French Routes for Compostela Pilgrims
The Way of St. James is followed by thousands of pilgrims every year. For many, the route is through France. The route has existed for over 1,000 years.
Based on legend, St. James’s remains were taken over the water from Jerusalem to the northwest corner of Spain where he was buried at Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage takes believers to the cathedral where St. James was supposedly buried. It goes back to the 10th century. And, while pilgrim numbers decreased during wars, the trek continues today. Often times, the pilgrims start at the French-Spanish border walking, cycling or driving from many European countries including France.
There are four routes but the main ones leave from Paris or Vézelay.
These are the same routes used by pilgrims 1,000 years ago. They stop and worship at the great churches in towns like Conques, Toulouse, and Moissac. There are places all along the way where they can get shelter from the elements or stay overnight. Special signposts show the way. And, while it could be lonely, it is a time to remember and get in touch with your past. While the surroundings are often off the beaten track, there is beauty in many of the wild areas of France. There are maps, of course, and guidebooks to lead the way.
In Paris, one Compostel guide meets with potential pilgrims once a month at the Café St. Jacques (appropriately named). While you have your dinner, he’ll answer your questions. The restaurant on rue St. Jacques will tell you when to expect him. His guidebook is also very helpful. He makes the trip every year and has published a pilgrim’s guide.
One pilgrim from Montréal met him under strange circumstances. He sat at the side of the road depressed as someone had stolen his knapsack. With this young lady, they were able to rally some of the other pilgrims and recover what he needed to continue. Yes, women often travel alone.
From Paris the route goes through Orléans, Tours, Poitiers, Bordeaux and Dax. But you can start anywhere. Begin at your home whether it’s in France, Belgium, Germany or even Poland.
From Vézelay, further south and east, it goes through Bourges or Nevers to Limoges, Périgueux across the Dorgogne and on to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.
The Puy Route goes through Figeac and Cahors, two beautiful old towns on the Lot River. Part of the way is a footpath and you may require a Topoguide. There is also a spiritual guide put out by Abbey at Conques.
Two guides are published by The Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (French Federation of Hiking/Walking). That starts in Namur, Belgium and joins the Vézelay route. The Arles route runs parallel to the Pyrénées to avoid the mountains. It links Montpellier, Castres, Toulouse and Auch, then turns south toward Spain. It is flat crossing the area of the Camargue and Montpellier but rugged afterward.
Historically, in 1814 there was, so we are told, a field of stars (a postela) that showed the way to the saint’s tomb. On July 25th, the body was found. That day is now the Feast of Santiago. The final destination is in the Romanesque church built on that spot.
It is suggested that if you plan to do it all or in part, on foot, bicycle, on horseback or otherwise, you select the route carefully as there are varying degrees of difficulty. There may even be rivers or streams to cross and rare old bridges if you plan to cross the Pyrénées. Your guide will help you find the yellow route markers and the way. There are blue signs with a yellow scallop shell which is their symbol. But remember, when you get to the Spanish border you are still 800 kilometers from your final destination.
You might also get in touch with The Confraternity of Saint James. They will see that you are registered and, at the end of your travels, you will be eligible for a special certificate. The Compostela is a certificate given on completion. To earn one, you must have walked at least 100 kilometres or cycled at least 200. It can be secured at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago.
What you do require is a ‘passport’ or “Credencial”. It is needed for lodging at pilgrim site halts. They offer free of charge services or a nominal donation. The booklet you receive is stamped about 40 times. This becomes your colorful proof of the required distance for qualification.
There were times, like during the Black Plague, that pilgrims stopped using it. But now it has been declared a World Heritage Site, the route is in continued use. Santiago de Compostela itself was proclaimed the first European Cultural Itinerary by the Council of Europe in 1987 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
There are certain recommendations as far as packing before you go. Remember, you have to carry it all yourself. The hardest part is the walking. I suggest that you take the minimum. Take what you really need and as little as possible. I recommend good laced walking shoes, a water bottle, to be filled wherever possible and a sun hat. Sun glasses and a fold up raincoat may make it easier. In modern times we can rely on a good cell phone. You’ll feel better if you have one. For other suggestions ask someone who has done it. Wearing the sign of the scallop shell will tell people you are a pilgrim. It is a very satisfying thing to do, I am told but don’t take on more than your body can manage.
About Arnie Greenberg: Arnie Greenberg is a retired Montréal college Humanities professor who has written novels and texts, as well as plays about Picasso and one about Gertrude Stein and Hemingway, which was staged in Stuttgart Germany. He also worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, writing over 1,000 scripts, mostly for young people. Mr. Greenberg has dedicated this book to the late Dr. Robert Bartlett Haas, a long-time friend of Gertrude Stein and the author.
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