Arles to the Pyrenees A walkers guide to a less well known French pilgrim footpath to Santiago in Spain. Part of the book reviews on the Camino Santiago
Arles to the Pyrenees
This is the first edition of a new Pilgrim Guide to the route from Arles to Puente la Reina where it joins the Camino Frances to Santiago to Compostela. This edition is intended primarily as a guide for walkers with brief notes on places of interest, accommodation and facilities on the way. If you wish to walk the main Camino you will need the Village to Village Guide To The Camino Santiago
The Route The Arles Route, the most southerly of the four French routes, runs directly westwards from Aries parallel with the Pyrenees. It links Montpellier, Lode ve, Castres, Toulouse and Auch where it turns south-west to Oloron-Sainte-Marie. Here it turns south up the Gave d'Aspe to cross the Pyrenees at the Somport Pass and enters Spain to become the Camino Aragone's (although It also passes through Navarra). Its length in France is about seven hundred and thirty-eight kilometres with a further one hundred and fifty kilometres in Spain. It takes about thirty five days to walk (excluding rest days or detours).
Apart from the first stages between Aries and Montpellier, the Aries Route is a very strenuous route for both walkers and cyclists and because of infrequent accommodation, some stages are for walkers very long. The terrain is quite variable but particularly in Haut-Languedoc can be extremely hilly and, because of the sheer frequency of the ascents and descents, quite exhausting.
However the start is quite flat. Between Aries and Montpellier the path crosses the Camargue with white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos before passing through low vine-clad hills -- the only significant vineyards on the whole route. After Montpellier, the hills begin. The Causses of the Regional Park of HautLanguedoc are spectacular!y and exhaustingly hilly and are the scenic equal of the Pyrenees at the Somport Pass
Between Castres and Oloron-Saint-Marie, the hills become less severe, the countryside more open and agricultural -- mainly maize, sunflowers, millet and pasture and there are more towns and villages. From Oloron-Saint-Marie the route climbs the Pyrenees through the Gave d'Aspe where the scenic attraction is the wooded grandeur of the valley slopes rather than the wider vistas seen on the Route Napoleon. The reputation of the Somport Pass as a difficult climb is undeserved. Walkers who have made it thus far have nothing to fear -- the ascent is scarcely noticeable until the last eight kilometres and even then less severe than parts of Haut-Languedoc although the path is overgrown, under used and quite treacherous in places. The summit itself-1640 metres high -- is a disappointment. Unlike the remoteness of the cattlegrid border on the Route Napoleon, here are all the facilities of a full frontier post-- although no longer used.
Once into Spain, the wooded slopes give way initially to the steep, bare, white limestone hills of the valley of the upper river Aragon, a favoured ski. area. Below Canfranc, the Arag6n valley opens out, the slopes become wooded and for much of the walk to Jaca, the path follows the tree-lined river banks. Jaca feels very much a mountain town. But only a few kilometres to the west begin the low hills and cultivated fields of west Arag6n and Navarra and, on the approaches to Puente Ia Reina, the pilgrim experiences the first wide vistas of countryside and sky which characterise the Spanish meseta beyond.
The path follows farm and forest tracks and some minor roads and is mostly easy underfoot except in heavy rain when some stretches may become extremely muddy. This can seriously slow walkers down. Additionally, French GRs, and GR 653 is no exception, tend to wander around the countryside and often deviate to high points. Consequently, walking speeds will vary enormously with terrain, clarity of waymarking and deviations, not to say sightseeing. For walkers without a tent, the existence of accommodation will often dictate walking speeds and the length of each daily stage rather than walking capacity. Towns and villages may be so infrequent that scarcely a building or a person are seen all day. Because of the isolation of much of the route, especially in the forests, a large measure of self-sufficiency and selfreliance is called for.
Today the ArIes Route is probably the least known and least used of the French routes of the Camino Santiago, although it is becoming more popular as it becomes better known. This was not always so. It is possibly the earliest route but it later fell into comparative disuse because of continuous religious and political turmoil in
France beginning with the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics in the thirteenth century, then the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth century and finally the French Revolution in the eighteenth. Although initially the Moors were a threat along the Camino Aragone's, the area was the cradle of the 'reconquista' and the pilgrimage an important political force behind the emerging Christian kingdoms of northern Spain. The route later declined however, as the result of religious warfare and the transfer of political power away from this part of Spain.
As a consequence, many of the French medieval churches and Jacobean monuments familiar to the medieval pilgrim were destroyed and are simply not visible today or if visible, are unrecognisable. There are far fewer Romanesque buildings than on the other French routes. Continuous warfare did however lead to the foundation of new settlements by local warlords to consolidate their political power and to protect the population. The new settlements are mostly west of Toulouse and the Aries Route passes through several. There are three types. Salvatats or Sauveterres were safe towns under religious protection. Castelnaus were towns protected by a castle. Bastides were built by Charter as completely new towns to a standard grid pattern with defences, a central arcaded market place and a church. Conversely, the wealth of Romanesque churches in the villages of Arag6n and Navarra reflects the early reestablishment of Christianity in these remote northern mountain kingdoms and in particular, the legacy of Ramiro I Sanchez, the founder, in 1035, of the kingdom of Arag6n with Jaca as its capital.
Rather more than on the Le Puy Route, the Aries Route is for pilgrims with plenty of time. For walkers the length of each stage, dictated as it is by the existence of accommodation, often requires a two-day stop to do full justice to the monuments. There are hotels and hostals actually on the route virtually everywhere except for a short section west of Auch. In France there is no network of free or cheap 'refugios' as there is in Spain and 'cure's' are neither as numerous nor as interested in the pilgrimage as in Spain. French 'gites d'e'tape' and 'chambres d'ho~te' and Spanish 'casas particulares' are not specially for pilgrims and often tend to be off the path
4k to Celleneuve. Leave by Place du 11 November, Rues du Faubourg de Nimes, du Pila Saint-Ge ly, de I'Aiguillerie, through the Place des Martyrs de Ia Resistance, along Rue Foch and past the Arc de Triomphe to the Promenade du Peyrou. Continue along the Boulevard des Arceaux (alongside the aqueduct), the Boulevard Benjamin Milhaud and into the Avenue de Lode ve. After about 4k on the Avenue de Lode ve, you reach Celleneuve centre with the Romanesque church of Sainte-Croix, hotels, restaurants, cafes, shops, banks, cycle shop and laundrefle.
13k to Montarnaud. About 750 metres beyond the turning for Sainte-Croix and 100 metres beyond the Hotel Abelia, is the first waymark on a lamp post on the right-hand side of the road just before the right turn-oft for Grabels. Turn right here through an avenue of plane trees, left across a park and over the small river Mosson. Follow the river Mosson gorge to Grabels. Do not enter the village itself but turn south, up and onto an open plateau. The path follows a line of electric pylons over the plateau and is well marked until a carting track. Just before the carting track, turn south towards the junction of the N 109, N 100, D 111 and D 102 at Be-Air (chambres d'h6te advertised). Follow a track parallel with the D 27E which, just before Montarnaud, rejoins the road to enter the small town (chambres d'hote, shops, cafe', bank, restaurant and buses).
6k to La Boissiere. Continue northwards through Montarnaud in the direction of La Boissiere through a new estate, then turn right up a rocky path to the D 111. Turn right along the D 111 where shortly afterwards the waymarked path loops briefly into the edge of the woods and back onto the road. The path skirts La Boissiere to the west and rejoins the D 27 where it crosses over to a red, dusty, former quarry railway track.
6k to Aniane. Follow the track downhill past a red sandstone quarry. About 200 metres beyond a stone overbridge, turn left. The first waymark along this path is partly hidden on a concrete box to the left. Follow the track to the D 27 and into Aniane (good views of the village on entry).
Aniane, the birthplace of Saint-Benoit, the reformer of monastic rule under Charlemagne, has the churches of Saint-Sauveur, Notre-Dame-de~Regagnas and des Penitents.
Accommodation and facilities. Hotel Saint Benoit, gite d'e'tape
(Centre Equestre, 2k to the north on right side of the D 32, direction Saint-Martin de Londres, SOF per person), camping, cafe's, restaurants, shops, post oflice and buses.
9k to Saint-Guilhem-le-De'sert. Leave Aniane by the D 27 and take a field path to the left which loops back onto the road just before the Romanesque Pont de Diable over the river He rault (cafe'). Follow the D 27 through the He rault gorge into Saint-Guilhem-le-De'sert.
Arles to the Pyrenees, 1996, 66pp, M & M Fox
Fir the Complete journey see the Village to Village Guide To The Camino Santiago