Pilgrimage in France

There are many opportunities for pilgrimage in France. 

Despite modern France’s emphasis on secularism, it is filled with a legacy of beautiful Christian cathedrals, shrines, and pilgrimage pathways.

Although some of these, like the Black Madonna shrine in Rocamadour, were sometimes thought of as significant stops on the longer path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, or the even longer Via Francigena leading to Rome, they have artistic and sacred value in their own right.

La Tour de Jeanne d'Arc à Rouen

Yet their presence as historic features can make it easy to miss the forest for the trees. While I stayed in France, I remember seeing the churches, cathedrals, and towers all over the place — kind of like the ancient temples in India. 

They were such a natural part of the scenery, it was easy to take them for granted. I used to walk past Joan of Arc’s tower on the way to French class in Rouen. You could hire it as an escape room! There was a big sign outside advertising it. 

So I would see it without really seeing it. Perhaps much of life is like that.

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Pilgrimage destinations in France

It would hard to list them all, especially considering all the historical, natural, prehistoric, or otherwise meaningful walking quests possible. Pilgrimage in France has a rich and colorful history, filled with events bizarre or sacred. 

Monasteries going on raids for relics … villages going to war because a sacred statue’s derriere pointed toward their village … it’s all there. People can do some pretty interesting things.

Here’s a handful of sacred or meaningful spots to come to on longer or shorter pilgrimage in France:

  • The Mont St Michel or the Lourdes grotto and its Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in Normandy. Lourdes is about a 6-hour train ride from Paris, while Mont St Michel is easy to bus or drive to (although its abbey is currently closed to the public due to covid; check the tourist office’s site for updates).
  • The Black Madonna shrine and Chemin de Croix in Rocamadour—great to visit as a short pilgrimage walk or as a stop on a longer route through Les Eyzies or the Camino Francés route of the Camino de Santiago
  • Holy sites in Paris, including Notre Dame Cathedral; La Sainte-Chapelle, a 13th century Gothic cathedral; 6th century St-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris; neoclassical La Madeleine, a temple to honor God (and the glory of Napoleon’s army); Merovingian-built St Pierre-de-Montmartre and its famous sister churches; Gothic-styled St-Etienne-du-Mont with its Tower of Clovis; the Baroque church St Sulpice, containing frescos by Eugene Delacroix and featured in The Da Vinci Code; the catacombs beneath the city; and the Paris Mosque, built in 1922 in tribute to its World War I North African allies
  • Holy sites in the medieval walled city of Carcassonne — notably (my favorite!) Basilique Saint-Nazaire with its grand architecture and stained-glass windows, Carcassonne Cathedral, Eglise St-Vincent, St Gimer Church, Chapelle des Dominicaines, Eglise des Carnes, the former bishop’s palace Hôtel de la Cité (now a hotel)

Also, there are a surprising number of American patriotic sites throughout France. These range from heroes of our own American Revolution to World War II battles that live on in our history and memory. 

Here are a few of the big ones:

  • The D-Day Beaches of Normandy
  • American cemeteries in France, including the well-known Normandy American Cemetery and the 113-acre Lorraine American Cemetery, where 10,489 American military are buried—the largest number of graves in Europe for American military
  • Picpus Cemetery in Paris, where an American flag flies over the Marquis de Lafayette’s grave

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Some things to know...

Most French pilgrimage sites can be easily accessed by car, metro, bus, or train, with the local journey completed on foot. 

France is generally great for walking. French people walk a lot and tend to do a lot of stairs, since older buildings don’t usually have elevators. They often wear surprisingly functional footwear to support this, which is très sage. Any time you’re doing a lot of walking, make sure your feet are happy!

Walking routes exist as part of longer pilgrimage pathways, some hundreds of years old. Just know that in modern times, parts of these paths may not be well marked and may at times share space with traveled roadways.

That said, it’s extremely easy to find a place to stay for the night. Even in smaller villages without inns or hostels, you can go see the local maire and, as a pilgrim, ask for a place to stay (probably rent) for the night. 

Also, while on pilgrimage in France many monasteries or nunneries you encounter along the way will have some accommodations for pilgrims or other travelers. Some of these are very basic, others quite nice.

In any case, what this means is that usually you’ll only need to take with you what you need for the day — especially water, which can be hard to refill along the way when you’re walking. 

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Quick list of what's here

There's a lot you can do on pilgrimage in France. Here's the straight-up for what I have info on so far...

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Other inspirations for the journey...