Modern Day European Pilgrimages: St James Way and via Francigena

GUEST ARTICLE: Babette Gallard and Paul Chinn, two UK corporate management drop-outs, have completed over 6,000 Pilgrim kilometres on horseback and bicycle – an experience Babette Gallard highly recommends.

In my part of the world rumour has it that for a large number of Aussies the European Tour is an important rite of passage, or perhaps you just come over to try our beer and see for yourself if people really can exist with such a weight of history and culture behind them.

The longest journey begins with a single step” (Lao Tzu)

paul and babette on the way

Either way, I recommend following an ancient pilgrimage route as one of the finest, perhaps most life-changing experiences you could have.

In Europe, Christian pilgrims have been travelling since medieval times, the majority heading for at least one of the three main devotional sites in Santiago de Compostela (Spain), Rome and Jerusalem. Their journey would have been predominantly on foot, covering anything up to 20 or 30 kilometres a day and at the mercy of the weather and brigands.

For some the motivation would have been entirely religious, but for many others it was far more basic and earthly – the sick hoping saintly relics would cure their bodily ills, criminals choosing the long haul in preference to a prison sentence and the rest banking on enhanced pilgrim credibility and status when they got back home.

The Pilgrimage Today

Whatever the motive, a pilgrimage is the recognition that there is more to life than just the humdrum daily grind of existing” – Deacon Trevor Jones, Pilgrimage Director

Statistics show that the pilgrimage is experiencing a renaissance. In 1986, just 2,491 pilgrims collected their Compostela certificate in Santiago, but by 2007 these figures had passed the 100,000 mark – an increase of 6453 from 2005 (of these 250 were over 75 and 40% of the total were women).

pilgrim quotes

Today’s pilgrims also travel for a variety of reasons, other than the strictly devout. Some view it as a trial of strength, others want to lose a few excess kilos and perhaps meet like-minded people on the way, but for a substantial number it will also be an opportunity to take time out before making a major life decision.

Anyway, putting all the esoterica aside, at its most basic the pilgrimage is quite simply an eco-friendly form of travel – the human energy required to take people from one place to another costing no more than their food they eat.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” – Mark Twain

Pilgrims come to Europe from all over the world, creating a fascinating mix of cultures, ages and viewpoints. Better still, the pilgrimage is not just a one-way process, because the experience of encountering more nationalities in one day than most of us would meet in a lifetime is just as powerful for people living alongside its route.

How else would a local Spanish farmer learn first-hand about the stresses of living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, or the ignorance of some American city dwellers who really do believe that horses eat cheese?

Five years ago Paul and I were unlikely pilgrims – inexperienced, unprepared and agnostic – but early retirement and a vague fantasy about riding our horses to somewhere, finally morphed into a 1600 kilometre journey along the St James Way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, followed by 2000 pilgrim kilometres along the via Francigena from Canterbury (UK) to Rome, which was a very different experience.

On the St James Way we were cocooned in a comfortable pilgrim vacuum, benefiting from the pilgrim infrastructure (shops, numerous cheap hostels etc), meeting literally hundreds of pilgrims and relatively isolated from the outside world.

roman road below nogalio

In contrast, the via Francigena (a far less well known route) cut across countries and cultures without any of those pilgrim buffers between us and the communities we encountered – a sometimes tough, sometimes humbling experience, during which we learnt more about ourselves and the human race than we could ever have anticipated.

Ultimately, pilgrimages are what you make them. They can be “… a journey through space and time (Cultural Routes programme was launched by the Council of Europe in 1987)”, a long walk, a minimal carbon footprint holiday or even a religious experience, but in the end the choice is up to you, which is the beauty of the whole concept.

Our first pilgrimage pushed us to the limits of our physical and mental barriers, taught us how to ask for help and revealed the integrity of the individual behind national stereotypes. Of course not everything was perfect. Riding long distances can be exhausting and on occasion just plain miserable.


It was also depressing to see how many pilgrims think that dumping their rubbish along the route is fine and a minority of local tradesmen consider the pilgrim-trade is there for them to exploit.

Nevertheless, three months later in Santiago, our only question was which pilgrim route did we want to follow next. In short the pilgrimage had become our Zahir – an object that has the power to create an obsession in everyone who sees or experiences it.

After returning from Rome in 2006, we created Pilgrimage Publications, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the identification and mapping of pilgrim routes all over the world.

Then in 2007 we cycled the entire via Francigena again, but this time in order to gather data and produce a GPS trace for our first guidebook. We hope this will be the first of many similar projects and that through this we will enable more people – irrespective of belief, fitness, income or attitude – to follow ancient European pilgrim routes and see where the experience takes them.

To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life” – Phil Cousineau – the Art of Pilgrimage

Geographical and Historical Summary of two of the best known European Pilgrim Routes

The St James Way
, Chemin de St Jacques, el Camino, Jakobs Weg, declared the first European Cultural Route in October 1987 and inscribed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1993, is not a single route but can be broken down into five main starting points:

  1. The French Way (Camino Francés), which has four separate starting points: Tours, Vézelay, Le Puy-en-Velay, Arles
  2. The Portuguese Way (Camino Portugués), the second most important way and beginning at Porto in the north-west of Portugal, crossing the Lima and Minho rivers before entering Spain and then going on to Padron and Santiago.
  3. The Spanish Way (Aragonese) comes down from the Somport pass in the Pyrenees, makes its way along the River Aràgon, then crosses the province of Navarre to Puenta la Reina where it joins the Camino Francés.
  4. The Northern Way (Camino del Norte) runs from France at Irun and follows the northern coastline of Spain to Galicia where it heads inland towards Santiago joining the Camino Francés at Arzua. This route follows the old Roman road, the Via Agrippa, for some of its way and is part of the Ruta de la Costa.
  5. The English Way (Camino Inglés) was traditionally for pilgrims who travelled to Spain by sea and disembarked in Ferrol or La Coruna. These pilgrims then made their way to Santiago overland.

The via Francigena was declared a European cultural route by the Council of Europe in 1994, but is still relatively unknown and unused in comparison with the St James Way. The route runs from Canterbury in England, across northern France, over the Alps in Switzerland and then down into Italy and finally Rome.

Far from being a single route, as the name suggests, the via Francigena is in fact a series of roads that run up to and use the via Romana, built in 58 BC by Julius Caesar.

The route, as we more or less know it today, was first documented in the 10th Century when Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, travelled to Rome in order to be consecrated and incidentally recorded his route on the way. From here, other pilgrims followed in his wake, with the result that it became the major pilgrimage during medieval times and right up until the cult of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela took over.

Further Reading

For more information about us or pilgrimages in general go to Pilgrimage Publications or Pilgrim Riders.

This travel diary has been written by one-off travel correspondent Babette Gallard who elected to quit the world of business to begin to live out her dream as a pilgrim rider. She has no formal religious beliefs, but has a wanderlust and a need to know about and contribute to the world we occupy.

If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution

5 thoughts on “Modern Day European Pilgrimages: St James Way and via Francigena”

  1. Brilliant work there, I think it’ll be a hit with my readers

    PS It’s true that we Aussies tend to make a pilgrimage overseas in our early 20’s after high school/university. Eg: I spent most of 2003 in UK and Western Europe and I found it a life changing experience

  2. Aussies have to be one of the most hardcore for travelers, i meet so many that just travel around.. hopefully i can adopt that life style soon 🙂

  3. Bloody true about Aussies being hardcore travelers. I’m an Aussie and I’m a backpacker, hiker, and adventurer! Loving it 🙂

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