History, ecology, spirituality – whatever your interest, there’s bound to be a walk to suit you. Mick Webb charts the pilgrims’ progress through this varied region
What kind of themes?
Social history, military history, architecture, ecology: the themes of the footpaths in the Midi-Pyrénées are as varied as the countryside they cross. France’s largest region offers the hiker three pilgrimage routes, a path across the Pyrénées in the footsteps of the persecuted Cathars, a trek through the deep gorges cut by the river Aveyron or a circuit on a plateau to explore the legacy of the Knights Templar. For gentle, hilly countryside there’s the Heart of Gascony Tour, while the National Park of the Pyrénées provides more demanding mountain hikes.
Of specifically ecological interest are eight new nature trails through protected areas of the Lot département. These waymarked hikes vary in length down from a week or more to short strolls such as the 4km circuit of the Saut watermill, one of the nature trails outside the village of Rocamadour; visitors’ guides are available from the Lot’s Departmental Tourist Committee (00 33 5 65 35 07 09).
At the other end of the scale, for total immersion in medieval history and Pyrenean landscapes, you might consider the whole of the Chemin des Bonshommes in Ariège. This challenging hike through Cathar territory starts in the town of Foix, takes you briefly across the border into Spain and takes about 12 days to complete.
Tell me about the Cathars
Catharism was a heretical religious doctrine which became popular in southern France in the 12th century, attracting the wrath of the French crown and the Catholic Church. The bonshommes or “good men”, after whom the path is named were the Cathars’ spiritual leaders and were relentlessly pursued by the Inquisition. Their escape route through mountainous Ariège to the safety of Spain can now be followed at lesser risk by today’s hikers. The first three stages on the French side provide the most vivid introduction to Catharism and the easiest walking.
Starting at the town of Foix, the GR107 takes you across hills wooded with beech to the village of Montségur, whose ruined castle was the scene of a heroic but ultimately tragic attempt by the Cathars to withstand a siege. Beyond Montségur, the path enters the narrow and forbidding Gorges du Frau, before the countryside opens out into Alpine meadows against a backdrop of Pyrenean peaks. For a description of the whole journey to Berguedà see the website chemindesbons hommes.com.
A route for a reason?
Take a pilgrimage. Or three. So popular did the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela prove that it crossed the Midi-Pyrénées on three separate “chemins”, en route for Spain. The Chemin du Puy, the Chemin d’Arles and the Chemin du Piémont Pyrénéen can all be walked today and all show ample evidence of the golden age of the pilgrimage, with their chapels, hospitals or simple roadside crosses, although the most recognisable symbol of the pilgrimage is the ubiquitous scallop shell.
The path from Le Puy (GR65) enters the Midi-Pyrénées across the windswept plateau of the Aubrac before making its way in stages between Conques, Figeac and Moissac, some of France’s most attractive towns and villages.
The oldest of the pilgrimage routes, the Chemin d’Arles (GR653), runs across the Mediterranean landscapes in the southern part of the region, calling at Castres, Toulouse and Auch. It’s joined at Oloron-Sainte-Marie by a variant, the Piémont Pyrenéen path, which leads the walker through the Pyrenean foothills of Ariège, Haute Garonne and Hautes-Pyrénées. (The first section of the route is described, in English, on the website, ariege.com/cheminstjacques.) The GR65 is covered by topo-guides 698, 652 and 653, available from French Ramblers’ Association: ffrandonnee.fr; another useful website is chemins-compostelle.com).
Try Larzac plateau, south of Millau. During the 12th century the Orders of the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers took over vast swathes of the plateau, where sheep farming on the grasslands provided income for their military and religious activities in the Holy Land. Their farms, villages, churches and fortifications are the focal points of two circular hikes, one of six days over 110km on the GR71D, another of four days (82km) on the GR71C. They start from Millau and La Couvertoirade respectively, the latter fully deserving its place among France’s most beautiful villages. Also not to be missed is the Commandery at Sainte-Eulalie, which was the Orders’ centre of operations. For shorter walks (5km to 10 km), rando-fiches (walking cards), are available for €1.50 at tourist offices along the route. (For a website in English, see conservatoire-larzac.fr)
About 200km from the Causses, as the buzzard flies, the Heart of Gascony walk explores a very different kind of countryside: waves of gentle hills, woods and fields of sunflowers. Not that deeds of knightly derring-do are absent as this is Musketeers’ country. The city of Auch, which hosts a fine statue of D’Artagnan is also the start and end point for a circular ramble. At 165km long, it has been designed to be walked in six days, with stops at Castéra-Verduzan, Condom, La Romieu, Lectoure and Montestruc. The most striking buildings are the cathedral at La Romieu and the spectacular Château de Lavardens. This, like the previous circuit is suitable for mountain-biking and horse-riding (website: gers-rando.com; topo-guide D032, le Gers à Pied). To avoid having to book each night’s accommodation separately, it’s worth looking at the package created by the local tourist authorities. Beginning and ending at Castéra-Verduzan, it comprises six days’ walking and five nights’ half-board in two-star hotels and chambres d’hôte at prices from €350 per person.More details at gers-tourisme.com.
