Le Chemin de la Liberté:
WWII escape route to Spain
This is not a hike for the faint-hearted. Inaugurated in 1994 as an official way-marked walk, the path is unique in that it commemorates one of the several secret escape routes over the central Pyrenees into northern Spain during the Second World War. A route taken not only by hundreds of Frenchmen and Jews fleeing from their German oppressors, but also by many R.A.F. and American airmen who had either crash-landed or parachuted to safety after being shot down over Nazi-occupied Europe.
Several well-organised escape lines were in operation throughout the war (the Comete Line, the Pat O'Leary Line and the Marie Claire Line to name but three), and in each case the procedure was the same. Evading air crew were passed from link to link in the chain by a succession of local "helpers" who clothed, fed and hid them, usually at great personal risk to themselves. Having reached the mountains, the men were then hidden in secret collecting areas and formed into groups ready for the final night ascent to the Spanish border.
Although at first the main evasion route used by the Pat O'Leary Line was centred on the Mediterranean coast at Marseilles, and the Comete Line concentrated on the Atlantic coast near Bayonne, many other evaders helped by the O'Leary network were filtered down through central France to Agen and Toulouse, then on to the central Pyrenees and the starting point of Le Chemin de la Liberté in Saint Girons in Ariège. Ahead lay a high mountain route into Spain that had been carefully chosen to avoid all official checkpoints and any likely contact with German patrols.
Official statistics tell us that between the years 1940 and 1944, there were 33,000 successful escapes by Frenchmen along the entire length of the Pyrenean chain. Of these, 782 escaped over the mountain peaks of the Ariège, the high point being in June 1943, when there were 113 successful evasions along or close to Le Chemin de la Liberté.
As the war progressed, several other escape trails were established near Saint Girons, each one known only to its particular guide or passeur. Neighboring towns and villages such as Foix, Tarascon, Aulus-les-Bains, Massat, Castillon, Seix and Seintein, all had a network of invisible mountain routes leading upwards to the Spanish frontier.
But at the beginning of 1943, due to increased German surveillance and often betrayal by Frenchmen who worked for the feared and hated Vichy-run paramilitary force known as La Milice, ambushes along many of these trails became more and more common. In all, more than a hundred passeurs were arrested and deported or shot out of hand as they tried to flee across the mountain slopes.
However, even during the years of high surveillance, the Saint Girons-Esterri escape route via the soaring massif of Mont Valier stayed operational and remained so until the end of the war.
Thanks to the success of Le Chemin de la Liberté, plans are now well under way to re-open at least three other long-forgotten escape routes as official way-marked walks.
Scott Goodall has published an 85-page, detailed guide to le Chemin de la Liberté, packed with historical notes as well as practical information for walking the trail from Saint Girons into Spain.
The Freedom Trail can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk