There were four main pilgrim routes from France to the shrine of St. Jacques (St. James in English) in Santiago de Compostela Spain in the Middle Ages, from Tours (which connected originally to Paris and the north from Boulogne, Tournai and the Low Countries), Vézelay, Arles, taking people from Italy, and the most important of all, from Le Puy-en-Velay which linked to the Rhône valley. By the mid 12th century when the first-ever guidebook appeared, the Pilgrim’s Guide, apparently written by one Aimery Picaud, the routes were well worn and well known. The three western routes converged at Ostabat and crossed the Pyrenees over the Ibaneta pass; pilgrims from Arles crossed the mountains at the Somport pass. They all joined up in Spain at Puente-la-Reina.
History of the Great Pilgrim Routes
Pilgrimages to Compostela grew in scale and popularity after Jerusalem was captured by the Caliph Omar in 638. The journey was hazardous enough; from the 7th century onwards there was little point in going there until the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries took back the Holy City. So the place which housed the tomb of the apostle St. James the Great (who had introduced Christianity to the Iberian peninsula around 800) became the goal for the whole of Europe.
In 951, Godescalc, Bishop of Le Puy in the Auvergne arrived at Santiago, recorded as one of the very first foreign pilgrims. After that, kings and princes, nobles and peasants, bishops and lowly priests made the journey.
The Golden Age of Pilgrimages
From the 11th to the 13th centuries, churches and chapels sprang up along the route as staging posts, and around them abbeys and monasteries to care for the pilgrims. Some of the churches are great buildings such as the cathedral at Amiens; others were built in a particular style to house the thousands of pilgrims and were known as ‘pilgrimage churches’, like Sainte-Foy at Conques and Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. Other early medieval constructions that survive today include specially built ‘pilgrim bridges’ like the bridge over the Borade river at Saint-Chely-d’Aubrac with the figure of a pilgrim carved on it, and one of the oldest medieval bridges in France, the Pont du Diable over the Herault at Aniane.
The pilgrims brought more than just religious fervor to the towns and villages along the routes. They became part of a vast economic and cultural renaissance, bringing wealth and different cultural ideas to remote regions.
The whole of the Santiago Route is now one of France's most popular UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Wooden Statues of Saint Jacques
You will see images of the saint in churches along the route, carrying a cockle-shell or scallop which comes from the coast around Finisterre in Brittany where he landed. He usually carries a large staff and a drinking gourd.
Walking the Pilgrim Routes
The Routes are very well organized, well marked and signposted and with good accommodation on offer all the way. Most of them follow the Sentiers de Grande Randonée, major walking routes with designated numbers, i.e. GR 655 etc.
Note that on French maps, the routes are marked by their Latin names.
The Way of Tours
The Way of Tours (Via Turonensis) runs along GR 655 which starts at the border with Belgium and goes to Paris via Compiègne. Originally starting in Paris, traditionally at tour Saint-Jacques, the route was used by pilgrims joining from the Netherlands, Paris, and England. Pilgrims from Caen, Mont-Saint-Michel, and Brittany joined at Tours, Poitiers, Saint-Jean d’Angely and Bordeaux where pilgrims came by sea from England.
From Paris to Tours
Today there are two ways from Paris to Tours. The western route goes via Chartres (GR 655 west) and Vendôme and the river Loir with its painted Romanesque churches.
The eastern route goes via Orléans (GR 655 east) and has churches like Clery Saint-Andre as well as the chateaux of Blois, Chaumont, and Amboise on the route.
The Route From Tours
From Tours in the western Loire Valley, the route goes south though Ste-Maure-de Touraine and Chatellerault to the charming ancient Roman town of Poitiers in Poitou-Charentes. Overlooking two rivers, it's worth stopping to see its various Romanesque churches and medieval buildings. Then it’s on south-west to St Jean d’Angély and Saintes, a lovely town that was once the capital of the province of Saintonge, with a Roman amphitheater and two Romanesque pilgrimage churches. If you're in Saintes in mid-July, try to catch the now famous classical music festival in mid-July in the Abbaye aux Dames and other churches.
