A Woman’s Solo Hike Through France

Oh, the Via Podiensis. The two of us have a special bond. Mainly because she was my first long-distance hike with close to no multi-day hiking experience. Looking back, I’m still puzzled what gave me the freaking urge to want to spend my semester break wandering alone through France. Alone. For a month. My decision left my friends and family stunned too and I don’t even want to know how many were expecting me to come home within the first week. I was neither very spiritual (which would at least explain why I had picked one of the four historic pilgrimage routes through France) nor had I really been much of an outdoorsy person or gone on solo vacation before. Whatever drove me, I was thrilled to get out there and do something that sounded so out of the ordinary for me. Let me take you with mee!

Starting in the gorgeous town of Le-Puy-en-Velay, the route leads through the southern Massif Central to St. Jean Pied de Port on the edge of the French Pyrenees, which marks the end of the French half of the pilgrimage. If you haven’t had enough by then, this is also the place to hop on the of the famous Camino Frances, which leads all the way to Santiago de Compostela.

Length:751 km (466 mi)
Finish:St. Jean-Pied-de-Port
Season:April to September
I decided to start in… March!

Safety first!

My preparations for the hike consisted mainly of absorbing all the information from the guide book, which I had purchased in advance. I didn’t specifically train for the hike, but I had a solid fitness level that I counted on. In addition to my equipment (which I would change quite a bit today) I ordered a French pilgrim’s pass – the credencial – online and planned how to get to Le-Puy. Although I marked potential auberges in my guide book, I didn’t make a precise timetable for the whole hike. I booked beds in hostels for the first two nights online, which – in retrospect – turned out to be unnecessary, since I was one of the first hikers of the season to be on the trail with a start at the end of March. Nevertheless, it was nice to have some kind of safety for the first days. If I have learned one thing on my following hikes it is: Don’t overplan. Or better, have a plan, but be ready to throw it overboard!

“All alone?! As a woman?! Aren’t you afraid?!1!?!” Oh, one of my absolute favorite topics. I doubt men have to justify themselves to that question as often as women do. To be clear, there wasn’t a single situation on the Via Podiensis where I was worried for my safety.

Terrain-wise, the Via Podiensis is an easy trail. There are occasional steep climbs, but the trail generally follows a well laid path without any significant technical challenges. The challenge here lays more in the distance and the self-discipline one has to bring up in order to motivate oneself to keep walking every day for a month straight (and there will be days where you just wanna sleep in).

The trail is generally well marked and getting lost is an accomplishment in itself (of course I did get lost). But! In theory you wouldn’t even need a guide book but could just follow the red-and-white markings that are painted on trees and rocks. You’ll want to get some sort of guide though since it doesn’t only tell you if you’re following the right marks but also provides you with valuable information on towns, gîtes and opening hours of local stores. I went old-school with my guide book, but if you don’t want to carry the extra weight then you can find several excellent apps with offline GPS data out there, one of them is AllTrails.

Getting to Le-Puy-en-Valey

The Via Podiensis starts in the picturesque town of Le-Puy-en-Valey in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. An arrival by train is uncomplicated and recommended. My journey to the trail was a little more unconventional – I’m always down for cheap alternative travel methods, even if this means that I may have to sacrifice comfort. This time I was particularly lucky and found a ride from Germany to Lyon with a lovely couple via Blablacar. For just 30 euros, I travelled from Western Germany all the way to Lyon, chats and laughs included. Depending on what part of the world you are travelling from, a flight to Paris or Lyon might be your best shot. Train connections from Paris as well as Lyon via St.-Etienne to Le-Puy are frequent and affordable. The train ticket from Lyon costs about 20 Euro for the 3-hour journey.

I arrived at the train station of Le-Puy in the evening and I gotta admit, when I got off the train, I did feel a bit queasy in the stomach. BECAUSE I WAS ABOUT TO GO HIKING FOR A WHOLE MONTH. Exciting! I spent that night at a French couchsurfer’s place who was nice enough to host me in her cozy apartment. Hélene and her warm welcome to France made it hard not to instantly fall in love with the town and the view of the cathedral out of her loft (!) window.

A short note on couchsurfing

Spending the night on a stranger’s couch is surely not for everyone and does not work in every small town. But I can only recommend the platform that allows travelers from all over the world to connect with locals. While hiking the trail I spent one more night at a local couchsurfer’s place. Laurent even hitchhiked to the hostel I was staying at in the morning so we got to spend the whole day together hiking towards Figeac. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on both these experiences.

That being said, there is no lack of accommodations in Le-Puy-en-Valey. Beside the pilgrim hostel Auberge de Jeunesse Centre Pierre Cardinal, which is the go-to place for many pilgrims, there are plenty of private B&B’s and hotels that promise a peaceful night before the start. On the morning of the hike I recommend to check out the pilgrim service at the cathedral. Even if you are not religious, the mass is a good opportunity to take in the building’s architecture and get a first glimpse of your fellow hikers. As a sweet gift from the community, you will not only get a stamp in your credencial, but also a small talisman with the embossing of the municipality for your walk.

