cathédrale du Puy-en-Velay, I secured my raincoat and ventured out. My mantra became “I’m safe, I’m warm and I’m comfortable”. At least my feet were dry.
Then the trail turned into a river. I had no choice but to walk through it. But I was still safe, warm, and relatively comfortable. I arrived at my gîte de charme with drenched feet, but otherwise no worse for the wear. Pure adrenaline woke me at 5 a.m. ready to hike! I realized that my body was stronger than I thought and that I was ready for this challenge.
During my nine-day adventure, I would have some sore muscles – descending steep hills made my quads scream – but I carried my full backpack with no difficulty, and I was proudly blister-free the entire trek.
Les paysages: the landscapes
There is beauty in each region of France, and in Auvergne, the trésor cachê is just that, a hidden treasure – the feeling that these rich landscapes are for you alone. At one point on my hike, I looked forward and backward and could not see a road or trail, (except a few feet surrounding me).
I felt as if I had been parachuted into a virgin land, with nothing but pure nature, and a few cows. This region of dormant volcanoes is much more varied than I had imagined, taking me through regal pine forests, emerald pastures lined with gray stone walls, and rolling hills offering spectacular panoramic views.
And then there were the villages, some so tiny I strolled through in minutes without seeing a soul. Others oozed charm, and I lingered a while, filling my camera roll. In nine days I passed through four of the plus beaux villages, and in the month of May, the abundance of spring flowers made them even more picturesque.
These places are not on any tourist route, and I felt honored to have been able to explore them at my leisure.
Les rencontres: meeting others and self
There were predominantly French people on this trail, and it was another plus to be immersed in the language. Of course, part of the experience of the Compostelle is to detach and reconnect with yourself, and I had ample time to do just that.
What I had not expected was the convivialité and the deep connections I would make with people along the way. We were no longer teachers, doctors, or businessmen, but pilgrims facing the same challenges. Everyone had a petit bonjour to offer in passing.
I walked with amazing people, for an hour, an afternoon or a day. Each evening was a chance to celebrate together, sharing a meal over stories and lots of laughter. I was amazed at how people would open up to complete strangers, and that I easily did the same. I experienced a kindness and generosity that I will never forget.
France on Foot: If you go – when you go
- Book accommodation in advance. There are lots of people and small villages. There are lots of tours available.
- The guidebook MiamMiamDodo is vital, offering daily trail descriptions, restaurants, and lodging.
- For blister-free feet: spread Vaseline between toes and along every surface before putting on toe socks, featuring separate compartments for each toe.
Share your Compostelle experiences with me! Have you ever had a France on Foot Experience or a Camino?
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER