by Denise Fainberg
There are three things to remember about the Chemin de Vézelay: one, it is little frequented compared to the Chemin du Puy; we met perhaps a dozen pilgrims all told. Secondly, there is correspondingly less infrastructure: fewer gîtes d’étape, fewer shops, and lots of pavement. Finally, the landscapes of Burgundy and Berry are so lush and green because they are so very, very wet.
It was early July, 2004 and Patrick and I were embarking upon the long road that runs from Vézelay, in Burgundy, to St. Jean Pied de Port. This Chemin de Compostelle heads southwest to La Charité sur Loire, a foundation famous for its generosity to pilgrims and the poor in the Middle Ages; then divides, with one branch running south to Nevers and the other westward through Bourges, to reunite some 160 km. later at Neuvy St-Sépulcre.
Vézelay’s basilica dominates the country for miles around. It was a daring project a thousand years ago, when pilgrim money raised its red-and-white arches, its seasonal path of light down the nave, its airy gothic apse. First they came to honor Mary Magdalene; when her relics were thrown into question, they rallied here on the way to Santiago. When sculptors on all the Ways to Santiago were carving Last Judgments on their tympana, the masters at Vézelay carved Pentecost on theirs, with blessed rays falling from the hands of Christ to all the peoples of the known world. It was a kinder, gentler vision, except that this church was also the launching site for the Second and Third Crusades. It’s still a glorious portal, despite having been marred in the French Revolution, and a fine inspiration to the departing pilgrim. Initially we took a detour, walking south for a week across the Morvan, the mountainous granite heart of Burgundy. We rejoined the Chemin de Compostelle at Nevers, thus missing the splendid Renaissance architecture of Jacques Coeur at Bourges. But Nevers has a nice double-apsed cathedral, and the local pilgrim shelter turns out to be the shrine of St. Bernadette of Lourdes; she sleeps disconcertingly under glass near the chapel altar.
Between Nevers and the new Belgian refuge at the hamlet of La Croix (42 km.) there is no pilgrim shelter. We walked 27 km. of pavement and were grateful to find Mme. Boudot, deep in the countryside, who opens her house to pilgrims. The next few days took us along grassy canal towpaths-pleasant though always soaked due to frequent downpours. We slept at La Croix where we had the isolated gîte to ourselves, but in Charenton du Cher, unluckily, the gîte was closed. A parishioner guided us around the town’s beautiful barrel-vaulted church. One ruined outbuilding showed a carved scallop shell above a crumbling door. Then we thumbed a ride to nearby St. Amand de Montrond, where we lodged at the Foyer des Jeunes Travailleurs (Young Workers’ Lodgings).
A crashing thunderstorm jarred us awake. Luckily a friend, Jean-Marc, picked us up for a visit to the nearby abbey of Noirlac and then deposited us down the trail at Neuvy-St-Sépulcre. We felt quite guilty about this hundred-kilometer leap; on the other hand the entire 100 km. offered only three gîtes at irregular intervals. Given the weather we would have been hard pressed to cover it on foot.
Though now named for St. Etienne, Neuvy’s unusual church complex was originally dedicated to St. Jacques (St. James). In 1045 a noble pilgrim back from Jerusalem built the sanctuary on the lines of the (then ruined) Church of the Holy Sepulchre–round, with three levels of arched galleries rising to a central dome (shades of Eunate?). Attached is a normal rectangular church. That apparently was used for everyday liturgies, while the rotunda was for pilgrims bound for Compostela or to venerate a vial of Christ’s purported blood at Neuvy. On we tramped through moody Berry, now planted and now wooded, watered by many streams and recurrent storms. Author George Sand seems to have occupied every other village here at some time or another; a native, she was devoted to the region and you could cover a lot of ground doing a George Sand pilgrimage. The last two decades of her life were spent in Gargilesse. Gargilesse really is “one of the most beautiful villages of France”. With a population around 300, it sits on the edge of a ravine, its well-kept, rosy stone houses strung along two main streets. Gargilesse seems occupied mainly by artists and artisans, and tiny as it is, an occasional tour bus stops for the view, studios, museum, and the George Sand house. We didn’t mind. Gargilesse has a superb gîte-the village has done its pilgrims proud, turning an old structure into spotless accommodation more comfortable than many hotels. Private rooms sleep one or two; the modern kitchen includes a washing machine; and the dining room could be in a rural French home. We stayed two days.
Oh yes, Gargilesse has a church too, rather austere on the outside with a calm square tower. Inside is a fantastically spirited series of carved column capitals, some representing (as over the portal at Santiago) the twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse playing their musical instruments, and others scenes of the childhood of Christ. Unfortunately much of the interior is green with moss; about half had been cleaned. The crypt below is covered with 13th-15th-century frescoes; some are quite well-preserved.
A few miles from Gargilesse cutouts of Astérix and Obélix announced Cuzion’s village festival: “Cuzionix: village gaulois”. Then the trail took us along the tumbling wooded slopes of the Creuse. A thunderstorm breaking just as we came into view of the ruined Château de Crozant above the lake created a theatrically romantic scene (artists loved this area). It also rendered the steep slopes very slippery. The waymarks grew strangely neurotic, zigzagging furiously and disappearing. The next day an Englishman offered to drive us right to Limoges, and we recklessly accepted, hoping for less rain and more shelter further south. Thus we missed major shrines at Bénévent-l’Abbaye and St. Léonard de Noblat, which was a pity; St. Léonard is particularly singled out as a must-see by Aimery Picaud in his 12th-century Pilgrim’s Guide, though for some reason he completely ignores the equally important relics of St. Martial in nearby Limoges.
In Limoges we changed guidebooks. The Topo-Guide to the GR 654 is invaluable with its topographic maps and background information, but it hooks south after Périgueux to drop you finally in Montréal du Gers on the Chemin du Puy instead of running southwest to the border; after 985 km you’re still a week from St. Jean. And it wasn’t pointing us to pilgrim accommodation we later found we could have used. So we picked up Rando Editions’ Le Chemin de Vézelay, which has its own challenges: just 905 km. Vézelay to St. Jean, but it follows different waymarks or none, runs mostly on pavement and has no topographic maps. And there are directions like these: “You are now in front of the church. Turn left…”-without indicating whether you are facing the church, away or at some angle. The best guide, which we foolishly failed to acquire (but thirty euros!) is the yellow folder with disposable pages put out by the Amis de St. Jacques de Compostelle de Vézelay. Though even that one failed in spots, according to a pair of Belgian pilgrims.
Limoges treated us to hailstorms and buckets of rain. St. Martial’s abbey, once thronged by pilgrims, was razed during the Revolution, but Limoges’ cathedral still stands. We espied two pilgrims in its dim interior, one a radiant Dutchman walking back from Compostela with a fifty-pound pack. In fact, all the handful of foot-pilgrims we met before Ostabat were Dutch or Belgian men with enormous packs; we met no female walkers, which seemed odd. We stayed again at an FJT where a neighbor complained vociferously of bedbugs (FJTs are often a hallucinatory experience, but usually they are clean enough). Jean-Marc rescued us once more, taking us in and dropping us down the road in the campground at La Coquille. La Coquille was a cheering name-“the shell”-on a trail where many memories of the pilgrim herds have been washed away like St. Martial’s abbey. And in fact our luck began to change.
The sun came out, the weather warmed, and we trotted amiably down to Thiviers where there is actually a refuge pèlerin in a cavernous old convent. Next day we walked through Sorges, where the Musée de la Truffe has an outsized plastic truffle hanging ominously over the sidewalk (we were now in the Périgord) and the inhabitants were strangely monosyllabic, and on to Les Tavernes, slightly off-trail, where our host Jean-Paul found us sitting disconsolately at a bus stop. We were hopelessly lost.
The trouble with leaving the GR is that waymarks are not consistent: sometimes there are the blue-and-yellow stylized shells, and sometimes-increasingly as you go south-minuscule yellow arrows. These two systems do not always agree and in some places (the Gironde in particular) actually compete with each other. Sometimes there are no marks at all, because of vandalism or because a district is blocking them, and for a time the red-and-white GR blazes reappear. This all makes for lost time and frustration and necessitates walking book in hand, which is hardly convenient. The little yellow arrows-sometimes reduced to minute triangles-seemed the least unreliable, so we left everything to follow them and, when they failed, our noses. Jean-Paul and his wife Monique were marvellous. A retired couple, they had built a small cabin in their garden where they sometimes received pilgrims (they don’t list in the guidebook; the responsable at Thiviers had given us their number). A roof, a shower, and a meal of generous laughter, food and wine lasting well into the night-thanks, Monique and Jean-Paul. We were strangers and you took us in and stuffed us to the gills.
We had been getting discouraged by the rain, the asphalt, and the scarce shelter. And we had been missing the company of pilgrims-so far we had met three. On the other hand, we came to appreciate the solitude, silence and interiority of this Chemin. And hospitality became one of its great gifts, as couples opened their homes to complete strangers, overwhelming us with food and drink, beds with linens, even sometimes washing our clothes. These people’s love of Christ in the stranger was humbling.
Nearby Périgueux was the home of St. Front, another object of much past pilgrim devotion, but the huge church holding his remains was damaged in the Wars of Religion and underwent a ghastly restoration in the 1800s. Pilgrims will want to see the simple St. Jacques side-chapel, one of the few to be found on the Chemin de Vézelay. Sadly, when we visited it was visible only through a grille. Friendlier to the spirit is the lovely Augustinian foundation not far down the trail at Chancelade, built in the 12th century and recently revived as a community and spiritual center by Augustinian canons!
After two more étapes, through St. Astier and Mussidan, we faced a dreaded 33 km to Ste. Foy. It was a lovely but hot and exhausting walk through the small woods and vineyards of the Périgord, over dales and hills, some with a 15% slope. Until recently pilgrims lodged in the homeless shelter at Ste. Foy, but this seems no longer to be the case. We were welcomed by a beaming, sarong-clad Charly (we had apparently interrupted his siesta) to a bungalow where we shared a large room with Belgians Willi and Claude. Charly and his wife served us cold drinks and dinner, regaling us with stories of other pilgrims and news items that had passed us by. They too are one of the bright lights of this Chemin, bless them.
Of course we were too tired to see much of Ste. Foy, which was too bad. It’s a bastide on the flowing Dordogne with half-timbered houses, Gothic churches and a Museum of Prehistory-the Dordogne region is after all home to Lascaux and other prehistoric treasures. Besides which it’s named for our old friend Ste. Foy of Conques, on the Chemin du Puy. Really it would be worth a rest day. But since we had taken excessive rest days earlier we pressed on. Nineteen km. of départementale-there were a few off it, but we missed them-took us to Pellegrue, where we begged water from the local curé and marched unwisely through the 38-degree afternoon and a gathering storm to St. Ferme.
The hulk of the solid abbey church rose against the blackening sky. Its large monastic community had been affiliated with San Fermín in Pamplona-Camino ties-but now, minus monks, is parish church to its tiny hamlet set in miles of vineyards. It was through vineyards that we approached the château-well, mansion anyway-of Rigalle.
Swallows nested inside the front door. It had been built in the sixteenth century, though the front including guest rooms had been renovated in the 1950s. Doors were low, ceilings were high and I encountered a swallow in the upstairs hall. The very elderly owners now run it as a reasonable chambre d’hôte. We wolfed down the beers proffered on arrival and, later, one of the farmyard hens. (Later we discovered a wine called Château Rigalle, from the surrounding vineyards.)
The storm never broke. We walked another very hot day to La Réole, an old city sitting like a dowager above the Garonne. Tired and disheveled, we stumbled into the Office de Tourisme and were sent to M. and Mme. Moreau.
The Moreaus have been heroically caring for pilgrims for years. They washed our clothes, gave us dinner and breakfast, and even a guided tour of the cathedral and citadel, all in very good humour. It is an awful lot of work daily cooking for pilgrims, washing up, then laundering sheets and towels; and in this district, due to the dearth of gîtes, we were handed off from one home to another as local families have banded together to provide hospitality. This boundless generosity was one of the gifts of a difficult and sometimes lonely trail. The next day, in Bazas, we were taken in by another delightful pair and shared stories-they had walked to Santiago some years before. In the morning M. Barran showed us round the Gothic cathedral and even led us for a kilometer along the trail, to make sure we didn’t get lost. Which would not have been impossible; this is a region of competing balisages; but after some twists and turns the path follows an arrow-straight railroad bed, which we followed for several days under renewed rains.
We were happy despite the rain; the paths were sandy soil, a welcome change from pavement, through the pine-woods of the Landes. We stayed in derelict Captieux, and in tiny Retjons whose villagers have created a lovely pilgrim refuge; we crossed the ancient town of Roquefort where you can actually stop and pray in the St. James chapel. Mostly we spent long days traversing the Landes, noting tracks of deer and wild boar in the sand, admiring the forests planted by Napoleon III and, where forests gave way to maize, the open skies, impressive cloud formations and equally impressive farmhouses-huge half-timbered affairs with roofs sloping down as if brooding chicks. It’s hard to imagine the swampy, inhospitable area this was before the 1800s, and how unpleasant to cross-“a desolate country where everything is lacking,” said Aimery Picaud. We found it one of the best parts of the pilgrimage; the silent footpaths were conducive to recollection, and the big skies opened our spirits. It was a fine milieu for walking prayer.
On we tramped. The village of Bougues was split on the issue of pilgrims: the mayor welcomed them, while the caretakers of the makeshift gite emphatically did not. (Bougues is to have a new gite in 2005; hopefully this will resolve the schizophrenia.) Next day we slept at the great cloister in St. Sever. We were alone in the high stone halls and thought how unimaginably cold it must have been in winter.
St. Sever was one of the biggest monasteries in Aquitaine, founded round the tomb of the 5th-century missionary Severus (killed by Vandals) and rebuilt in the eleventh. We attended Sunday mass in the huge church, which has remarkable column capitals: someone in the 1800s decided, in a fit of medievalism, to repaint them. It’s rather shocking but it certainly brings the sculptures into high relief! Grinning lions and exotic birds in bright hues stare down at you. It’s worth a long visit but, pilgrim-like, we had to hurry on. The Landes were behind us and the road began, gently at first, to rise and fall. Hagetmau puts up pilgrims in a collective tent; we shared it with Claude, a Breton who walked in a button-down shirt and slacks and a very small pack, very fast. He was there to greet us when we arrived, 29 km later and soaked, in Orthez.
And now we were definitively in Béarn. In the long village of Sault-de-Navailles, reminiscent of Camino towns in Spain, we had crossed the Luy de Béarn on a bridge shaken by heavy lorry traffic. The increasing slopes, steep roofs, and spreading locust trees, all spoke of the borderlands. So did the blue-green Gave de Pau rushing through Orthez. Orthez was the capital of Béarn in the late Middle Ages and has the fortifications and fine stone houses to prove it. It was also an important pilgrim stop with three hospices. The pilgrim shelter today is at the 13th-century Hôtel de la Lune, “remodeled for greater comfort in the 15th,” the plaque outside noted. Well, there has been some remodeling since: the gîte occupying the second floor has two snug bedrooms, a well-furnished kitchen and up-to-date bathroom. We hung our sodden clothes to dry and dined on salad and omelettes while Claude elucidated the fine points of welding (his specialization) and we watched sheets of rain wash the tiled roofs.
Now we walked with a certain anticipation. Chestnuts were ripening and contented blondes d’Aquitaine lolled in the fields. At the village of Hôpital d’Orion was a chapel to Mary Magdalene-a nod to Vézelay? At midday we came to Sauveterre, a delightful town of solid stone built up into the square proportions beloved in Béarn. Many of the houses have names and dates carved into their lintels-1738, 1816… You can sit in the green park with the mass of St. Andrew’s behind you and the sparkling gave flowing before, and never want to leave. But you do leave, because that’s what pilgrims must do. Ultreya! We slept in the 18th-century demesne of the Lecointre family, and crept out as silently as possible in the morning.
It was just past noon when we came to St-Palais where the houses were suddenly whitewashed with red or green trim, in the Basque style. Basqueland! We were well and truly in pilgrim territory now. At Zabalik, the Franciscan house, we were twenty at dinner-guests, hikers, pilgrims-and Brother Yannick remembered us from last year. We stayed a blissful two days, basking in the peaceful liturgy, delicious meals and comfortable, quiet guest wing. So late into the journey, and it seemed we had just gotten into the swing of it….
