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Last ridden in June-July, 2002
Partial trips 1998, 2001
This page last updated : May, 2015
Bicycle the Way of Saint James of Compostela in France
Vélo sur le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle
Camino Santiago in Francia en bicicletta
Cycling from Le Puy-en-Velay, France, to Roncesvalles, Spain and Compostela
Time: 2 weeks Difficulty: Mainly Hard Bike Rating:: Superlative
Nature of the Ride: This beautiful, 420 mile (700 kilometer) bicycle trip, in central and southwestern France follows the famous pilgrimage route, in use for 1200 years, that leads eventually to the city of Compostela in western Spain. There are four branches of the Pilgrimage route in France that lead from different parts of Europe. This route, which in ancient times serviced travellers from northern Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, is the most beautiful of the routes, and also the one which best captures the experience of ancient times. Unlike the Camino in Spain, which is often overrun, this part of the pilgrimage route in France gives opportunities for solitude.
You will ride in picturesque rural, very hillyeven mountainous country, rarely visited by tourists, through forests and rangelands, and alongside pastures, vineyards, and farms. Every day you will encounter handsome, unspoiled, often ancient villages, and meet other travelers who are going the same way. You will also come upon a number of stunning, wonderous first-class churches, monuments, and works of art. Your route will be almost traffic-free roads (except for moderate traffic in eight larger towns)
Difficulty: Make no mistake: Much of the route is extremely hilly, with long, fairly steep climbs. However, if you wish, you can arrange to have your baggage transported. After the long physical effort to climb, you will be rewarded with some wonderful ridge rides and breathtaking, long and fast descents.
Length: You can comfortably and enjoyably complete the French Way of St. James, including your transportation to and from the route, in two weeks. With only one week to ride, you should start at the beginning in Le Puy-en-Velay, and continue to Figeac or Rodez, one of the best parts of the route. You can take up in a future year from where you leave off.
The Travelers : Most travelers undertake the Saint James (Saint Jacques in French) pilgrimage on foot, usually following from Le Puy-en-Velay and proceding into Spain on the French signposted walking route, Grande Randonnée ( = long trail) 65 (GR-65) . Among the travellers, perhaps almost one-half are true pilgrims and their pilgrimages normally are memorable and successful. However, you do not need to be a religious pilgrim; a majority of travelers are not: Many travelers make psychological pilgrimages. Others are adventurers or sightseers.
The Experience: This trip is difficult, but marvellous. It is a "trek"or an expedition or a pilgrimage, but it is also more: There is the sensation of following a long-beaten path moving not only in the company of the many others who you meet or see along the way; but also, somehow, commuting with the literally millions of people who walked or rode horses the same way 6008001000 years ago.
You absolutely should take this bike route if you do take pleasure out of difficult terrain, enjoy a life close to nature, and, perhaps less important, if you appreciate beautiful religious medieval art and architecture.
Given the difficulty, the miles to cover, the relative isolation from luxury and mass-tourism, and the presence of many others who are going the same way the non-religious as well as the religious may feel on this bicycle journey that they are part of something greater than themselves. You learn something on this trip— something maybe about spirituality, maybe about life, or maybe about yourself. And once you have returned home, you will have a great sense of accomplishment and indelible memories.
History: About a millennium ago, and for four hundred years thereafter, countless Pilgrims walked across Europe. They went to Rome, and to Jerusalem when possible, but also very often to Compostela, Spain, in order to visit there the tomb of the Apostle Saint James, miraculously discovered in the year 820. Saint James, known as Saint Jacques in French, and Santiago in Spanish, inspired Christian warriorssome say appeard in the sky in armor on horseback — and led them—to victory in their battles with the Islamic Moors. Santiago—St. James— became Spain's patron saint.
From all over Europe, pilgrims uprooted themselves to walk to Compostella, and home again. Pilgrims without means were lodged for nothing, while the rich made large donations to the churches and hospitals. It is said that during the 12th to 15th centuries, as many as several thousand persons per day (one-quarter to one-half million persons per year) undertook the various Compostela pilgrimages. This astonishing number (given that approximatley 50 million people lived in Europe in 1300) is credible to the author, considering the capacities of the cathedrals and churches built along the various routes to welcome them.
Pilgrims coming from the rest of Europe followed four ancient pilgrims routes across France toward Compostella : the Route of Paris, the Route of Vézelay, the Route of Le Puy, and the Route of Arles. All along the pilgrimge routes, cathedrals, churches, monasteries, hospitals and chapelsfounded by religious orders and backed by rich patrons contained exquisite and unusual artistic creations. Given the basic life of most people in the middle ages, these edifices were not only for worship and acquiring grace, but were for viewing the art and the architectural masterpieces of the day. We can analogize, in part, the religious pilgrimages of a millennium ago to today's "pilgrimages" of touriststo see cathedrals, art museums, palaces, gardens, and modern architecture.
The Way of Saint James today: After 600 years of disuse, a rapidly increasing number of pilgrims (now numbering over 100,000 each year), both religious and laic, travel the St. Jacques pilgrimage routes. Of those who pass through France and continue to Compostella (about two thousand - others, such as I, don't continue in Spain), the greatest number use the Route of Le Puy-en-Velay, perhaps because the first pilgrim to Compostella was the bishop of Le Puy, in 951, but probably also because the Le Puy route is the wildest and most beautiful. It is the route which best provides the experience and the feeling of a pilgrimage a millenium ago.
