5 Oct 2019: Brives-Charensac to Le-Puy-en-Velay

Distance 5km High temperature 61

Finally the big day arrives: to complete the route between Prague in the Czech Republic and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the Spanish border.

Of course one begins with breakfast, in. most civilized fashion, listening to Mozart and overlooking the peaceful garden. Then it is an hour’s walk along the river – a very pretty route.

Just on the edge of the old town, the Chapel of St Michael comes into view, perched atop its volcanic rock.

Le Puy has been a pilgrimage site in its own right since before the millennium; there was a station here of the monastic order whose duty was to protect pilgrims.

After dropping my pack at the hotel, I set off for the cathedral, which sits on its own lofty perch.

On the way up, the other major landmark comes into view: a 16m (50 ft) statue of Notre Dame, cast from 210 cannons captured at the Siege of Sebastopol on her feast day.

The cathedral is famous for its combination of Romanesque architecture with Moorish decoration.

There are actually two Black Madonnas in the cathedral; the upper one is in the main nave, while the lower one is in a side chapel.

And the famous departure portal, where pilgrims head southwest toward Santiago.

Not long after, I cross paths with a Swiss woman from earlier in the week. We agreed to dinner and it was quite a celebratory feast!

Lodging: Le Bilboquet Hotel

4 Oct 2019: Saint-Julien-Chapteuil to Brives-Charensac

Distance 13.2 km High temperature 61F

Starting wind chill 32F

Now that we are over the mountains the towns are larger: more services, more lodging options, more suburbs. While organizing the logistics in the small towns is a challenge, the walking is very pretty.

Underway 0830 to a bit of sunshine peeking under the cloud bank. While it did not last long, it did an excellent job of taking the chill off the air. Some of the local horses are enjoying the morning sun.

The route follows the highway shoulder for a ways before descending to cross a pasture and then a stream. Do not be put off by the vehicle ford and your lack of long legs; there is a foot crossing 100m further on. The hamlet of Eynac is nestled against one of the old volcanic cores. You can clearly see the long crystal rock formations – from the same process that produced the Devils Postpile formations at various places around the world.

At Tournecol, which is more exurban than farming, there is a small park with comfortable bench and picnic table. The town of Saint-Germain-Laprade is not as nice. The entry to town pulls one of the FFR’s “three sides of a square” routing, when one side would suffice. So, at the knoll just past the highway underpass, bear left rather than right. Also, The Romanesque church dating from 1100’s is completely closed up. As a saving grace there is a park bench in the plaza in front of the church. Also a public WC and, the next block on, an ATM. Then suburban walking to the edge of town, where there is a roundabout with bus stop (frequent service to Le Puy). After about a half- hour’s Road-shoulder march the route departs the highway, heading up and over a ridge and descending by a forested draw to the suburban edge of Brives. Then, more suburban sprawl-marching through Brives.

Lodging: Chambre d’hotes Charteux, an Estate in a former Cistercian monastery, built 1750.

3 Oct 2019: Queyrières to Saint-Julien-Capteuil

Distance 11 km High temperature 52F

Starting wind chill 32F

Attention, all you walkers who write to the forums inquiring about shoulder-season weather on this route! The season has changed, and the daily highs have dropped 20 degrees F. The wind was blowing all night and into this morning.

The cloud deck at ground level, the fresh breeze and the near-freezing chill combine with the short distance planned for today to induce a leisurely start. Underway at 1000 wearing merino t-shirt, lightweight fishing shirt, puffy jacket, rain shell, hiking pants, rain pants, and my Buff turned into a beanie, I am comfortable only if I am walking. The sheep are hard at work already.

Vistas over the valley below show the old volcanic cores.

After a steep and Stoney descent to the valley floor, it is a bit warmer with less breeze.

We pass some interesting new construction, combining eco-engineering with modern architecture. Not everything in France is ancient stone.

The route passes through hamlets whose stone walls must be centuries old, then skirts some of the old volcanic cores.

