Pilgrim friends, you're going to walk on the Podiensis via the Way of Saint James of Compostela, which is Le Puy-en-Velay's Road. With its 1600kms, this is the road of a Christian pilgrimage which started in the 10th century.
Pilgrimage on the St James of Compostela Way
This is a universel move which we find throughout all the human history, in every religion, on each the continents. Becoming a stranger, as he quits his usual world and loses his social status as well as his hierarchical references, the pilgrim becomes aware of himself, of his own limits and sometimes how to get beyond them.
Every pilgrimage evokes our march on earth heavenwards. It reminds us that we are down here on earth only for a short time as we are on our way towards our definitive residence, waiting actively for the Meeting and the Eternal communion with God.
The treasures of pilgrimage by foot.
1. It implies the movement of the whole person:
body and spirit.
2. Carrying the necessary on our back, we clear the useless things off, we leave the non-essentials.
3. We enjoy all of God's creations: silence, peace and beauty.
4. Walking is a school of patience. It is the image of our own life, it is a question of progressing day after day courageously.
5. The everyday acts of our life take another savour, like drinking, having a wash, welcoming a smile on our way... Mutual aid is also learned along the path, like showing the way, sharing food...
6. A pilgrimage is a school of equality. Whether we are rich or poor, full of knowledge or not at all, the thing is to go forward with patience and humility.
7. Walking gives many great occasions to live deep meetings with other pilgrims and with the inhabitants.
8. Walking as a pilgrim opens our heart to God: "Lord, I shall give you some time, I shall give way to you. Work within me, give me your light."
9. Walking gives time to pray with the help of numerous holy places (churches, sanctuaries), and with the help of many testimonies from countless human brothers and sisters who have been through this pilgrimage for over 10 centuries.
Walking to Saint James...
Who is St James? James, one of Jesus' twelve apostles, is the eldest brother of the apostle and evangelist John. He was the son of Zebedee whom he was a fisherman with on the Lake of Galilee. He and his brother were nicknamed Boanerges, which means "the son of thunder". This nickname underlines an impetuous, passionate, determined and daring character. James, like Peter and John, belongs to Jesus' close friends. They were of the lucky few who witnessed the important events of Jesus' life, like the resurrection of Jaire's daughter, Jesus' Transfiguration and Agony. With the Tradition, James is made the evangelist of Spain.
From the Acts of the Apostles, he died as a martyr in Jerusalem between 41 and 44 and he was beheaded on the order of Herode the King. If Etienne is the 1rst Christian martyr in the year 35, James is the 1rst apostle who shed his blood for our Lord Jesus Christ. Fleeing from persecution, some of Jesus' disciples would have brought James' body back in a small boat into the places where himself had evangelised. His grave was discovered in Compostelle in the 9th century. From the year 1000, Compostelle became with Rome the main Occidental pilgrimage.
Walking towards Saint James
St James quitted everything to follow Jesus and he gave him his life. This pilgrimage invites us to welcome his testimony, to open our hearts to the one he was beheaded for being a pilgrim of St James, isn't it like him looking for being a close friend to Jesus, a true disciple living one's faith boldly, generously, fervently and loyally ? Following the example of this "Son of Thunder".
The bishop of Compostela incites us to talk to each other on our way: "the way to St James has to be a Fraternity Road in terms of space, time and spiritual environment where the Catholics shall give reason to their feith and hope. They shall favour the oecumenical dialogue with their separated brothers, with the members of the other religions and also with people who don't live in the joy of faith and wonder about life with a searching spirit as they are walking." (Pastoral letter for the Compostellane Saint Year 1999)
Leaving from Le Puy or going through Le Puy-en-Velay
The 1rst known historical pilgrim is Godescalc, Le Puy's bishop from 927 to 962. In 951, he went "all the way to the borders of Galice hastily in order to humbly beseech God's mercy and apostle James' prayers." As he probably came back enthusiastic like nowadays pilgrims, he had a chapel built on the top of the Aiguilhe Rock in 962 and he invited pilgrims to start from Le Puy-en-Velay where they could confide their way to Mary's prayers as well as to the Archangel Michael.
Le Puy-en-Velay is one of the oldest Marian sanctuaries in Europe. Numerous pilgrims have been coming up to here since the 5th century in order to confide their worries to the Mother of God's prayers. As God wanted to come to us, he chose a young virgin, Mary. We are reminded this thanks to the statue of Notre Dame du Puy.
We may let us guide by her and confide us to her prayers. "Woman" as Jesus calls her when he repeats the word of Genesis, Mary, a humble and faithful server, walks with us. Virgin, she is entirely turned to God.
She leads us to her son Jesus. Mother, she is attentive to our growing sons and daughters of God, as she was for Jesus. If there is sun coming out, the colour of your skin will look like Jesus' and Mary's ! Like us, the Son of God walked sorely in the sun of our earth with his mother nearby. For us, he gave his life and accepted to die on a cross. His mother Mary invites us to welcome his love which is the source of light and peace.
