By Victor Block
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 historically important pilgrimage routes in the world.
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 also promised visits to medieval villages, walled cities and castles and an immersion in the history and culture of a region unfamiliar to even many French people. That included introductions to the Visigoths, Germanic groups that established a kingdom in the area from the 5th to 8th centuries A.D.; Knights of Templar, a religious military order powerful during the 12th to 14 centuries; and the Cathars, a Christian movement that eventually was renounced by the Catholic Church. Each group left its imprint.
For example, the Chateau D’Arques, a Templar castle, has homey touches like a large fireplace, window seats and a chute over the entrance door used to pour boiling oil on attackers. Peyrepertuse — two Cathar castles joined together — was built atop a 2,600-foot-high cliff for added protection.
The castles overlook a network of ancient trails that converge and end at the shrine of Santiago de Compostela at the western-most tip of Spain. There, according to legend, the remains of the apostle St. James were buried, after being transported by boat from Jerusalem.
Since at least the 9th century, thousands of people have followed all or part of the pilgrim routes that stretch across Western Europe. Historically, most people made the pilgrimage for religious reasons. Today, some have other goals. They include simply wanting to take a long hike through magnificent scenery, giving up smoking or hoping 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.
The route passes 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 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 — is the charming medieval town of Conques, nestled in a densely wooded valley near the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. 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.
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 a young girl who is said to have been 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 other treasure of Conques is, in fact, a treasure. It consists of portable altars, chests, cameos and other religious artifacts, many gold plated and covered with precious stones. The collection is considered to be one of the five most important displays of works by medieval goldsmiths in the world.
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 houses of peasants who lived in them centuries ago.
This enticing diversity awaits those following in the footsteps of countless pilgrims who have walked on The Way for more than 1,000 years.
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.