A pilgrimage is a journey, especially a long one requiring repetitive long-distance walking or cycling, made to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion or often not. The saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Really, that’s not true. Every major journey begins with a plan: where you’re going, where you’re stopping along the way, and how you’re getting there.
1. ROUTES TO JERUSALEM
Confraternity of Pilgrims to Jerusalem – The Way of the Soul https://sites.google.com/site/pilgrimstojerusalem/
The Confraternity highlights ancient and contemporary routes that when stitched together, connect Canterbury Cathedral with Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: via Francigena, via Appia, via Egnatia, Lycian Way, Sultans’ Trail, Abraham’s Path, Israel National Trail, and the Ecological Pilgrim’s Way to Jerusalem. The Confraternity is a source of practical information for those planning a pilgrimage to the city of gold on foot, bicycle, or horse. So where do you go after reaching Rome? You slip on your walking shoes, sling your rucksack, and continue to Jerusalem and beyond.
Jerusalem has been called the holiest city in the world, and is an important place of pilgrimage for Christians, Muslims and Jews. All the key events of Christ’s Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection are based there. Holy Week pilgrims may follow His journey to the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, visit the Cenacle where the Last Supper was held on the Mount of Olives on Maundy Thursday, pray at Calvary on Good Friday, and attend the Easter Vigil, the final drama of Christ’s death and Resurrection, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This basilica is allegedly built on Mount Golgotha, where Jesus is thought to have been entombed.
• Crossing England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Vatican: via Francigena (see below)
• Crossing Italy: via Appia – This is the first and most important of the great roads built by the Ancient Romans: Basilica Papale di San Pietro in the Vatican, heads southeast to Bari, Italy on the Aegean Sea.
• Crossing Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Western Turkey: via Egnatia (see below)
• Crossing Eastern Turkey
• Alternative Route: Istanbul, Turkey to Alanya, Turkey
• The five-island-hopping route: Samos, Patmos, Kos, Rhodes, Cyprus
• Crossing Northern Cyprus to the Republic of Cyprus
• Crossing Israel: Haifa to Jerusalem
• Crossing Syria, Jordan, West Bank, Israel to Jerusalem – Adams Way,
2. VIA FRANCIGENA
Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (CPR) – www.pilgrimstorome.org.uk
The Via Francigena is an old pilgrim route running from Canterbury to Rome. Followed by St Augustine it was the most important road of Medieval Europe from the 6th to the 13th century. The present route follows more or less directly in the footsteps of Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury (989-994). He travelled to Rome in 989 to receive his cope and pallium (a circular band of white wool with pendant, worn by archbishops) from the hands of the Pope, as was customary for that period. Sigeric on his way home recorded the places he passed through.’ The manuscript of that journey is kept in the British Library and became the focus of academic research that resulted in the re-creation of this modern-day pilgrimage route. The Archbishop’s description of the route proved accurate although the 10th century names differed in many instances from their contemporary ones.
The via Francigena is called the Way of the Heart. It is the way of Love, but not human love, but Divine Love, whatever the term means to you.
The Route: Starting from Canterbury, the route arrives in France at Calais. Originally the crossing was further down the coast at Wissant, so most people go there from Calais. If time is tight, one could go directly to Giunes, thus saving a day. Traveling down the north east of France one passes through a region scarred by two world wars. Towns and cities encountered include Arras, the Cathedral city of Reims, picturesque Bar-Sur-Aube, Clairvaux, the hilltop town of Langres, and Besancon with its attractive riverside walks. Cross the border into Switzerland at Auberson, Pontarlier or Sainte-Croix.
At Lausanne, take a ferry across the lake, or as pilgrims of old did, walk around the lakeshore to reach the Alps and reach the border of Italy at Grand Saint Bernard pass, (2473m/8114’). Descend from the pass through the Aosta Valley. Can explore Pont-St-Martin and Pavia and cross the Po River on a ferry. Climb up to ? Pass at 1040m, arrive at Pontremok. Meet the Mediterranian Coast at Sarzana. Continue south to Lucca, San Gimignano, Senna (beautiful cathedral), San Quirco D’Arbia.
