The Way of Saint James played a big role in human exchanges, architecture and culture in medieval Europe. They bear witness to the considerable influence of the Christian faith during this period. UNESCO had good reasons, in 1998, to make the routes to Compostela a World Heritage Site.
On foot, on horseback, by bike… or in a stroller. Pilgrims and walkers set off on the routes of the Way of Saint James to pray, meditate, revitalise or change their lives.
The Way of Saint James consists of four historical routes, including the Arles route and that of Puy-en-Velay. This pilgrimage dates back to the 9th century. Set out on the paths trodden by millions of people for centuries. Walk, with the Compostela Basilica on the horizon, where lie the remains of Jacques Le Majeur, Apostle of Jesus Christ. Each person at their own pace. Some will take a little over two months to make the journey, others, doing section after section, will take several years.
The history of Compostela begins in the 9th century with the discovery of the burial place of Saint James. A church was built at the site and people come to revitalise themselves there. Believers carrying gourds, holding their pilgrims’ staff, with a large hat on their heads, come from all over Europe. They will leave with a scallop shell attached to their clothing. A rallying sign? Proof of the feat accomplished? A more practical reason? No one has the answer for sure, but this shell has become the emblem of Saint James.
In the Middle Ages, this journey was a spiritual epic whose importance matched only that of the two great pilgrimages leading to the tomb of Saint Peter in Rome and to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem Driven by indestructible faith, the desire to surpass oneself, the pleasure of going on a beautiful hike - today there are plenty of reasons to accomplish this journey, which has been gaining increasingly more followers for a century.
Whoever wants to embark on this adventure may choose from four main routes supplemented by numerous secondary routes such as the Via Domitia. This network includes so many varied routes. The traveller who takes these routes today, listed in the Codex Calixtinus that was written in 1140, follows in the footsteps of pilgrims of the Middle Ages.
The “jacquets” (pilgrims) from the North who gathered in Paris take the Via Turonensis, which passes through Tours where the Sanctuary of Saint-Martin is located. Pilgrims from Belgium, the Ardennes and Lorraine follow the Via Lemovicensis from Vézelay, where they can admire the Romanesque Basilica of Saint Mary Madeleine. 1 530 kilometres long, the Via Podiensis which leaves from Puy-en-Velay is a major route passing through Lozère and crossing Margeride and Aubrac. Many churches, priories and places of asylum have been built on this section to accommodate pilgrims. These three routes meet in Ostabat in Basque country, forming a single path: the Camino Navarro.
Did you know?
In Montpellier gilded bronze nails mark the way to Compostela, near the Corum and the rue de la Loge. There is a total of almost 300 in the city. Each nail, in addition to the scallop shell, bears the name of “Montpellier” and this inscription “Camin Roumieu” (Pilgrim's Path). They are the work of the sculptor Pierre Fournel and smelter Robert Granier.
Basilicas or small churches, bridges or symbolic elements: UNESCO has taken into account the multitude of components and values conveyed by these legendary paths.
From the humblest to the most prestigious, on the UNESCO list: Abbey Church of Saint Gilles, Abbey of Saint Foy in Conques, Saint Sernin Basilica in Toulouse and Abbey of Saint Pierre in Moissac, fortified cathedral of Saint Fulcran in Lodève, Devil’s Bridge on the Gorges of the Hérault River, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert and the Abbey of Gellone, Pont Valentré in Cahors, Pont d’Artigues in Gers and Church of Gavarnie. Alongside this religious heritage, the UNESCO list also includes civil monuments such as the Saint-Jacques de Figeac Hospital, witness to this network created to care for, comfort or feed pilgrims.
Before the creation of the Abbey of Gellone by Guillaume, Count of Toulouse, in 804, the place was deserted and rocky without vegetation. It was ideal for that warrior who wanted to withdraw from the world. Narrow streets, a square shaded by a gigantic plane tree, the village of stones, grouped around the abbey which houses the relics of its founder, canonised in 1066 under the name of Saint Guilhem. Increasingly more frequented by pilgrims, hikers and art lovers, the routes to Compostela have seen seventy-one of their monuments and seven of their sections listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.