8 Pilgrim routes throughout Europe

Simon Heptinstall 5 July 2022

Religious or not, pilgrim routes can be really rewarding. Luckily there are plenty to choose from, from St Olav's Way in Norway to Camino de Santiago in Spain

At the end of a walking holiday through beautiful villages, woods and mountains, imagine finding a special robed priest, leaning on a twisted wooden stave, waiting to say, “Well done!” 

Tackle the medieval pilgrim route of St Olav’s Way across Norway and you can look forward to a dedicated priest greeting you at the end, right outside the cathedral at Trondheim. 

It usually proves quite an emotional moment, whether you’ve hiked for a month from Oslo or just joined the trail for the very last section. You will have just descended from the "Hill of Joy" where medieval pilgrims celebrated their first view of the cathedral. The priest is trained to spot weary walkers and will lead you into the beautiful stone church, the world’s most northerly medieval cathedral, to visit the grave of Norway’s patron saint St Olav.  

"Today’s hikers like to ponder as they plod"

Details like this special finale are helping to make walking routes like St Olav’s all the rage. More travellers are looking for slow travel adventures on routes with captivating historical and spiritual backstories. Today’s hikers like to ponder as they plod, and that’s why medieval pilgrim routes are being revived as post-pandemic travellers look to swap staycation breaks for more meaningful waycation experiences. 

Europe’s pilgrim walking routes vary from trails of thousands of miles to short walks of a few miles. Holiday walkers can do as much or as little of them as they want. We looked at some of the routes that are a step ahead of the others…

Camino de Santiago

Spain (can include France and Portugal, too)

The "Way of St James" is the best-known European pilgrim route, attracting hundreds of thousands of walkers every year. It’s actually not just one path but a network of them, across a wide region of France, Spain and Portugal

Camino de Santiago

Some of these paths stretch for hundreds of miles across the mountains and hills between the French Pyrenees and Portuguese Peneda Geres—but all lead to the same spot in Spanish Galicia: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This shrine to the apostle St James is a Unesco World Heritage Site that has attracted visitors for hundreds of years. 

The far west of Spain is a green and unspoilt region and Santiago de Compostela is a spellbinding medieval city. But sometimes the route is so popular there can be shortages of accommodation along the way, so it’s best to book ahead. The sheer number of pilgrims finishing the route can lead to a bottleneck of weary walkers queuing to enter the cathedral at the end too. 

Camino de Santiago

St Olav's Way

Norway (some paths include Sweden, too)

St Olav's Way

Trondheim may be a long way up Norway’s west coast, and only 350 miles short of the Arctic Circle, but for hundreds of years, thousands of pilgrims trekked to Olav’s shrine from all over the continent. 

Norway’s Protestant Reformation put a stop to the idolatry that encouraged these pilgrimages. Another 500 years on, however, and the boom in spiritual walking holidays prompted Norwegian authorities, with typical well-funded efficiency, to refurbish the Olav route. 

"Best of all are the refurbished medieval wooden pilgrim hostels with humble traditional meals"

The 400-mile path from Oslo to Trondheim is now maintained with smart signage and centres along the way providing maps, guidebooks, food and accommodation.  

The trail includes crossing sweeping fertile farmland and rocky moorland, following forest paths and enjoying inspiring coastal views. Best of all are the refurbished medieval wooden pilgrim hostels with humble traditional meals, sometimes served by owners in period costumes. 

St Olav's Way

St Patrick's Way

Northern Ireland

The 82-mile route of this spectacular new trail links religious sites between Northern Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital Armagh and the patron saint’s tomb at Downpatrick Cathedral. This is a large flat slab simply marked "Patrick" but it’s an atmospheric spot to finish a walk—a grassy mound overlooking views of the Mourne Mountains.

St Patrick's Way 

The idea of St Patrick’s Way was inspired by the success of the Camino trail and it opened in 2015. It has gradually gained in popularity, but the rugged landscape means it is unlikely to get as crowded as its Spanish rival. 

It’s an arduous trail crossing the remote heart of the Mourne Mountains, following the wild unspoilt eastern coast and passing through the dense Tollymore Forest. Walkers are rewarded for their efforts by "passports" that can be stamped along the route and final certificates on completion from the dedicated St Patrick’s Visitor Centre at Downpatrick. 

St Patrick's Way

The Pilgrim's Way

England

This drover’s path across a ridge of chalk hills may have existed since prehistoric times but it became spiritually significant after the murder and canonisation of Thomas Becket in 1173. His Canterbury shrine started to draw pilgrims from all over Europe, including Chaucer’s colourful bunch in The Canterbury Tales

The most celebrated route winds from St Swithun’s Shrine in Winchester Cathedral 150 miles across the North Downs to Canterbury. It’s a glimpse of classic English countryside, full of wide rural views. 

Pilgrim's Way

After collecting the medieval "wayfarer’s dole"—a free ration of bread and beer—on leaving Winchester, walkers follow tree-lined paths that pass a long sequence of historic sites like the Black Prince’s holy well and Chilham’s Norman castle. 

The Pilgrim's Way

The Pilgrim's Route to Rome

England, France, Switzerland and Italy 

In medieval times, the ultimate Christian pilgrimage was to trek all the way to the Pope in Rome. British believers with money and time set off from Canterbury on what they called "Via Francigena".  

Hundreds of years ago that was a huge undertaking that braved a wide range of hazards. Even today, the 2,000-mile route would be a major challenge. 

Some opt for a much shorter and more manageable section of the Via Francigena from the Swiss border down to Rome. The trail from the San Bernard Pass in the Alps to the Vatican could still take 50 days however.  

Rome

Others choose even shorter sections of this—they can still provide amazing walking holidays as the route uses many timeworn mule tracks or tiny gravel country roads. Highlights include the Italian lakes, the magnificent Appenine Mountains and rolling landscapes of Tuscany

Until a decade ago, this historic Via was largely only of interest to fervent Catholics and scholars—but the success of the Spanish Camino has created a revival of interest in what was once Europe’s prime pilgrimage route. 

The European Union has now recognised the Via as an official walking route and travel operators are offering self-guided pilgrimage packages. Holidays have become much easier as special walkers’ accommodation has opened along the trail. 

The Pilgrim's Route to Rome

St Cuthbert's Way

Scotland and England

Walking across the narrow tidal causeway to Lindisfarne Abbey on Holy Island would give anyone spiritual goosebumps. The timeless atmosphere of this early Christian monastic site is a rewarding finale to an epic 63-mile walking trail through the Scottish Borders. 

St Cuthbert's Way

The official route is now being promoted by tourism officials keen to recreate the success of the Camino. You’ll find all the modern internet marketing and online maps, but don’t forget the path commemorates a seventh-century Anglo Saxon monk, bishop, hermit and saint.  

St Cuthbert died alone in his remote refuge on the Farne Islands, but his relics were buried at Lindisfarne and repeatedly protected from Viking raids. He became a medieval cult figure inspiring pilgrims from all over Britain, including Alfred the Great who claimed to have been inspired to unite Britain by a dream of the Saint. 

"Walking across the narrow tidal causeway to Lindisfarne Abbey would give anyone spiritual goosebumps"

Today Cuthbert’s route starts at a 12th-century abbey at Melrose, the town where he grew up. Walkers follow modern signs featuring St Cuthbert’s cross over the glorious panoramic viewpoints of the hilly borderlands and along the River Tweed to the Northumberland coast. 

St Cuthbert's Way

Les Chemins du Mont Saint Michel

France

Walking across Normandy from Rouen to Mont St Michel can provide a wonderful pastoral walking holiday across the top of rural France. Traditional routes to Le Mont cover 200 miles from Rouen or 100 miles from Caen. 

There is one part of the medieval experience, however, that today’s walkers should avoid. The fairytale island religious sanctuary stands alone in a wide bay of mud flats where the tide notoriously comes in at the speed of a galloping horse. A thousand years ago, pilgrims didn’t have the benefit of tide tables and trusted in God to protect their walk across miles of tidal mud. Sadly he didn’t always hear their prayers—and many were swept away by tides.  

Some still carefully take paths across the bay at low tide today but for most it’s safer to approach Le Mont via the new bridge and causeway. 

Les Chemins du Mont Saint Michel

Via Coloniensis 

Germany and Luxembourg 

Medieval Germany had its own pilgrimage routes, and one of the best has been revived for modern walking holidays. The Via Coloniensis runs for 150 miles across the gentle wooded hills of western Germany and modern Luxembourg. 

 

The route was considered a preliminary for hardy pilgrims bound for the enormous trek to Santiago de Compostela. Today’s walkers can start at Cologne’s magnificent gothic cathedral, the largest in northern Europe, and follow clearly marked paths to finish at Trier’s multi-spired St Peter’s. St Peter’s Cathedral was commissioned by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, making it Germany’s oldest church. 

Via Coloniensis

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