After developing a route from Geneva to Le Puy-en-Velay (which later became GR65) and another from Cluny to Le Puy-en-Velay, the Rhône-Alpes Association of Friends of Saint- Jacques offers today a path from Gillonnay (situated on from the path Geneva to Le Puy ) to Arles. The route is 330 km long and known as the Via Rhodana . It goes through St. Anthony’s Abbey and along the right bank of the Rhone to Beaucaire to join Arles along the left bank . Fully waymarked by European shells pointing towards Santiago, it is the subject of, like all other paths created by the Rhône-Alpes Association of Friends of Saint- Jacques , a guide – the Blue Guide – where pilgrims can find all information on directions and accommodation, especially pilgrim-friendly places.
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.
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 – http://www.chemins-compostelle.com/itineraires/6/la-voie-d-arles
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.
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 France and Spain), by Michael Gaches, The Confraternity of Saint James, 2016. Published in 2 parts and available in our Online Shop by following the links for the individual titles: Part 1 Arles-Toulouse and Part 2 Toulouse to Puente la Reina. These guides are very comprehensive (though without maps – see below) and 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 978-2841825059.
Sur le Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle: Le Chemin d’Arles ou Via Tolosana Lepère, Dehnel, Heckmann Lepère Editions 2014 978-2915156454
Sentier vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle (Arles-Toulouse) Topoguide 6533 FFRP 2016 978-2751408182 & (Toulouse-Jaca) Topoguide 6534 978-2751407253
Miam Miam Dodo Saint Jacques de Compostelle par La Voie d’Arles GR653 Edition 2016-17 Les éditions du Vieux Crayon 978-2916446448 available from CSJ bookshop
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.gouv.fr where you click on cartes (top L) ˃ voir tous les fonds de carte ˃ carte topographique IGN, then type in e.g. Arles.
For Spain you can download maps from http://www.ign.es/iberpix2/visor/ . 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.
Websites Many sites, some more up-to-date than others; fuller details in CSJ Arles guidebooks.
www.caminodesantiago.me general pilgrim forum including Arles route.
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.
IN FRENCH, local associations:
www.chemins-compostelle.com ACIR Compostelle
IN FRENCH, other sites:
http://pagesperso-orange.fr/vtt.compostelle/fiches.htm route descriptions for cyclists.
Confraternity of Saint James,
27 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8NY, United Kingdom.
Tel: (+44) (0)20 7928 9988
Company Limited by Guarantee, Registered no. 4096721 — UK Registered Charity no. 1091140
Founded in 1983 to promote the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela