Voie de Vézelay

Introduction One of the four major historical routes to Santiago de Compostela in the Middle Ages, described by Aimery Picaud in his 12th century 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.

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 Vézelay 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 colours, the colours used are yellow and blue.

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 identical 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 have 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.  

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 you travel further south. As you approach the Pyrenées Atlantiques you become 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 doable all year round, with – usually – no other difficulties than muddy tracks and tractor ruts.

When to go.  The best times of year are still 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 pilgrims who are looking for tranquillity and a meditative environment.

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 a pilgrim for the night), small or large country hotels, chambres d’hôte (bed & breakfasts), or gîtes d’étape (fairly numerous in certain regions), and even numerous rooms for pilgrims provided by generous & charitable private individuals.

View of Vézelay

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 CSJ stocks a number of guide books to this route in our online shop.

Websites:

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

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Confraternity of Saint James,
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Founded in 1983 to promote the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela

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