There were very few pilgrims on the route when I started the Voie du Piémont from Lourdes to Saint-Jean Pied–de-Port on August 29, 2015. In the leger at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes I could see that there was one pilgrim registering about every 3 days so I was destined to be solo a good part of the way. I highly suggest having hiking maps for the GR 78 available at the local bookstore at Espace Culturel E.Leclerc (9-11 place Champ Commun à Lourdes off Rue Lafitte). The maps I purchased were #02 Pays Basque Est and #03 Béarn at 1:50,000 scale. The most reliable markers to follow are the customary GR red and white stripes marking the route and X for the wrong way.
In general, I found open restaurants and shops sparse and hard to find so food planning would be critical with breakfast often a rare find. Potable water (eau potable) was available in most villages. If there isn’t a public fountain in the town square, there is usually a tap with fresh water in most cemeteries – a handy tip from a French pilgrim. My Spanish is good but I knew very little usable French at the start, my two years of high school language study to some extent forgotten. I carried a small pocket guide that was somewhat helpful though I did develop some skills as a semi-professional mime by the time I entered Spain. They are as likely to speak Spanish as English in this region.
Day 1: Lourdes to Asson 24 km
Most pilgrims I later spoke with got somewhat lost leaving Lourdes so I would consult the recently opened pilgrim office in town for suggestions and current conditions at the Centre d’information Jacquaire (16 Boulevard de la Grotte). I saw my first GR 78 marker around 1 km from town and first scallop shell at 8 km near Saint-Pé. At the Sanctuary of Lourdes, follow Rue de la Forêt west. Take the right fork at the Petit Couvent de L’Immaculee Conception and stay along the river on Chemin du Bois de Lourdes then cross the bridge to Saint-Pé-de-Bigorre. It’s easy to get turned around at the Bois de Lourdes near Camping la Forêt but staying along the river should keep you on track.
Follow the path over rolling hills to Lestelle-Bétharram and continue to Our Lady of Betharram Sanctuary. You will see the shrine you are heading towards up on the hill as you enter the village. At the sanctuary, follow Calvarie (gravel road) to the left and over the hill past the Stations of the Cross. There are good lunch options in Lestelle-Betharram. If you continue past the church to the main street, there are a variety of cafes and hotels a short jaunt off route.
The Gîte Paroissial au Presbytère Asson was austere but clean. I found it easily but there was just a phone number posted outside to call for access and I did not have a phone. I rang the bell of the house around the corner and it was the residence of the hostelier who was officious but accommodating. I think she was a bit prickly because I had not called as instructed, I did not try to explain. I was the only one staying there. After stamping my credential, she gestured towards a bar/restaurant over near the highway though once I arrived they had run out of bread and not serving. I later found a baguette vending machine in town but that was empty so my dinner on the first night out would be a handful of almonds. Going forward, I would walk with some bread, cheese and canned food. I found the terrine de canard (can of duck) was a good choice though I’m still hoping that it wasn’t actually cat food.
Asson is very small and consists of a modern housing development built around a tiny old village, there were no open stores or shops. It was Saturday afternoon and I hardly saw a soul. This was probably my least favorite stop on the way. I later felt that I should have stopped in Lestelle-Betharram then walked a longer day to Arudy.
Day 2: Asson to Arudy 18 km
In the village of Bruges, I was blessed to find an open bar for breakfast and a boulangerie on a Sunday morning and I was famished. It was there I was first recognized as a pilgrim by locals. At the boulangerie, the small crowd waiting parted like the Red Sea to let me order first as they whispered to each other – I could just make out “pelerin de St Jacques de Compostelle”. Clearly they had not seen many pilgrims. As a secular walker, I was shy early on as identifying myself as a pilgrim though that would soon pass.
It was easy flat walking today with a mix of farm roads and open pastures though markers were still unreliable. Watch for a turnoff to Sainte-Colome in the village of Mifaget opposite the church towards Lys. I missed the turn and continued along a busy road through Louvie-Juzon adding unintentional mileage on a very hot day. The GR 78 skirts the village so you will have to turn west if stopping at Arudy. There was a rumor of a cobblestone shortcut between villages I missed. I would ask a local if possible. Otherwise, the Chemin d’Arruets in Sainte-Colome meanders it’s way there over the Gave d’Ossau River for 3 km.
Arudy is a beautiful village with a few cafes. Here I stayed at the Paroisse St Germain (2 Rue Baulong) hosted by father Pierre Sallenave. The refuge is his ramshackle but charming home where pilgrims help prepare the dinner meal. Father Sallenave has walked a good part of the Camino over the years and has many stories. In the end, this was one of the most enjoyable stops on the way.
Day 3: Arudy to Oloron-Sainte-Marie 25 km
Wayfinding was challenging through Bescat and some of today’s route due to overgrowth on trails and small rural roads. I kept my eye on the direction and markers and did not get off track for more than a few minutes this day. I was still not seeing many people at this point at all. There were good trails and thick forest leading into Oloron.
I had to poke around and ask directions to find my way in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, the largest city on the route between Lourdes and Pamplona. The markers were difficult to follow in the city, the GR 78 and GR 653 cross paths here so watch carefully.
