Introduction. This 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 in the ancient 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.
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.
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 GR36 variant 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!
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 southwest, soon with fantastic 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. 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.
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.
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. There are not many pilgrims, apart from around Lourdes (a pilgrimage destination in its own right) 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 four in French are:
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 and Christopher Johnson
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