Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France (1998)

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Santiago de Compostela was the supreme goal for countless thousands of pious pilgrims who converged there from all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages. To reach Spain pilgrims had to pass through France, and the group of important historical monuments included in this inscription marks out the four routes by which they did so. 

France 1963. Stained glass window in the Church of Sainte Foy, Conches.

The Pilgrimage Route of Santiago de Compostela played a key role in religious and cultural exchange and development during the later Middle Ages, and this is admirably illustrated by the carefully selected monuments on the routes followed by pilgrims in France. 

The spiritual and physical needs of pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compostela were met by the development of a number of specialized types of edifice, many of which originated or were further developed on the French sections. 

The Pilgrimage Routes bear exceptional witness to the power and influence of Christian faith among people of all classes and countries in Europe during the Middle Ages. Here are the main points of the four routes in France, as illustrated on French postage stamps. 

  • France 1963. Stained glass window in the Church of Sainte Foy, Conches. 

The Paris route runs via Orléans, Tours, Poitiers, St Jean-d'Angély, Bordeaux and Dax. 

It has largely disappeared under tarmac, and is not really recommended for people setting out on the pilgrimage for the first time, although a Confraternity guide has been published on a walkers' route that includes the main towns and places of interest mentioned in the Pilgrim's Guide. 

  • France 1995. Cathedral of Orléans. 

  • France 1985. Cathedral of Tours. 

France 1995. Cathedral of Orléans.  

France 1985. Cathedral of Tours.

France 1949. Arial view of Bordeaus (air post stamp).

France 1954. Royan / Saint-Palais.

Orléans is the first place mentioned in the "Pilgrim's Guide" but Paris was the medieval pilgrim gathering point.  Modern pilgrims variously start at Paris, at Chartres (developing into an important secondary starting-point), at channel ports or from home.  From Orléans, the first major town on the route from Paris, the way follows the Loire valley to Tours where it joins the route from Chartres; it then goes south-west through Poitou and the Saintonge to Bordeaux; and finally passes through les Landes to join the routes from Le Puy and Vézelay just beyond Royan and Saint-Palais. 

France 1946.  Vézelay.

The route from Vézelay runs via Bourges or Nevers to St Léonard-de-Noblat, then to Limoges and Périgueux before crossing the Dordogne river at Ste Foy-la-Grande.  

Thereafter it goes via la Réole, Bazas, Mont-de-Marsan and Orthez to St Jean-Pied-de-Port. Its Latin name, the Via Lemovicensis, derives from its crossing of the Limousin, and from the historical, religious and cultural importance of the city of Limoges. 

  • France 1946. Vézelay. 
France 1955. Limoges. France 1947. St. Front at Périgueux.

The route runs southwest from the little town of Vézelay (in Burgundy), famous for its pilgrimage to the shrine of Mary Magdalene, whose relics are reputedly kept in its magnificent Abbey.

Two distinct branches, of similar length - one passing through La Charité-sur-Loire, Bourges, Déols and Chateauroux, and the other through Nevers, Saint-Amand-Montrond and La Châtre - meet in the village of Gargilesse.  

The route then continues across the foothills of the Limousin, the hills and valleys of the Périgord and the plains of Aquitaine and the Landes.  It joins the two other routes (from Tours and le Puy-en-Velay) near Ostabat. 

  • France 2002. La Charité-sur-Loire at Nièvre. 

France 2002. La Charité-sur-Loire at Nièvre.

France 1980. Cathedral of Le Puy.

France 1948. Conques.

The le Puy route, which passes through Conques, Figeac, Cahors and Moissac before reaching St Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees,  is quite the best developed. 

In its early stages, it is quite rugged. A number of places offering a Christian welcome to pilgrims have also opened quite recently. 

They are listed in the spiritual guide published by the Abbey at Conques and the Hospitalité St Jacques at Estaing. 

  • France 1980. Cathedral of Le Puy. 
  • France 1948. Conques. This stamp exists in two face values, the other one in blue colour, and 18f. 
France 1999. Figéac. France 1955. Cahors. France 1963. Moissac.

The old Via Podensis, this is one of the four main pilgrim routes through France, used by French pilgrims but also by others coming through Switzerland and from points further back in Germany, Austria, Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics. It joins the routes from Paris and Vézelay on the French side of the Pyrenees. 

The Arles route runs directly westward from Arles parallel with the Pyrenees, linking Montpellier, Lodève, Castres, Toulouse and Auch: here it turns south-west to Oloron Sainte-Marie, and then south up the Gave d'Aspe to cross the Pyrenees by the Somport pass. 

It is one of the 4 medieval pilgrim routes described by Aimery Picaud in his mid-12th c Pilgrim's Guide. Used by Jacobean pilgrims from southern and eastern Europe and in reverse, by Spanish, Portuguese and French pilgrims to Rome. Also known as the Via Tolosana as the most important town along the way is Toulouse. 

France 1935. Saint-Trophime d'Arles.

France 1947. Toulouse.

The route starts in Arles (Provence) and continues westwards, parallel with the Pyrenees through Montpellier (Languedoc) and Toulouse (Midi-Pyrénées) to Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Béarn).  

Here it swings south up the Aspe valley to cross the Pyrenees into Aragón by the Col du Somport.  

In Spain, the route, now the Camino aragonés, follows the valley of the river Aragón south to Jaca and then west, still following the river, through Aragón and Navarra to join the Camino francés at Obanos just before Puente la Reina. 

  • France 1935. Saint-Trophime d'Arles. 
  • France 1947. Toulouse.

France 1985. Montpellier. France 1949. St. Bertrand-de-Comminges.

Although not specifically mentioned in the UNESCO-description of the pilgrimage routes, one should not forget Lourdes, a town in southwestern France, in Hautes-Pyrénées Department, on the Gave de Pau River, at the base of the Pyrenees.

France 1954. Lourdes.

An important fortress town in medieval times, Lourdes is now principally a pilgrimage center. Each year millions visit the grotto where, in 1858, a 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous (later Saint Bernadette), claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary. 

The waters of an underground spring in the grotto are believed to have miraculous healing powers. A basilica (completed 1876) and a large underground church are at the grotto. 

  • France 1954. Lourdes. 

Sources and Links:

Other World Heritage Sites in France (on this site). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, section France for further information on the individual properties.  

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Revised 09 sep 2007  
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