Overview: the Arles route
One of the 4 medieval pilgrim routes described by Aimery Picaud in his 12th c Pilgrim's Guide. Used by Jacobean pilgrims from southern and eastern Europe and in reverse, by Spanish, Portuguese and French pilgrims to Rome. Also known as the Via Tolosana, as the most important town along the way is Toulouse.
We are encouraging people to try alternatives, even for a first pilgrimage, to the increasingly over-crowded Le Puy route. For an account of the highlights of the route, click here
The Route Starts in Arles (Provence) and continues broadly westwards, through Montpellier (Languedoc) and Toulouse (Midi-Pyrénées) to Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Béarn). Here it swings south up the Aspe valley to cross the Pyrenees into Aragón by the Col du Somport. In Spain, the route, now the Camino aragonés, follows the valley of the river Aragón south to Jaca and then west, still following the river, through Aragón and Navarra to join the Camino francés at Obanos just before Puente la Reina. For overall map of route – www.chemins-compostelle.com/Leschemins/voie-du-sud-carto.htm
Length 970 km; 800 km in France, 170 km in Spain. Can be walked in 5-6 weeks, plus rest days and sightseeing.
Waymarking A footpath/forest track/small farm road route, waymarked clearly throughout. In France, designated GR 653, part of the network of Sentiers de Grande Randonnée waymarked with red and white bars. In Spain, waymarked by yellow arrows but also with red and white bars as GR 65.3, part of the Spanish network of Senderos de Gran Recorrido. Mostly a single route in France but in Aragón and Navarra with variants mainly to famous monasteries.
Terrain A very varied, more isolated and more demanding route; later stages have splendid vistas of the Pyrenees. Between Arles and Montpellier, the route crosses the Camargue (drained marshland of the Rhône delta). Between Montpellier and Castres are the steep hills of Haut-Languedoc: initially the causses (dry, steep-sided limestone hills and gorges) and later vast areas of often commercial forest, largely conifers or beech. Between Castres and Oloron-Sainte-Marie the terrain is flatter: low hills and open plateaux dotted with trees and with mixed farming. The valley of the Aspe and the northern slopes of the Pyrenees are clothed with verdant beech forest and pasture; beyond the Col du Somport, the southern slopes and the valley of the river Aragón are more stark, bare and rocky. After Jaca comes the Canal de Berdún, extensive arable farmland, anticipating the meseta ahead; you pass dramatic rocky moonscapes and the vast reservoir of the Embalse de Yesa.
Weather Strongly influenced by the Pyrenees, so be prepared for variable mountain weather. Can be very hot in Languedoc and Aragón. Often wet in Midi-Pyrénées and the French side of the Col du Somport. Haut-Languedoc and Aragón can be very chilly and windy, even in summer and the Col du Somport snow-covered in winter.
When to go Walkable throughout the year despite temperature and rainfall extremes. Spring (long daylight hours, beautiful flowers) and autumn are best. Summer is too hot while winter journeys over the higher hills of Haut-Languedoc or the Col du Somport in snow or mist are not advised, except possibly for experienced mountain walkers. There is a relatively frequent bus service over the Pyrenees (Oloron-Sainte-Marie to Jaca) as an alternative to the path.
What to see - Saint-Gilles-du-Gard: abbey church and shrine of Saint-Gilles; also a long-standing pilgrimage destination in its own right - www.regordane.info to find out about the route to St Gilles from Le Puy-en-Velay. Montpellier: birthplace of Saint-Roch, patron saint of pilgrims and now a pleasant modern commercial and industrial town. Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert: a picturesquely sited village in the gorge of the Hérault where Saint-Guilhem, a close childhood friend and companion in arms of Charlemagne, sited his Abbey of Gellone: lovely Romanesque church. Spectacular scenery. Lodève: magnificent cathedral reflecting the wealth and power of the medieval warrior-bishop Saint-Fulcran. More great high-level scenery and villages. Castres: houses on river banks, most important collection of Spanish paintings in France. Revel: grid-pattern bastide (medieval new town) with vast market hall. Montferrand: magnificently engineered Canal du Midi.Toulouse: beautiful basilica of Saint-Sernin (martyred and venerated in the town), fine Hospice Saint-Jacques beside the Garonne, cathedral, and many churches, convents and museums. Auch: associated more with the 3 musketeers than with Saint-Jacques but has a cathedral with fine stained glass and choir stalls. Many attractive villages. Morlaàs and Lescar: each at one time a capital of strife-ridden Béarn before the province's accession to France and both with impressive churches. Increasingly fine views of Pyrenees. Oloron-Sainte-Marie: picturesque cathedral town with second fine Hispano-Moorish style church. Beautiful Aspe valley and stunning descent to Jaca. Jaca: a cradle of the Reconquista with a cathedral regarded as the prototype of the Spanish Romanesque. Monastery of San Juan de la Peña (just off main route): set under a great cliff, churches, capitals and Romanesque pantheons of the pre-Reconquista kings of Aragón and Navarra. Hill-top villages. Embalse de Yesa: formed by the highly controversial flooding of the Aragón valley, and the picturesque villages of the Canal de Berdún, currently under further threat from the proposed raising of the level of the dam. Monastery of Leyre (off main route): another splendid monastery and Romanesque church with unique crypt. Sangüesa: fine churches esp. outstanding Santa María la Real. Foz de Lumbier (GR variant) gorge and large vulture colony. Eunate: octagonal church with outer cloister. Puente la Reina: churches and magnificent, iconic bridge.