What we came for

With time, the trail itself becomes more of a stroll. Even when your not trained, you’ll get used to walking long hours every day fairly quick. If you don’t push yourself too hard – and there’s really no point in doing so on this trail – you’ll get into a routine of waking up early, stopping at bakeries for breakfast, enjoying lunch in the sun and getting afternoon coffee, before stumbeling down the trail to your daily destination. Oh boy, the French way of living really is hard to resist, even when you’re commited to a pilgrimage. And that’s exactely how it should be! I loved passing through sleepy villages with century-old buildings and taking heaps of breaks to (try to) talk to locals. Plus, it’s such a rewarding feeling (and a great memory!) to collect a stamp in your credencial everytime you pass a historic point, church or check in a gîte all while breathing in a whole baguette per day.

Where to sleep ‘n eat

The Via Podiensis runs daily through historic small villages where you can stock up on fresh baguettes, pastries and other local treats. Here is an overview of all the towns through which the trail passes. Water fountains are accessible in every town and clearly marked as eau potable (drinking water) and eau non-potable (no good for you), so you can leave your water treatment at home. Considering you’re passing through tiny villages you’ll want to always carry some cash on you since many small shops don’t accept credit cards. The Via Podiensis is certainly not the right fit for people who are looking for a solitary wilderness adventure, but it is a very special cultural experience for sure.

The vast majority of hikers choose to sleep in pilgrims’ hostels, so-called gîtes d’étape, which are either privately or communally run. The price usually varies between 15-25 Euros per night including a breakfast (bread and jam). The communal gîtes are generally are a bit cheaper, but also much more spartan. Private hostels usually offer a pilgrim’s menu for an additional 10-15 euros to the overnight stay. The meals are often prepared with quality local ingredients and shared with the hosts and other guests. The sleep arrangement is often a game of chance: I have had all sleeping arrangements from single rooms to 30-bed dorms for the same price. Hiking off season, making a reservation 1-2 days ahead worked fine for me. The situation might be different when hiking later in the season.

A bed is a bed is a bed is a bed.

As I was travelling on a tight budget of 25-30 Euros per day, I was mostly self-sufficient. I hiked the trail as a vegetarian and didn’t have any finding tasty food to give me enough energy for the day. The gîtes often provide a communal kitchen and fresh food is accessible daily at small shops. Pro tip: Have a look at the kitchen cabinets before shopping for dinner. There are often some treasures (PASTA – what more could you want?) left behind by other hikers. Food sharing and saving money makes cooking twice as much fun!

Less is more

Because the infrastructure on the Via Podiensis is so good, large backpacks and heavy equipment are simply overkill. Food and water only have to be carried for the daily section. Due to cheap accommodation, tent and mattress stay at home anyway for the majority of the hikers (a light summer sleeping bag or liner is recommended though, since most gîtes only have very thin sheets). Together with a change of clothes the equipment should fit comfortably into a 30-40 L backpack.

HA! I, too, was guilty of carrying a good ol’ 60 L Deuter pack.

The hiking community

Because I started my hike quite early in the season, there were relatively few hikers on the trail. The French pilgrim routes cannot be compared in their fluctuation with the Spanish Camino de Santiago. You will find a much calmer hiking experience in France, but you are still never on your own. There was perhaps a small bubble of maybe 10 – mostly French – other hikers around me. I actually wished for a little more company now and then. The number of people starting in Le-Puy increases from April on each week though. A friend of mine who started 2 weeks after me in the middle of April told me that there were already a lot more and also way more international pilgrims.

My first encounter with trail magic! Some wonderful humans left drinks and sweets for hungry hikers in their frontyard. You’ll often find a stamp for your credential alongside the way as well.

In general, as with any trip abroad: The more you speak the local language, the more likely you are to have meaningful conversations and connect with the locals. In my experience, this is especially true for France. Particularly in the rural areas and among the older generation it is not a given that everyone speaks English. At the beginning of my hike I jotted down a few sentences and common phrases e.g. for the reservation of accommodation and got back into French with the app Duolingo. A few chunks of French are already enough to break the ice. I got along quite well with my rusty school French, thanks to the patience of my conversation partners. All this said – even without knowledge of the local language you will have a wonderful experience on the Via Podiensis. The French are extremely hospitable and there’ll always be a way to express your needs and wishes.

Would she hike it again?

One of the last mornings on trail

On the Via Podiensis nature shows its whole range from rugged volcanic areas to wildly romantic high plateaus and lovely river valleys. Especially the first half of the trail was absolutely gorgeous. After that, the terrain gets remarkably flatter and opens up wide views. As much as I loved the hiking part, I missed being social and goof around with other hikers. Having hiked several long trails after the Via Podiensis the hiking communities were always the cherry on top, which made my adventures extra special. Most of the hikers around me on the Via Podiensis were (very lovely) Frenchmen in their 60’s and 70’s with who it was hard to connect with, especially due to language barriers. I had some beautiful interactions with people for sure, but if you’re looking to have a more social hiking experience, I would recommend to start a little later in the season. Would I hike the trail again? Right now, probably not. There are just too many other hikes on my list and at this point I’m looking for hikes a bit more physically challenging. Would I recommend the hike to others? Heck yeah! The diverse landscape, the rich history, the French culture and the yummy food – go get it! Looking back at the pictures really brought back some sweet sweet memories. As my first ever solo long-distance hike the Via Podiensis will always hold a special place in my tiny heart.