There is a choice of route here, both a climb. Going right brings one to the Abbey of San Salvatore at Amata (parchment from 876 that contains the first reference to the route as thing th Via Francigena. Going to the left via Radiocofani (can be seen for miles perched on top of a hill). Meet again at Acquapendente (the start of the minimum distance a walker must cover in order to be awarded a Testimonium. After skirting the volcanic lake at Bolsena, continue on an ancient basalt Roman road past the Etruscan necropolis and finally after 2000kms, arrive at St Peters Square, Rome.
1. Lightfoot Guides to the Via Francigena
The most used guide by English-speaking pilgrims is a detailed multi-part guide in English covering the whole route from Canterbury to Rome. It includes maps, elevation details, accommodation lists, GPS waypoints and practical facilities such as doctors/vets, internet cafes and Tourist Offices.
It is available from Pilgrim Publications (see http://www.pilgrimagepublications.com/vfguides.html) or the CSJ, (click the link and scroll down if necessary) – http://www.csj.org.uk/acatalog/_.html
2. Italian Ministry of Culture Guide
This is stored on a website (see Links/About Routes) and has components which comprise downloadable pdf files of instructions and zip files of GPS points. The route is from the Grand St Bernard Pass to Rome and is divided up into 5 sections which are then split into stages of between 15 and 34 kms in length. A Google map is shown for each section as well as for the overall route. Some of the stages have a photo gallery associated with them. The pdfs contain instructions in Italian but with distances and arrows to show direction changes so are not too difficult to follow. Also included are some photos as well as a large-scale Garmin map of the stage with the route marked and numbers on the route corresponding to the instructions. There is also an altitude chart . Being stored this way means the instructions are easy to maintain so should be reasonably current. The guide is purely to the route. There is no information about where to eat or sleep.
3. CPR – Guide to Services & Accommodation on the Via Francigena by Alison Raju – 1st Edition of a series planned by The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome. It is a guide to the accommodation and services on the route between Canterbury and St Bernard Pass (England, France and Switzerland). Updated every year in January, on the basis of pilgrims’ feedback. This is not a guide with the necessary maps or route directions available in the Lightfoot or Cicerone guides.
Order the guide by post (UK deliveries only) click here and a PDF order form will open that you can print off
It is available online from the CSJ, (click the link and scroll down if necessary)
3. VIA EGNATIA
The Via Egnatia was the connection between the western and eastern part of the Roman Empire. Built in the 3rd century BC (under consul Egnatius) as an extension of the Via Appia, it runs through the Balkans from Durrës (Dyrrachium) on the Adriatic Sea in Albania, through Macedonia and Northern Greece all the way to Istanbul (Byzantium) in Turkey.
Originally a military road, it served economic and social functions for more than two millenia. After the decline of the Roman Empire the Byzantines used and protected the road. After them came the Ottomans, who send their tax collectors and trade-karavans along its trail.
Used by soldiers and later by crusaders, preachers and bandits, merchants and peasants on their way to the local market, tax collectors, karavans with up to two hundred mules and donkeys, loaded with skins, wines, wood and sulphur, the road served local as well as interlocal purposes. Many different ethnic groups made use of the Via Egnatia, and met each other along its trails, in its karavan-serails: Greeks and Jews, Vlachs and Pomaks, Turks, Venetians, Egyptians and Roma. Also modern migrants travelled along it, for example the Evros-Greeks who left their country in the sixties and (many of them) came back in the last decade. So the Via Egnatia – with intervals due to political or geographical trouble – has been a real trans-Balkan highway.
Initially, the road follows a difficult route along the river Genusus (Shkumbin), over the Candaviae mountains and thence to the highlands around Lake Ohrid. It then turns south, following several high mountain passes to reach the northern coastline of the Aegean Sea at Thessalonica. From there it runs through Thrace to Istanbul. It passes through mountains and valleys, along riverbeds, past lakes and seaside, villages and cities, the ancient Via Egnatia route goes 1000 km eastward to Istanbul. Parts of the old road have survived and are still there to enjoy for the observant hiker.
Making use of the former Roman stations, this is a journey into history that will change your views on Europe. Via Egnatia stands for the cultural connection between East and West. Walking here offers a special insight into the amalgam of cultures that have become the Balkans.
The first part of the Via Egnatia Hiking Trail is now ready. It is 475 km long, starting from Durrës on the Adriatic coast through Albania, Macedonia and Greece and ending at Thessaloniki. It is a completely new trail for the walker who is looking for untrodden paths. The trail suits the backpacker with sleeping bag and tent as well as the walker who prefers to spend the nights in proper beds.
Via Egnatia on Foot – A journey into history – Part I from Durrës to Thessaloniki
This 256 page guide-book contains a step by step description of the route (475km), 30 detailed topographic maps, 7 city maps with city walks and GPS coordinates and a lot of pictures. Ample attention is given to history, backgrounds, practical information and useful hints. A table of commonly used words in Albanian, Macedonian and Greek is included.
4. SULTANS TRAIL
The Sultans Trail is a long-distance footpath from Vienna to Istanbul. It was a military route not a religious pilgrimage. It is 2,200 kilometres (1,400 mi) long. The path passes through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, East Macedonia and Thrace in northern Greece, and Turkey.
The Sultans Trail takes its name from Suleiman the Magnificent, of the Ottoman Empire who led Ottoman armies to conquer Belgrade and most of Hungary before his invasion was checked at the Siege of Vienna. The main path follows his route to Vienna. He started on 10 May 1529 from Istanbul and arrived 23 September 1529 in Vienna (141 days). It was to be the Ottoman Empire’s most ambitious expedition to the west, but the Austrian garrison inflicted upon Suleiman his first defeat. A second attempt to conquer Vienna failed in 1532. In 1566, at the age of 60, the sultan led his army for the last time; he died close to Szigetvár in Hungary.
In contrast to its past the Sultan’s Trail nowadays forms a path of peace, a meeting place for people of all faiths and cultures. The trail starts at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the centre of Vienna; the bells of this church are made from the melted iron of Ottoman cannons. It ends at the tomb of the Sultan in Istanbul. The Sultans Trail is developed by volunteers from the Netherlands-based NGO Sultans Trail – A European Cultural Route.
Apart from the Romanian and Bulgarian mountains, the trail can be walked all year round. Most parts of the route have ample accommodation such as hotels, pensions or private rooms. In parts of Hungary and Bulgaria a tent is necessary.
5. WAY OF ST. JAMES / CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
The Camino Frances is called the Way of the Sword. It’s where you battle your fears and face your demons.
The Camino de Santiago (Also known as the Way of St. James) extends from different countries of Europe, and even North Africa, on its way to Santiago de Compostela and Finisterre.
In Spain and Portugal
1. The French Way (Camino Francés) – The most popular of the routes. It runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side before making its way through to Santiago de Compostela through the major cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León.
2. The Aragonese Way (Camino Aragonés) – Comes down from the Somport pass in the Pyrenees then through the old kingdom of Aragon. It follows the River Aragón passing through towns such as Jaca. It then crosses into the province of Navarre to Puente La Reina where it joins the Camino Francés.
3. The Northern Way (Camino del Norte) – Runs from France at Irún and follows the northern coastline of Spain to Galicia where it heads inland towards Santiago joining the Camino Francés at Arzúa. This route follows the old Roman road, the Via Agrippa, for some of its way and is part of the Coastal Route (Ruta de la Costa), passing through San Sebastian, Gernika, Bilbao, and Oviedo. It is less populated, lesser known and generally more difficult hiking. Shelters are 20 to 35 kilometers apart with few hostels or monasteries.
4. The Tunnel Way (Basque Inland Route or San Adrian Route) – In the Early Middle Ages, when Vikings and Muslims threatened the Northern (Coastal) Way, this provided a safe road north of the frontier area, i.e. Gipuzkoa and Alava. This may be the oldest and most important stretch of the Way of St. James up to its heyday in the 13th century. From the starting point in Irún, the road heads south-west up the Oria valley (Villabona, Ordizia, Zegama), reaches its highest point at the San Adrian tunnel and runs through the Alavan plains (Zalduondo, Salvatierra/Agurain, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Miranda de Ebro before here, nowadays pilgrims usually take a detour south towards Haro and on to Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
5. The English Way (Camino Inglés) is traditionally for pilgrims who traveled to Spain by sea and disembarked in Ferrol or A Coruña and then went overland to Santiago. Most were English but some came from all over northern Europe.
6. The Portuguese Way (Camino Portugués, Caminho Português) begins at Lisbon or Porto in Portugal. From Porto, pilgrims travel north crossing the Lima and Minho rivers before entering Spain and then passing through Padron before arriving at Santiago. It is the second most popular way, after the French one. The route is 610 km long starting in Lisbon or 227 km long starting in Porto. There are two traditional routes from Porto: a. Central Way. Inland, it passes via Rates. Used since the Middle Ages, the ancient monastery of Rates gained importance due to the legend of Saint Peter of Rates. The legend holds that Saint James ordained Peter as the first bishop of Braga in the year AD 44. One of most tiring parts of the Portuguese Way is in the Labruja Hills in Ponte de Lima, which are hard to cross. The Camino winds its way inland until it reaches the Spanish border through Valença, which is also a popular starting point for a 108 km walk to Santiago, passing through Tui, Galicia. 2. Coastal Way (Caminho da Costa). Important since the 15th century, it passes Vila do Conde (Monastery of Santa Clara and the Matriz Church of Vila do Conde built by king Manuel I of Portugal while in pilgrimage), Póvoa de Varzim, Esposende, Viana do Castelo and Caminha before reaching the Spanish border.
A contemporary version of the Coastal Way, pushed by German pilgrims, goes through Northern Portugal along the sea, using beach walkways. This version of the Coastal Way is gaining importance, as the traditional route is increasingly urbanized and the new version is considered by some pilgrims to be more pleasant. It follows a trend which started with Hape Kerkeling’s book I’m off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago.
7. The Camino Mozárabe – From Granada or Malaga, passes through Córdoba and later joins up with the Via de La Plata at Mérida.
8. Via de La Plata – Starts in Seville then goes north to Zamora via Zafra, Cáceres and Salamanca. Once a Roman causeway joining Italica and Asturica Augustad, it is used less than even the Northern Way – in 2013, of the 215,000 pilgrims granted a compostela in Santiago, 4.2% traveled on the Via de la Plata, compared to 70.3% on the Camino Francés. After Zamora there are three options: 1. Camino Sanabrés heads west and reaches Santiago via Ourense. 2. north to Astorga then west along the Camino Francés to Santiago. 3. seldom traveled, it crosses into Portugal and passes through Bragança, rejoining the Camino Sanabrés near Ourense.
9. The Camino de Madrid – From Madrid, goes north through Segovia and Valladoid, joining the Camino Francés at Sahagún.
10. The Camino del Ebro – Starts at Tortosa in Catalonia, follows the River Ebro past Zaragoza, and joins the Camino Francés at Logroño.
11. The Camino de Santiago de Soria – Leaves the Camino del Ebro at Gallur and goes past Soria to Santo Domingo de Silos, where it joins the Camino de la Lana.
12. The Camino de la Lana (wool road) Leaves Alicante and heads mainly northwards for 670km, joining the Camino Francés at Burgos.
13. The Camino de Levante – Starts at Valencia and crosses Castille-La Mancha, passing through Toledo, El Toboso, Ávila and Medina del Campo, joining the Via de la Plata at Zamora.