I prefer dramatic landscapes
Vast horizons and dramatic valleys characterize this seven day hike on two long distance footpaths: GR36 and GR46. The main focus is on the deep and sinuous Gorges of the Aveyron but impressive in a very different way are the stretches of the walk that cross the unique grassy causses. Along the way are ancient fortified towns (bastides), with tales to tell of the Hundred Years War. The best views of the gorges can be enjoyed on the stretch of the path between Najac and Monteils. The topo-guide to use is the GR 36-46 (Tour des Gorges de L’Aveyron; tourisme82.com).
How about some serious mountain walking?
Head for the National Park of the Pyrénées, where the car-park at Pont d’Espagne beyond the spa town of Cauterets is the starting point for a number of fine walks. The easiest one leads to turquoise Lac de Gaube and unrivalled views of the Vignemale Massif. More demanding and a lot less busy in summer is the two-and-a-half-hour trail up the lovely valley of Marcadau to the Refuge Wallon with the chance of spotting elegant izards, cousins of the chamois. For a walk which takes in several high lakes and great views of the (sadly, shrinking) Glacier d’Ossoue, take the road to the restaurant de la Fruitière rather than the Pont d’Espagne and follow the Vallée du Lutour up to the Col de Gentianes.
At the eastern end of the National Park is the Néouvielle Reserve. Among its rugged walks there is an easy two-hour ramble which links the gorgeous lakes of Aubert, Aumar and Oredon, set in high meadows. Start at the car park of the Refuge d’Oredon, beyond Saint-Lary-Soulan (website: tourisme-hautes-pyrenees.com).
What will I eat?
In the Gascony corner of the Midi-Pyrénées, a good meal will probably include pâté and a dish of preserved goose or duck, the best known of which is magret de canard. On the high plateau of Aubrac, a speciality to look out for is aligot (puréed potatoes, Laguiole tome cheese, garlic and cream), and you must try Roquefort in its local setting.
Toulouse’s favourite is that most substantial of substantial dishes, cassoulet, while in the mountains, there is a soup of vegetables and often ham, whose unappetising name, garbure, belies its flavour. Among the wines worth sampling are Madiran, Fronton, Gaillac, Cahors and Saint-Mont while the fiery brandy from the Gers – Armagnac will help your dinner go down.
SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS
So how do you enjoy a good walk with young children in tow? One way is to let the donkey take the strain, as well as provide entertaining distraction. There’s a week-long circuit starting at the beautiful village of Bruniquel, near Montauban, and continuing through the forest of Grésigne and then down the valley of the river Vère. Overnights are at chambres d’hôte which will look after you and your donkey (contact Loisirs Accueil Tarn-et-Garonne on 00 33 5 63 21 79 61).
Alternatively, you can meander through the valleys of the rivers Lot and Célé in the regional Park of the Causses du Quercy. The nearest city is Cahors. More details from Loisirs Accueil Lot (00 33 5 65 53 20 90; reservation-lot.com). They can also advise you on the option of hiring a horse-drawn caravan for a trip across the Causse of Gramat.
A rather different challenge is to provide children with the right degree of energy-absorbing activity. The sport of Accrobranches involves platforms and ladders and zipwires that take the youngsters (and parents) whizzing through the branches on harnesses. (‘Go Ape’ offers the same experience in the UK.) Try this at Montech, near Montauban (00 33 5 63 64 08 08; agrip-aventure.com); at Pavie, just south of Auch (le Vert en l’Air; 00 33 5 62 05 26 78) and just outside Cahors (Loisirs Accueil Lot: 00 33 5 65 53 20 90).
Fun for all the family is a 21st-century variation on the old theme of the treasure hunt, called Géocache. You roam the countryside, moving from one clue to the next, using a GPS. Géocache can be sampled in the village of Aguessac, about 10km north of Millau. It’s run by the Maison des Accompagnateurs (00 33 5 65 61 24 33; maison-des-accompagnateurs.fr)
in The Independent