The route goes on via Pons with its medieval pilgrim hospital, crosses the Gironde river by ferry at fortified Blaye, notable for the Augustin Abbey ruins, and continues to Bordeaux.
From here the way goes through Les Landes, the largest pine forest in Western Europe. It’s beautiful walking country dotted with Romanesque chapels though with a strange remote feel to it. The route goes past the major spa town of Dax and on to Sorde l’Abbaye on the river Adour that flows into the sea at Bayonne. Aimery Picaud describes meeting the ferryman with his tales of villainous Basques ‘savages’. The route at this stage was dangerously threatening (and they had come so far), so an abbey was founded for the protection for the poor pilgrims.
The route follows small roads to Ostabat and ends at St Jean Pied de Port.
Features of the Route
The route has many variations and is easy to walk or cycle at all times of the year. It has a higher percentage of Romanesque churches than any other route, and also takes in vineyards around Bordeaux.
The Way of Le Puy
The Way of Le Puy (Via Podensis) is the most popular and the best organized of the modern pilgrim routes, with the whole route marked with the scallop shell symbol. It starts in Le Puy-en-Velay, one of the undiscovered gems of this volcanic region.
From Le Puy, you walk over plains and through forests, past tiny chapels with their own black madonnas and small villages like St Pryvat d’Allier where nothing much happens. (But try to see the church here; it has good modern stained glass and a great view over the valley.) Then it’s a wonderful countryside hike over a high plateau to Saugues and its English Tower.
Here you move into the Lozère region, where the architecture changes and the red tiled rooves give way to black slate. The Aubrac hillsides are bleak uplands where the views stretch for miles and the villages sit squat in the windswept landscape. The route continues onto the Lot Valley, a gentler place where you reach Espalion with its remarkable views. On to charming Entraygues perched beside the river with an ancient château overlooking the wonderful bridge over the Truyère river.
Conques is one of the great stopping places on the pilgrims' route, both for medieval walkers and today's – a perfect medieval village perched on a hillside with winding streets and alleys and a great abbey church dominating the small village. From here you climb up the hillside from Figeac to Limogne-en-Quercy then through flat woodland trails through the Les Causses Park and past dolmens and ancient stone structures.
The route from Cahors to Moissac and Lectoure takes you along river valleys then over the Garonne on to the department of Le Gers and Armagnac brandy country with its rolling vineyards.
The countryside changes as the route makes its way past the medieval market town of Aire-sur-l’Adour and climbs into the Basque country and the foothills of the Pyrenees at Ostabat and St-Jean–Pied-de-Port.
Features of the Route
There are fantastic views on this route which does have some hill climbing involved. It goes through the Auvergne where the weather can be very changeable at any time of the year, so go prepared. It takes in the spectacular village of Conques, and some of the most beautiful villages of France, meandering river valleys and vineyards.
The route has been extended and you can start in Geneva. It’s 740 km (460 miles) from Le Puy-en-Velay to St-Jean.
The Way of Vezelay
The Way of Vézelay (the Via Lemovicensis) refers to both the Limousin which the route crosses and Limoges which was one of the most important pilgrimage stops along the route. It runs for 900 km (559) miles from Vézelay to Ostabat.
It was used by pilgrims from the north – the Scandinavians, and the east – the Poles and the Germans, and is sometimes referred to as the Polish route.
The official route follows the old historic Way, although the GR 654, also called the Sentier de Saint-Jacques – Voie de Vezelay, goes a slightly different route, avoiding busy main roads. The GR 654is for long-distance walkers and is a much longer route.
Two Different Starts
There are two different routes from Vézelay to the village of Gargilesse where they join up. One goes through La Charité-sur-Loire, Bourges, Déols and Chateauroux, and the other through Nevers, Saint-Amand-Montrond and La Châtre.
The one I describe here goes via Bourges.
The Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in Vézelay is one of the wonders of all the great French abbeys; an extraordinary space where the light filters through onto the warm stone-flagged floors and lights up the intricate sculptures around the columns of the nave.