14. The Camino del Sureste – Starts at Alicante, passes Almansa until Medina del Campo, where it bifurcates, with the Sureste heading northwards to Tordesillas, joining the Via de la Plata at Benavente, while the Levante goes westwards to Toro and Zamora.
The Way of St. James is said to have originated in France, where it is called Le Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle. This is the reason that the Spanish themselves refer to the Way of St. James as “the French road”, since most of the pilgrims they saw were French. The origin of the pilgrimage is most often cited as the Codex Calixtinus, which is decidedly a French document. Though in the Codex everyone was called upon to join the pilgrimage, there were four main starting points in the Cathedral cities of Tours, Vézelay, Le Puy-en-Velay and Arles. They are today all routes of the Grande Randonnée hiking network in France.
1. The Paris and Tours route (Via Turonensis) – The pilgrimage of choice for inhabitants of the Low Countries and northern and western France. Less crowded and with many religious and tourism attractions, it is gaining favor. Start at the Tour St Jacques in Paris then pass through Orléans-Tours or Chartres-Tours, Poitiers, Bordeaux, the forest at Les Landes before joining the Camino Francés, the national trail GR 65, near Ostabat, shortly before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or to the Camino de la Costa in Irún.
2. The Vézelay route – Passes through Limoges and joins the GR 65 near Ostabat.
3. The Le Puy route (Via Podiensis) – Starting in or passing through Le Puy-en-Velay, it passes through Conques, Cahors and Moissac before coming to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It is part of GR 65. I have done this and is heavily recommended. Le Puy is gorgeous as is the rolling forested agricultural countryside studded with stone buildings and history. The Central Massif and Conques are highlights. I lost 24 pounds in 30 days over the 750km trail – there is one of two good up and downs per day.
4. The Arles Way (Via Tolosana) – Goes through Montpellier, Toulouse (a notable pilgrimage destination in its own right) and Oloron-Sainte-Marie before reaching the Spanish border at Col de Somport in the high Pyrenees. After the Pyrenees it becomes the Aragonese Way that joins the Camino Francés at Puente la Reina.
In Belgium and the Netherlands
Christendom came to Friesland from 800 onwards. The route became popular in the 15th century, well after the Santiago Matamoros legend. There are several Cathedral towns considered official starting routes by the Dutch Confraternity of St. James. 1. Haarlem. The starting point of a modern cycling route to Santiago de Compostela since 1983. 2. Maastricht (Jacobsroute). Another cycling route to Santiago. 3. Wallonia (Le Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle). In southern Belgium. 4. Pelgrimspad (Pilgrims’ Path) From Amsterdam to Visé in Belgium and then connecting to one of the main routes at Vézelay. 5. Ghent and Amiens to connect to Paris and the Via Turonensis.
Most St. James pilgrims through the centuries stopped to visit other famous reliquaries, and many of the most popular ones in France and northern Spain are listed in the Codex. Many had both a scallop shell and a palm frond in their possession, indicating that they had been or were on their way to both Rome and Santiago de Compostela.
1. Via Regia (Ecumenical Pilgrims’ Way or Ökumenischer Pilgerweg). Runs through the German states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia and Hesse. 500 km long, from Görlitz via Bautzen, Kamenz, Großenhain, Wurzen, Leipzig, Merseburg, Naumburg (Saale), Erfurt, Gotha, Eisenach and Vacha to Fulda.
2. Franconian Road (Saxon Way of St. James or Sächsische Jakobsweg an der Frankenstraße). Via Regia links to Franconia, runs from Königsbrück via Wilsdruff to Grumbach and from Bautzen via Bischofswerda, Dresden, Kesselsdorf, Grumbach, through the Tharandt Forest to Freiberg and on to Chemnitz and Zwickau, in order to join the Via Imperii coming from Leipzig, before continuing via Plauen, Hof and Bayreuth to Nuremberg.
