Sanitago de Compostela
The Arles Route
Starting around the year 1000, hordes of pilgrims set off on their travels to visit holy shrines and relics in all the centres of Christianity, including Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. One of these routes is known as the Arles Route.
From Arles to Santiago
la via Tolosana
From the sunshine of Provence to the greenery of the western Pyrenees, the French section of the Chemin d’Arles (or Via Tolosona) passes through some remarkable places: Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, Montpellier, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Castres, Toulouse, l'Isle-Jourdain, Auch, St-Christaud, Morlaàs, Lacommande, and Oloron-Sainte-Marie.
You need to be in good physical condition to complete the entire 740-kilometre route. But if you take on the challenge, your thirty-day-journey will take you through a wide diversity of terrain, countryside and climate including the plains of the Languedoc, the forests of the Gers, the hills of Gascony, the foothills of the Pyrenees and the valley of the Aspe.
Also known as GR 653
The Chemin d’Arles is also referred to by long-distance walkers as the GR 653. It starts in a Mediterranean setting of vines and garrigue before passing into the mountains of the Languedoc with their high pastures, pine forests, woods of chestnut and village houses with stone roofs. After the mountains, the path drops down on the plain towards Castres and continues to the Somport Pass in the Pyrenees.
A history of the routes of Saint-Jacques
The objective of a pilgrimage to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, or Santiago de Compostela as you will find it called when you cross into Spain, is to visit the tomb of Saint-Jacques, or Saint James. The remains of the apostle are allegedly buried in the crypt of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela on Spain’s Galician coast. The route is lined with numerous demonstrations of piety, penitence, hospitality, art and culture.
The origins of the pilgrimage date back to 25 July 813 when a hermit called Pélage, guided by a mysterious star, discovered the grave of the apostle Saint James in an ancient cemetery. Before long, pilgrims began to visit his remains.
The pilgrimage reached the height of its popularity in the 12th century. A document called codex calixtinus dates from this period – it contains a collection of sermons, reports of miracles and liturgical texts associated with Saint James. It also includes practical information for pilgrims travelling the route and is perhaps the ancestor or modern travel guides.
Despite this popularity, it was only after the capture of Granada from the Moors in 1492 that Pope Alexander VI officially declared Saint-Jacques de Compostelle to be one of the three great pilgrimage destinations of Christendom, the other two being Jerusalem and Rome.
Coming from Dourgne, the next stop is Sorèze, a pretty little town huddled around the ruined church tower of Saint-Martin. Sorèze is also home to a former Royal Military School and is graced with half-timbered houses. The steep slopes of the Montagne Noire provide an impressive backdrop to the town.
Next, the pilgrim arrives in Revel by the track from Roumenguière. A cross of Saint James indicates the route to take at a junction on the Castres road. Revel is an important 14th century bastide, and the market hall in its central square dates from the founding of the town.
The central square is bordered by arcades and shops. The streets of the historic centre are laid out in a grid pattern, and in the Rue Georges Sabo, pilgrims will find a hostel and a bed for the night.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Arles boasts more Roman monuments than anywhere outside Rome, and many treasures of Romanesque architecture. Highlights include the western door of the church of Saint-Trophime and the Alyscamps necropolis, and it is from here that the Chemin d’Arles begins.
It is wonderful to discover Arles on foot by following any of the four marked walking tours: Ancient Arles, On the Traces of van Gogh, Medieval Arles, Renaissance and Classical Arles. A fifth circuit – World Heritage – takes in the most important parts of the other four circuits.
Less than thirty minutes’ drive from the sea, the Lubéron or the Alpilles, Saint-Gilles-du-Gard is on a strategic crossroads between the Cévennes and Provence, or a link between Nîmes in the Languedoc and Arles in Provence.
The town’s treasures include the abbey church, whose façade has been listed by UNESCO. Wander through its sunny streets lined by fine stone buildings, or walk out through its gates and discover the Camargue by boat.
Montpellier contains many historic and contemporary treasures. Dating back to medieval times, today visitors will be entranced by its quaint streets, the Place de la Comédie, the Faculty of Medicine, or the Place Royale du Peyrou.
It is also a modern metropolis, a city of science, contemporary architecture and culture, and leisure, surrounded by vineyards and mountains and with the sea a mere eleven kilometres away. It offers a Mediterranean way of life, full of good food, good wine and sunshine.
You won’t believe your eyes! One of the most beautiful villages in France, a spiritual stopover on the paths to Santiago de Compostela, and a treasure chest of medieval architecture.
