This was one of our original hotel treks and has been a consistently popular tour over the past thirty years for those who love rural France and wish to visit some of its more unusual, less visited landscapes. The route covers a large swathe of the uplands of the Massif Central taking a path that the early Pilgrims walked on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain - one of the great journeys of history. Obviously this is just a 200km section of that 1700 km route. It goes up and down valley through some of the marvelous remote bucolic countryside of the Massif Central, including the plateau of the Aubrac, with its amazing drystone walls that resemble parts of the Yorkshire Dales, then there is the valley of the Lot and the green hills of the Aveyron. In spring the fields are festooned with a tapestry of flowers including Alpine varieties. This is a walk in deepest France, for those who really want a bit of peace and quiet away from it all, a flavour of the past with a dose of religious history and the echoes of The Hundred Year War. The accommodation in some cases is fairly simple - one and two star hotels, reflecting the nature of the country we are traveling through, but if two words aptly describe this route it would be rustic and charming. There is also the sense of achievement that comes with completing a Grande Randonnee, in this case the GR65.
A moderate to strenuous graded trek (grade 4) that anyone with a reasonable degree of walking experience and current reasonable state of fitness should cope with. The relatively high grade reflects the length of some of the day stages. The terrain in general is not difficult; consisting largely of farm, forest tracks and minor roads. Some can be muddy after wet periods. Day stages: Approximately 14 to 27 km per day with average altitude gains of 600m. (On a couple of days there is over 1000m of gain. This is about 5 to 8 hours of walking.
For your first nights accommodation you stay in the historic city of Le Puy. Le Puy is a wonderful town to explore and you may wish to add an extra night. Its most striking attraction is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy, dating chiefly from the first half of the 12th century. Each morning, pilgrims gather at the cathedral to be blessed before starting their journey to Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1998, as part of the "Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France". The iron statue of Notre-Dame de France (The Virgin Mary) overlooking the town was designed by the French sculptor Jean-Marie Bonnassieux, and is made from 213 Russian cannons taken in the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855). Fountain Crozatier is also worth visiting in thee centre of town.
Accommodation: This elegant and well equipped 3 star hotel is centrally situated a short walk from the train station. All rooms have en suite facilities.
Climb out of Le Puy onto a plateau overlooking a winding ravine type valley. Pass through black basalt villages like La Roche, then cross a watershed to reach St Privat, perched above the Allier gorge with its much modified castle dating from the Hundred Years War. St Privat d’Allier is a quiet village of 200 inhabitants.
Accommodation: 1 star medium-sized Logis de France listed hotel. Rooms are basic, but there is a lovely old restaurant with green lentils the local specialty.
Much of the day is spent crossing the valley of the River Allier; starting with a level walk to Rochegude, where the Saint Jacques chapel dominates the Allier pass, providing beautiful views. Descend to the river at Monistrol (Romanesque church) and climb steeply up the other side past some striking geological formations. Easy tracks across an agrarian and forest plateau at about 1000m take you to Saugues, the meeting-point for all pilgrims coming from the Auvergne. This town features in the history of the Hundred Years war and in the 1700s as a marshalling point for hunters of the giant man eating wolves that terrorized the region for a few years.
Accommodation: 2 star Logis de France small hotel with 17 rooms. A lovely atmosphere and shaded terrace.
Stick closely to the route the pilgrims took as you start off through the tiny hamlet of Pinet where many of the pilgrims stayed. Gradually climb up the valley and follow the Villange River upstream to Clauze with its ancient tower impossibly still clinging to a boulder - the remains of a 12th century castle. The walk is long but not steep through wooded landscapes, moors of broom pine woods and meadows enclosed by granite posts. Head off into forests and around a huge estate called Le Sauvage with its massive solid stone barns, ramps and courtyard. Interesting damed ponds kept water supplied to the place. On the way you pass the pilgrim’s chapel at St. Roch, before detouring off the GR route to a pleasant rural stay at the small village of Les Faux.
Accommodation: A small village hotel with 13 rooms about 1 km off the route. The rooms normally ensuite with either a bath or shower. A couple of rooms however have shared facilities. Set in the quiet picturesque hilly area over the River Limagnole, it is nice to sit with a cool drink in the garden.
You make your way to the village of St Alban with its Romanesque church dating back to the 11th century and interesting chateau which has been partially restored. Climb upwards for a couple of hours, into rolling bucolic landscapes, enjoying the views of St Alban and the lush Limagnole Valley. You emerge on to the Margeride plateau at around 900m, before descending down to Aumont a pleasant market town with a beautiful church. A fine little town - one of those delightful undiscovered parts of France.
Accommodation: 2 star small modern hotel in the centre of the town. The rooms are ensuite and the hotel has a lovely restaurant.