Via Jacobi or Jakobsweg. Many routes originating in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Eastern Europe and even Italy/South Tyrol led to Switzerland and from there to France. Beginning in the early Middle Ages (9-10th century), pilgrims coming from northern and eastern Europe crossed into Switzerland at Lake Constance then to Geneva passing three traditional pilgrimage places, Einsiedeln Abbey, Flüeli Ranft and the Caves of Saint Beatus and the historic cities and villages of St. Gall, Lucerne, Schwyz, Interlaken, Thun, Fribourg, and Lausanne.
Lesser Polish Way. From Sandomierz to Kraków.
Greater Polish Way. From Gniezno to Poznań, Leszno, Wschowa and Głogów.
Lower Silesian Way. From Głogów to Zgorzelec and Görlitz.
Camino Polaco. From Lithuania to Olsztyn, Toruń, Poznań and Słubice.
Camino Polaco del Norte. From Kretinga to Elbląg to Gdańsk to Szczecin.
Via Cervimontana. From Jelenia Góra to Lubań.
Silesian-Moravian Way. From Kraków to the Czech Republic.
Via Regia. From Korczowa/Pilzno via Kraków to Görlitz.
St. James’ Gate in Dublin was traditionally a main starting point for Irish pilgrims to begin their journey on the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James). The pilgrims’ passports were stamped here before setting sail, usually for A Coruña.
6. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON TRAIL – GR70 The Huegounots
Distance: 276.54km, Elevation maximum: 1697m, Elevation minimum: 130m, Elevation gain uphill: 8540m
On 22nd September, 1878, the young Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, (RLS), set out on foot from Monastier sur Gazeille in the Haute-Loire with his donkey Modestine. 12 days, 220 kms and many adventures later, he arrived at Saint Jean de Gard. He had a twofold objective – to try and forget his love for Fanny Osbourne, the beautiful American woman who he in fact eventually married some years later – and to explore the countryside of the Camisards, the French Protestants, from the rugged and isolated Cevennes region of southern France.
He chose this mountainous, backward area because it was almost the only part of France where protestantism still prevailed after the Wars of Religion and the purges of the seventeenth century.
History. To Stevenson these so-called Camisards were the French equivalent of the persecuted Covenanters of his own country. The book he wrote describing this expedition, “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes”, made him well-known for the first time.
His trip began from le Monastier, but the modern track named after him starts at
Le Puy, half a day’s walk away. A long distance footpath (GR 70) has been devised with the object of letting you walk in Stevenson’s footsteps through some of the remotest countryside in France strewn with beautiful old historic villages following footpaths, ancient bridleways and drove roads. It fits conveniently into a fortnight of walking. It is possible to reconstruct most of his route from what he wrote but sometimes follows small roads which did not exist in his time.
The route begins at Le Puy en Velay and goes along the volcanic plateaus of the Velay. Into the Gevaudan area, a region where, according to the legend, a monster lived, among heather, rocks and pines. Mont Lozere, where upright stones mark the route for hikers, has a stonet view-point to see the Cevennes and the “bas-Languedoc” and as far as the Mediterranean Sea. The Cevennes, protected by National Park status rise above the plains of the Languedoc and the Mediterranean. The Cevennes is a maze of deep valleys with winding rivers of clear waters and hill slopes covered in forests of sweet chestnut along with the mulberry planted in days gone by for feeding the silkworms bred in the mills called magnaneries. In the latter stretches of the walk, arrive at the land of the Camisards, infamous for 100 years of fighting between Protestants (Huguenots) and Catholics in the Middle Ages (the War of Religion). The trip ends with Mont Finiels (1700 m.) and the Signal de Goudes (1400 m.).
The route is mainly at a height of about 1000 meters, from North to South. The rivers crossed are the Loire, the Allier, the Lot and the Tarn.
Guides. Get the topo-guide GR70 “Stevenson’s Way” and “Cevennes” by Kenneth White. A good accommodation guide is the “Miam-miam Dodo” (French baby talk for Eat-Sleep), which lists all the eating and sleeping possibilities along this walk.
