The Vézelay Route

One of the four major historical routes to Santiago de Compostela in the Middle Ages, described by Aimery Picaud in his 12th c Pilgrim’s Guide. Used by pilgrims coming from the north (Scandinavians) and the east (Poles, Germans) of Europe, and sometimes called also the Polish route.  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.

Vézelay © Jolanda Stammes

The Route. 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.  There are two distinct branches, the Bourges and Nevers routes, which meet in the village of Gargilesse:

  • Bourges route – also passes through La Charité-sur-Loire, Déols and Chateauroux.  This route is slightly shorter and much flatter, with many large forests and cornfields, and so to some, more monotonous.  Bourges Cathedral is well worth a visit and some say this city is more interesting than Nevers. 
  • Nevers route, also passing through Saint-Amand-Montrond and La Châtre. Route is 31.6 km longer than the Bourges route, unless the variant via Augy-sur-Aubois is chosen which halves the extra distance.  The terrain is more undulating and varied, and Nevers has the shrine of Saint Bernadette Soubirous (of Lourdes) which is a pilgrimage centre in its own right.

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.

Length.  Approximately 900 km from Vezelay to St Jean Pied-de-Port, and a total of 1700km to Santiago.  It can be divided into 36 stages, generally of between 20 and 30 km, depending upon the accommodation available.

Waymarking.  The whole route is waymarked, although at the moment the waymarking is rather diverse. However, from the end of 2014 some French Associations have started to apply a common way-marking, by following the methodology of the GR(P)®. Instead of the red and white or red and yellow colors, the colors used are yellow and blue:

Image courtesy of Nederlands Genootschap van Sint Jacob

The replacement of the various present waymarks will still take quite some time. (On the download page of the Dutch Pilgrims Association you will find a document, in english, explaining the various present ways of signposting). Do not confuse the waymarking, put in place by the Jacobean associations, with the waymarking of the long-distance footpath GR 654, also known as the Sentier de Saint-Jacques – Voie de Vézelay, which respects neither the original line, nor the historical stopping-places, and which is mainly intended for long-distance walkers (if followed, the total distance to Santiago is closer to 2000 km. Please note that after Sainte-Foy-la-Grande the new GR654 West is almost indentical with the route waymarked by the Jacobean associations).

Scenery.  The route covers a wide variety of landscape and passes many historical sites & monuments.  After the foothills of the Morvan, the Niévre offers a great diversity of views, valleys, hills and forests, with only rare and very scattered dwellings. The large plains of the Berry are far from monotonous with their immense agricultural landscapes crisscrossed by hedges and copses. The valley of the river Creuse, and those of its tributaries (such as the Bouzanne or the Sédelle) are pretty at all times of year, with their gorges and the sites of their surprising dams. The Limousin is a land of forests and springs, of extensive cattle and sheep-raising, with its own distinctive architecture.  Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat is specifically mentioned by Aimery Picaud.

Photograph of Périgueux

Périgueux

The Périgord, rich in livestock, agriculture and wine-growing, is crossed from one side to the other across the valleys of the Isle & Dordogne rivers.  Like Saint-Léonard, the cathedral of Saint Front in Périgueux is the subject of an enthusiastic description by Aimery Picaud. The Gironde is the land of the vine (wines of Bergerac & Bordeaux), whereas the Landes, despite the vast plantations of pine-trees which may seem to isolate the pilgrim, present an ever more varied environment as one travels further south. As one approaches the Pyrenées Atlantiques one becomes aware with each passing day of the landscapes and the rushing mountain streams which announce the imminence of the mountain passes which are to be climbed.

Climate.  If the Morvan and the Limousin are often rainy (with snow in winter), the rest of the route is rather variable, but quite mild on the whole everywhere, the highest point (in the Limousin “mountains”) reaching only 695m.  The way is therefore practicable all the year round, with – usually – no other difficulties than muddy tracks and tractor ruts.

