Introduction 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.Pilgrims from the UK who want to set off from their homes, tend to walk or cycle to either Paris or Chartres (historically an important secondary starting point) and pick up the Chemin de Tours from there. The first major town on the route from Paris is Orléans, after which the way follows the Loire valley to Tours where it joins the route from Chartres; it then goes southwest 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.
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, you encounter pleasant agricultural terrain, some deciduous forests and there are 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.
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.
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.
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.
Confraternity of Saint James,
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Tel: (+44) (0)20 7928 9988
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Founded in 1983 to promote the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela