Following the Camino de Santiago & Route de Compostelle

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Here is the latest article from Beth in heart of southwest France, suggesting new ideas and iconic walks if you’re travelling in this historically rich area of southwest France.

“Some of my favourite dog walks are along the Canal du Midi towpaths. The famed waterway in our corner of the Tarn et Garonne is sandwiched between asphalt and the river Garonne. The river, vast in comparison, flows lazily towards the ancient abbey town, Moissac, where it converges with the river Tarn.

A feature of the towpath on this stretch is its lines of majestic plane trees. They’re the glorious species typical of French scenes, whose purpose is not just to look pretty. The trees were planted so their roots could reinforce the banks, and their foliage provided welcome shade from the elements. Perfect for hot dogs and humans. But there’s something else rather magical about this route.

Pilgrims have used the old canal path for hundreds of years. It forms a section of the catholic pilgrimage called the Route de Compostelle, which goes by many names, including the Camino de Santiago and goes thru various areas such as Gers or Aude. The pilgrimage dates back to the Middle Ages when travellers journeyed to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwest Spain. I’d vaguely heard of it but wanted to learn more.

The remains of the Apostle Saint James the Great were allegedly buried in the cathedral and discovered by a shepherd in the 9th century. The city of Santiago de Compostela (translated as St. James of the Field of Stars) was named after St. James. There are many routes to this hallowed shrine in Europe. Each is marked with either a scallop shell or a yellow arrow. Why a scallop shell? There are several theories.

Some say the shell can be traced back to when Saint James’ body was transported to Spain for burial by boat. A vicious storm blew in, and the ship foundered. St James’ body was eventually found on the shore. Completely undamaged. Covered in scallop shells.

Another more practical theory relates to pilgrims using scallop shells as drinking receptacles. Also plausible is the idea that, during the Middle Ages, merchants close to the Cathedral of Santiago sold scallop shells harvested from the sea as souvenirs to pilgrims. Whatever the truth, each route is intermittently marked with the famous scallop shell.

For centuries, many have used the routes as a spiritual path or retreat. Beguiled by its history, others make the journey for the experience and camaraderie. In fact, the cultural and historical importance of the Camino de Santiago is so significant that the cathedral, together with almost fifteen hundred kilometres of routes, has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993.

If you’re in France and feel inspired to make the journey, you’re in luck. There are plenty of options, with four main routes, which can be joined at a point to suit your needs. Those travelling from Switzerland and eastern France widely use the Le Puy Way. The Paris Camino (also known as the Tours Way) is the closest for travellers from Britain and the Low Countries. The Way of Arles suits those coming from Italy and the south of France. And The Way of Vézelay is the easiest for pilgrims from north-eastern France, Germany and Belgium.

Each pilgrimage converges on the most famous route, the Camino Frances. Also known as The French Way, this 900-kilometre way starts close to the Iberian border in a pretty Basque town called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in Nouvelle Aquitaine. The town was founded in the 12th century after its predecessor, Saint-Jean-le-Vieux, was razed by King Richard I. This is the route that takes travellers over the Pyrénées into Spain.

The final hundred kilometres of the Camino Frances is generally regarded as its jewel. Pilgrims set off from Sarria, passing through Portomarin, Palas de Rei, Arzúa and Amenal before reaching the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Apparently, the sights are unforgettable. Like many others, I’m attracted to the idea of making the journey. Equally, I love our own, far less famous, link closer to home.

Often without another soul in sight, we’ll trek along the Canal du Midi towpath. Occasionally we’re alerted by a brisk brrring! brrring! from a passing cyclist, or we might pass cheerful pilgrims en route south using the Le Puy Way. For me, walking along the weather-beaten path used by millions of pilgrims since the Middle Ages is rather special. Will I carry on over the border to its final sacred destination? Perhaps one day.”

For more stories about rural living in SW France discover Beths’ latest books. Thanks again Beth!

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