When to go.  The best times of year remain the spring (for the longer days) and the autumn (often very fine weather). In the summer, even though it may be hot, there are relatively few tourists, most of the regions crossed being not too frequented in spite of their great natural beauty.  It is a route for demanding pilgrims who are looking for tranquility and an environment propitious to meditation.

What to see?  The route is rich in historic sites.  Vézelay itself “the eternal hill”, is rivalled for Europe-wide renown by the hermitage and tomb of  Saint Léonard in Saint-Léonard de Noblat and by Saint Martial in Limoges. Do not miss the cathedrals of Bourges, Nevers, Périgueux and Bazas, or the abbeys of La Charité-sur-Loire, Déols, Chancelade, Saint-Ferme, la Réole & Saint-Sever.

Accommodation.   More and more people are becoming aware of the difficulties encountered by pilgrims. This is due to the fact that the public authorities and the people along the route are more and more conscious that accommodation is inseparable from the welcome extended to visitors, which is generally quite good. All the way along the route itself or nearby there is a varied selection of accommodation for the pilgrim, beginning with the pilgrim refuges (at Ainay-le-Chateau, Bouzais, Saint-Ferme, La Coqille, Sorges, Périgueux), not to mention the town halls (who can generally find a solution, however basic, to lodge the needy pilgrim for the night), small or large country hotels, chambres d’hôte (bed & breakfasts), or gites d’étape (fairly numerous in certain regions), and even numerous rooms for pilgrims provided by generous & charitable private individuals.

Special characteristics.   This is a demanding route, calling upon the rigour of the pilgrim’s commitment (whatever his deeper underlying motive), in the context of a relatively deserted rural environment sufficient to discourage the “tourist”, and to deter therefore all those who embark on the pilgrimage in a spirit which is not “serious” (i.e. who want simply to “play at” being a pilgrim).

Guide-books.  

  • The Dutch Pilgrims Association has produced a new guide in English (as at February 2016) from Vézelay to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. In fact there are two guides: one of the variant via Nevers and one of the variant via Bourges These are available as books or in pdf format, please see their website for details: https://www.santiago.nl/english/vezelay-main-page. Both the Nevers and the Bourges books are available from our online shop.
  • Miam Miam Dodo: Voie de Vézelay, 2016, is available from our online shop.
  • The Itinéraire du pèlerin de Saint-Jacques sur la voie historique de Vézelay, by M. & J.C. Chassain, published by les Amis de Saint-Jacques de la Voie de Vézelay, is no longer available. However, a booklet in English, which accompanied the 2011 edition of the Guide, is available from the online shop.  It contains background information to the route, practical information about getting to Vézelay, suggested stages and height profiles: however, given that it is now 6 years old it should only be used in conjunction with more up-to-date material on the websites mentioned below.

Websites:

  • http://www.vezelay-compostelle.eu/    Association of friends and pilgrims for Vézelay route. They have an office in Vézelay which is open March to October (see under “permanences” page on site for address, opening days/hours).
  • http://www.compostelle-limousin-perigord.fr/                                                                                          Association of friends and pilgrms for Limousin-Périgord
  • http://www.saint-jacques-aquitaine.com/                                                                                                         Association of friends and pilgrims for Aquitaine
  • http://compostelle-landes.org/index.php?p=vezelay&lng=fr                                                                   Association of friends and pilgrims for Les Landes
  • http://www.aucoeurduchemin.org                                                                                                                       Association of friends and pilgrims for Pyrénées-Atlantiques
  • http://verscompostelle.be/cohevez.htm                                                                                                                            Belgian site with accommodation contacts
  • http://en.vezelaytourisme.com/art231-santiago-de-compostela                                                              Accommodation list downloadable from Vezelay tourist office
  • http://walkinginfrance.info/pilgrimages/the-way-of-vezelay/                                                                             Very informative website written by Australian walkers.
  • https://pilgrimdb.github.io/limoges.html                                                                                                                         Maps from Peter Robins’ now discontinued but very useful website

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

Updated January 2017.  With many thanks to Arno Cuppen for information and images, and to Jolanda Stammes for allowing us to use her image of Vézelay.

Leave a Reply