In the event one is interested, a climbing route is available over the top. It would surely offer a splendid panorama.

Where the route divides, and the GR 65 goes uphill left, we instead follow the SDC Scallop downhill to the right, along a creek where mills were located, before coming into Saint-Julien-Chapteuil from the northeast.

Lodging: Chambres Pelerins Guillard. This is a private home that makes overnight lodging available to credentialed pilgrims. M&M were themselves pilgrims, ten years ago. Quiet, friendly location only 4 blocks off the GR 65.

2 Oct 2019: Saint-Jeures to Queyrières

Distance 11.5 km High temperature 53F

The squalls of last night have eased to passing showers, and the wind is a steady 22+ knots (would be too much for an umbrella). So I am phenomenally relieved that my plan for the day is to stop at Querières rather than going on another 10km to Saint-Julien-Chapteil, as my fellows from last night all elected to do.

Underway at 0930, having waited out the most recent shower, and rigged for rain.

Today is pastures and small hamlets with only a short stretch of forest. I see more horses today, mostly the big beefy butterscotch-colored ones I think are Comtois draft, originating in the Jura mountains east of Lyon. On previous days I have also seen the dappled gray Percheron, another French draft breed.

In Araules, the first town, the gite, bar, and restaurant are all closed. That means Tence is the last point to resupply. However there is a covered bus stop that shelters from the continuing wind and rain for a morning break.

Then more pasture as the trail works its way up to the high point of the route. Literally: in French “point culminant”, in German Hochtestpunkt. 1268 meters.

Past it and the next hamlet of Raffey, vistas of the Le Puy volcanic plateau open up.

Lodging: La Boria Delh Chastel chambres et Table d’hotes

Very friendly host and a very comfortable setting.

This place is full of some truly gorgeous woodwork, very similar to the old Swiss chalets.

Dinner was a homemade aperitif, garden tomatoes in vinaigrette with dried ham, sausage and mashed potatoes, cheese and fruit for dessert. My companion at dinner was a late-arriving Swiss woman from Zurich, who had previously met the group I had dinner with yesterday. It’s a small world!

1 Oct 2019: Tence to Saint-Jeures

Distance 9 km High temperature 73F

Today is an actual short day. Honest. I need a bit of rest before tomorrow’s climb.

Today is Tuesday and so all the shops are open in Montfaucon as I pass about 0900. It is another crisp fine fall day, with a Danish couple ahead of me and a Swiss man from Bern behind. As I await the ride from Madame, she directs me to visit the chapel, which has a series of 12 very special oil-on-wood paintings by Abel-Grimer (c. 1520, a student of the Dutch Masters). No Pilgrim stamp but very worth the visit nonetheless.

Tuesday is market day in Tence, with everything needful on offer: fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, shirts, pants, shoes, hats, scarves. And noshes to nibble on site.

Tence is a larger town, with a winding Pilgrim route, easy to walk in a circle even if careful. Watch for the poorly marked stone portal on the left, leading the the way out of town. Approaching the stream, we pause to let the shepherd and his large flock (a hundred?) go across first. Sheep don’t share bridges.

After a short climb through a suburban area, the way breaks out into nice views, with the usual alternation between forest and pasture, and a few small hamlets.

Although the day started a cloudless blue, I know Rain is forecast for tonight, and clouds approach from the north over the course of the day. They are quite threatening by the time I enter Saint-Jeures.

The speed-demon Danes (remember I was driven 16.5 km to Tence; they walked it) have beat me to the gite by ten minutes. Bravo! And no sooner had we settled in our rooms than those black clouds opened up and rained sideways. Good timing! Not to mention the second squall line, that brought lightning and hail.

Lodging: Le Fougal chambres et table d’hotes

Wonderful place, 12 for dinner which was a feast: vegetable soup, rolled pork roast, roast root veg with fromage blanc, and for dessert baked alaska. I’m sure the French call it something else. Delicious!

30 Sep 2019: Montfaucon-en-Velay to Tence

Distance 16.5 km High temperature 71F

Underway at 0930 for a surprisingly complicated day that was intended to be shorter. Under normal circumstances I would be staying in Tence tonight (10 km but the next town is another 8 km, making too long a day, and I am in no rush). However Tence is full. So Madame my host in Montfaucon-en-Velay will retrieve me late this afternoon from Tence, and take me back to her hotel for the night. Then, in the morning she will return me to Tence where I will resume walking. Simple?

Due to these arrangements I can leave behind the majority of my kit, taking only a jacket, water and e-reader in my small compressible day-sack. (Such situations are only one reason to carry such.)

At breakfast I chat with the other lodgers, all with packs and hats, obviously walkers. They are three German men who have been walking from their home in Düsseldorf by sections over the past 15 years.

Montfaucon-en-Velay is a big town with all services; within 2 blocks of the hotel, in the center of town, I see 2 banks, at least 2 bakeries, a Tourism Office, and 2 churches.

Leaving Montfaucon-en-Velay, it is a fine fall day, cool with a bit of breeze. There are fine views to the north …

and to the south … (note the cones on the horizon)

… which is my direction of travel today. Backyard gardens have thriving zinnias and dahlias, even hydrangeas (although it would be too late for these at home).

At a crossroads, with an ubiquitous roadside cross, stands a plaque which explains why this is so. It’s helpful to remember how very superstitious the countryside was, and how religion and magic and the supernatural were often conflated. Apparently in olden times, it was thought that demons and sorcerers gathered at the crossroads at night. Crossroads made it easy for them to meet up. So the roadside crosses were a way to stake a territorial claim for the forces of good, denying the place to the forces of evil. This explains why we see so many of them as we walk along, since our Pilgrim route often uses the old roads.

About 45 minutes from Montfaucon-en-Velay there is a bus shelter at a small roundabout, that would provide a roof against rain.

The route continues over an alternating pattern of pasture and forest, giving occasional panoramic views from the ridgeline. The small cones of the ancient volcanoes are multiplying on the horizon.

Mid-afternoon I pass markers commemorating an internment camp on this, the site of an old silk factory, where refugees from the Spanish Civil War were housed.

As it turns out, the French guide, which claims today’s route is 10.2 km, is incorrect. The Swiss guide, counting 16.5km, is correct. I’m extremely glad this was only a day-pack day!

Lodging: Hotel Le Platanes in Montfaucon

Dinner tonight was a feast well-earned: cream of pumpkin soup, pan-browned trout with zucchini flan and lentils du Puy, and fromage blanc with berry coulis for dessert.

29 Sep 2019: Le Setoux to Montfaucon-en-Velay

Distance: 17km High temperature 79F

This was another very long day, but with much shorter climbs: three of 125m, 70m, and 160m respectively. Underway at 0830 and arrived 1530, including the hour break for lunch. So it was not so difficult, but I am ready for a few shorter days!

On departing Le Setoux, there is a modern statue to St Jacques, showing the four routes crossing France.

A nice mix of pasture land and forest today. The three climbs were up three successive ridges, so there were fine views of the valleys as well as welcome breaks of shade.

Just outside Montfaucon-en-Velay I came across (actually they nearly ran me over) an enormous off-road vehicle rally. About 500 vehicles in the camping area, another 50 parked heater-skelter in the woods, and yet another 50 on the obstacle course, which had been seriously engineered. The medic tent had at least three ambulances standing by. This was a huge event! And some of these guys were stuck- great committees gathered to try to unstick them. I would have had more sympathy except their raucous racket had no place on my Pilgrim path. Think I’ll write the FFR.

Heaving a sigh of relief, I made it into town with no further ado. Do take the compostella marked route rather than the GR one; it will save you 15 minutes and passes the first gite.

My lodging – normally closed on Sunday, but since I was a Pilgrim and called ahead for reservations, they would feed and lodge me (this is why you call ahead, folks) is the hotel Les Platanes, which has been in the same family since 1907. Madame speaks English.