From here, the trail winds through the center of Burgundy, through green fields and woodlands. Passing through Vary, Chateauneuf-Val-de-Bargis and La Charité where it crosses the eastern Loire river, you see the rich farming area that gave the Dukes of Burgundy such wealth and power. Past the Loire Valley vineyards, you arrive in Bourges, a city that is well worth a proper stopover. It has a magnificent gothic cathedral, a well-preserved medieval quarter that surrounds it and some lovely medieval buildings, including the Palais de Jacques-Coeur, the head office and dealing rooms of Jacques Coeur (1400-56), Charles VII’s finance minister.
The route then continues across the foothills of the Limousin to Limoges, famous for its fine china produced here, much of which is on display in the Fine Arts Museum. The next big city Perigueux is the capital of the Dordogne department. It has an eccentric cathedral, restored in the 19th century. but it's worth a visit for its Byzantine influence inside (it was originally modeled on St. Marks’s in Venice). The small town of Bazas has a delightful cathedral – a mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles with old houses and two old gateways. It was an important place for pilgrims, with a hospital and lodgings in the middle of the Bordeaux wine region.
The route winds through the wine area of Bordeaux and on to the huge pine forest of Les Landes. Mont de Marsan was an important pilgrimage stop, mentioned in documents of 1194. It has a stone fortified bridge from the 13th century, a fortified church, and a 13th-century tower. Today it’s best known for its mid-July Les Fetes Madeleine, when the Basque character comes to the fore with parades, flamenco and bullfighting.
Pilgrims made the hazardous crossing over the Adour river at Saint-Sever, noted for its abbey, old houses and ramparts and view over the riverside. The trail joins two other Camino de Santiago routes (from Tours and Le Puy-en-Velay) near Ostabat.
Features of the Route
It’s a culturally and historically rich route with great abbeys and cathedrals, from Vézelay to Bourges and Bazas, and Abbeys like Saint-Sever. Landscapes vary widely from the large plains of Burgundy to the Limousin, a place of forests and small rivers. It goes through the farming and wine-making region of Perigord and the Gironde, as well as the pine forests of Les Landes. It’s best to go in spring and the autumn. It’s a demanding route with many lonely paths where you’ll meet no fellow walkers.
The Way of Arles
The Way of Arles (Via Tolosana, referring to the Latin name of Toulouse which the route passes through), runs along much of GR 653 from the south of France and Italy. The route is 800 km (497 miles) long and runs from Arles to Oloron-Ste-Marie in the Pyrennean foothills before going on to Spain via the Somport pass.
The route starts in the old Mediterranean Roman city of Arles with its well preserved Roman Arena in the heart of the city and its artistic connections to Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. The route continues to skirt the Mediterranean, going via the great city of Montpellier then makes its way north-west up over the famous Pont du Diable to the medieval village of St-Guilhem-le-Désert and the glorious Gelone Abbey.
You’re now in the Hérault, climbing up to plateaus with panoramic views, passing the stalactite wonders of the Grotte de Clamouse and the St-Michel-de-Gramont monastery before reaching Lodève.
From here the route starts climbing up to the Haut-Languedoc massif and its Regional Natural Park with its forests and paths which make some of the route difficult to navigate. Then you’re in La-Salvetat-sur-Agout, a pretty mountain town between two lakes.
Castres is next to an attractive town with tanners’ quarters by the river and the Musée Goya, full of the painter’s pictures. Then the route goes onto the Gers region, the heart of Gascony. Turn south to reach the pretty Canal du Midi which takes you into the important city of Toulouse – both a fascinating city and with the not-to-be-missed Toulouse-Lautrec museum. But for pilgrims, it’s the Basilique Saint-Sernin, begun in 180 to cope with the pilgrims, that is the high point here.
Now the route goes directly west through plains and forests, passing the European Museum of Bell Ringing and Clocks in L'Isle-Jourdain. Then you’re in Auch, its dramatic cathedral towering over the town.
The route goes around that most English of French towns Pau (where there is croquet and cricket), and down to Oloron-Sainte-Marie. From here it’s a short distance to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.
Features of the Route
The route has some very varied landscapes and goes through some magnificent countryside: the Grands-Causses and Haut-Languedoc natural parks, the Gers region and more. En route there’s the Canal du Midi, St-Sernin and Toulouse. Some of the terrains makes challenging walking.