The most notable building is the Abbey de Gellone, a jewel of Romanesque architecture an a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wander through the picturesque streets, meet local craftsmen, soak in the atmosphere on the terrace of one of the cafés in the square, or simply enjoy the moment.
This town dates back to the early 9th century when Benedictine monks founded an abbey and built a basilica to house the remains of Saint-Vincent-de-Saragosse. From then on, Castres was a stage on the road to Santiago de Compostela…
Walk along the banks of the Agout and visit the Bishop’s Palace which incorporated into its walls a bell tower which was once part of the 9th century Saint Benoit Abbey. If the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Platé is open, be sure not to miss its organ which dates back to 1764…
Visit the splendid Romanesque Basilica of Saint Sernin, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and an unmissable stop on the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. This 11th century basilica built from brick and stone is one of the largest Romanesque buildings in Western Europe.
Inside, five vaulted naves converge on the choir and the baldaquin – the canopy of gilded wood and marble which hangs above the altar. Go down into the crypt to see the remains of the saints, relics which bear witness to the prestigious past of this church built on the pilgrimage route.
Don’t miss the museum in the centre of town beneath the 19th century market hall. Called the European Museum of the Art of Bell Making, it explains how bells are made and recounts their history, traditions and practices.
In the auditorium, you may hear the sound of bells from different parts of Europe, bell concerts and be able to see temporary exhibitions.
The Cathedral of Sainte-Marie is an important site on the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle and it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It dominates the town and draws the eye of the visitor arriving from the east or the west.
Its construction lasted two centuries (1489-1680), and this explains the variety of architectural styles: flamboyant Gothic for the main parts of the building, but with a Renaissance façade. This is one of the last Gothic cathedrals built in France, and it is one of the finest.
By visiting the church of Saint-Christophe, the pilgrim placed himself under the protection of the patron saint of travellers. ‘All the pilgrims passing through here love this place which one calls Saint-Christaud,’ Father Georges Bernes told us in a poem.
A sanctuary already existed here in the 11th century, probably founded by the Knights Templar. But the church was built in the 13th century by the Order of Saint Anthony.
On the doorway of the church of Sainte-Foy you will see a strange row of ducks seemingly rising to heaven. Do they represent pilgrims on the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle? They will undoubtedly encourage you to step inside this magnificent Romanesque building.
The choir includes some fine Romanesque capitals, depicting scenes including the beheading of Sainte-Foy and the piton of Jaca (a recurring motif along the road to Santiago de Compostela).
This village takes its name from the commandery of the Knights Hospitaller which was built here in 1120 by Gaston IV, Viscount of Béarn, after the reconquest of Zaragoza.
The commandery has been restored and provides accommodation for modern-day pilgrims. The Romanesque church of Saint-Blaise also dates from the 12th century, although it has been restored several times. The capitals of the apse are particularly notable.
At the confluence of two mountain torrents – the Aspe and Ossau – lie Oloron, which was the viscount’s town, and Sainte-Marie, which was home to the bishop. They were merged into one during the mid-19th century, and between them they share two thousand years of history. The cathedral of Sainte-Marie was built by the crusader Gaston IV and is not to be missed.
Be sure to visit the church of Sainte-Croix too. It was built on a hill with the same name at the end of the 11th century, and it offers fine views of the Pyrenees. Note the church’s ribbed cupola in the Mudéjar style.
A strange feeling takes hold of many pilgrims when they catch the first glimpse of their destination from the top of Monte del Gozo. But before long there are filled with pure joy, knowing that the hour has nearly arrived when they will discover the city which a guidebook for pilgrims called ‘the happiest and most noble of all the towns in Spain’.
During the descent from Monte del Gozo, the pilgrim will pass a monument called Puerta del Peregrino (Pilgrim’s Gate) which depicts some famous pilgrims, and then the chapel of San Lazato. Finally, the traveller enters town by the Ruà dos Concheiros where merchants used to sell the famous scallop shell which has become the symbol of pilgrims walking the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle.
*SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
Once through the Porta do Camino, the pilgrim descends the Rua da Azabacheria, where craftsmen work with jet gemstones. And then they reach the Plaza del Obradoiro from where they can admire the cathedral in all its splendour.
The pilgrim enters this holy place via the Portico de la Gloria where Saint-Jacques, or Saint James, blesses them as they pass. This is where the pilgrims make their acts of thanksgiving, and this is where their journey ends.