The pilgrim routes to Santiago del Compostella (French: St Jaques de Compostelle), in NW Spain, have for centuries played an important role in the cultural and commercial development of Europe and, in particular, SW France. The story begins around the year 830AD, with the discovery of the remains of an important tomb at Compostelle (the Latin compostum and compostela mean cemetery). This was believed to be the final resting place of the apostle St James the Great, son of Zebedee (French Jacques). It is believed that after the death of Christ James went to Spain to convert the populace. Later he returned to Judaea where he was martyred. His disciples Theodore and Athanase brought his body back to Spain and built the tomb.
The discovery of the tomb came at a turbulent time in Spain, with Christians fighting Muslims for the soul of the country in a conflict that presaged the Crusades to come a couple of centuries later. It provided a focus for Christians high and low born to reconquer the peninsular, and there are many legends surrounding the Saint at that time. A star was supposed to have led to the find, and subsequently the lances of soldiers who were to die sprouted flowers on the eve of their deaths. The Saint is said to have appeared as a shining knight in a battle against the Moors.
By the twelfth century the shrine of St James ranked with Rome and the Holy Land as a destination for pilgrims. Pilgrimages were undertaken as a penance for grievous sins such as murder or adultery, to seek help with health problems, or simply as an act of worship. Visitors to Santiago del Compostela often wore cockle shells on their hats, after the cockles to be found on the coast of Finistere where the Saint's body was brought ashore.
Although pilgrims came from all over Europe, the official start of the pilgrimage were fixed at four points in France: Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy and Arles. The routes taken became known as the chemins de Compostelleand the towns along those routes flourished with the trade brought by the pilgrimages. There are many fine and richly endowed churches to be seen along the ways.
Today Santiago del Compostela still attracts pilgrims. While they do not wear the cape hat and cockle shell of the mediaeval travellers, they can still be seen walking or bicycling hundeds of kilometres along the chemins de Compostellethrough France and across the Pyrénées. And some of the old hôpitals which offered pilgrims shelter are still there, transformed into modern hotels, such as the Hotel du Vieux Pont, at Sauveterre de Béarn.
Below are a list of towns in the South West that are on one or more of the pilgrimage routes, click on the name of the town to discover more of its sites, events and other useful information.
Laàs. Small but dynamic village on the Gave d'Oloron
On the St-Jacques de Compostelle route.
Larrau. Village high up in the mountains in the Pays Basque
Hermitage of Saint Joseph. At 1300 m high, in the middle of a forest, this little chapel was built in 1656 to give refuge to the pilgrims choosing this high route for their journey. It was completely restored in 1993.
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