"All the way of your pilgrimage, the Mother of God will help you to get to know and like better and better the Church which needs you so much ! Each of you will be showed the way where the greatest love is to be found, in a word how to become a saint in our time." (Mgr Brincard, Le Puy's bishop)
The sanctuary of St Michael d'Aiguilhe also reminds us that we can rely on the presence and help of angels, who are our invisible companions. They are attentive "for fear of us hitting a stone".(Mt 4,6)
May this pilgrimage renew your life. As a pilgrim said: "We do not take the Road of St James, but it is the Road of St James that takes you !" May St James, our Lady and St Michael intercede on your behalf in front of the Lord !
In the Middle Ages people made the journey out of religious zeal, or in atonement for their sins-even Guillaume, duc d'Aquitaine, Alienor's grandfather, who had been accused of encouraging heresy on his lands. On the eve of the third millennium, what could possibly motivate people, not just Christians but people of all faiths, to walk more than 1,500 km (950 miles) to the presumed resting place of Saint James? Modern sociologists invoke a variety of reasons: faith, reaction against our overindulging society, the opportunity to escape an unhappy home life or boring day-to-day existence, or simply a return to nature.
The multiplicity of reasons explains why today your traveling companions may be a retired French judge, a South African architect, a successful banker from Copenhagen or a math teacher from Naples, just as in the Middle Ages one might travel alongside kings, queens, saints, bishops, knights, whores or false monks.
The more dubious characters had donned pilgrim's garb as a pretext to go on the road, where it was easier to rob or even murder their unsuspecting fellow travelers. They were called coquillards and were the holy terror of the pilgrims.
Nowadays, the number of women pilgrims almost equals that of men. Not so in the Middle Ages, given the paramount dangers of travel: There was little likelihood that unaccompanied women would go unmolested. Occasionally married couples went together, as we see in a 14th-century manuscript in the British Museum. The wife is shown carrying most of the luggage, even her husband's sword and chain mail.
Ten centuries ago, a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela entailed an arduous preparation. The pilgrim-to-be had to put things in order at home, write his last will, procure money for his gear and lodging, and obtain from his priest a certificate of good faith. Similarly, today a pilgrim needs what is called in Spain a credencial, a letter of accreditation delivered by the many Associations of the Friends of Saint James, found all over the world, which gives access to private or religious lodging for a minimal sum.
The Medieval pilgrim's outfit consisted of a wide-brimmed hat; a long walking stick (bourdon) made of strong wood with an iron end, useful in fending off wolves and dogs; and a leather pouch slung over the shoulder to hold the small amount of food it was practical to carry.
By and large, the most important piece of equipment was the shoes, galoshes or heavy sandals, since the pilgrim would cover the 1,500 km (at least) at the rate of 20 to 30 km a day. Walking barefoot was very infrequent and reserved for the great sinners or saints. Halfway through the trip, at the Abbey of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees, a cobbler monk repaired pilgrims' shoes for free.
Those who could read had memorized the best-seller of the time, The Book of Saint James, written around 1140 by a peripatetic monk from Poitou, Aimery Picaud. It outlined the various itineraries to Santiago de Compostela and offered useful and revealing details about water sources, food, the character of the inhabitants of the region, and churches and shrines where one could stop and pray.
The whole notion of the pilgrimage to Santiago was to put one foot in front of the other, again and again, for nearly a thousand miles. The roads followed by pilgrims were rarely the ancient Roman roads, made for marching armies; traveling from sanctuary to church and from monastery to cathedral, the pilgrims never took a straight path but proceeded in detours and zigzags.
There were no signposts, and even if there had been, few could have read them. Nor were there maps: The wayfarers had to rely on instructions learned by heart, observe the sun's course if possible and hire a guide who knew the way and its dangers. To get lost was probably to die.
However, along the road there were montjoies, or small pyramids of stacked stones showing the right way. In the Aubrac region (a 4,500-foot-high plateau in central France) on snowy or foggy days, charitable monks rang the bell of their monastery at regular intervals; this voice (la cloche des perdus) could bring the strayed, mist-blinded pilgrims back to the road in this wild region.
At times, in Poitou or Saintonge and more frequently on the Spanish side of the border, the traditional shell of Saint James or a statue of the saint was carved over doorways or church portals to indicate the way. (Early on, prayer to Saint James revived a drowning victim, who reappeared adorned with cockleshells, and the shell has been a symbol of Saint James ever since.)
The most difficult part of the travel by far was the crossing of a large river such as the Rhone, Garonne or Dordogne. When there were bridges, the tolls were astronomical, so most pilgrims depended on boatmen and their flimsy ferries that plied the raging rivers and occasionally capsized when overloaded.
