La Chemin de la Liberté- a tough walk to freedom

Every year a group of hikers from all over the world meet up in the lovely town of Saint Girons, the capital of the Couserans region of the Ariège, in order to hike over the Pyrenees into Spain.  But this is no gentle ramble; it is four days of serious hiking and tough conditions; this year it was the heat that caused problems, with temperatures reaching 37 degrees but fog, rain and snow are not unknown.

The group, most of whom do not know each other, meet at the vieux pont in the centre of Saint Girons, loaded with heavy backpacks. This is a challenge even for the fittest but it is, nevertheless, a walk in the park compared to the experience of the many hundreds of men and women who took this route during the Second World War. And this is why most of the group are here; many had relations who escaped the Nazis by using this route and they have come to commemorate the bravery of these soldiers and resistance fighters and of the local, mountain people who led them safely along the route and provided them with shelter and food. 

There were a number of escape routes through France during World War Two but the Comete Line, the Pat O’Leary Line and the Marie Claire Line were the most famous. One of the O’Leary networks went through central France to Agen & Toulouse then to the central Pyrenees to the starting point of “Le Chemin de la Liberté” in St Girons. The high mountain route into Spain was carefully chosen as it avoided all official checkpoints. Between 1940 & 1944, there were 33,000 successful escapes along the entire length of the Pyrenean chain and 782 escaped over the mountain peaks of the Ariège. During the war several escape trails were established near St Girons and other towns and villages surrounding it like Foix, Tarascon, Aulus-Les-Bains, Massat, Castillon, Seix & Sentein all had invisible mountain routes towards the Spanish frontier.

One of the most famous English escapees was the World War resistance fighter Nancy Wake who worked for the Special Operations Executive and was forced to flee from the Gestapo in 1943 along Le Chemin de la Liberté. Many had no food, completely unsuitable clothing and had to survive terrible weather conditions and heavy snow along the route. Most would never have survived without the help and bravery of the local Ariègeois.

By the beginning of 1943 German surveillance had increased often due to the betrayal by Frenchmen who worked for the feared Vichy-run paramilitary force “La Milice” and there were many ambushes along the trails. Despite this increased surveillance, the St Girons-Esterri escape route via Mont Valier remained operational until the end of the war.

Hence, each year, a guide leads a group along the trail to commemorate those who made it and those who did not. What a great and very appropriate way to remember such brave, determined and enterprising people.

The text on this post along the route says:

“Claustre J-Marc, 1943, 14 ans berger, je montais au Mt Ceint pour surveiller les patrouilles allemandes pour aider les passeurs vers le pic des trois seigneurs.

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