Overview: 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 Pilgrimís 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.

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.  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.

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

Waymarking.  Generally the European "scallop-shell" (and with stone "milepost-type" markers in the Pyrenees).  The whole route is waymarked, except for sections in the departments of Gironde,  Cher, and Indre.  In Cher and Indre, none of the southern branch, and only part of the northern branch are covered.  Do not confuse the "scallop-shell" waymarking, put in place by the Jacobean associations, with the waymarking (which sometimes coincides) 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).

Starting in 2004, and in order to distinguish as clearly as possible between the true way and the often inauthentic GR, the Association will be putting in place new waymarks.

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. 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 Ė 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 (the number of which is increasing steadily), 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 díhôte (bed & breakfasts), or gites díétape (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-book.

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.  The only complete and reliable guide which is kept up to date, it includes a detailed description of the itinerary, completed by IGN 1:50,000 scale maps, and lists all available accommodation along the route.  It is equally usable by those travelling on foot or by bicycle or mountain-bike.The fourth edition (January 2010) has been updated, including the introductory booklet in English. The guide includes also a very large bibliography of the pilgrimage and the Vézelay Way.  Available in our Bookshop.
Updates are published regularly on the Association's website.

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

Thanks to M & J.C Chassain,August 2003.

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