Even if you walk the trail using a tour company, like we did the first year, you still need to figure out how to get to the trailhead. This involves trains, buses and taxis and can be intimidating and confusing.
It’s too bad we’re not experts in train and bus travel in France. There are probably a LOT of people who can give you better advice than we can. What we can do is tell you what we did that apparently worked, and what we did that apparently didn’t. Here are our tips:
Tip #1: go directly through the Voyages SNCF website. This isn’t as straightforward as you would expect, since for some reason whenever you google French train information in the US, you get websites like raileurope.com and eurorailways.com. These sites try to sell you rail passes, or even just single tickets that are overpriced and limited in availability. I figured out that those sites don’t even show all available routes after many frustrating attempts to buy tickets through them. The Voyages SCNF website has an English option, but even if you do it in French as a non-French speaker, you should be able to muddle through just fine. Schedules and place names are easy to understand. There is even an Voyages SCNF iPhone app.
Tip #2. Buy single tickets, not passes, if you only need to get to and from the trail. We bought a family pass the first year because by some inscrutable formula, it was supposed to be cheaper than just buying tickets to and from the trail. I believe we did this through raileurope.com or a similar site. When we went to pick up our tickets in Paris with the pass, we had to pay more. I still don’t know what happened or what we did wrong. On subsequent trips we bought single tickets, to and from our start and stop cities (or as close as possible) via the Voyages SCNF website. They were straightforward and reasonably priced.
Tip #3. Don’t be afraid to pick up your tix at the train station. When you buy through the Voyages SCNF website, you have the option of picking them up at an automated machine, at a counter, or having them sent to you. I chose the counter because there were some strange issues with having tickets sent to the US (more on that later) and I’d read that the automated machines don’t always accept US credit cards. I have no idea if that is true or outdated, but my reasoning is that if something goes wrong with your credit card (you have to have the one you paid for the tickets with in order to retrieve them), it is better to deal with a person right off the bat, instead of standing in line and dealing with one after the machine fails.
UPDATE: when purchasing tickets for 2014, I was happy to discover that there is now an e-ticket option. I thought this meant we wouldn’t have to wait in line to pick up our tickets in Toulouse. Unfortunately, the Voyages SCNF website only allowed me to purchase e-tickets for Agen-Toulouse, and we’ll have to pick up our Toulouse-Cahors tickets in the station anyway. Also, I ran into credit card problems again when I purchased them, but this time I was able to just pay with another card, and not have to use our cousin in Canada (see below).
Tip #4. If you have a mysterious problem buying a ticket online, use your Canadian cousin. The second year we went, the first time we bought tickets directly from Voyages SCNF, we couldn’t buy our return tickets to Lyons from Rodez. We would get through the whole process online, and then at payment time, it would reject my credit card, even though I had already bought the tickets to Aumont Aubrac with the same card. We tried Molly’s card and that didn’t work either. I decided to try the next day and to try having them delivered instead of doing pick-up, because counter pick up wasn’t available in Rodez, according to the web site. That’s when I noticed that the USA wasn’t listed among the countries on earth where the SNF delivered tickets. It dawned on me that for some reason, our ticket purchasing options for Rodez were being denied because I had an American credit card. There was no obvious reason for this- we had already bought tickets to Aumont Aubrac, and nothing on the site said TICKETS FROM RODEZ NOT AVAILABLE TO CUSTOMERS IN THE US, yet that was the situation. We called our cousin in Montreal and she bought the tickets for us with no problem whatsoever, and forwarded them to my house.
Tip #5. Do it in advance. I think they won’t sell tickets more than 3 months prior to your travel date, but I am in favor of planning all of this as far advance as possible. Those Rodez tickets, for example, had to be mailed to me from Canada. I am certain that for regular, confident users of French trains and buses, leaving things to the last minute is fine. When you know a system well, you know how to deal with last minute problems. But when navigating public transport in a foreign country, I firmly believe that planning ahead is best.
Tip #6. Keep track of everything. Especially if you plan ahead, you run the risk of forgetting details when the time comes to travel. Keep all emails and print out the confirmations to be armed with them when you get there. Especially if you have a language barrier, paper with names and schedules are useful to show people.
Tip #7. Look carefully at your ticket to know whether you are taking a bus or a train. When you purchase on the SCNF website, some routes include bus travel and that might not be obvious to the new user. Molly and I didn’t know that we had bus tickets from Aumont the first time we went, and we waited for a long time in the train station until I asked the lady there to confirm that we were alright. It turned out we were supposed to be waiting across the street. I still think she should have approached us and made sure without us asking- we were the only passengers there. I think the ticket says “Autocar” when it’s a bus. Just ask if you’re not sure.
Tip #8. Don’t be too afraid of short connections. The trains are very punctual, and usually it’s fairly easy to figure out where you have to go to catch the next train. We were worried a couple of times and never ran into any problems. Also, you can see all available later departures on the Voyages SCNF website to put your mind at ease.
Tip #9. Email the hotels you are staying at your first and last nights for advice on how to get to the trail and back to the train. They know all about local buses and taxi services and may be willing to taxi you themselves in a mutually beneficial arrangement (that’s what we did in Conques). Keep it simple and short to overcome language barriers.
Tip #10. Consider renting a car. When we had to return from Cahors to Toulouse, we tried to find a train route to Rocomadour for our last day. It is fairly close to Cahors, and it seemed wasteful to not go see it before heading back to Toulouse. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a route that didn’t zig zag all over creation and take hours. So we googled car rental in Cahors, France and rented a small stick shift for about $60.00 for two days. It was cheaper or about the same as two train tickets and we had a ride to the Toulouse airport. We picked it up in Cahors and used the GPS to drive to Rocamadour that day and St. Cirq La Popie the next morning. There was free overnight parking at Rocamadour, and free parking at St. Cirq. The second to last day, we dropped it off easy-peasy at the Toulouse airport, where the signs to our rental company were easy to spot. A swarm of garage workers just took the car and the keys and took out our luggage. The Toulouse airport has a 5 euro shuttle from the airport to downtown, and you can actually walk from the airport to a few hotels. You will probably have to drive a stick shift and “gazole” means “diesel”, which I didn’t know. Thank God for my iPhone.
Tip # 11. If you drive, remember that the traffic circles are your friends. Go around and around until you figure out which way to go.
Conques, Day 1
Lou Peyrou, Conques, France
Molly and I loved this bed and breakfast, and we also stayed there in 2012. Sally and Chris, the owners, are British and very kind and helpful. The rooms are beautiful and comfortable, and dinner and breakfast were delicious.
Decazeville, Day 2
It was a perfectly decent hotel. The restaurant was a little formal for us, but the food was delicious (we had salad and dessert, and wine). The man who ran the place was very helpful and attentive, the rooms were clean and quiet, and the hotel is located near bars and a pharmacy. You can also spot the sign on the building as you are walking down into town, so it’s easy to find.
Figeac, Day 3
Le Pont du Pin
I liked this hotel. It was quiet and clean. The only drawback was our rooms opened out into a stairway/ walkway going up the hill behind the hotel, so even though we were on the second floor, we couldn’t leave our windows open all night or when we were at dinner. It’s a few minutes’ walking distance from the historic downtown where there are many bars and restaurants. Breakfast was serve yourself coffee, bread, yogurt, little packets of nutella, etc.
Cajarc, Day 4
La Peyrade is right at the foot of the ridge that the trail descends down into Cajarc, and right on the edge of the town. The rooms were huge and had their own kitchenettes, dining tables and porches. We didn’t eat there, but everyone else staying there seemed to and the dining area was bustling at dinner and at breakfast. The people who run it seemed to be a family- this isn’t a chain hotel. We enjoyed staying there.
