Via Podiensis. Merely the name invokes an invitation to travel, don’t you think? From July to August, I embarked on this beautiful adventure: 28 stages, from Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, while taking the Célé route. A backpack, a pair of shoes, and a ton of enthusiasm. Have you ever felt that desire to hit the road, to follow a path without really knowing where it will lead you? That was exactly my mindset. And today, with plenty of memories in mind, I am ready to share this experience with you. If you’re curious to know what it’s like to walk this legendary route, I roll out the carpet for you. Hold on, I’m taking you on the Camino with me!
Why the Via Podiensis?
The Via Podiensis, or the Way of Puy-en-Velay, is one of the four main pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela in France, and although I know a bit about Puy-en-Velay from having done a trail there (see the Grand trail of Saint Jacques), I’ve never been on its Compostela route. To tell you a bit about my own experience on the Camino, I’m not at it for the first time since, in 2018, I left for nearly 40 days on the Spanish paths: on the Camino Primitivo and the Camino del Norte.
This time I was very keen to discover this emblematic route that is the way from Puy-en-Velay, and to start with, might as well do the Via Podiensis in one go!
The Via Podiensis in a Few Words
It’s challenging to summarize the Via Podiensis in an article, but I will do my best! Commonly called the Way of Puy, it is one of the oldest and most iconic pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Starting from Le Puy-en-Velay in Haute-Loire, the Via Podiensis snakes through 3 regions and a variety of cultural and historical landscapes that reflect the richness of France, eventually leading to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, at the foot of the majestic Pyrenees.
The journey is often as talked about as the destination. The Via Podiensis is a perfect example of this. It starts from Le Puy-en-Velay, this jewel in Haute-Loire. It’s like immersing yourself in a movie, you know, the one where each scene transports you to a different era, each section has its own flavor.
The Via Podiensis crosses 3 regions and 8 departments:
- In Rhône-Alpes: Haute-Loire
- In Occitanie: Lozère, Aveyron, Lot, Tarn et Garonne, and Gers
- In Nouvelle-Aquitaine: Landes and Pyrénées-Atlantiques
On the menu: 755.6 km, or 32 walking days from Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
The Via Podiensis is known for its impressive diversity of territories, landscapes, and ecosystems. The route can be roughly divided into three main sections:
- The start and Auvergne: The starting point in Le Puy-en-Velay. The initial route crosses the powerful volcanoes of Auvergne and the wild lands of Gévaudan.
- Aubrac and Lot: Then, the path weaves through the Aubrac plateau, a rural area dotted with vast meadows and picturesque hamlets. After Aubrac, it runs along the Lot valley.
- Aveyron and the Pyrenees: The last French section of the path crosses Aveyron, with the medieval town of Conques as a highlight. Then, the route descends to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, crossing Béarn and the Basque Country, where the Pyrenean mountains gradually reveal themselves.
Via Podiensis Notable Stages
The adventure begins in Le Puy-en-Velay, this emblematic place that has seen the departure of thousands of pilgrims. Wandering through its medieval alleyways, you already feel enveloped by history. Its cathedral, perched on a volcanic rock, and the statue of Our Lady of France, dominate the city, as if to watch over the walkers.
Then moving south, you arrive at Aumont-Aubrac. Here, nature is queen. The landscapes of the Massif Central, with their lush reliefs, are a true feast for the eyes and a soothing pause for the mind. Finally, Estaing, with its imposing castle and old bridge, reminds you of the grandeur of this route and the depth of its historical roots.
Conques welcomes you next with its cobbled streets and majestic abbey. Ranked among the most beautiful villages in France, this place is a true gem on the way. Its architectural wealth and religious heritage will leave no walker indifferent. Continuing your route, you will discover Figeac, a medieval city where time seems to have stood still. Testimonies of its prestigious past, like the house of Joan of Arc or the Balène palace, invite you to dream.
Then, the path will lead you to Cahors, with its famous Valentré bridge and renowned vineyards. Strolling through this city is like walking through an open-air art gallery.
Do not miss Moissac and the splendor of its abbey and its cloister. Lauzerte, one of the most beautiful villages in France, its medieval square will make you want to wander. Navarrenx, this fortified bastide, is a window onto the military history of the region.
Arriving in Condom, this town in the Gers evokes the quintessence of Occitanie with its Gothic cathedral and gentle landscapes. And finally, everything concludes in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the climax of this magnificent odyssey through France.
Each stage of the Via Podiensis is unique, and these towns are just a few jewels among so many others to discover.
The 3 Paths After Figeac
After passing Figeac, the pilgrim is faced with a choice that will define their adventure on the Via Podiensis. Indeed, three variants are available, each with its own characteristics and attractions.
The Célé Variant: Opting for this route means choosing to walk along the Célé valley. This path, wilder, reveals breathtaking natural landscapes. Caves and limestone cliffs follow one another along the route, with picturesque villages like Espagnac or Marcilhac-sur-Célé inviting a pause.
The Traditional Route via Cajarc: This path follows the Lot and passes through towns and villages of character like Cajarc or Limogne-en-Quercy. It is a more direct route, rich in history and heritage, where pilgrims can immerse themselves in local culture at every stage.
The Rocamadour Variant: Although it is not the shortest path, choosing this route allows you to discover one of the most beautiful sites in France: Rocamadour. Nestled on the side of a cliff, this village is a high place of pilgrimage and offers a deep spiritual experience.
Whichever variant is chosen, each path has its peculiarities, its challenges, and its rewards. But all lead to the same goal: Cahors, the point where everyone meets.
Via Podiensis Distance
When you embark on a journey such as the Via Podiensis, the first question that often arises is, “How far will I travel on the Via Podiensis?”. Well, this is where it gets interesting. The answer varies depending on the path you choose from Figeac.
The “classic” route, the most traveled, is approximately 750 km. This is the distance between Le Puy-en-Velay and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port if you take the itinerary of the Puy-en-Velay route without taking a variant at Figeac.
However, if you decide to take one of the variants after Figeac, you then have to count more kilometers and more days. Especially since the two other variants are more challenging in terms of elevation. The variant through the Célé route is a magnificent alternative that stretches for about 70 km. It starts at Figeac and brings you back to the main route at Lalbenque. During this trip, you will be dazzled by the limestone cliffs and the small hidden valleys of the Célé.
As for the variant passing through Rocamadour, it is longer, adding a few more stages to enjoy the splendor of Rocamadour, this sanctuary city perched on the side of a cliff. This detour is about 90 km, making you cross remarkable landscapes while discovering emblematic religious sites like the must-see Notre-Dame Chapel.
Via Podiensis Stages – Official Breakdown
The “official” breakdown, coming from the FFRP (French Hiking Federation) topo-guides, is as follows. The elevation gain is quite moderate, averaging 400D+ per stage with some stages at 600 or 700 but hardly more.
For my part, I haven’t necessarily planned an entire month for this adventure, so I will see how far I can go. I must admit that ideally, I would like to be able to make it to the “terminus” Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, but that then requires me to undertake much longer stages. In short, we’ll see in due course, day by day… that’s the magic of the camino for people who wing it like me, we adapt over time!
|N° de l’étape||DÉPART||ARRIVÉE||(KM)||Cumul KM parcourus||D+|
|8||Saint-Côme-d’Olt / Espalion||Estaing||20,5||179,5||240|
Via Podiensis Stages – My Stages Over 28 Days
When I embarked on the Via Podiensis, I was determined to shape my own path. Armed with my first experience 5 years ago, I knew it was unnecessary to book and plan a month-long journey. Of course, there are these traditional stages, almost set in stone where most stop, like Conques, but I learned that this pilgrimage is, above all, a personal experience.
My legs were in shape, so I often extended my days, pushing my limits to enjoy this “meditation through the feet” that I love so much. Sometimes, on the contrary, I shortened the day, being tired, or wishing to stay with people I had just met.
Choosing between the different paths after Figeac was a real headache. I eventually opted for the Célé route, less traveled, but oh so magnificent. It offered me breathtaking panoramas and priceless moments of tranquility. But, in the end, what I really want to highlight is that the Via Podiensis is not limited to a fixed route. It’s a modular adventure, and everyone must make it their own, live it in their own way, listening to their heart as much as their feet.
I still provide you with my own breakdown, which goes hand in hand with the accommodations that I recommend to you later on.
|28||55,4||910||Rochegude||Villepret d Apchier|
|21,65||77,05||436||Villepret d Archiee||Saint Alban sur L|
|26||103,05||681||Saint Alban sur L||4 chemin|
|32,4||135,45||591||4 chemin||saint Chely|
|43||331,45||710||Brengues||Saint cirque la popie|
|22,8||354,25||580||Saint cirque la popie||Béars|
The Stages and Key Stops
As you can see, the Via Podiensis is dotted with numerous key stops and stages where you can find some quite famous names (I’m not just talking about Montcuq :)). The most renowned waypoints are:
- Le Puy-en-Velay: with its UNESCO World Heritage-listed cathedral and medieval atmosphere, it is THE unforgettable starting point. I loved Le Puy when I came to do the trail of the same name, so I can’t wait to return.
- Conques: known for its abbey and its treasure, especially the reliquary statue of Sainte Foy.
- Figeac: a medieval town, is also the birthplace of Jean-François Champollion, the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
- Moissac: renowned for its abbey and its cloister.
- Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port: a fortified city at the foot of the Pyrenees, marks the end of the Via Podiensis and the beginning of the Camino Francés in Spain.
Accommodation on the Via Podiensis
Being one of the most frequented routes of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in France, the Via Podiensis offers a variety of accommodations for its walkers. Here’s what I observed during my journey:
- Diversity and Availability: Unlike other routes, here, it’s rare to find yourself without accommodation options. Most stops, whether small or large, offer several gîtes, bed and breakfasts, or hostels. This abundance is reassuring, especially for those who, like me, like to improvise their stops.
- Pricing: If you’ve already walked on other paths, such as in Spain, expect a notable difference in budget. Nights generally cost between 15 and 17€, while half-board can cost between 35 and 40€. This is significantly higher than on the Spanish paths. Note that some gîtes “force” the hand for half-board, which can sometimes be difficult for those on smaller budgets.
- Comfort and Quality: The good news is that this additional cost is often reflected in the quality of the accommodations. Whereas in Spain, you can sometimes find yourself in large, basic dormitories, here, dormitories are smaller and offer a commendable level of comfort. The sanitary facilities are generally clean, the mattresses comfortable, and it’s not uncommon to find charming common areas to relax in after a long day’s walk.
- Spirit of the Way: The atmosphere varies from one accommodation to another. In some places, I truly found the authentic spirit of the Way, where exchanges are rich and meetings memorable. Other places seem to adopt a more commercial approach, where the pilgrim is primarily a client. Of course, this observation remains subjective and will depend on each individual’s experience.
- Donativos: Unlike other paths, especially in Spain, “donativo” accommodations (based on free donation) are rare on the Via Podiensis. These places, often run by volunteers or enthusiasts of the Way, add a spiritual and community dimension to the pilgrim’s experience.
While the Via Podiensis may seem more expensive than other routes, it nevertheless offers a level of comfort and choice that will delight most walkers. However, it is recommended to plan your budget accordingly, and perhaps to alternate between more expensive accommodations and more affordable ones to balance your expenses.
During my journey, I had the opportunity to stay in numerous gîtes that struck me either by their hospitality, atmosphere, or the encounters I had there. Here’s a list of gîtes per stage, for those looking for recommendations and ideas for their own journey:
- Stage 1 – Le Puy-en-Velay to Rochegude: Gîte de Rochegude (36€ DP)
- Stage 2 – Rochegude to le Villepret d’Apchier: Gîte l’auberge des 2 Pèlerins (42€ DP)
- Stage 3 – Le Villepret d’Apchier to Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole: Gîte le refuge du Pèlerin (20€ dormitory)
- Stage 4 – Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole to les Quatre chemins Gîte d’étape aux Quatre Vents (38€ DP)
- Stage 5 – Les Quatre Chemins to Saint Chely: Gîte Belle Étoile (20€ dormitory)
- Stage 6 – Saint Chely to Espalion: Gîte au fil de l’eau (26€ dormitory)
- Stage 7 – Espalion to Golinhac: Camping (17€ dormitory)
- Stage 8 – Golinhac to Conques: Abbaye Conques (32€ DP)
- Stage 9 – Conques to Livinhac: Gîte la vita e bella
- Stage 10 – Livinhac to Figeac: Gite Gua (37€ DP)
- Stage 13 – St cirque Lapopie to Bears: Gîte Bears (20€ dormitory)
- Stage 14 – Bears to Trigodina: Gîte de Trigodina (37€ DP)
- Stage 15 – Trigodina to Montcuq: Gîte l Evidence (22.75€ dormitory)
- Stage 17 – Dufort to Espalais: Gîte le par chemin (Donativo)
- Stage 18 – Espalais to Lectoure: Gîte Presbytère (Donativo)
- Stage 19 – Lectoure to Condom: Gîte au plaisir d’étape
- Stage 21 – Lamothe to Nogaro: Gîte repos du rêve
- Stage 22 – Nogaro to Aire sur Adour: Gîte le jardin sur l’eau
- Stage 23 – Aire sur Adour to Arzacq (No gîte mentioned)
- Stage 25 – Arthez to Navarrenx: Gîte l’Alchimiste (20€ dormitory + dinner as donativo)
When I set out on the Via Podiensis, it was largely on a whim. While I didn’t have a specific return date, I still had expectations and apprehensions. And, at the end of the journey, I draw several significant conclusions.
Food: Compared to my experiences in Spain, finding something to eat here was easier. Except for a few rare exceptions, I almost always found meatless options. This greatly facilitated my route and made the experience more pleasant.
Physical Form: On this point, I was pleasantly surprised. Despite the additional years, I completed even longer stages than five years ago. However, I had to deal with the onset of periostitis, primarily due, as during my previous adventure, to prolonged walking on roads.
Attendance: As expected, the departure from Le Puy was crowded, but this influx quickly decreased after the first two or three stages. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of adjusting your stops to avoid the busiest points, and a peaceful route is quickly rediscovered.
Accommodations: Although I had some apprehensions at the start, everything eventually went well. In July, the crowd was not as significant as I expected. I generally managed by calling the day before, or even sometimes only at noon on the same day, to book accommodation.