At Vézelay : The Unintended Pilgrim

Vézelay rises high on a hill above the surrounding Burgundy countryside, the twin towers of Sainte-Madeleine visible from afar. It has been a beacon for pilgrims for hundreds of years, guiding them to this special place on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

Vézelay from afar

Vézelay from afar

The Vézelay entrance

The Vézelay entrance

Arriving at the village portal one climbs a narrow road by foot to a mount from where the ornate basilica glows golden in the hot sunshine. On the way up the hill you pass hostelries and quaint shops selling arts and crafts to the visitors. Although there are many people visiting Vézelay every year the shops are not tacky or too commercialised.

Shop Vezelay


There is an unparalleled 360 degree view for miles around from the ramparts where I walked. At this time of year there is a carpet of shiny brown conkers, and I pocketed one to keep.

There are several historic paths through France that join up in northern Spain, lead over the Pyrenees and along the northern coast of Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Other routes go through Spain. The Vézelay pilgrimage trail, called the Via Lemovicensis, is an ancient one of these routes. For the pilgrims this was and still is, either a stopping place or a point from which to start their pilgrimage.

I am interested to learn that from here the way leads to Bourges, where I have planned my next stop. It seems I chose the pilgrim’s route without realising it.

The pilgrims are on the spiritual path of St Jacques de Compostelle in French. St James in English. San Tiago in Spanish (Santiago). Christians believe that after Christ’s death St James walked this way, converting those he met to Christianity, and that his mortal remains lie there – buried in a field where a shepherd saw a bright star. So we get Compostela, the star field. When the pilgrims walk the path they also say that they are on the Milky Way as in medieval times the galaxy was their guide. Their symbol, often seen hanging from their packs, is a scallop shell. Hence the French dish, Coquille St Jacques. The starred lines on the shell, converging towards one point, are symbolic of the paths through France to the sacred destination.

Sainte Marie-Madeleine

Sainte Marie-Madeleine

The frontage of the Church is very ornate, and in an inner entrance hall, a reception hall for pilgrims, another door into the church itself is dominated by an exquisite stone carving of an open-handed Christ and his apostles.   This ‘tympanum’ is said to be one of the most beautiful examples of Romanesque sculpture to be found anywhere.  I agree. This image of a welcoming Christ pleased me very much.

Openhanded Christ

A welcome sign declares that the church is open from dawn to dusk and ‘offers welcome to everyone, especially pilgrims, and to all those who are searching for inner peace’.


If the façade of Sainte-Madeleine is elaborate, then the interior can be described as impressive but simple. Its tall high-vaulted nave has ten bays made of cream and grey stone crossed with chequered ribs a little like a drafts board. The impression I gained was one of purity.

I did not have the emotion I expected to feel inside, it did not have an awe-inspiring ‘atmosphere’ for me, but there is a sense of cleanliness and virtue.

Inside Marie-Madeleine

Around the walls are a number of wooden crosses. The story of the crosses is a touching one. In 1946, at the end of the Second World War, many European Christians made a pilgrimage on foot to Vézelay in a spirit of peace and forgiveness. The pilgrims from many countries carried wooden crosses, fourteen in all. On their arrival at Vézelay German prisoners of war, being held in a camp nearby, asked to join the procession. They were allowed to do so, a fifteenth cross was hastily made and they joined the 30,000 people assembled here praying for reconciliation and a peaceful Europe.

Inside a side chapel I attended a service where the resident monks and nuns, young and old, sang psalms, on their feet throughout, their arms sporadically raised to heaven.   I wondered what their stories were, what had brought them to choose such a life of servitude and prayer.   I thought the reasons eluded me but looking at the radiant face of the nun closest to me I supposed I could see the answer displayed there.

As you leave the basilica the route downhill is dotted with small metal scallop shells embedded in the road to lead you along ‘Le Chemin’. There are various views on the purpose of pilgrimages. In ancient times a pilgrimage was an important duty as a Christian, or they were sometimes undertaken as a penance. On other occasions pilgrimages were a way to seek spiritual enlightenment. Today many thousands of pilgrims walk ‘the way’ every year for many personal reasons, including a desire to better know themselves and understand their own path in life through the experience of a certain degree of silence and physical hardship or endurance.   The latest statistics state that there were nearly 216,000 pilgrims officially registered on their arrival in Santiago de Compostela in 2013, the majority of Spanish nationality. Nearly all were on foot, others travelled by bicycle or on horseback.  Yet other people walk part of the path and would not be numbered in these statistics.

The basilica is called the Church of Light, for pilgrims were said to pass from darkness in the nave to brightness in the choir, being symbolic of their own journey into the light on their way to Santiago. On the summer solstice the rays of light falling into the church are set out in such a regular pattern that the nave truly appears to be a ‘path of light’.

So, I have realised that I have inadvertently plotted some of my own journey along the Chemin de St Jacques. In coming to Vézelay at the start of my Journey, and my next stop being Bourges, I am following one of the main paths through France. Other stops on my way are also on the path,  I see. This was not intentional. Or not consciously so.

Strangely enough this is not the first time that I have been placed on the path unknowingly. When we moved to France I knew nothing about the Chemin de St Jacques. After a while we noticed that many hikers passed the door of our rented house on seemingly long treks. Perhaps by some odd coincidence, or by subconsciously tuning in to the chemin’s resonances, I had decorated my front garden flower pots with large scallop shells. When pilgrims knocked at my door for a glass of water or directions I gave them willingly without realising that I had been signalling that mine was a welcoming habitation. I learned later that the house was directly on the path that leads to Santiago de Compostela from Geneva, the Via Podensis.

And here I am on the path again. This was not my plan, I just wanted to shake up my road and follow it. It seems to have laid itself down in this beautifully meaningful, yet still mysterious to me, direction.

It seems that I am an Unintended Pilgrim after all.

On the Chemin

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