Limogne-en-Quercy, Day 5
We loved La Hulotte. It’s funny how I have always said I prefer impersonal hotels to bed and breakfasts because they are easier, but my favorite places on the Camino have been bed and breakfasts. La Hulotte is actually about a half and hour walk before you get to Limogne, just a few steps off the trail. It’s a family owned and run bed and breakfast in an old house that has been updated into a very comfortable and beautiful place to stay. We shared a bathroom in a wing of the house that is accessed by its own stairway off of the kitchen. There was another bedroom off the kitchen being used by a Norwegian couple who were cooking their own meals, and that bedroom must have its own bathroom. We had dinner prepared for us by the owners and they served it to us in the kitchen on a huge wooden table while the Norwegians ate on the other end and everyone chatted. It was all very comfortable and delicious. My room was in the attic and after the flies went to sleep I opened the roof window (see picture above) and listened to the night bugs. Breakfast was all laid out for us the next morning and was delicious.
Cahors, Day 6
Hotel Le Valentre
This hotel had some sort of two tiered hotel situation going on, and we were in the lower, cheaper tier. It was fine- not super charming, but comfortable, quiet, and very close to the bridge, the train station, and our car rental office. It was also only 20 minutes on foot to the historical center. WiFi was weak in the rooms, but decent in the lobby. We did not eat there. The two people working in reception were very helpful.
We really hiked 26 miles that day, because we walked another 30 minutes to get to our hotel after we arrived in Cahors.
This whole day is a blur. I remember the beginning, buying pain au chocolate and cashews and apples in a store in Limogne. We spotted another pilgrim who was kind of smelly, to be honest, and had red hair and a beard. He looked like an American hipster but his backpack was Quechua, which seems to be really popular among the French, so my money is on French. Soon after, I twisted my ankle and fell right outside Limogne. It’s a problem I have had over the years. My ankle just gives out and I wipe out, spectacularly. Usually it means a skinned knee and a sore ankle the next day. I am surprised it’s only happened once on our Camino hikes, since it happens more when I’m tired.
I remember going through Bach, about 12 kilometers away from Limogne. It was the only real town with a store and a restaurant we saw all day. We didn’t stop there, and we only ate cashews and fruit all day until Cahors. We passed a nice older couple of pilgrims having a picnic right after Bach. After that, all day long we would see sign posts for places that never really materialized as towns, just little townships. Around Mas de Vers, we bought a Coke from a woman at her house. We had seen her signs for a while, and we really needed to eat or drink something that would give us a boost, since we were out of snacks at that point. We had to go and knock on her door, and it seemed awkward, but sure enough she opened the door and sold us two cans of Coke. While we were there, another couple came up, wondering themselves how to get drinks. They couldn’t believe we were going to Cahors that same day. This was already about 17 miles from Limogne, and they were going to their Gite d’Etape, called Poudally, which was right down the road. Their hiking was done, and we had a day’s worth still ahead of us. Soon after, we spotted a sign saying Cahors was 15 kilometers away, or about 9 miles, and we high-fived each other, which seems funny now.
I kind of thought that walking that many miles was just a matter of moving your feet, and that after a certain point you don’t really get much more tired, but that isn’t really true. First of all, we both got hiker’s rash. This was an ugly mottled red/purple rash on our lower legs. I got it first and thought it was from brushing up against something I was allergic to, but then Molly started getting it, and by the time we got to Cahors, my legs especially were almost totally purple on the lower part of my calves. I named it “Hiker’s Rash” and when I googled the name, sure enough images of people’s legs with a rashes like ours popped up. Everyone had a story of hiking for hours in very hot weather (it was the upper 80’s). I wasn’t scared, and when Molly called her physician husband he said it was probably some kind of contact dermatitis caused by our own sweat and hair follicles, or something, I can’t remember, exactly. It actually took a couple of days to totally fade after we stopped hiking.
