Ancient Routes

A Common Legacy: Learning about Europe’s Cultural and Historical Heritage through Trekking

There are a number of common factors across Europe that one identifies with the development of ancient or medieval pilgrimage routes or Caminos. These include for example:

  1. Pagan or druid routes later adopted as Christian pilgrimages, such as the Callis Janus along which the French route on the Camino de Santiago developed or Monserrat in Catalunya, Spain as well as the Tochar Padraig in County Mayo, Ireland.
  2. The Apostles followed by the earliest missionaries such as Remigius, Patrick, Cathaldus, Aidan, Andrew the Scot, Augustine of Canterbury, Columba, Ninian, Willibrord and Boniface, Cyril and Methodius spreading the, then, new faith among nations;
  3. Asceticshermits, reformers, philisophers and scholars whose way of life and teachings drew pilgrims to them. These included Hilda, Brigit, Kevin, Finbarr, Furvey, Finian, Venerable Bede, Jerome, Dominic de Guzman, Augustine of Hippo, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, Cajetan, Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Sienna among others.
  4. Martyrs who drew pilgrims to their place of martyrdom.
  5. Relics, Religious art that during the 1st and 2nd millennium found a home in Europe (such as the remains of the apostle James in Galicia, Spain; the relics of apostle Bartholomew in Lipari, the sarcophagus of the Bishop Nicholas in Bari and the Marian house of Loreto in Italy.

Old Roman, Frankish and Norman roads primarily across continental Europe have also facilitated the spread of Caminos from the as far west as Great Britain, as South as the Mediterranean islands, north even beyond the Rhine and further to the east to present day Asia Minor and Georgia.

One finds among the oldest pilgrimage routes in Christianity the pilgrimage to the Holy Lands (then Palestine, Lebanon and Syria), Rome, Santiago de Compostela (especially as the Spanish Reconquista started gaining ground and the Crusaders also lost the Holy Lands) and later on the ‘Journey to the Holy Relics between Maastricht, Aachen and Kornelimünster. In the British Isles and Ireland routes undertaken by the 1st millennium saints evangelizing the Celtic, Gaelic and Anglo-Saxon tribes also because pilgrimage routes. The earliest pilgrimage ‘travelogues’ are perhaps the ‘Mirabilia Urbis Romae’ and the Codex Calixtinus (Liber Sancti Jacobi) both of the early 12th century.

Today over 50 routes across some 20 countries in Europe have been identified. UNESCO, European Union and various national funds and initiatives have greatly aided the development of several of these routes as they were increasingly recognized as unifying cultural and historical forces transcending even national boundaries.  The following are a few of the ancient routes that have been given life again in recent decades.

Ancient pilgrimages of northern, western and central Europe.

  • Austria:

Mariazell Basilica Marian Shrine to Austria and Hungary dating back to 1157.

Czech Republic:

  • The Infant Jesus of Prague (Santo Niño de Praga or Pražské Jezulátko)donated to the church in the 16th century; said to be owned earlier by Therese of Avila.
    • The Basilica of the Assumption of Mary and of Cyril and Methodius in Velehrad the mediaval capital of the Slavic state of Greeat Moravia and a pilgrimage site since the 1st
    • Wenceslas Basilica in Stará Boleslav has been a pilgrimage site since 1046. 


St. Henry’s or Church Islet, Kirkkokari a pilgrimage site since 1156 following the martyrdom of Henry. 


  • The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres is a UNESCO-Heritage site of this ancient once bishopric state in France.,143.html
    • The Abbey Church of St. Foy, dedicated to a 4th century Christian martyr, in the village of Conques (with a coat of arms incorporating the pilgrim shells) served as a conduit for French and other European pilgrims on their way to the Pyrenees connecting to the Camino de Santiago.
    • Issoudun is a city in the Centre-Val de Loire region where Richard the Lion-heart battled against King Philip II of France. This medieval city is also on the Camino de Santiago route (in France) and fell under the patronage of Cesare Borgia (son of Pope Alexander VI) as Lord of Issoudun. The Cathedral of St. Cyr dates back to the 15th century.

France also has other, more recent, but very popular pilgrimage sites including the Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of La Salette,  Saint Catherine Labouré of Paris, Pellevoisin and Taizé.


  • Hungary:

Weeping Madonna Hodgetria in St. Michael the Archangel (Byzantine rite) Basilica, Máriapócs, a pilgrimage site since the 17th century.   


  • The Way of the Abbot (St. Colomban), from Pavia to Pontremoli through Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. A walk dating back to 6th century AD.
    • The Way of Saint Anthony, Padua a route to the Basilica of a leading 12th century Franciscan missionary and reformer from Padua to La Verna and    

Italy also has other, more recent, but very popular pilgrimage sites  as well as old trekking (non-pilgrimage0 routes. The latter include Via degli Dei, Via dei Briganti, Setteponti Road, Via dei Cento Torri and Cammino de San Tommaso.


  • Samogitian Calvary, Plungė district municipality, Lithuania. A town with a Catholic tradition dating back to the 12th century where a pilgrimage developed later in the 18th century because of a Catholic Youth Festival held annually in June.

Lithuania also has other, more recent, but very popular pilgrimage such as to the Shrine of Divine Mercy


An annual pilgrimage was initiated by Bishop Cubelles in 1543AD to pray for the intentions of Pope Paul III who was endeavouring to bring together Christian rulers in Europe for an the Ecumenical Council at a time when the church was undergoing significant division and was in need of reformation. The pilgrimage started at dawn from the Cathedral in Mdina and ended a the church of St. Gregory’s in Zejtun. Others attribute the procession to earlier dates (such as 1120) as thanksgiving following a failed attempt by Arabs to re-capture the island or a failed Turkish attack in 1452, sparing from a devastating plague in 1519. These and other events may all have been reasons for thanksgiving attributed to the pilgrimage which – later in 1543 – was firmly established as an annual event by Bishop Cubelles as an intercessory pilgrimage for Christian Unity.

  • Saint Paul’s Grotto, Rabat. The grotto where Saint Paul is said to have been imprisoned during his 3 months’ stay in Malta. The Spanish hermit Don Juan Benegas de Cordoba acquired the land above the grotto in the 16th century with the intention of attracting pilgrimages to this shrine. Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt built a chapel dedicated to St. Publius above the crypt and an adjacent college of chaplains to minister to the pilgrims. Visitors to the grotto include Pope Alexander VII, Lord Nelson, Pope Paul John II and Pope Benedict XVI.
  • Sanctuary of St. Mary, Mellieha: This painting in this chapel is attributed to St. Luke the Evangelist who accompanied St. Paul in 60AD. Marian devotion developed since Byzantine times and there are stories of kings and nobility, such as King Alfonso the Magnificant of Aragon, undertaking the pilgrimage from Castrum Maris (present-day Birgu) through Citta Notabile (Mdina) to Mellieha. (

Malta also has other, older or more recent shrines and pilgrimage sites but of a more local nature.


  • Chapel of the Heilige Stede, Amserdam. A pilgrimage to the site of a 1347 miracle. When the chapel became Protestant in the 16th century the pilgrimage was forbidden but this was reinstated in the 19thcentury.


  • Olavsweg (St. Olaf Camino), Nidaros. A pilgrimage from Oslo to Nidaros, the site where in St. Olaf evangelized Vikings.


  • Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa and the monastery founded in 1382 which attracts millions of pilgrims annually.
    • Wambierzyce, Silesian Jerusalem, a pilgrimage destination since the 16th century. 


Portugal has a number of pilgrimage routes but the most popular, such as Our Lady of
Fatima and Our Lady of Sameiro are not ancient routes.


Slovakia has a few other pilgrimage sites of lesser or a later period of both Roman and Greek Catholic rites.


Spain is, of course, most renowned for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela or the Way of St. James (Via Jacobi or Jakobsweg). Although this is being listed as one pilgrimage, in reality pilgrims from all the ancient Christian kingdoms, princedoms, dukedoms and Bishopric states flocked to Santiago and – as a result – there are several routes of St. James converging on Santiago de Compostela. In addition to the Way of St. James, Spain has other ancient pilgrimage sites.

  • Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana is a 6th century monastery in Cantabria. It is one of the few catholic places of worship that has the privilege of issuing perpetual indulgences.
    • Our Lady of Covadonga. Apparitions are associated with the victory against the Moors in Asturias that changed the course of history during the Reconquista.  
    • Our Lady of Guadalupe. A 13th century monastery.
    • Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage route dates back to the discovery of the remains of St. James in Galicia dating back to the 9th century AD. It grew steadily in importance as the Spanish Reconquista started gaining ground in Spain.
    • Therese of Avila. Carmelite nun from Avila who lived in the 16th century and is one of pillars of the Carmelite Order. 

Spain has many other pilgrimage routes particularly tied to apparitions of Our Lady. But most of these would be more recent than the ones mentioned above.


St. Meinrad, Einsiedeln is linked to the ancient hermitage of St. Meinrad; now a Benedictine monastery. Einsiedeln is on the Via Jacobi, the route of St. James passing through Switzerland.

United Kingdom:

Like Ireland, the United Kingdom has several pilgrimage sites tied to ancient Christianity or Celtic Christianity, predating the arrival of St. Augustine and the founding of Canterbury Cathedral. These include:

  • St. Bertram of Ilam, England
  • St. Cafdan in Wales;
  • St. Columba in Iona, Scotland

The ancient ones associated with Roman Christianity include:

  • Abbey of St. Edmund the Martyr.
  • Bromholm Priory, established in 1113 which is said to have a piece of the Holy Cross;
  • Canterbury Cathedral, Kent. This is associated with the birth of English Christianity (although Celtic Christianity existed before the arrival of St. Augustine);
  • Lindisfarne, England. This is where St. Cuthbert was buried before being moved to the Cathedral of Durham. Lindisfarne is also associated with St. Aidan who evangelized the Northumbria;
  • St. Albans Cathedral, England. Although pre-dating Roman Catholicism in the United Kingdom, St. Albans also pre-dates Celtic Christianity in that he was martyred before the retreat of the Romans from the British Isles;
  • St. Andrews, Scotland. The place is associated with the remains of St. Andrew and was a place of pilgrimage and veneration from ancient times;
  • St. David, Wales. The place is associated with pilgrimage since David was made a saint in the 12th century;
  • St. Patrick, Strell Wells, Northern Ireland, a pilgrimage route associated with the evangelization route of St. Patrick in Northern Ireland;
  • St. Winefride’s Well, a 12th century pilgrim site to a well with healing powers dubbed the Lourdes of Wales;Walshingham Abbey, is a 7th century pilgrim site also associated with the Holy Cross;
  • Winchester Cathedral, is a 7th century Cathedral with early Roman Christianity in Britain and with the Anglo-Saxon bishop St Swithun