I stayed at the Gîte communal Relais du Bastet (12 Place de la Résistance), a modern, exceptionally clean and well-equipped facility with a good staff. The city has anything you might need including the Lindt chocolate factory if you have time, the city smells of warm chocolate when the breeze is just right. Sports Store E.Leclerc (Boulevard des Pyrénées) is a big sporting goods store a 2 km walk from the Gîte where I bought a headlamp and new rubber tips for my trekking poles.
I was elated to finally meet other pilgrims at the Gîte though they were all traveling south on the Way of Arles (GR 653) to the Aragonese Way so we were just crossing paths. I think there were 6 pilgrims there that night. One of them, Diana from Paris, I would meet again 400 km and several weeks later outside of Burgos at Rabé de las Calzadas where we would have dinner.
Day 4: Oloron-Sainte-Marie to L’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise 24 km
There were no open cafes or shops after leaving Oloron today. The route leaving the city is a flat walk through seemingly endless cornfields until you cross the D 936 after Préchacq-Josbaig where you enter the forest again. The village of Aren has a nice picnic spot with a park among medieval architecture.
Charlie’s hidden pearl from this leg: “ After walking through chestnut and oak forests for hours the narrow path trailed downhill and emerged behind the chapel of L’Hopital-Saint-Blaise. Walk into the church to find a table with information about the history and a phone number to the hostelier or even a volunteer, who will walk you to the small hostel. The quiet serenity of that place at dawn had a profound impact on me: ‘This place is where you should go to die peacefully!’ Thousands upon thousands of Pilgrims died here at one of the very first hospitals in the world.”
The Gîte des pélerins at Hôpital-SB is stark but clean with snack vending machines. I would meet several French pilgrims there, two solo and an older couple, all walking from Lourdes or beyond. I was grateful to meet Clemanse who spoke very good English and Gilles who knew just where to find ripe figs along the way. We would all leapfrog the rest of the way to SJPDP. The town is tiny but did have two operating restaurants due to the draw of the church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I do not recall any shops there. The one open restaurant was a bit stuffy but not too expensive and had good food.
Day 5: L’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise to Mauléon-Licharre 17 km
We would survive on vending machine snacks this day as there were no open cafes or shops this morning. Today’s walk was pleasant on farm roads and occasionally muddy trails. Markers were relatively easy to follow.
After entering the village, continue on Rue Pasteur to the large plaza where there is a tourist information office. If staying at the Gîte Communal (7 rue des Frères Barenne) take a right at city hall on Rue Arnaud de Maytie and continue past the church where the street bends left to Rue des Freres Barenne. The gîte was roomy and clean with a full kitchen and washing machine. The four French pilgrims and I were joined by Charlie from Sweden here. This was my first experience sharing a big pilgrim dinner and it would be one of the best thanks to Charlie’s skill in the kitchen and good company. After little access the last couple of days, it suddenly felt like Christmas in this bustling village with an excess of restaurants, cafes and shops. We did our best not to attract too much attention at the grocery as we filled our baskets like giddy children.
Day 6: Mauléon-Licharre to Saint-Just-Ibarre 30 km
A recent landslide would make this the longest day out causing a re-route that was not on the map. The 24 km hike would be more like 30 km today. Early along today’s walk, the village of Ordiarp would offer a good coffee stop and was home to a beautiful rustic Gîte and medieval church. A long uphill climb on very muddy trails would be rewarded with beautiful idyllic landscapes, the route complicated by mountains of fresh cow patties and herds of curious cattle crowding the way.
The small village of Saint-Just-Ibarre is an idyllic stop in the final approach to the Camino Frances. It had one open bar where we would encounter a small group of tourists from Canada. We stayed at the Gîte Pèlerin Etchezaharreta where the hostelier prepared a hearty meal.
Day 7: Saint-Just-Ibarre to Saint-Jean Pied–de-Port 20 k
It was pleasant walking today though not the most interesting to Saint-Jean Pied–de-Port, mostly along quiet farm roads with a few busier stretches crossing sleepy, modern villages. The route meanders late in the day so watch for markers as you enter the valley.
I don’t know if it was just that the markers had been more consistent or that my sense of direction (and confidence) had improved but wayfinding had become easier in the approach to the Camino Frances. It was also certainly helpful to have other pilgrims to consort with since arriving in L’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise.
I wasn’t quite ready though for the crush of people I would face when I crossed the Porte Saint Jacques into the village. Arriving in SJPDP on a Saturday, I would realize, was a mistake. I would have the same issue later arriving in Santiago on a Sunday in the middle of a large road race. It’s not just that there was an excess of pilgrims in the village but also a large number of regional tourists out for a weekend getaway. It was a lot to take in after a ramble though the French countryside. That said, I’m immensely thankful for the lessons I learned and the people I met on this leg of the way.
After a rest day here, my week’s walk in France showed as I shot over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles. Here I earned the nickname “el Cohete” (the Rocket) from Spanish pilgrims though I do not think of myself as a fast hiker. It was the first day out for most pilgrims and I did pay for it with very sore legs for a couple of days. I would walk the remainder of the Camino Frances, a piece of the Primitivo and continue to Finisterre with gratitude and the fondest of memories from the Voie du Piémont.
Following are couple of helpful links with GR maps and some elevation charts: