We have visited this South West corner of French France many times and have often passed walkers making their way along the lanes and footpaths. On this visit we decided to dig a bit deeper.
What is the Camino de Santiago?
The English translation is the Way of Saint James and it is a network of pilgrim routes across Europe to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Since the 9th century pilgrims have made their way along this route, which competes in importance to those to Rome and Jerusalem. One of these pilgrim routes runs through the village of St Antoine where my Mum lives. The direction of the route is marked by a scallop shell symbol and many walkers attach real scallop shells to their backpacks.
Only a minority of walkers undertake the walk for religious or spiritual reasons the majority (70%) just want to make the journey through some spectacular scenery. There are four pilgrim routes through France that end up traversing the Pyrenees before merging into one route across northern Spain.
Most pilgrims buy a “pilgrims passport” called a credencial. It is stamped at each overnight stop and apart from being a memento it serves as evidence to qualify a Compostela which is a certificate of accomplishment marking a walk of at least 100km. Last year weary legs carried around 300,000 pilgrims to Santiago.
A Morning Pilgrimage
Our route was going to be shamefully short at only 8km but it certainly gave us a flavour of the terrain, humour and camaraderie on the route. It is recommended to walk the route alone to find oneself and enjoy the solitude. But Jonno and I, as you know, probably found ourselves a while ago and definitely prefer to share an experience. To avoid the heat of the day, most walkers set out very early in the morning but a leisurely breakfast put paid to those plans so we headed off around 10am and the temperature was already around 28 degrees. Loaded up with a couple of litres of water, emergency bananas, sun hats, sunscreen and our mobiles we strode out of St Antoine looking quite the part. The give-away that we weren’t long distance pilgrims was the distinct lack of sticks, walking sticks or poles that is. If I had them I think I would feel like I had lost my skis.
Our planned route was the 8km from St Antoine to Miradoux via Flamarens. The route was exceptionally well marked with the scallop shell symbol and two horizontal lines, one red and one white. The lanes, tracks and paths took us slowly upwards to gain a great view over the valley and miles and miles of agricultural land beyond. We were always in sight of a couple of other walks either in front or behind but by no means did it feel like a procession.
Jamaican Surf Shack
After about an hour walking we came across what reminded me immediately of a surf shack. It was a little shelter complete with a hand painted map for walkers to take a rest in or shelter from bad weather. Perfect place for a banana!
A lot of villages in this area are on the top of hills so we could see our first destination ahead and above us. Probably a throwback to the need to defend from attack (or from a stumble of weary pilgrims). It was a very picturesque village/town with a large castle and a ruined church undergoing renovation.
The enterprising locals had set up a little kiosk with a few tables and chairs outside in the square where drinks and snacks could be bought. A very welcome pit-stop for those walkers who had been on the road long before us. There is a legend about Flamarens which I should pass on. It is said that the village was originally called Arens but centuries ago there was a massive fire and thereafter the name was changed to Flamarens. Not quite sure about that one!
Our next stop was Miradoux which we could see as we descended from from Flamarens. By now it was around 32 degrees but we hadn’t exhausted our water supplies and the thought of a cafe in the square kept us going up the climb to the church. We had a quick look around the church and then headed to said cafe. As we walked up to the door a chap promptly locked it and brought down an iron shutter. Great! Not to be beaten we saw a bar/restaurant in the distance and headed for that. A few workmen where tucking into some mystery pork but we only wanted their beer and very refreshing it was too.
We had a lift planned to get back which was a relief as the temperature was certainly oppressive. Walkers still on the march at this time of day must be crazy but we still did see one or two as we headed back to St Antoine.
Would we walk more of the Camino de Compostela?
I think after some research on the most scenic parts, provision of accommodation, food outlets and going in spring or autumn I would say yes but Jonno is not so sure. I can walk for walking’s sake but he tends to like a reason or objective. We could always make the objective a cold beer I suppose. Oh yes and I would need a donkey. Some of the pilgrims do the walk old style and bring along a donkey to carry their provisions. My query after encountering a good few walkers is that they don’t seem to carry water. Each village provides accessible drinking water but it can be a good few miles between these locations. An even better reason to have a donkey with cool box panniers.
Our week in French France had gone by so quickly but what a great week. A mix of chatting, sightseeing, cycling, walking, gardening, eating – what could be better? The downside was due to all of the above and the heat we didn’t quite get my Mum’s garden cleared of rubble and weeds but it certainly is a lot clearer and will be appreciated by the pilgrims as they wander through the beautiful villages of south west France.