(Published October 2018, last updated April 2023)
On the 750-odd-kilometre walk along the Chemin de Saint-Jacques you’ll pass dozens, perhaps hundreds, of churches, chapels and cathedrals. But if you call in to only one on your way from Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, make it Chapelle Saint-Nicolas in Harambeltz.
Most walkers pass through the tiny hamlet of Harambeltz with barely a sideways glance. If it’s approaching midday, you might consider taking advantage of the shade provided by the covered porch of the rustic church to rest your feet and enjoy a picnic lunch.
And yet, as I thought about how I would structure my suggested itinerary along this section of the GR 65, an overnight stop in Harambeltz was the first thing I locked in. Everything else was made to work around it.
Why is it so special?
First impressions are likely to be of a small farming community, much like the 200 or so you have passed along the first 700 kilometres of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques. Just beyond the last house is a church—dedicated to Saint-Nicolas—and, let’s face it, you’ve passed a good many of those also!
From the outside, the building is an odd mixture of stonework and patched stucco. Most of the current church dates from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although stones around the base of the building are thought to be much older—remnants of the original church built in the ninth or tenth century.
In the seventeenth century, the sacristy was added on the eastern wall, but 300 years later, the building was in much need of repair.
In 2001, the church was classified as an Historic Monument. Five years later, the local villagers formed an association—Les Amis d’Harambeltz—dedicated to preserving the building. Much-needed grants from local and regional governments added to funds provided by the villagers and, in June 2008, restoration work began.
By December 2010, the project was complete and the church was reopened to the public shortly afterwards.
At the entrance to the church, a few tables and chairs set out under a covered porch provide walkers with shelter from the heat or rain—an ideal spot to stop for lunch if you are not staying the night.
Pinned to the walls are several photos showing the history of the village, the progress of the restoration work and explanations of the tympanum and sculptures inside the chapel. The tableaus tell us there was once an infirmary attached to the church, probably as long ago as the eleventh century. (A painting of the church by Odilon Redon (1840—1916) which hangs in the Chicago Institute of Art shows the infirmary.)
Around this time (the eleventh century), farming communities played an important role in providing assistance and care to poor pilgrims. They formed into groups, known as Donats, and were subject to vows to the religious community of chastity, poverty and obedience to an elected Prior.
In 1784, Louis XVI relieved the Donats of their religious vows and a short time later, during the French Revolution in 1789, the church and infirmary were confiscated by the state and put up for sale. In 1795, the church and infirmary were bought by the owners of the four farmhouses (the Etcheverry, Etcheto, Salla and Borda families), and have been owned by their descendants since that day.
Inside the church is a feast for the eyes. Faux marble walls are festooned with carvings, paintings and statues in shades of orange, apricot, blue and gold. It’s hard to know where to look first, so take your time and linger—soaking up the atmosphere and exploring all the details.
I first visited Chapelle Saint-Nicolas in 2011, at the suggestion of Marie Josée, my host at Maison Ziberoa in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. When we arrived, the church doors were open and we were welcomed inside by one of the villagers who offered a guided tour (unfortunately, my French was quite dismal at the time).
Since 2019, the Friends of Harambeltz website advises that the church will only be open for groups of ten or more visitors who have made prior arrangements. Entry is by donation and proceeds fund the continued maintenance of the church.
Given that you are unlikely to be walking in a group of ten, I recommend that you contact the community via the website and ask if it is possible to be allowed access to the church on the day you will be passing through. If access is not possible, you’ll find a glimpse of the interior on the Etchetoa website.
In July 2022, I booked a room at Etchetoa, the only gîte in the village, aware that a visit inside the church was unlikely to eventuate. Late in the afternoon, a large group of Boy Scouts arrived and pitched their tents around the church grounds. You can imagine my delight when, later that evening, our host Marie announced that doors to the church were open and we were welcome to call in! I will keep my fingers crossed that such good luck awaits you also.
Chapelle de Soyarza
If you arrive in Harambeltz via the variante that passes through Uhart-Mixe (as the majority of walkers do), you’ll miss another, less well-known gem along this section of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques. Instead of turning left towards Harambeltz when the variante reaches the GR 65, turn right and follow the GR 65 back towards Stèle de Gibraltar.
After fifteen minutes of gentle uphill walking, you’ll arrive at Chapelle de Soyarza. The chapel is small but the views are magnificent and well worth the extra time required to visit.
Which long-distance walk in France visits Harambeltz and the Chapelle de Soyarza?
Where is Harambeltz, France? Find it on Google maps
Harambeltz is located 714.6 kilometres (446.6 miles) along the traditional Chemin de Saint-Jacques path.
My preferred route follows the variante from Figeac through the Célé valley which increases the distance to 735.5 kilometres (459.7 miles)—a forty-one day walk from the starting point of Le Puy-en-Velay and one day from the finishing point of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Read more to learn all you need to know about both routes.
Click through to find my suggested itinerary for all five stages of the walk
If you prefer to set your own agenda, I share the steps I take to plan my itinerary on any long-distance walk (using the Chemin de Stevenson as a case study)
Accommodation in Harambeltz
The gîte in Harambeltz has been beautifully restored and reopened in April 2021 under the care of Marie, a former pilgrim and Camino walker. You’ll find all information, including tariffs, contact and booking details at:
Etchetoa (three rooms, 12 people)
If Etchetoa is fully booked, I recommend walking a further four kilometres (2.5 miles) along the trail to the village of Ostabat-Asme where you’ll find accommodation at:
Gîte Gaineko Etxea (19 people)
Gîte Aire-Ona (four rooms, 12 people)
Ferme Arlania (five rooms, eight people)
Ferme Karricondoa (three rooms, eight people)
Maison Olli Pean (two rooms, four people)
Where to eat in Harambeltz
In a shady corner in front of Gîte Etchetoa, Marie offers walkers a selection of hot and cold drinks and freshly baked treats. Payment is by donation.
Evening meals prepared using local produce are available for those staying in the gîte but guests are also welcome to prepare their own meals.
Purchase the 2023 editions of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques (PDF) guidebooks
Purchase five guidebooks covering Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port