The Paris / Tours 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.

Connecting Routes. There is a connecting route from Belgium through St Quentin – the ‘Via “Gallia Belgica”.  There is a guide available from the local Association – Amis de SaintJacques de Compostelle Valonia +Bruselas + Belgica – website: http://www.st-jacques.be, but it is currently out-of-stock with a new version planned for mid-2018.  The FFRP Topoguide covers the route from Brussels to Paris.

For anyone wishing to start in the UK, walkers can use the Vanguard Way (East Croydon to Newhaven), take the ferry (check https://www.aferry.co.uk/ for details of the various sailings etc), then follow the Dieppe to Chartres route from the Association Normande des Amis de Saint Jacques – website: http://chemins-pelerins-normands.fr/ . 

Alternatively, sail from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, walk to Mont St Michel and onwards to Saint-Jean-d’Angély.  Normandy routes can be seen here. Separate CSJ route overview for Mont Saint-Michel to Saint-Jean-d’Angély here.

Cyclists can follow the Avenue Verte (London Eye to Notre Dame).

See Guides below for full details of guidebooks available for these routes.

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.  A detailed breakdown of the routes village by village can be found on Wikipedia.

Waymarking.  There is no single waymarked long-distance footpath covering the entire route.  Much of the “historic” route now lies under major roads and cannot be walked.  Most pilgrims use 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 GR655 is waymarked from Paris (via Chartres) to the Charente Maritime/Gironde border.

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.

Please note that some of these locations are on different variants of the route.  If there is somewhere you particularly want to visit, please make sure you pick the correct branch/variation.

Paris. The 16th century tower of the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie which acted as a landmark and meeting place for pilgrims setting off for Santiago.  Tours can be booked here.

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. Châtellerault: the most important town on the route is easily reached by train from Tours (or Poitiers – it lies between the two) and worth a visit, for pilgrims with time, for the fine sixteenth-century bridge across the river Vienne and for the church of Saint-Jacques. The former Priory church of Saint-Jacques is a twelfth/thirteenth-century pilgrimage church with a plaque of the Centre d’ Etudes Compostellanes Chemin de Saint-Jacques and in the north transept, a seventeenth-century polychrome statue of Saint-Jacques with scallop shells. There is a matching statue of Saint-Roch in the south transept. Saint-Jacquesappears as apostle in the frieze on the west front and in wood as a pilgrim above the trumeau of the main portal. 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 of 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.

Many of the local pilgrim association websites (listed below) will have a list of accommodation.

HotelF1 is a chain of budget hotels that can be useful as a back-up.

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, 2006, ISBN 9782841823109 has maps, accommodation and directions in French for route via Orleans and Tours.  This is now rather out of date although still available from Amazon.
  • GR655 Chemins de St-Jacques: Brussels – Paris – Tours FFRP Topo-guide No. 6551, Fédération française de la randonnée pédestre (FFRP), 2013, ISBN 9782751406287, A5 paperback in French, with some maps and a lot of information in symbol form.  Covers both the Chartres and the Orléans variants.  Available from Stanfords or FFRP.
  • Sentier vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle : Tours – Mirambeau FFRP Topo-guide No. 6552, Fédération française de la randonnée pédestre (FFRP).  In French, continues the Via Turonensis from Tours almost as far as Bordeaux. Available from FFRP.
  •  La voie de Tours, F Lepère & Y Terrien,  LepèreGuides, 2017, in French, available from Les guides LEPÈRE.
  • Avenue Verte: London to Paris by Bike, R Peace, Sustrans, 2017, ISBN 9781910845349, English, available from Stanfords.
  • Topoguide du sentier Via “Gallia Belgica”, SGR, 1999.    Out of print but new version planned for mid-2018.  See Amis de Saint Jacques de Compostelle Valonia +Bruselas + Belgica

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.

Maps, Apps and GPS. Peter Robins no longer maintains his long list of routes and maps on his website, but his archive can be accessed here.

Maps and an app for the route can be found here: http://douglasajohnson.com/caminos.htm

The Top 100 IGN map series (paper maps) show GRs (long distance paths). For this route the maps are: Paris 118; Orleans 127; Chartres 126; Tours 133; Poitiers 139; Saintes 138; Bordeaux 145; Mont de Marsan 152; Bayonne 166.  Available from The Map Centre or Stanfords.

Pilgrim Associations:  Useful for local advice and accommodation information.  Most will have a list of lodgings (hébergements) on their website.

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

Additional Background Reading:

  • Paris Pilgrim, Hilary Hugh-Jones and Mark Hassall, CSJ City Guide no 1, 2007 (available from CSJ bookshop £5 – click here to buy) Two walking tours of sites of pilgrim interest in central Paris.
  • The Pilgrimage to Santiago: Edwin Mullins (1974, copy in CSJ Library) Art Historian Edwin Mullins follows the Paris Route by car before the rebirth of the pilgrimage in Spain or France. Good historical background.
  • Walking to Santiago: Diary of a Pilgrimage : Mary Wilkie (2001, copy in CSJ Library) One of few published Diary accounts, by intrepid Australian walker. ISBN 0864281986
  • The Great Pilgrimage of the Middle Ages: V & H Hell (1966, copy in CSJ Library) Large format art historical book, with 180 b/w photos pf architectural features and towns.
  • La Via Turonensis from Paris to Spain (Pilgrimage Trails), Sylvia Nilson, available from Amazon, Kindle edition only, 97pp A useful English Guide for starters – a diary account.
  • Pursuing the Chemin and Coquilles de St-Jacques in Paris, Kathy Gower. Article on finding St James in Paris http://peregrinations.kenyon.edu/vol1-3/gower.pdf 

Updated October 2017

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