Saint James's ways, how to use them

Saint James's ways, how to use them

Inspired pilgrims or keen hikers in increasing numbers walk along the major French routes of this pilgrimage which leads to Santiago de Compostela.

Listed on the
UNESCO world heritage register and as a European Cultural Route, these pilgrim routes are popular for their spiritual meaning and their exceptional collection of historical sites.

So here is a Practical Guide to join in with the pilgrims, known as "Jacquets" in France, and since 2010 is a Jacobean Holy (or Jubilee) Year, there will be many more attractions along the way.

This pilgrimage on foot over hundreds of kilometres has become much more popular and is now one of the most important in the 21st century. The aim is of course to reach a holy site in Spain, but the four historic, spiritual and symbolic routes wind through many areas in France, already rich in important Catholic shrines.

A full, very demanding journey (for example 1,520 km and 70 for the route between Puy-en-Velay and Santiago de Compostela) would involve several tens of thousands of hardened hikers each year. But even more numerous are those who walk the few (beautiful) stages and come back year after year to enjoy a state of mind, well-preserved countryside and a host of historic sites and monuments.

Four historical routes in France

These long-distance hiking trails are:
(NB: total distances of the roads in France)
- the Via Turonensis (885 km), which starts from Tours (there are variations from the Mont-Saint-Michel and Paris)
- the Via Lemovicensis, which starts from Vezelay (800 km)
- the Via Tolosona, which leaves from Arles (525 km)
- the Via Podiensis, which leaves from Puy-en-Velay (730 km) and is the most popular.

Extensions are being developed (from Namur in Belgium, Geneva in Switzerland and Rome in Italy). Secondary routes (the road through the foothills of the Pyrenees for the Arles route and the Route des Anglais (English Route) for the Voie de Tours) are also popular.

Three of the main routes join at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Basque Country), to cross the Pyrenees and the border at the Roncevaux Pass, the highest point of the routes, at an altitude of only 1,057m. The Via Tolonosa runs through the Somport Pass (1632m), in Bearn.
Beyond that, the main route is known as the "Camino Francès" and leads to Galicia, via Pampelune.

The Via Podiensis, or the GR 65

The Puy-en-Velay route is a favourite with hikers and now corresponds to the marked GR 65 hiking trail. Its popularity comes from the collection of remarkable edifices and sites, crossing Cantal, Aveyron, Périgord, Gers and the Basque country in particular. Its main stages take in the abbey in Conques, the medieval town of Figeac, the city of Cahors and the shrine at Rocamadour, etc.
The other routes also have centres of interest (Romanesque churches in Poitou and Saintonge…) but the itineraries are not always well maintained and often include passages along main roads.

Following a few stages of a Saint James Way unaccompanied (walking some 5 hours a day and covering an average of 20 km, with no technical difficulties) is easily organised (from April to October), as there are plenty of documents and maps and dedicated accommodation is also plentiful (a network of gîtes, B&Bs and hotels). Just be sure to bring suitable personal equipment and be able to carry a full rucksack.

Specialised "hiking and trekking" organisers offer "freedom pack" options (pack liberté): logistics are taken care of (accommodation bookings, luggage transfer to lighten your rucksack, etc.), and supply a logbook. They also provide accompanied walks, in small friendly groups.

Essential landmarks

A little history...
- James the Elder, one of the apostles, went to spread the gospel in the Iberian Peninsula before going back to Jerusalem in 44 AD, where he became one of the first Christian martyrs. According to legend, his tomb was found in Galicia (northwest Spain), thanks to a bright star, in the 9th century, in a place which was then named "field of the star" (campus stellae). The place immediately became a Catholic shrine and a major pilgrimage destination.

- The Codex Calixtinius is a 12th century Latin manuscript describing the route to Santiago de Compostela and can therefore be considered as the first pilgrim's Guide in history.

– One of the first foreigners to take the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was Godescalc, Bishop of Puy-en-Velay. He left his city in 951, and the route was thenceforth known as the Via Podiensis.

- The years 2004, 2010 and 2021 are known as Holy or Jubilee years, because the feast of Saint James (25 July) falls on a Sunday. This happens in a cycle, every 6, 5 or 11 years. This Jubilee tradition is said to date back to the 15th century and was revived in 1965.

Traditions and symbols
- The Compostela pilgrim is nicknamed a Jacquet in France. His "historic costume" traditionally included a "pelerine" (a large cloak) and a pilgrim's staff (a large stick with iron on one end).

- Another distinguishing feature: the roads are marked with a scallop shell, as these are picked up as souvenirs on the beaches in Galicia, not far from the holy Spanish city. Today it has become a stylised logo (yellow and blue).

- In addition to the shell logo marking the routes are often marked with the letters GR (R) ("grande randonnee" hiking trails) formed by double red and white lines.

- The Credencial is a sort of passport identifying the pilgrims for accommodation providers. Its value is purely moral and symbolic and is delivered by the ACIR (an interregional association).

- The Compostela is a certificate delivered to the outstanding hikers who reach the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela having travelled at least the last hundred kilometres of the route (on the Spanish side).

