The Pyrenean Foothills Route

 This route, La Voie du Piémont in French, is one of the most beautiful of pilgrim caminos with respect to both the natural and the built environment.  It is a very peaceful and well-signed route which runs broadly parallel to the busier Arles route.  Although not one of the four pilgrim routes described by Aimery Picaud in his 12th century Pilgrim’s Guide, the foothills route was indeed used by pilgrims journeying to Santiago de Compostela and there are many pilgrim reminders on the route.  Accommodation is available throughout, with a growing number of pilgrim-specific places to stay.  There is a wealth of information on the internet, mainly in French; currently the only guidebooks are also in French.

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

The Route  Most maps show the route starting at Narbonne-Plage on the Mediterranean coast but it is perfectly feasible to start in Montpellier or Carcassonne.  Or you can set out on the Arles route and later use one of the link routes that lead to the Pyrenean Foothills/Piémont Route.

The official end is at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port where it meets the Le Puy-Roncesvalles route but alternatively, pilgrims could join the Arles route at Oloron-Sainte-Marie in order to cross the Pyrenees via the Col du Somport and continue on the Camino Aragonés.  A third possibility is to remain north of the Pyrenees all the way to Hendaye and join the Camino del Norte in neighbouring Irún.

Plenty of choice then to ‘perm your own’ camino.  The writer of this article chose to walk from coast to coast, Narbonne-Plage to Hendaye/Irún in 2014.

For a map of the Piémont and Arles routes and links between them see: http://www.chemins-compostelle.com/Leschemins/voie-du-piemont-carto.html            For the route from Narbonne-Plage: http://vppyr.free.fr/documents/S_engager_sur_la_vppyr.pdf

Length  Montpellier to Carcassonne 190km  Narbonne-Plage to Carcassonne 105km  Carcassonne to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port 520km  St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Irún 80km

Waymarking  This route is on footpaths, farm and forest tracks and minor roads.  Neither variant to Carcassonne is signed, except for the final 34km on the Narbonne route where you follow the GR36 and GR36variante from Lagrasse to Carcassonne.  From Carcassonne to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port you are on the GR78A or GR78, well waymarked throughout with the familiar red and white bars of the GR long distance paths.  If you are continuing to Hendaye/Irún, there is a choice of routes, two only occasionally waymarked, on a mixture of footpaths and very minor roads; however, with guidebook and maps, direction-finding should not be a problem.  As an extra challenge, you could opt for the demanding GR10 which is more Pyrenees than foothills!

Pyrenean Foothills

Pyrenean Foothills

Terrain  A very attractive and varied route; although there are inevitably some climbs (up to 1060m) it is undulating rather than particularly demanding for an averagely fit pilgrim.  Those who have walked several of the pilgrim routes often say that this is probably the most beautiful.  Certainly there are splendid views of the high Pyrenees on many days, pretty paths through beeches and oaks and delightful meadows full of flowers in spring.  From Narbonne-Plage the way is through the scrubby garrigue, forests and vineyards of the Corbières.  The terrain is flatter around Carcassonne but gradually climbs south-west, soon with ‘wow! factor’ views of the Pyrenees.  Often the high peaks are only 20-25km to the south and as you head westward you rise and fall as you cross streams and rivers that originate in the mountains.  There are some spectacularly scenic sections, especially where the GR follows the crest of these foothills.  Guidebook gives some alternative lower-level routes, should hilly sections have their heads in clouds, and short cuts on certain of the longer stages.

Weather  Apart from earlier sections as far as Fanjeaux which have a typical Mediterranean climate, the route is strongly influenced by the Pyrenees and by rain-bearing winds from the Atlantic, so be prepared for variable weather.  Parts can be muddy but there were only two short really muddy sections in May 2014, even after a very wet April.  When low cloud covers hilltops there are usually minor road alternatives.  Generally warmer than the UK but be prepared for cooler nights at higher altitude.

When to go  Walkable throughout the year, though distinct possibility of snow on higher ground in winter.  Spring (longer daylight hours, beautiful flowers), summer and autumn (colours and temperature) probably best.

Lourdes

Lourdes

What to see (apart from magnificent Pyrenean scenery)  Narbonne: medieval centre.  Abbey of Fontfroide.  Lagrasse: abbey and medieval village.  Carcassonne: restored medieval ramparts and city-fortress.  Mirepoix: bastide layout.  Vals: church built into the rock.  Pamiers: old town. Le Mas d’Azil: vast cavern.  St Lizier: two cathedrals.  Audressein: frescos in church porch.  St Bertrand de Comminges: hilltop cathedral and nearby fine medieval Basilica of Saint Just de Valcabrère.  Escaladieu: abbey.  Views of Pic du Midi de Bigorre (2877m).  Lourdes: sanctuary, basilicas, castle.  Bétharram: caves, sanctuary, Via Crucis.  Views of Pic du Midi D’Ossau (2884m).  Oloron-Sainte-Marie: picturesque cathedral town with second fine Hispano-Moorish style church.  L’Hôpital St Blaise: medieval church with mozárabe features.  Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port: busy pilgrim town, Porte St Jacques, ramparts, citadel.     Several typical, picturesque Basque villages.

Where to stay  You will not come across many specifically pilgrim hostels but you will not be short of accommodation.  You will find a mix of lodging: in presbyteries and monasteries, with Christian families, in gîtes d’étape, chambres d’hôte (bed and breakfast), hotels and campsites.   Accueil pèlerin (pilgrim welcome) may well indicate a reduced rate for pilgrims.  Be sure to phone in advance: it is worth buying one of the cheap pay-as-you-go French SIM cards.

St.Bertrand de Comminges

St.Bertrand de Comminges

Distinctive features of the route  As indicated, the beauty of the mountains and the richness of the architecture, including many national and UNESCO sites.  It is very flexible in that you have a choice of at least three main routes that branch off into Spain to join the caminos aragonés, francés or del norte.  Lourdes apart, few pilgrims but there is a real awareness by locals of pilgrims’ needs and it is certainly a very friendly route.  You will need at least to ‘get by’ in French and to be able to read a French guidebook.

Guide books  Unfortunately none in English but three up-to-date ones:

  • Sur le chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle La voie des Piémonts, entre Cévennes et Pyrénées     Montpellier, Carcassonne, Lourdes, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port     Lepère & Terrien  Lepère Editions 2016  ISBN 978-2915156515
    Good comprehensive guide to the route, accommodation and features of interest; maps only useful as general idea of route
  • Topoguide 780 Le Chemin du piémont pyrénéen vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle:  Carcassonne-Lourdes-Roncevaux      FFRP 2014 ISBN 978-2751406898  Most recent version summer 2014.  Please be aware that this guide follows the official route faithfully; it will include sections that are physically very challenging like Bagnères-de-Bigorre to Lourdes, or that have cultural interest, rather than a more pilgrim-orientated approach of taking the easiest path from A to B.
  • Le Chemin du Piémont Pyrénéen et la Route des Abbayes de l’Aude     Guix  Rando 2014   ISBN 978-2841825639  not seen
  • also  En chemin vers Compostelle: un chemin de St-Jean-Pied-de-Port à Irún  Gérard du Camino 2009 ISBN 978-2952870634 as an alternative to ‡‡ below

Maps  The Topoguide has maps at 1:50000, 1km = 2cm.  However, you can freely copy detailed IGN maps from the web site http://www.geoportail.fr/ .  A purple line highlights the GR78 and you have a choice of scale e.g. 1:27084 (1km = 3.7cm), 1:13542 (1km = 7.4cm).  http://www.openrunner.com/  is another very useful and flexible map database where you can vary both the scale and the type of map.

Websites  all below in French except the first one:

Many thanks to Michael Gaches for this very informative guide and to Christopher Johnson for helpful feedback and suggestions. Last updated December 2016.