Where to stay It is now possible to walk virtually the whole route using only pilgrim accommodation, gîtes d’étape and in Spain, albergues. In France such accommodation is mainly private and thus not as cheap as the albergues de peregrinos in Spain. There are of course many hotels, chambres d'hôte and camp sites in France, some offering pilgrim discounts; it is wise to phone in advance, especially at weekends and holiday times. One or two monasteries, priests and a few kind families put up pilgrims but pilgrims must fit in with their day-to-day lives.
Distinctive features of the route As indicated, a solitary but very rewarding route; relatively few pilgrims, although the number is increasing year by year. The hills and mountains between Montpellier and Castres are quite isolated and strenuous; some days there are long stretches of (attractive) forest: pilgrims need to be able to cope with loneliness! 80% of the way is in France which is still more expensive than Spain and there is no free accommodation.
Arles to Puente la Reina (Pilgrim guides to the roads through France to Santiago de Compostela # 4), by Michael Gaches. The Confraternity of Saint James, 2011. Published in 2 parts and available in our Bookshop by following the links for the individual titles: 4i) Arles-Toulouse and 4ii) Toulouse to Puente la Reina. These guides are very comprehensive (though without maps – see below) and are the only ones in English. Yearly updates online each January.
Should you wish to buy a French guide, there are at least 5 good ones. In no particular order, they are:
- Le Chemin d’Arles vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. La Voie du Sud Laborde-Balen & Siréjol Rando Editions 2012 ISBN 2841825059
- Sur le chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. La via Tolosana, la voie de soleil... Lepère & Dehnel Lepère Editions 2008 978-2915156003
- La Via Tolosana: Le Chemin d’Arles vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle ACIR 2010 978 2953479607
- Sentier vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle (Arles-Toulouse) Topoguide 6533 FFRP 2013 978-2751406270 & (Toulouse-Jaca) Topoguide 6534 978-2751404252
- Miam Miam Dodo Saint Jacques de Compostelle par La Voie d’ Arles GR653 Edition 2014-15 Les éditions du Vieux Crayon 978-2916446448 - available from the CSJ bookshop
There are 3 Spanish guides for the route from the Somport to Sangüesa, all freely downloadable from the internet:
- Guía del Camino Jacobeo en Aragón Gobierno de Aragón 2010 978-84-8380-213-7 http://jacobeo.aragon.es
- [The Way of St James in Aragón] The Pilgrim’s Guide - Gobierno de Aragón 2009 978-84-8380-205-2
Maps Given the quality of the guidebooks and the overall excellent waymarking, it is not worth buying several maps to cover the route. If you wish to supplement the CSJ guide, as far as France is concerned, you could purchase the Topoguides (1:50000, 1km = 2cm) or use the superb web site http://www.geoportail.fr/ where you can access detailed IGN maps, at 1:16000 (1km = 6.25cm) or 1:8000 (1km = 12.5cm) with a purple line which highlights the GR653. The whole route from Arles to the Col du Somport is available on Google maps at www.gr-infos.com/gr653.htm. All 168 of the 1:16000 maps from Arles to the Somport, can be downloaded at the touch of a button: http://cormoz.compostelle.free.fr/voie_arles.html
For Spain you can download maps from www.ign.es/iberpix/visoriberpix/visorign.html. Both the 1:25000 and 1:50000 maps have the camino and variants; the main camino can be highlighted in red. Like many Spanish maps, these are not always up-to-date, particularly with regards to roads.
Websites There is a plethora of sites, some more up-to-date than others; fuller details in CSJ Arles guidebooks.IN ENGLISH:
- www.csj.org.uk - this one!
- www.caminodesantiago.me - general pilgrim forum including Arles route.
- www.backpack45.com - varied information based on walking to Oloron in 2008-9.
- http://chemindarles.free.fr - information by pilgrims including suggestions for stages, photos, forums, links; has version in English.
- www.mundicamino.com - English version for description of Spanish stages; maps, profiles and other info.
- http://guidetothecamino.com/sandra-of-pilgrims-in-sydney-australia-lescar-to-eunate-via-somport-mayjune/ - Read an account by an Australian pilgrim of the route from Lescar to Eunate
IN FRENCH, local associations:
- www.chemins-compostelle.com - ACIR Compostelle
IN FRENCH, other sites:
- http://vtt.compostelle.pagesperso-orange.fr/fiches.htm - route descriptions for cyclists.
- www.turismonavarra.es - Menu → Rutas → Caminos de Santiago
- www.infocamino.com - stage descriptions in English, further info in Spanish