The Santiago de Compostela
For centuries, the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim ways drew crowds linked by the same spiritual fervour. And today, men and women of all nationalities still relive the same joys and the same pains as they follow in the footsteps of their ancestors.
From Toulouse to Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges
Whilst there are four main pilgrim ways across France, a multitude of variants developed over the centuries, born of curiosity as well as of the pilgrims’ spiritual and material needs. This is how the Piedmont way, a version of the Arles way, was born. Via Garona is also a variant which leads from Toulouse to Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, prolonging the Conques-Toulouse route. Equipped with their « bourdon » or staff (one of the symbols of pilgrimage), the pilgrims journeyed between staging-posts - churches, monasteries, cathedrals - and all eventually came to the city of the Apostle.
Toulouse, at the crossroads
Toulouse figures in the pilgrimage’s history as one of the places which drew the largest number of pilgrims. It possesses a rich heritage of exceptionally fine religious monuments — the Saint-Sernin basilica, a Romanesque gem, with a crypt which houses a large number of relics of saints, the Jacobins, a Gothic monastic establishment, the cathedral of Saint-Étienne with its disconcerting architecture… — and remarkable buildings such as the fine private houses of the 16th C. — Assézat, Jean de Bernuy… — which mark the summit of the business linked to the pastel trade. Today’s pilgrims don’t deny themselves the pleasure of wandering through the old streets of the “Pink city” with its very special colour and atmosphere.
The major stopping-places
Less than 20 kilometres away, the commune of Pibrac is a crossroads where one itinerary heads towards Auch, and the other follows the Garonne towards Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. Pilgrims come to Pibrac to pay homage to Germaine Cousin, a shepherdess, who became Sainte-Germaine after her canonisation. Her house, dating from the 17th C., and the 15th C. « Vieux Logis », a half-timbered house, make an impression on visitors, as do the wall bell-tower of the 16th C. church and the neo-byzantine basilica.
Further south of Toulouse, after Muret, pilgrims make a halt at Rieux-Volvestre, a pretty town encircled by a meander of the Arize. Its religious heritage — the former cathedral of Sainte-Marie, a fortified church from the 14th and 17th C., the sanctuary of Notre-Dame de Bonne Garde and the rural chapel of Morère — and its lovely mediaeval aspect will delight visitors who stroll through the streets of l’Évêché, du Moulin, du Sac, and Monseigneur de Lastic Square to the Town Hall, a former seminary dating from the 16th C., and past the 13th C. Tourasse which was a prison and the seat of the ecclesiastical council in the 15th C.
Until the late 18th C., the magnificent bastide of Montesquieu-Volvestre built by Raymond VII, count of Toulouse, was an important halt on the Santiago Pilgrim Ways. Pilgrims wishing to get to Palaminy to cross the Garonne had to pay their devotions to Notre Dame du Bout du Pont (Our Lady of the End of the Bridge) where they were given a certificate allowing them to cross. The town conserves many reminders of this fervour in the church of Saint-Victor — the reliquary bust of Saint James, the stained glass window showing Henri IV giving thanks to Notre-Dame du Bout du Pont — and also on the door of the Maison des Œuvres (13 rue des Olières) whose knocker is in the form of a cockle shell, along with the façade of the former Saint-Jacques Hospice (now a primary school).
Finally, the way leads even further south, towards the tomb of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges where pilgrims would rejoin the Pyrenean Piedmont Way. They would seek a pass not blocked by bad weather to cross into Spain or go as far as Sainte-Christine and le Somport (or Roncevaux). The Escaladieu Abbey, and the various religious communities in the foothills at that time provided them with invaluable spiritual and material hospitality.
The domed neo-Byzantine Basilica built in the second half of the 19th C. in Pibrac was finished in «composite style » for the centenary of Saint Germaine’s canonisation in 1967.
Beautiful Gallo-Roman heritage is to be seen in Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges : 2 000 years ago, the Roman city of Lugdunum was founded here, at a crossroads where there was an important market. Vestiges of the public baths, a market place, a theatre, an amphitheatre, and a military camp are still visible today and remarkably well preserved.
The starry road which you have seen in the sky is a sign that you shall enter Galicia at the head of a great army, and that after you, all peoples shall go to that place on pilgrimage until the centuries are no more.
The cathedral of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, the chapel Saint-Julien du Plan, the paleo-Christian basilica and the basilica of Saint-Just-de-Valcabrère are UNESCO World Heritage listed in the context of the « Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim Ways ».