Pilgrims and other travellers start at Le Puy-en-Velay or even farther away in Switzerland or Germany, and most often walk, but also ride on a horse, on a mule or on a bicycle towards Compostele.On foot, it takes a month or more to cross France from Le Puy, walking often seven or eight hours per day, and another good month to cross Spain. Many walkers do only part of the routetypically a week or ten days worth, planning to return in a subsequent year. Others complete the entire route in one fell swoop. Catholic Church officials are said to accept as religious pilgrims those who walk at least 100 kilometers, ride donkeys or horses more than 200 kilometers, and cycle more than 300 kilometers .
The routes of today's walking pilgrimages on trails, paths, and roads sometimes correspond to the routes that ancient pilgrims walked, sometimes not. Ancient bridges have crumbled or washed away; ferries no longer cross broad rivers; roads have dissappeared; paths have become national highways.
Nonetheless, in walking, cycling or riding the Way of Saint James, the modern walker, rider or cyclist can feel much of what the early pilgrims and other travelers felt, see much of what they saw, and contemplate as they contemplated. Whether or not you wish to do so, you will likely learn something, perhaps about yourself, perhaps about life, perhaps about spirituality.
Attractions: The "wonders" of this trip, as you might expect, consist of cathedrals, churches, and religious art, but also of 25,000 years old cave paintings, Roman mosaic floors, picturesque villages and towns, and military architecture. The historical and artistic aspects of the pilgrimage will appeal to many. For the religious, there are many sites for veneration.
The trip also provides exhilarating of riding in hilly country; a variety of terrain and architectural styles is seven different French departments plus four more, if you continue across Spain; enjoyment of natural beauty away from crowds; and very good food and drink, including duck, foie gras, and armagnac. If you are looking for an easygoing trip, flat country, bicycle paths, many fine restaurants, luxurious hotels, and nightlife, this trip is not for you.
When to go: The least chance of rain is between May and September, but if this is not possible, then go in April or October. In winter, the passes can be blocked by snow; and it snows frequently in the highlands. Mid-July and August have the driest weather, but afternoon temperatures can reach 100° F (37° C) in the middle part of the ride in enclosed low-altitude river valleys. An ideal time to ride the French Chemin is in late May or June. You will have less chance of hot or cold weather, and you will rarely have to reserve in advance, as the main tourist season will not have started. (Note: Since I first wrote this page in 2002, the number of Pilgrims has been increasing each year, so advance reservations may now be necessary. Call some lodgings to find out.) Nor will accommodations be filled by pilgrims who are planning to do the entire Chemin - Camino on foot, through both France and Spain, as they will have chosen to cross France in April and May, or in September and early October, to avoid the summer in Spain. Thus perhaps you can have the luxury of playing it by ear.
Certain years are designated as Holy Years (or Jubilee Years) for the St. Jacques pilgrimage, such as 2010 or 2021, when St. James Day (July 25) falls on a Sunday. True pilgrims completing the route in a holy year are granted by the Catholic Church a "plenary indulgence", and many, many more pilgrims (several times more) follow the St. Jacques Route in these years. Non-Catholic travellers ought to avoid the St. Jacques route during Holy Years.
Continuing to Spain and when to cycle there: This site provides detailed information only on the "Chemin" in France. Many cyclists will continue on into Spain. The additional biking distance will be the equal to that ridden in Franceabout 440 miles (738 kilometers), measuring from the Pyrenées pass near Roncesvalles. Although this site does not cover the Spanish Camino de Santiago, you will find references here to books and Internet sites that provide the necessary information to follow the standard Spanish biking route (in Spain there is a standard route).
If continuing in Spain, strongly consider avoiding July and August there. It will be quite hot, and the trail and accommodations will be overcrowded with Spanish tourists and teenagers. Many, many more persons walk the Spanish camino than the French chemin, partly because Santiago is the patron saint of Spain, and also because you end up at Compostella with a much shorter walk.
None the less, the author has talked to several people who did walk through Spain during July, and who had a wonderful experience. If it is not a jubilee year, and if you don't mind hot weather, and if you are planning to stay in hotels and are willing to reserve in advance, or to sleep on gymnasium floors, then crossing Spain in the summer is feasible.
Finding accommodation in Gites or campgrounds is very competitive (i.e., said to be almost impossible), but many nice, small hotels have available space. Avoid the "wave" of walkers that leaves Roncesvalles towards the beginning of the months of July and August (vacations usually correspond with months) and arrives at Compostella towards the end of the same month. As a cyclist, it is probably best to leave Roncesvalles a few days before the end of June or July. It is impossible to obtain reservations in Pamplona, even at many times the normal price, from July 6th to 14th, due to the running of the bulls, and you must circumnavigate the city. (Since the above was written the number of travellers has greatly increased, so it may now be best to avoid July and August.)
How to Bike It — Organize the trip yourself. One deluxe bike touring company provides trips that somewhat overlap with days 3, 4 and 5 of this two-week itinerary. A Canadian (Montreal) touring company, Quebec Voyages (www.velo.qu.ca) has begun providing a French lanquage Le Puy - St-Jean-Pied-de-Port trip over two weeks, but with some strange variations from the historical route and some other compromises. Several bike touring companies cover part or most of El Camino de Santiago in Spain.
I do strongly recommend that you organize your own trip, alone or with a very small group of friends, so that you gain the benefits of discovery, exploration, and contemplation that a "pilgrimage" provides. I believe these aspects will be lost in a commercial tour, and additionally you will probably miss some of the most interesting sites.
Many, many additional photos of the Saint
Jacques route may be seen in the detailed itinerary. Click on the