The walk starts off through the small town with its 16th and 17th century houses, until joining a forest path. Pass through the villages of La Chaze and Lasbros where you start to cross the vast and remote plateau of Aubrac. This is a desolate region of wild flowers, dry stone walls, largely treeless and empty of people. Part of the route here follows Agrippa’s old Roman road. Our route takes you through tiny hamlets and farmsteads crossing streams over ancient granite bridges, past huge granite boulders and piles until arriving at Nasbinals, a herding village with a beautiful church. May time is fantastic for the flowers in the fields including large stands of narcissus and orchids in damper niches.
Accommodation: 2 star a hotel in the centre of the village, close to the church. You may be staying at a hotel 500m away, but will eat at the central hotel in communal style with other walkers.
An exhilarating day, much of it on open hillsides and grassy drove roads, passing gorgeous beech forests and reaching 1368m – the highest point of the walk. Pass through the great herding centre of Aubrac (church of 1220 and Tour des Anglais). There is a new interpretation centre here and a fantastic inn, an ideal place to take refuge if it is cold, where huge slices of fruit flan are served for a few Euros! After Aubrac you drop steeply past the ruins of Knights Templar Belvezet castle to pretty St Chely in its secluded valley.
Accommodation: A small 2 star hotel with comfortable rooms in the centre of a small village, run by a young couple. The restaurant offers regional specialities.
Contour along beech-clad slops onto an open ridge, and then descend through chestnut woods to the ‘Cancels’ stream crossing a few little bridges to ascend suddenly steeply to the hamlet of La Roziere. There is a bit more undulation until finally you descend to St Come d'Olt, with its mediaeval gateways and twisted church spire. This is a pretty little walled village, very much a part of the original Way of St. James, and has a great patisserie.
Accommodation: Refurbished convent with ensuite rooms located 200m from the village or guesthouse (Chambre d’hote) a 19th century Aveyronnaise house located in the entrance of Saint-Come d’Olt. If we cannot secure accommodation here, you will need to walk on a further 6 km/3.7 miles to Espalion where you will stay in a pleasant ‘fin de siecle’ town hotel with a great restaurant.
Leave St. Come d'Olt with good views across the Lot back to the village. It really feels as if you are leaving the Massif Central region and into more productive farmlands from now on. The route then splits with a higher or lower path to the important market town of Espalion, perhaps too early for lunch, but there are plenty of places for coffee and time to admire the old arched bridge dating from the 13th century, the regal houses and the 16th century turreted chateau overlooking the River Lot. Continuing on pass the exquisite little chapel at the picturesque hamlet called Bessuejouls, which has a concealed upper chapel in the belfry. There follows quite a muddy section climbing through oak woods to a ridge with extensive views over the Lot valley, and then pass between vines and tobacco-fields to reach Estaing. Estaing has preserved vividly the memory of the passage of pilgrims to Compostela. The famous festival of St Fleuret is held yearly on the first Sunday in July, during which hundreds of costumed people follow a procession to commemorate Saint Jacques and other pilgrims. An imposing castle dominates the town, and is gradually being restored for the public. Estaing is one of the most beautiful villages of France.
Accommodation: This Logis de France 2 star hotel is situated on the bank of the River Lot in front of the castle. It has 40 comfortable rooms with all modern conveniences. The dinner in the fine traditional restaurant is perhaps the best of the tour.
After a short stint along the banks of the Lot, climb up to the Campeux plateau. Continue along the left bank of the Lot until Rouquette and then through beautiful villages to the tiny hilltop village of Golinhac, with some commanding views over the countryside.
Accommodation: Basic hotel with a restaurant.
Your last day is a hilly rollercoaster into famous Conques. Out of Golinhac continue through Campagnac and still smaller hamlets until reaching the very tranquil village of Espeyrac. It is an idyllic spot for a morning coffee. Or have one a little later at Senergues with its picturesque castle. There is a bit of climbing and undulating, before following a quiet road maintaining your height for a few km until the final stony descent into Conques. This, one of the finest hill-towns in France, clusters round the magnificent Romanesque abbey of St Foy, patron saint of prisoners: her shrine became an object of pilgrimage in its own right. The village does get its fair share of tourists, but for good reason, it is other worldly and unspoilt. At St. Foy they sometimes do free evening organ recitals. Other attractions include the treasury where some very fine mediaeval treasures are housed. There is also the Romanesque bridge down in the valley which is worth the detour to cross.
Accommodation: The hotel we normally use is a 2 star, 11 room property. The building has medieval origins and so rooms may have low beams. It is situated in the centre of the village and some of the rooms have views across to the belfry of St.Foy. There is an excellent restaurant in which to celebrate your completion of the walk. If this particular accommodation is fully booked, you will be in a guesthouse located in the lower part of village by the beautiful Romanesque bridge.
Depart Conques after breakfast. Limited early morning bus service to Rodez Railway station, otherwise or on weekends, you will need to order a taxi.
It was a wonderful walk with magnificent scenery and fantastic Medieval Villages many listed by UNESCO. We had no problems with local organisation, everything went like clockwork.We would definitely recommend the walk to anyone considering a sojourn in rural France.Thank you for organizing such a wonderful experience for us.
J. Walton., Gosford, NSW, Australia
Per Person, Twin Share