Created in 2017, the Via Garona covers 105 miles from Toulouse to Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. This long distance hiking trail follows the course of the Garonne. It has shaped a landscape of remarkable natural and patrimonial wealth. Let’s walk together along this ancient pilgrimage route.
The Via Garona traces the route of the pilgrims of the Middle Ages. The Garonne was a key route to the Pyrenean Piedmont. Long before the A64 highway, the river played this role. Originating on the Spanish side of the river, the Garonne draws a multitude of landscapes as it crosses the Haute-Garonne. This department was designed around the curves of its river. Along the river, you will cross cities, villages, fields, forests to finally approach the Pyrenees.
The Pilgrimage Routes to Santiago de Compostela in France have been registered with UNESCO since 1998. These medieval routes have a universal cultural value. This hike is punctuated by 71 religious buildings, 6 of which are listed as world heritage sites. But the GR 861 route would not exist without Jean-Marc Souchon. In 2012, during a walk, this hiker-lecturer discovered new landscapes. After some research, he found the existence of this pilgrimage route between Toulouse and Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. To reveal this way of Compostelle, he went back on the field to do some surveys and inventories. With the help of pilgrimage associations and elected officials, this enthusiast succeeded in reviving the Via Garona.
The path begins at the foot of the Saint-Sernin basilica. A jewel of Romanesque art, Claude Nougaro described it as a “coral flower that the sun waters” in one of his songs. In the heart of the pedestrian square, the basilica shines. The terraces of the opposite tea rooms are packed. We push its door before leaving it for another masterpiece, the Capitol square. This emblem of the city is also the center of the municipal power since the 12th century. By looking at it, we understand why its construction lasted almost two hundred years. Alternating bricks and limestone, marble columns, 3 rows of windows, and many other elements, the building is impressive! The floor of the square is decorated with an enormous Occitan cross made by Raymond Moretti.
When we reach Daurade square, the conversation with the Garonne begins. The Pont-Neuf brings us to the other side. On the left bank the Hôtel-Dieu Saint-Jacques was built. It welcomed pilgrims until the 18th century. To its left, another building steals the show on postcards. All the inhabitants of Toulouse know the copper dome of its chapel. It is the Hospital de la Grave. We go along the Garonne to leave the city and join the countryside.
To the south of the Toulouse urban area the Ariège meets the Garonne. Together, they create a fabulous regional nature reserve, the Parc du Confluent. The nature reserve covers 600 hectares over a distance of 9 miles. The river has shaped a mosaic of natural habitats ranging from the wettest to the driest. Thousands of animal and plant species have been identified. A ferry at Portet-sur-Garonne enables to reach the reserve.
We leave the Garonne Valley to reach the hillsides. From the heights of Muret, the Garonne gleams below us. In the distance we can see the Pyrenees. That is, when they want to show up! Another element, the Autan wind, is more often present. It blows on the large expanses of the fields. It is appreciable to go down near the river and its big trees. The intense green vegetation contrasts with the hillsides. In the villages, the facades of the houses alternate between brick and Garonne pebbles. The Chapel of Saint-Amans is a remarkable viewpoint to admire the Garonne and the Pyrenees.
Noé, Marquevave, Carbonne, we are in the Volvestre. The city of Carbonne is located at the confluence of the Garonne and the Arize. We cross the river to reach Rieux-Volvestre. This small peaceful village was once the administrative and religious capital of the Volvestre. The ancient district of Rieux is nestled in a meander of the Arize. So close to the highway, it is amazing to still be able to admire the half-timbered houses. With its magnificent octagonal bell tower, the Nativity of Mary cathedral testifies to the episcopal wealth of the past. Before its population exceeded 2000 inhabitants, Rieux was labeled as one of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France”. We leave it to reach the Garonne cliffs. Further down towards Cazères, the Garonne widens to form a lake. The water reservoirs have softened the river. This village was once fortified. There are still some ruins of the walls and the gate located in Palaminy.
Once at Martres-Tolosane, we are at the doors of Comminges. Six workshops perpetuate its earthenware art craft. Nearby, in 1826, the Roman villa of Chiragan was discovered. Excavations have unearthed a rich series of marble statues. As the landscape changes before our eyes, it becomes more severe. We leave the Garonne plain made of hills and valleys.
After crossing the town of Boussens, we arrive at Mancioux. At the exit of the village, a path leads to the castle of Montpezat. This renaissance-style castle controlled the passage through the Garonne Valley. Beside it, a gap in the groves reveals the Pyrenees. To reach the site of the Abbey of Bonnefont, the path moves away from the Garonne. The abbey was founded in 1136 on the lands of the Montpezat family. The place is both cut off from the world and very open. The site offers animations around heritage, art and agroecology. It has a medieval garden of 7,500 sq². Bruno the gardener will tell you how the monks cultivated it.
Going down to Saint-Gaudens, we follow the Garonne river again. In the 13th century, the city was the economic capital of the county of Comminges. The collegiate church of Saint-Gaudens is inspired by the basilica of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. At the bottom of the collegiate church, a square offers a clear view of the Pyrenees.
We cross the Garonne twice more at the Valentine and Labroquère bridges. After crossing the second one, we are in the department of Hautes-Pyrénées. Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges is less than 1 hour away. This last stage makes us pass in front of the basilica of Saint-Just-de-Valcabrère. Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges rises in the background. Moreover, it is thanks to the bishop Bertrand de l’Isle that the city has regained its influence. The city owes him the reconstruction of its cathedral. When he died, he was venerated as a saint in the Pyrenees. Enter the cathedral, you will not be disappointed by its organ!
The Via Garona is a hiking trail accessible to all. You can walk it in one go or in several sections, all year round. This itinerary will lead you in the footsteps of the travelers of yesteryear through the multiple landscapes of the Garonne. And if you decide to continue the Way of St. James, from here you can join the Way of the Piedmonts.