IGN Maps: Le Puy-en-Velay (2735E). Le Puy-en-Velay Yssingeaux (2835OT). Solignac-sur-Loire Cayres (2736E). Gerbier de Jonc Mezenc Vivarais (2836OT). Langogne (2737E). La Bastide-Puylaurent (2738E). Largentiere la Bastide-Puylaurent Vivarais Cevenol (2838OT). Mont Lozere Florac PN des Cevennes (2739OT). Corniche des Cevennes PN des Cevennes (2740ET). Ales (2840OT).
9. THE CATHAR WAY (SENTIER CATHARS)
The success of the book and movie of the Da Vinci Code has fed a new awakening of interest in the Languedoc and its fabulous Cathar castles. These ‘Castles in the Sky’, perched on their vertiginous rock pinnacles, are some of the last remnants of the ill-fated Cathar ‘heretics’ and the legends that linked them to the Holy Grail.
The Cathar Way invites walkers to ‘travel through time’ over 250 kms of breathtaking Languedoc countryside. From Port-La-Nouvelle on the Mediterranean coast across the Corbières and the Pyrénées foothills of the Aude to the historic Ariège town of Foix, the trail links nine of these famous fortresses.
History. The Cathar faith came to prominence in the twelth century with a Cathar church being established as early as the beginning of the eleventh century in the Champagne region. Catharism spread all over France with many ‘heretics’ being burnt, but it was in the Languedoc that it had its widest appeal, to noblemen, peasants and merchants alike. It was especially popular amongst the peasants who liked the simple life of the priests or ‘parfaits’ with their lack of riches and who appreciated the fact that their teachings were given in the common language rather than in Latin. The Cathars had only one prayer, The Lord’s Prayer. They rejected the Eucharist and refused to acknowledge the principal of free will, saying that man did not have the ability to choose between good and evil. They also did not accept the concept of a Last Judgement or Hell but believed that eventually through successive reincarnation, all souls could become sufficiently pure to reach “The Celestial Land”.
The Cathar priests or ‘Parfaits’ were vegans and were also celibate. They lived in the community and had to carry out their share of the work, even sometimes sharing their meals with believers. Interestingly there were also female Parfaits.
It was Pope Innocent III who has gone down in history as having started the fight against and systematic extermination of the Cathars, making a call for a crusade against them to be led by Simon de Montfort – the only crusade ever led on Catholic lands. It commenced at Beziers on 21st July 1209 where the crusaders set fire to the city and massacred nearly all the population, almost twenty thousand of them. The abbot of Citeaux who was the ‘spiritual’ leader of the crusade was famously reported as shouting out “Kill them all, God will recognise his own!” The ‘song’ of the crusades was even more chilling : “Any castle which resists, any stubborn town shall be taken by force and reduced to a charnel-house. That no living being should be left, even new-born babies. Thus shall be sown healthy fear and no longer shall anyone dare to defy the Cross of God.”
It was at Montségur (to be found on the 11th of the 12 recommended Trail étapes) that the Cathar ‘heretics’ finally surrendered after a siege lasting ten months and where, according to tradition, the ‘treasure’ of the Cathars was kept before being smuggled out prior to the fall of the fortress. More than two hundred of those who refused to renounce their faith were burnt on a pyre at the foot of the mountain. A funeral grave marker was built in memory of the Cathar martyrdom in Prat dels Cramats, ‘The Field of the Burnt Ones’.
Many books have been written and documentary films made about Rennes-le-Chateau, the most well-known being the book ‘The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail’ in which Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln expounded their theories (as in the Da Vinci Code) that Rennes was linked with the Cathars, The Knights Templar and the Holy Grail itself. Stories of mysteries at Rennes-le-Chateau first came about though when the 19th century priest Bérenger Saunière was rumoured to have discovered a vast treasure which enabled him to restore the dilapidated village church, build a new road leading up to the village, install new water facilities for the villagers and also to build a large house and library tower (Tour Magdala) for his own use. His expenditure amounted to the equivalent of several million dollars, not an amount a poor village priest would normally have at his disposal. The mystery of Saunière’s sudden wealth remains unsolved as he never divulged its origin, whether it was the lost treasure of the Cathars of a ‘treasure’ of an entirely different kind. He took his secret with him when he died in 1917. According to eye-witness statements, the priest who was called to Saunière?s deathbed emerged from the room ‘visibly shaken’ and refused (presumably on the basis of Saunière’s confession) to administer extreme unction.
The Trail. The Trail itself is well marked, the signposts being in red and yellow, the colours of the Languedoc and Catalonia. Each stage averages about 20km over sometimes wild and rugged terrain with rest houses and ‘Gites d’Etape’ where one can stay en route. Although the trail can be rocky and steep in places (highest altitude 1300 m), it can be walked by anyone who is well-equipped and reasonably fit. It is a challenging walk rather than an arduous mountain trek and is extremely well-maintained. The responsibility for the maintenance being in part due to one of the Trail’s instigators, the Maire of Nébias (one of the towns on étape 7), Louis Salavy.
Leg 1 : Port-La-Nouvelle/Durban-Corbières – 29km/600m altitude difference+/ 6h45
Leg 2 : Durban-Corbières/Tuchan – 28km/800m altitude difference+/7h
Leg 3 : Tuchan/Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse – 23.5km/750m altitude difference+/6h30
Leg 4 : Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse/Camps-sur-Agly – 20km/850m altitude difference+/5h15
Leg 5 : Camps-sur-Agly/Aigues-Bonnes Puilaurens – 25.5km/700m altitude difference+/7h15
Leg 5bis : Camps-sur-Agly/Bugarach – 12km/500m altitude difference+/3h45
Leg 6 : Aigues-Bonnes Puilaurens/Labeau – 26.5km/550m altitude difference+/6h40
Leg 6bis : Bugarach/Quillan – 24.5km/700m altitude difference+/6h30
Leg 7 : Labeau/Puivert – 27.5km/800m altitude difference+/7h15
Leg 7bis : Quillan/Puivert – 20.5km/700m altitude difference+/5h45
Leg 8 : Puivert/Espezel-Belvis – 17km/600m dénivlé+/4h30
Leg 9 : Espezel-Belvis/Comus – 20km/500m altitude difference+/5h15
Leg 10 : Comus/Montségur – 14.5km/500m altitude difference+/3h30
Leg 11 : Montségur/Roquefixade – 17km/550m altitude difference+/4h15
Leg 12 : Roquefixade/Foix – 18km/500m altitude difference+/4h50
On étape 6, the trail runs between the village of Bugarach and the crossroads town of Quillan on the river Aude. The French guide to the Trail states ‘nous pénétrons donc dans le domaine des eaux vives et des forêts’ . The route, traverses the village of Le-Bezu with its almost-ruined 10th century chateau – another of Simon de Montfort’s spoils – and passes close by the hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau. The mysteries associated with this village brought it world-wide fame long before Dan Brown linked it with the Da Vinci Code
There is no doubt that the Sentier Cathare is enriched by the history of the places it traverses but the countryside itself with its fabulous landscape and clean mountain air provides the best of that good-to-be-alive feeling.
Cathar Trail Book. In order to facilitate the organisation of your trip, here is gathered, town by town, all practical information concerning : Accommodation (stop over gites, hotels, camping sites, guest houses, shops and services (restaurants, food store, food markets days, Internet access, emergency services, leasure and touristic sites), transport and tourist information points. Download the book at http://www.audetourisme.com/fr/pratique/documents/2015-carnet-de-voyage-sentier-cathare.pdf
Maps. Rambler IGN maps 1/25000: 2547 OT (Durban Corbières), 2447 OT (Tuchan), 2348 ET (Prades), 2347 OT (Quillan), 2248 ET (Axat – Quérigut), 2247 OT (Lavelanet), 2148 ET (Ax les Thermes), 2147 ET (Foix).