Tracing an ancient pilgrim route in France

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Victor Block

Participants in the eight-day "walking through history" tour led by New England Hiking Holidays walk several hours each morning and afternoon at a slow but steady pace along paved roadways through scenic, rural France.
Photo by Victor Block

Until recently, I would have said that St. Francis of Assisi, Shirley MacLaine and I had little in common. That was before my wife Fyllis and I took a memorable walking trip through southern France, following stretches of one of the most popular and historically important pilgrimage routes in the world.

St. Francis, the Italian friar who is one of the most venerated religious figures of all time, made the pilgrimage in the 13th century. For Shirley MacLaine, the long trek was part of the spiritual self-exploration for which she is known.

Fyllis and I followed short sections of “The Way,” as the trail is known, for a more mundane reason. We were on a “walking through history” tour that provided an introduction to the fascinating story of that well-known religious route, and much more.

The pre-trip information that we received from the New England Hiking Holidays tour company also promised visits to remote medieval villages and walled cities, fortresses and castles, and an immersion in the history and culture of a region unfamiliar even to many French people.

Added to that were memorable accommodations, some in centuries-old castles, and food and wine that my taste buds still recall with delight. No surprise there; after all, we were in France!

Why walk “The Way”?

I first learned about “The Way” in 2010 when I saw the movie of that name starring Martin Sheen. Sheen played an American doctor who learns much about the meaning of life through the people he meets walking the pilgrimage.

While that was my introduction, the pilgrimage itself has been known since at least the 9th century C.E., and has been followed in whole or in part by many thousands of people who have walked the network of ancient pilgrim routes that stretch across Western Europe.

The routes eventually converge and end at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela at the western-most tip of Spain. There, according to tradition, the remains of the apostle St. James were buried after being transported by boat from Jerusalem.

Historically, most people made the pilgrimage for religious reasons. Others had a more worldly agenda.

Some people in the Middle Ages set off on foot after being promised that their debts would be forgiven if they completed the journey. For others, it provided a temporary escape from the rigors of village life. Then there were those who saw the pious pilgrims trudging along as easy targets to rob.

A diversity of reasons continues to this day. A young French couple named Lucie and Sebastian explained that they recently made the trek because “it has always been our dream to walk hundreds of miles through breath-taking scenery.”

A school teacher from New Hampshire, who has walked on stretches of the trail a number of times, keeps a list of reasons people tell him they made the journey. It includes among the stated goals hoping to give up smoking and to lose weight.

While much of the network of trails is flat and on good paths, there are places that are steeper. After huffing and puffing up a few of them, I figured that weight loss is a fact for virtually everyone who makes the trek. There were times when I gratefully accepted the suggestion of our guide Richard Posner that trip participants could walk at their own pace.

During the eight-day trip, we usually walked about two to three hours in the morning, had a picnic lunch and  then walked about two more hours. We kept a slow but steady pace, pretty much geared to the slowest walkers. If someone wanted to skip a morning, afternoon or both hikes one day, they could.

After climbs up gentle rises in country roads, and somewhat steeper hills traversed by walking trails, we were rewarded with views rivaling those in any travel brochure.

Distant mountains served as backdrops for fields of multi-hued wildflowers. Fields planted in beans and barley surrounded vineyards whose grapes are destined to provide outstanding wines. Here and there, the silhouette of small towns dotted the landscape.


The medieval town of Conques, at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France, is a stopping point for those walking The Way of St. James, a network of religious pilgrimage routes across Western Europe.
Photo by Victor Block

Through the Middle Ages

At stops to admire the scenery, and even as we walked, Richard kept up a running commentary that provided an introduction to the passing parade of people in the Middle Ages who came to this corner of France, each leaving their imprint.

First to arrive were the Visigoths, Germanic groups that flourished during the period of the late Roman Empire. They settled in what today is southern France, and ruled over a kingdom that lasted from the 5th to the 8th centuries C.E.

They were followed by the Knights Templar, a religious military order that fought in the Crusades and remained powerful during the 12th to 14th centuries.

Their stay overlapped with the Cathars, a movement of Roman Catholics who differed in several core beliefs from their church, which eventually renounced them. Among their convictions were that Jesus was a spiritual leader but not divine, and that people were saved because they lead a holy life rather than their belief in Jesus dying on the cross.

Despite their varying beliefs, cultures and customs, these groups left one common legacy in the area. They each built imposing castles and fortresses that continue to serve as reminders of their stay.

For example, the Queribus Castle was originally constructed by the Romans, then repaired and refurbished by the Cathars in the 13th century. Perched along the top of a soaring vertical cliff for added protection from attack, as were many fortresses, it rises up over the countryside from the highest peak for miles around.

Another Cathar stronghold, Peyrepertuse (which means “pierced rock”), consists of two castles that are linked by a staircase. The main part of the structure, which is set on a 2,600-foot-high cliff, resembles the prow of a ship. Like many of the fortresses, the building seems to grow out of the rock on which it stands, making it difficult to tell from a distance where one starts and the other stops.

Medieval towns and villages

Most impressive is Carcassone, a fortress town built by the Visigoths on a hilltop that earlier had been fortified by the Romans. The entire medieval city was (and still is) encircled and protected by nearly two miles of double walls topped by 52 watch towers. Inside is a maze of meandering cobblestone walkways, tunnels and stone buildings that comprised the largest fortified city in Europe.

A permanent population estimated at about 2,000 people lived within the walls, and historians tell us that during times of attack, perhaps as many as 12,000 residents from the surrounding countryside crowded inside for protection.

Many of the structures within the town today house souvenir shops and cafes which, along with throngs of tourists, detract from the setting. However, a visit in the early morning or evening, before most sightseers arrive or after they’ve left, allows the mind to conjure up images of medieval times.

Visits to massive fortresses like these bring to life pictures of violence, combat and destruction. Some castle staircases, which are narrow, steep and winding, gave an advantage to men with swords and spears seeking to defend rather than to attackers trying to battle their way single file to the next level. Drawbridges and heavy iron grates add to visions of battles that were fought centuries ago.

In contrast to the imposing forts are the charming medieval villages that are sprinkled throughout the region. The houses often are clustered around a small castle that once was occupied by a nobleman who served as both the local government and protector of the settlement.

The little homes of today’s residents still line the narrow, twisting, cobblestone streets. Many of them are festooned by flowers, which add an explosion of color to the scene.

A major stopping point for pilgrims over the centuries, and for other visitors to the region (including today’s tourist), is the delightful town of Conques. Nestled in a densely wooded valley near the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains, Conques is a true jewel of medieval France.

Sections of the original walls, punctuated by fortified gateways, are still visible. The muted colors of traditional timber-framed houses are accentuated by the red sandstone and bronze limestone of other structures, set off by blue slate roofs. Lush plantings of roses and wisteria add to the painter’s palette of colors.

Travel information

Despite its name, New England Hiking Holidays organizes trips throughout the United States and to several countries in Europe. Its 2014 Walking Through History – Medieval Southern France tour will take place May 23-31. The $4,095 price includes almost all meals, accommodations and extras like a wine tasting.

For more information about this and other trips offered by New England Hiking Holidays, call 1-800-869-0949 or log onto www.nehikingholidays.com.

For more general information, see the websites for the French tourism office at www.francetourism.com, and for The Way at www.americanpilgrims.com.