In his guidebook, Aimery Picaud warned travelers that boatmen were the pilgrims' natural enemies: "Cursed be the boatmen who overload their boat and rejoice as they strip their drowned victims."
Those who survived these dangers faced the terrible trial of crossing the Pyrenees between France and Spain. The climb toward the Roncevaux Pass, standing at 4,500 feet, where the hero of the Chanson de Roland died in 778, was awesome. Although less demanding, the climb down into Navarre presented its own problems. Aimery Picaud (who was anything but impartial!) told appalling stories of Navarre and Basque people: "They are barbarous people, very wicked, perverted and lecherous, ferocious and dishonest !"
Contrary to our times, when pilgrims are more likely to travel singly, in the Middle Ages they gathered in fairly large groups; along the way they confided to one another good addresses and provided ample details about the welcome in such and such a monastery.
Pilgrims were interested in the world around them but the different languages and dialects along the way left them at the mercy of the inhabitants for essential questions: How did you inquire whether the water was drinkable? Or ask if there was fish in the river?
After miles of dusty or muddy roads, clothes were thick with dirt and vermin, even if occasionally one could wash in a river or in a cauldron lent by some kind village lady. At the hospice of Aubrac, a monk was specially appointed to cut pilgrims' hair and beards.
As sunset approached after a day's travel, it was time to look for a resting place. Of course, the solution of choice was to stop at a monastery or a hospice. Along the pilgrimage road, 10,000 monks of the Order of Cluny supervised some 1,000 abbeys, monasteries, hospices and shelters in towns and villages, recognizable by their Saint James shell. In many ways, the organization of the Order of Cluny anticipated the modern travel industry, but its activities were much broader in scope. They ran the "luxury" hotels of the days, offering beds of straw for two people per bed. They cared for the sick with doctors and apothecaries who provided washed sheets, blankets, sheepskins and woollen socks for walking to the latrines.
Along the road, a whole population lived off pilgrims: innkeepers, toll takers, money changers, guides, priests, monks, souvenir vendors. Monasteries vied to be chosen as lodgings by the rich, from whom they expected charities.
Once the Pyrenees were crossed and Navarre left behind, the pilgrims found themselves on the last leg of the trip. Approaching Santiago from a place called Monte del Gozo, one could see for the first time the triple-towered cathedral of Compostela. According to tradition, the first pilgrim in a crowd to see Compostela from the top of the hill was made king of the pilgrimage; he would later be called Leroy or Le Roy and could pass the name to his descendants.
Weeping with joy and fatigue, at long last they saw the fulfillment of the dream of their entire lives. They had suffered frostbite, sunstroke, exhaustion, hunger, sickness, but at that instant they forgot it all and had only one desire: to go and pray to Santiago at his shrine. But first they had to wash, to undergo a sort of baptism and be purified.
Once in the church, where a solemn mass brought together pilgrims from all corners of the world, exhausted and hungry as they were, once they had given the traditional embrace to the silver-caped Santiago, once they had procured the shell badge recognizing their feat, it was time to go back home.
Not all pilgrims finished the journey. How many went astray on the way back, died of cold or starvation, or were lost in the blizzard, devoured by wolves or killed by their fellow men?
But most of them made it. On the way back, people kissed them, wanting to touch their clothes as if to partake in their state of grace.
Once back in their family, they had so much to tell: the different sanctuaries, the encounters along the road, the fears and the hopes, the laughter and the suffering, the tears at seeing Compostela; and all those miles traveled to the end of the Western world, following the sun during the day and the Milky Way at night. But this was not the main thing.
The essential they could not express. How could they put into words the way it felt to have conquered the solitude and anguish, to have reached on the physical plane the most elusive of all spiritual goals: the transcending of their capabilities ?
GR65 From Puy-en-Velay (Haute Loire) to Nasbinals (Lozere)
GR65 From Nasbinals (Lozere) to Montredon (Lot)
GR65 From Montredon (Lot) to Labastide-Marnhac (Lot)
GR65 From Labastide-Marnhac (Lot) to Marsolan (Gers)
GR65 From Marsolan (Gers) to Aire-sur-l'Adour (Landes)
GR65 From Aire-sur-l'Adour (Landes) to Larribar-Sorhapuru (Pyrenees-Atlantiques)
GR65 From Larribar-Sorhapuru (Pyrenees-Atlantiques) to Roncesvalles (Spain)
Hiking loops in Southern France
Cycling loops in Southern France
Cevennes National Park
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While trying to be as accurate as possible, the route remains approximate. It is advisable to follow beacons throughout the itinerary and take with you the Federation Francaise de la Randonnee Pedestre topo-guide and also you can check Gites d'etape et Refuges (Guest houses and Shelters). The information I have are all on the web-site, if you see any errors or additions Guest-House, Bed and Breakfast, Shelter or Youth Hostel, please contact me.
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