Information websites

Specialised organisations (institutions, associations and tourist professionals) and personal websites publish a plethora of information and practical tips on the theme of the pilgrimage.

The ACIR (an interregional cooperative association, based in Toulouse)
This groups the tourist boards of Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrenees and other associations. It holds cultural meetings and exhibitions all along the Saint James Ways and lists all the specific heritage sites (monuments, museums, such as Peyrehorade and Saint-Palais), etc.

The Fondation David Parou / Saint-Jacques
This is a group of passionate historians and includes the European Institute of Cultural Routes

The European Institute of Cultural Routes
This has a large specific section on the pilgrimage to Santiago.

Personal websites:
- dedicated to the GR 65 hiking trail (Via Podensis)
- a personal documentary website
- on the Saint James Way in Aubrac (Cantal- Auvergne).

- The Association of Friends of Saint James: in Rhône-Alpes, in the Pyrenees Atlantiques
- An association based more on the spiritual aspect

Regional Tourist Boards:
- CRT Aquitaine
Tel: +33 (0) 5 56 01 70 00
- CRT Midi-Pyrénées
Tel: +33 (0) 5 61 13 55 48

Some major sites: architectural and historical splendours

Le Puy-en-Velay  (Haute-Loire)

The holy city has several exceptionally fine examples.
- The Romanesque cathedral, first built in the 11th and 12th centuries, and partially rebuilt in the same style (today a basilica), is astonishingly oriental in style (possibly influenced by the crusades) but imposingly spectacular with its wide staircases and huge pillars to rectify the slope of the land. In addition to its role as starting point of a Saint James Way, it also houses a famous statue of the Black Virgin. This wooden sculpture is a reproduction of the statue that was burnt under the Revolution, although it has regained its original colour, the explanation of which is still something of a mystery: simply wood that has blackened with the ages, or perhaps a statue brought from the East by the Crusaders?
- Saint Michael's chapel has incredibly remained perching on the Aiguilhe rock, a very pointed peak (an ancient volcanic chimney) since the 10th or 11th century!
- The Notre-Dame-de-France (Our Lady of France) statue has perched on the Corneille rock since 1860: it is made of iron (rust!) and stands 22 metres high in all. The iron came from the melting of 200 Russian canons after a French victory in the Crimea!
- The shrine of Saint Joseph, in nearby Espaly.

The Sainte-Foy Abbey in Conques (Aveyron)

This abbey church, built between the 10th and 12th centuries, has been rebuilt with each disaster (fire, collapse) but still displays a "pure Romanesque" style. Among its masterpieces are its Treasure (reliquary) and its famous carved tympanum known as the "Last Judgment", a literal "book in stone" showing 112 characters and a whole Biblical saga. Also noteworthy are the contemporary art stained glass windows by the famous artist Pierre Soulages, who grew up in the Rouergue region.
The medieval village is also a listed monument and overlooks the beautiful gorges of the Dourdou river. This stage is very popular with pilgrims, within the Abbey of the Prémontrés.

Rocamadour (Lot)
The Via Podiensis (GR 65) follows the historic Cele Valley, in Perigord, between Figeac and Cahors: two superb medieval towns. A very pretty detour (2 days) is worth making via the Causse de Gramat (GR 6 and GR 46) to take in another famous shrine: Rocamadour. This religious town also had its Black Virgin, way back in the 12th! The site (troglodyte) is incredibly spectacular, hollowed out of the steep cliff face to which it clings.

UNESCO world heritage routes and sites
A series of 70 religious buildings, spread over the various routes, have been listed by UNESCO since 1998, such as the little-known church of Saint-Avit-Senieur (in Dordogne), the church of Saint-Hilaire/ Melle (in Poitou-Charente), the church of Saint-Honorat d'Arles, and the early Christian basilica of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges (Haute-Garonne), the Valentre bridge (in Cahors), and Saint Peter's Abbey in Moissac. This was rebuilt and is now a pleasant mixture of Romanesque and gothic styles.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Pyrénées-Atlantiques)
The Baigorri valley and the little town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port off ber beautiful decors. The name "pied de port" actually means "the foot of the pass", and the town is in fact situated downhill from the Roncevaux Pass.

Practical advice: bibliography, maps and information

- FFRP, French hiking federation
This publishes several map-guides and also practical advice on hiking. It traces and marks the GR (R) - hiking trails.

- IGN (national geographic institute)
This geographical service publishes a number of maps for hiking and themed series, including an IGN reference map 1M 922 (scale of 1: 1,000,000) devoted to the Saint James Ways.

- Meteo France
to find out about weather conditions before you leave.

- for the route "on a bike"
- for the route "on horseback" (in the Pyrenees)

- gîtes de France

- A personal website of useful information
Information on hiking between the Auvergne and the Midi-Pyrenees.

Examples of routes organised by specialised service providers

- La Caminade
9 days (i.e. 8 nights and 7 stages) of unaccompanied hiking: from Le Puy-en-Velay to Espalion (Lot), prices start at €675 per person.

- Vagabondages
A network of 8 agencies specialising in hiking and trekking (with plenty of experience), to show tourists a "secret France with all its regional delights".

Things to see