The 5-minute essential guide to the Santiago de Compostela trails

Want to experience the human and spiritual sides of pilgrimage? You’re in the right place: France is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the UNESCO World Heritage listing of the Santiago de Compostela routes this year. But before you don your staff, take five minutes to plan your itinerary, starting in Auvergne, Occitanie, Hauts-de-France or Normandy...

The pilgrim’s key accessory

Any self-respecting ‘jacquet’ – the name given to a Compostela pilgrim – must have his classic accessory, a wooden pilgrim’s staff surmounted by a pommel, inspired by the one held by Saint-Jacques himself. Although lighter and more modern staffs exist today, you can still find authentic, hand-crafted versions.

All roads lead to Compostela ... or almost!

Now that you’re equipped, it’s time to choose your route. In France, four symbolic routes link up with the holy finishing point in Spain. Their starting points are the great sanctuaries of Saint-Martin de Tours, the Madeleine de Vézelay, Notre-Dame du Puy and Saint-Gilles du Gard. These four routes then meet at the Spanish border to form a single path to Compostela.

A route through heritage

Want to take the road? Unlike the linear landscape of the Spanish section, the French side of the Compostela route strings together 80 historic landmarks and sites of architectural importance. Occitanie and New Aquitaine boast the largest concentration of sites, but it’s also possible to follow in pilgrims’ footsteps to the Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, the Saint-Jacques tower in Paris or by visiting Amiens Cathedral in Hauts-de-France.

Roman or Gothic?

In addition to their spiritual aspect, the Santiago de Compostela routes also offer a beautiful panorama of the architecture of the Middle Ages, beginning with the churches and abbeys that border them. Fans of the Romanesque style will love the Sainte-Foy church in Conques, Notre-Dame-du-Port in Clermont-Ferrand and Toulouse’s Basilica Saint-Sernin. The cathedrals of Amiens and Bourges are impressive examples of Gothic architecture.

Relics real and false

A string of relics line the pilgrims’ routes – among them the Cadouin Abbey shroud in New Aquitaine. For a long time considered the holy fabric that enveloped the head of Christ in the tomb, this relic of the Passion made the abbey famous until 1934, when it was discovered that the shroud was actually an Egyptian cloth woven in the eleventh century, and was therefore never worn by Christ. Today you can still admire a replica at the entrance to the abbey cloister.

Code name: GR 65

Santiago de Compostela is also a sporty hotspot, with no less than 5,500km of marked trails recognised by the French Hiking Federation, better known as code GR 65. The main route is via Podiensis, the Route du Puy, starting in Geneva in Switzerland and crossing 13 departments to reach Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Basque Country. Some 1,100km of footpaths offer varied landscapes, from the Swiss hedgerows to the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees and the volcanoes of Auvergne.

1998-2018: 20th anniversary

This year the Santiago de Compostela routes are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their UNESCO World Heritage listing. On this occasion, a series of conferences, concerts, exhibitions, shows and children’s workshops are being laid on – in total there are almost 250 events showcasing this precious heritage. So, to your staffs!

Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne