Until recently, I would have said that St. Francis of Assisi, Shirley MacLaine and I had little in common. That was before I visited southern France where I hiked sections of one of the most popular and historically important pilgrimage routes in the world — the road to Santiago.
St. Francis, the Italian friar who is one of the most venerated religious figures of all time, made the pilgrimage in the 13th century. For Shirley MacLaine, the long walk was part of the spiritual exploration for which she is well known.
I followed short stretches of “The Way,” as it is popularly known, for a more mundane reason. I was on a “Walking through history” tour that provided an introduction to the fascinating story of that well-known religious route, and much more.
The pre-trip information that I received from the New England Hiking Holidays tour company promised visits to remote medieval villages and walled cities, fortresses and castles, and an immersion in the history and culture of a region unfamiliar to even many French people. Added to that were memorable accommodations, some in centuries-old castles, and food and wine that my taste buds still recall with delight. No surprise there; after all, I was in France!
I first learned about “The Way” from the 2010 movie of that name starring Martin Sheen. However, it has been known since at least the 9th century to many thousands of people who have followed all or part of the network of ancient pilgrim routes that stretch across western Europe. They eventually converge and end at the shrine of Santiago de Compostela at the western-most tip of Spain. There, according to tradition, the remains of the apostle St. James were buried after being transported by boat from Jerusalem.
Historically, most people made the pilgrimage for religious reasons. Others had a more worldly agenda. For some people in the Middle Ages, the promise of having debts forgiven was the impetus. For others, it provided a temporary escape from the rigors of village life. Then there were those who saw the pious pilgrims trudging along as easy targets to rob.
That diversity continues to this day. A young French couple named Lucie and Sebastian explained that they recently made the trek because “it has always been our dream to walk hundreds of miles through breath-taking scenery.” A school teacher from New Hampshire, who keeps a list of reasons people tell him they made the journey, includes among the stated goals hoping to give up smoking and to lose weight.
While much of the network of trails is fairly flat on good paths, there are places that are rocky, steep and more challenging. After huffing and puffing up a few of those stretches, I figured that weight loss is a fact for virtually everyone who makes the trek.
Along the way, the route through France passes by and into charming medieval villages, each with its own stories to tell. The houses often are clustered around a small castle that once was occupied by a nobleman or at least a member of the upper class, who served as both the local government and protector of the settlement. The little homes of the townspeople line narrow, twisting, cobblestone streets. Many of them are festooned by flowers, which add an explosion of color to the scene.
A major stopping point for pilgrims over the centuries and still today, and for other visitors to the region, is the charming town of Conques. Nestled in a densely wooded valley near the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains, Conques is a true jewel of medieval France. Sections of the original walls, punctuated by fortified gateways, are still visible. The muted colors of traditional timber-framed houses are accentuated by the red sandstone and bronze limestone of other structures, set off by blue slate roofs. Lush plantings of roses and wisteria add to the painter’s palette of colors.
The center of attention in town is the imposing Abbey Church of Sainte Foy (Faith). It was built during the 11th and 12th centuries to commemorate the memory of a young girl who, according to legend, was martyred at the time of the Roman Empire. Because she refused to renounce Christianity, she was tortured to death, and now is listed in church catalogues of martyrs and saints.
An image of the girl, bowing before the hand of God, holds a central place on a tympanum, a semi-circular carved arch over the main entrance into the church which depicts the Last Judgment. The remarkable carved stone decoration, measuring 22 feet wide and 12 feet high, includes 124 characters and is one of the major surviving art works of the 12th century. As Christ welcomes the Virgin Mary accompanied by saints into heaven, Satan presides over the grotesque figures of people being punished in hell for their pride, vanity, greed and other earthly sins.
The other treasure of Conques is, in fact, a treasure. Housed in a small room that resembles a crypt, it includes portable alters, chests, cameos and other religious artifacts, many gold plated and covered with precious stones. The collection is considered to be one of the most important displays of works by medieval goldsmiths, and is the only one in France.
For people on a journey along The Way, the story of a peasant girl who died for her religious beliefs can be as powerful as the site where one of the apostles is said to be buried. The remains of soaring castles contrast sharply with tiny nearby houses of peasants who lived in them centuries ago, and which continue to be occupied today.
This represents the diversity that awaits those following in the footsteps of countless pilgrims who have walked on The Way for more than 1,000 years. It’s possible to experience part of their quest, and much more, during a Walking Through History trip in southern France.
Despite its name, New England Hiking Holidays organizes trips throughout the United States and to several countries in Europe. For more information call (800) 869-0949 or log onto nehikingholidays.com.
Next month’s story will provide an introduction to Visigoths, Cathars and other people who left imposing castles, intriguing cultural touches and colorful tales that made our walking tour much more than a hike.