We came close to running into trouble when we were near Le Pech, by what I think was the N-20 highway. We both just kind of agreed to sit down in a shady, sandy spot under a tree. It felt like the desert, and Molly said something about being on the set of a Western. Later on, we both admitted that we were a little scared at that time. Neither of us had much water left and we both were dizzy, but we didn’t really discuss it. Mentally, I was trying to figure out what I would say in French if I had to resort to flagging down one of the cars on that highway. I figured if one of us fainted anywhere within the next few kilometers, the other one could double back to the road for help. Our guide-book said that in a few kilometers there was a water point near a sports field, and I was wondering if we’d make it that far. I looked at it over and over in the next few minutes, trying to reassure myself we could get there in time. After we sat in the shade for a spell, we got up and continued walking. It really felt like a miracle when we passed a house with a water tap outside their gate with a sign welcoming pilgrims a few minutes later. I mean, what kind people. They had beautiful, happy and healthy looking dogs there too, so whoever they are, they are decent human beings. It is a long way between water points on that part of the GR-65, and I am sure we are not the only people they have saved. We wrote a thank you note to them and left it under a rock over the tap. Molly said that she has read that the Trail will give you what you need, and it was true right then.
Right after that, we climbed a hill and spotted a woman carrying groceries. There was a misunderstanding when she offered to rent us a room and thought we had accepted. I felt bad, but reassured that we would have had a place to stay if we had fainted from dehydration after all.
We got closer and closer to Cahors and it got harder and harder to walk. When we were five kilometers away, a pretty mother with a toddler with chocolate all over her face just about insisted on re-filling out water bottles for us. She kept saying “it’s 5 kilometers to Cahors!” which seemed funny, considering how far we had come, but she was right, more water was in order. It was still very hot out. Right before you get to Cahors, you walk through a scrubby area above the town where it would be very difficult to see the stripes if it were dark. It was getting close to dusk, so we were a little nervous. Cahors is one of those valley cities that you can be right next to without seeing it until you are almost there. When we finally got to the road that descended down into town from Mont Saint-Georges, we spotted a fashionable old lady out walking back to her cute little sports car, after beholding Cahors from the ridge. She really looked like a rich and stylish Parisian woman from a movie.
The road from Limogne to Cahors may be flat, but that road down to town was steep and every step in our swollen, mottled feet was painful. It puts a lot of pressure on your toes. The entry into Cahors was just a little bit sketchy- not like it was a dangerous town, it’s just not a beautiful section that welcomes you in. We had a beer at the very first bar we saw. I emailed Lionel at La Hulotte, our B&B from the previous night, saying we had made it. His email in response said “It is few who can go on the road from Limogne to Cahors in one day. Respect”. After the beer, we oriented ourselves via iPhone and dragged ourselves to our un-charming yet perfectly decent hotel called Hotel Le Valentre, over by the Valentre Bridge.
We recovered a little in the hotel, bathed and changed and had sundaes and beer for dinner at a restaurant called Brasserie Le Chantilly. We went to bed early, because we were in no condition to walk around.
The next day, we left our luggage in reception and explored. We had reserved a car to drive to Rocamadour later on, but we had all morning to walk around. Cahors has the beautiful old Valentre Bridge we will cross when we continue down the trail in the future.
As we walked through old Cahors we were surprised to see the family of hikers (see previous Section 3 posts to learn about this annoying group of superior people). They were all geared up and walking out of town with their hiking poles, little kids, teens and all. I think we both screamed, because we had smugly assumed that we were a day ahead of everyone, especially a family with young children. I assume they had a longer hike two days earlier and a shorter one to Cahors the day before than we had had, but still- they really were always ahead of us, no matter what we did. We had coffee and pain au chocolate at a cafe that had “A Pedir Su Mano” by Juan Luis Guerra playing on the speakers. It was a very popular song I used to hear a lot when I lived in Ecuador in the early nineties, and hearing it decades later in France made me happy, even though I had it on my iPhone all along. Some pics of Cahors:
Soon it was time to go get our backpacks and walk to the car rental office, which was only about a block from the hotel. I had been hoping to practice driving a stick shift in a parking lot, but the car was parked right in front of the office and I just had to get in and go, hoping for muscle memory to come back from when I drove a manual transmission 13 years earlier. It was like another trail miracle. I started the car, put it into gear, and we sailed out of town, accidentally getting on the road we wanted, to Rocamadour.
We were the only ones at the Hotel La Peyrade not to have ordered the regular breakfast with juice and bread and all the fixings. The owner had asked us three times the day before, and we answered “just coffee” each time. We did this because we finally had developed a best practice for breakfast on the trail: coffee at the hotel, sandwich from a boulangerie, if you can find one. We had spotted one the day before in town, so after strictly having coffee only in a room full of people eating their full breakfasts, we suited up and headed back over to the center of Cajarc.
I finally bought an extra bottle of water in the little convenience shop, and at the boulangerie we bought our sandwiches. It really is a cheaper and more substantial breakfast. Our book warned us we’d be going through La Causse, a limestone plateau, and that there would be nowhere to buy food or get water for a while, so we were prepared. The warning turned out not to really be true: the day before, water had been way more of an issue.
When you leave Cajarc, you have to walk for a little bit along a curvy road with no shoulder, and when cars whipped around the bend, Molly and I would climb onto a little wall. I kept thinking that if anyone happened to be texting at the wrong moment, we’d be killed. Soon after we went up a little lane and past some vacation homes and some farms and up through the town of Gaillac and into La Causse.
It was there we noticed roller dung beetles for the first time.
Soon we came upon a stand where a man was selling pie, pop, and saffron to pilgrims. There were three other pilgrims there, two men and a woman with day packs. We had a drink and rested before setting out again.
Our bed and breakfast, La Hulotte, was actually a little before Limogne, and we were surprised at how quickly we came up on it, after three days of such long, hard hikes. As with many bed and breakfasts, we were a little uncertain about how to approach it, because it feels like you are just walking up to a stranger’s house and knocking on the door. When we did this a beautiful woman let us in and showed us to our rooms. They were in a separate wing of the house on the second and third floor (I got the attic). We shared a bathroom. It was a very charming place and very comfortable. Someone paid a lot of attention to the details. Later we would meet the woman’s adorable daughters and her husband, who gave us advice and tried to convince us not to hike 26 miles the next day. There was a Norwegian couple there as well.
Before dinner, we walked the last kilometers to Limogne and explored there a little bit and had a beer at a bar. It’s a cute little town and we spotted vacationers biking with their children. There was a bar there called Route 66, but it was closed. Molly got her credential stamped at the tourism office, but as usual, I had left mine back in my room.
Back in La Hulotte, we had a delicious dinner with a strong wine. We were told that the little girls’ grandfather was the King of French Fries, and they really were delicious fries. There were profiteroles for dessert.
After dinner is when Molly and I started looking at a map and realized that our next stop in Lalbenque wasn’t really on the trail. Since then, I have seen that there is a variant that goes there, but we didn’t have reservations there anyway- no matter what, we were going to have to find a taxi and go off-stripe. That is when we hatched a foolish plan: hike from La Hulotte all the way to Cahors. That is 25 miles. Lionel of La Hulotte told us this wasn’t possible, but I asked him if it was flat and when he said yes, I knew we could do it. Anyway, we reasoned, we would have to call a taxi either to get to Cahors or to get to our hotel from Lalbenque, so we might as well get to Cahors. We already had a car rental reserved for the same afternoon we had originally planned on arriving there in order to drive to Rocomadour the same day, so all we had to do was cancel rezzies in the other hotel and make new ones in Cahors, walk 25 miles, Bob’s your uncle.
It was still hot when we retired, buzzed, to our rooms. I waited until the sun went down to open my window so the flies would be asleep. The only noise was night bugs.
When we went down to breakfast, we found everything set up for us at the big kitchen table, and we served ourselves coffee and bread and discovered belatedly that the little self service coffee station had had chocolates for us the whole time. When we paid Lionel he wished us good luck, and gave us the name of a taxi service. We told him if he heard of two dead Americans in the trail that day, it would be us. I definitely recommend La Hulotte.