Just past St-Palais is the Stele of Gibraltar, marking where the Ways from Tours, Vézelay and Le Puy become one. At the hilltop Chapel of Soyarce we were buzzed by helicopters, evidently patrolling the nearly nonexistent border (we didn’t know it, but there had been a terrorist explosion in Bilbao). Stupidly we got lost coming down the back of the hill and wandered for an hour through thick forest, fretting about being mistaken for terrorists, till we wound up back on the trail not far from cheery Ostabat.
I don’t know why it’s so cheery, except that it sits between green mountains on its own little hill, all whitewashed houses and crooked streets. The pilgrim refuge was actually the pilgrim hospice in olden times-a little house with two dormitories up, kitchen and bathroom down, with dark beams and low ceilings. It filled with pilgrims!-Germans, Austrians, and a Frenchman walking with his teenaged son. There was a celebration in the square: three pilgrim staffs had been carried in relays down the three Chemins (we had heard of them periodically but nobody knew where they were), and they had all met today in Ostabat. A hundred or so people were present, as well as a TV crew, and cider and crackers were served. Then we bedded down snugly in the gîte and fell asleep to the sound of sheep bells.
And then we were in the bustle of St. Jean Pied de Port with its Babel of pilgrim tongues along the steep rue d’Espagne and banners flying for a three-day fête. We spent a night at the municipal refuge and another at the convivial private gite, L’Esprit du Chemin. Then, with time to spare and full of pilgrim élan, we decided to explore a bit of the Chemin d’Arles….but that is another story.
Most of the guidebooks are in French:
- Topo-Guide GR 654, Sentier de St. Jacques de Compostelle: Chemin de Vézelay; Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre. 2004.
- Le chemin de Vezelay vers Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. De la Bourgogne aux Pyrénées. Guide pratique du cheminant, G. Véron et J. Grégoire, Rando Editions. 2004. · Itinéraire du pèlerin: voie historique de Vézelay, Monique & Jean-Charles Chassain, Amis de St. Jacques de Compostelle de Vézelay. 2000, updated 2004.
- There is also a guide put out by Lepère, but we haven’t seen it.
- The only English-language guide I’m aware of is put out by the Confraternity of St. James in London: Vézelay to the Pyrenees, John Hatfield. CSJ, London. However it came out in 1994 and was updated only in 1999.
In Vézelay there are three options for pilgrims (besides hotels): the Franciscan sisters and the Monastic Brothers of Jerusalem (Frères Monastiques de Jérusalem) both offer shelter. However they are booked a month or two in advance. The Brothers also supply the Créanciale-not obligatory but clarifies your pilgrim status and is good for certain discounts. The youth hostel on the edge of town is quite decent though, of course, it doesn’t have the same ambiance.
Beyond Vézelay the picture is different. Pilgrim refuges are simply scarce in many places. Here and there a parish, convent or family offers shelter; often they are listed at the local tourist office. Larger towns often have youth hostels or Foyers de Jeunes Travailleurs, and campgrounds may reserve a couple of tents or cabins for pilgrims. The Itinéraire du Pèlerin seems to have the most complete list of pilgrim accommodation. Generally call a day in advance to reserve. When all else fails, there is usually a hotel. Plan ahead!
The demise of village shops and cafés is even more noticeable here than on the Le Puy route. Again, plan ahead. Some refuges do offer meals, but see above on the scarcity of refuges. Families who take in pilgrims usually offer supper; it’s normal to contribute accordingly (participation libre aux frais, meaning, pay what your conscience dictates).
The terrain generally is not terribly rugged. The Creuse and the Limousin are hilly but bear no comparison to the Auvergne. But as noted, most of the walking surface on the Voie de Vézelay is paved, and 20-30 daily kilometers of this can be very hard on the feet and legs. Lighten your pack even more than usual and use double-layered socks.
Season and clothing:
Given the rain, summer is best though early fall may be practicable. Light flexible waterproof hiking boots! Raingear! A fleece shirt for cool weather, shorts and/or zip-off convertible pants, a change of shirt, sleepwear; a light sleeping bag or “cocoon” sheet (refuges always have blankets).