The Paris Route

The most northerly of the 4 medieval French routes described by Aimery Picaud in the Pilgrim’s Guide and the one used by pilgrims from France, Northern Europe and the British Isles.  Also known as the Via Turonensis after Tours, the most important medieval city along the route.

The route.  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 at Gibraltar just beyond Saint-Palais.  The medieval route would have been along Roman roads and the main towns were all major Roman towns at important cross-roads, many already major pilgrimage centres in their own right.  However, with no topographical constraints favouring a single route, there were many variants, including sea-routes to the Médoc and Bordeaux.

Length.  From Chartres to Gibraltar is 913 km; from Paris to Orléans about 130 km and from Orléans to Gibraltar 842 km.  Journey time is around 40 days excluding rest days and sightseeing.

Waymarking.  There is no single waymarked long-distance footpath covering the entire route.  Much of the “historic” route lies under major roads and cannot be walked.  Pilgrims must design their own route.  The route described in the CSJ guide uses a mix of the long distance and local footpaths of the French Grandes Randonnées and Grandes Randonnées du Pays system (both waymarked) and small farm roads to replicate the traditional route as far as possible off the main roads.

The CSJ Guide of 2003 is now out of date as there have been many developments. The GR655 is waymarked from Paris (via Chartres) to the Charente Maritime/Gironde border.  There is a connecting route from Belgium through St Quentin – information here – the Guide in French ‘Via “Gallia Belgica” is also available from  http://www.grsentiers.org/topo-guides/47-sentier-de-saint-jacques-de-compostelle-via-gallia-belgica.html and the route via Orléans can be found here here

An compilation of information and useful websites Paris Route Update can be found here.

Terrain.  The route is easy to walk or cycle.  It is generally flat, there are no significant hills or steep gradients and the paths are clearly defined.  The chief features are the many wide, wooded east-west river valleys crossed by the route north of Bordeaux and the vast tracts of stabilised sand and pine forest of les Landes south of Bordeaux. The Chartres branch crosses the vast treeless plateau of the Beauce (the “bread basket” of France) and the extensive vineyards of the Loire to reach Tours.  The Orléans branch follows the Loire valley with the grand chateaux of the kings and nobility of France.  From Tours to Bordeaux, the way is in pleasant agricultural terrain, some deciduous forests and numerous rivers to be crossed.  The vineyards begin again in the valley of the Charente and from here to Bordeaux, vines and forest mix.  These provinces of Poitou and Saintonge are the lands “full of delights” according to the Pilgrim’s Guide.  South from Bordeaux the way passes through the unending pine forest of les Landes, an area which has enjoyed a good reputation with neither medieval or modern pilgrims – the former because of the dangers of the shifting sands and the latter because of the rather tedious landscape.

Weather.  An all year round route with a temperate, maritime climate.  Rain, often heavy and persistent and sometimes causing flooding, is the main hazard.

When to go.  Any time – but short winter days limit effective daylight hours and much of the route is a popular all-year tourist destination, especially in the spring, July and August and around public holidays.

What to see.

Chartres to Tours: Chartres:  Romanesque-Gothic cathedral with world famous stained glass. Vendôme: flamboyant Gothic church of the Holy Trinity. Painted Romanesque churches of the valley of the river le Loir, some depicting pilgrimage themes as in the church of Saint-Jacques-de-Guérets.

Orléans to Tours: Orléans:  cathedral and other churches. Cléry Saint-André: Notre-Dame de Cléry with Chapelle Saint-Jacques. Chateaux of the Loire: Blois, Chaumont, Amboise lie on the route, hundreds of others are just off it. Vineyards of Vouvray: an important white wine appellation.

Tours to Bordeaux: Tours:  a major pilgrim centre devoted to Saint-Martin. Cathedral, relics of the former basilica of Saint-Martin, one of the prototype medieval pilgrim churches along with Saint-Sernin, Toulouse; Saint-Foi, Conques; Saint-Martial, Limoges; and Santiago cathedral itself.  Many other churches and old picturesque medieval buildings. Poitiers: ancient Roman town, main town of western Gaul, major medieval religious centre devoted to Saint-Hilaire (mentor to Saint-Martin), flourishing medieval intellectual and artistic centre, at least a dozen fine Romanesque or earlier churches, important Roman, medieval and classical civil buildings. Parthenay-le-Vieux: evocative pilgrim street and assumed residence of Aimery Picaud as a monk. Poitou and Saintonge: wealth of Romanesque village churches almost all possessing an elaborately sculpted facade often depicting the “Saintonge Sermon”, the struggle between good and evil or the triumph of Christianity over paganism in the form of the Emperor Constantine on horseback representing Christianity trampling on the small fallen figure of paganism.  Fine examples in Poitiers, Saintes, Chadenac, Melle and Aulnay.  Saint-Jean-d’Angély: important medieval shrine but only the grandiose abbey towers remain. Saintes: the town has flourished continuously since the Romans and significant buildings remain from each epoch. Roman amphitheatre and arch, medieval churches of Saint-Eutrope and Saint-Pierre.  Romanesque Abbaye aux Dames. Pons: medieval pilgrim hospital with grave niches beside the chemin – a vivid reminder that for the medieval pilgrim amid the splendour and magnificence of the pilgrimage lay poverty, hardship, illness and death. At Blaye the pilgrim crosses the gironde by ferry. Bordeaux: prosperous industrial, university and cultural city with world famous vineyards nearby.  Gothic cathedral and other Romanesque and Gothic churches.  Porte Saint-James, a medieval city gate which replaced the previous pilgrim’s gate.  Grand civic buildings.

South of Bordeaux: Les Landes: tiny Romanesque chapels in the pine forest at Mons and Vieux Richet.  Shadows of Roland, Olivier, Ogier and the other paladins slain at Roncesvalles at Blaye and Belin-Beliet.  The old  chain-ferry across the Gave de Pau at Sorde, the place of Aimery Picaud’s notorious ferrymen, has been replaced by a bridge. Romanesque abbeys at Sorde and Arthous which formerly sheltered pilgrims before the perilous ferry crossing.  Dax: major spa town.

Where to stay.  Ample hotel accommodation, plenty of good campsites (along the rivers), some gites d’étape and chambres d’hôte – all catering for tourists rather than pilgrims. No network of free or cheap pilgrim refuges except at Centre de Culture Européen at Saint-Jean d’Angély, at the church iof Saint-Eutrope at Saintes, at the Priory of Cayac at Gradignan (south edge of Bordeaux) and at the Franciscan convent at Saint-Palais. However, persistence and good French can sometimes produce a bargain bed.

More pilgrim accommodation is gradually being created: e.g. in a private house at Labouheyre. There is now a large pilgrim hotel/restaurant, run by the cathedral authorities, at Chartres.

Distinctive features of the route.  No single authentic route – many variations to suit personal pilgrim tastes.  Physically easy to walk or cycle at any time of the year – a good route for cyclists especially. Expensive – accommodation, including campsites, is designed for tourists. Wealth of culture: legacies from the Roman, Visigothic, medieval and modern eras. More Romanesque churches than on any other pilgrim route; high risk of cultural overload. Western France can be depressingly wet; les Landes have a reputation for tedium though loved by some pilgrims. The direct route out of Paris is rather suburban and frustrating. Not a lonely route but sufficiently long to absorb the pilgrims using it so not a busy route either.

Guide books

  • Le Chemin de Paris et de Tours vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, J-Y Gregoire & J Véron, rando Guides, 2003, ISBN 978 2 84182 310 5, has maps, accommodation and directions in French for route via Orleans and Tours.
  • Paris to the Pyrenees (Pilgrim Guides to the Roads through France to Santiago de Compostela # 1). In process of revision.

Best to read general pilgrim books and tourist guides before leaving for the journey and obtain information from the tourist offices, bookshops and monuments along the way – a wealth of literature is available.

Mapping. Peter Robins has created on-line maps, with section distances, for this route.

Useful website. http://www.compostelle-tours.org/

New association. Tranquilles sur la Voie de Tours vers Compostelle: http://www.tranquilles.fr/ It aims to bring together pilgrims from all parts of northern Europe, including Scandinavia and the UK (March 2010).

Discussion Forum. Visit the Camino de Santiago Forum to join in the current conversation.

Leave a Reply