Travelers hungry for deeper connections to places they visit are increasingly drawn to the southwestern corner of France, where for centuries pilgrims have trekked St. James' Way to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
On a recent press tour by van, it became clear that following the trails, even without a backpack and walking stick, is an unforgettable experience.
Visitors can easily spend a week meandering among stunning villages along the routes and enjoying the region's culinary specialties, wine and brandy.
French tourism officials, seeing the growing number of Americans visiting the Midi-Pyrenees region to walk all or parts of the St. James routes, are promoting the historical routes to agents and tour operators. (Click here or on the image, right, for a larger view of a map of the various routes
"There's a growth in what's called spiritual tourism, perhaps influenced by the book 'Eat, Pray, Love' or because people in general are looking for a spiritual aspect to their travels," said Anne-Laure Tuncer, director-USA of Atout, France's tourism development agency.
Spain's St. James walking paths attract large numbers, particularly the final 100 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela.
Less well known is that St. James' Way encompasses several medieval-era routes that start farther north. Of the three that traverse the Midi-Pyrenees, the most traveled is the Le Puy route. Thousands walk Le Puy each year, sometimes taking weeks, often only a few days.
At the pilgrimage town of Conques, which draws 600,000 visitors a year (30,000 of them of walkers), visitors are humbled to silence by the stark, awe-inspiring beauty of the high-arched 12th century abbey, with its hundreds of intricate, stone-carved statues.
Accommodations along the routes run the gamut and, while some choose simple hostels operated by religious orders, there are luxury options. Just outside Conques, for example, is the eight-room hotel Le Moulin de Cambelong
, resting in a postcard-perfect riverfront setting and housing the Michelin-starred restaurant Herve Busset.
Another breathtaking village is Rocamadour, which clings to the sheer rock of a river gorge. For centuries visitors have been drawn to its seven relic-filled churches.
The Hotel Beau Site
, a Best Western with panoramic views of the river valley, accommodates travelers looking for three-star lodging. Its glass-walled restaurant serves local specialties, including foie gras, goat cheese and truffles.
Figaec, a market town filled with exquisitely refurbished, half-timbered medieval buildings, is a major pilgrimage stop. It is home to the Champollion Museum, dedicated to native son Jean-Francois Champollion, who deciphered Egypt's Rosetta Stone, unlocking the hieroglyphics.
Nearby is the luxurious, fairytale-like Chateau de la Treyne
, a Relais & Chateau property set in an idyllic landscape of forest and formal gardens. The 14th century chateau's 16 rooms are furnished in French antiques.
The city of Cahors, nestled in a curve of the Lot River, is home to the striking 14th century Valentre Bridge that is one of the most memorable sections of the St. James trails.
Dinner at Le Balandre in the Terminus Hotel
is a highlight of a stay here, with local specialties foie gras, duck confit and the dark malbec wine for which Cahors is known.
Each summer day, dozens of walkers of all ages and from all parts of the world make their way through Cahors' narrow, cobblestone streets and over Valentre Bridge, said Fabienne Boussier, spokeswoman for the Cahors tourist office.
The numbers grow each year. "Fifteen years ago we'd see maybe 10 walkers a day, and today we see more than 100," Boussier said. Most are trekking as an adventure, to mark an occasion or for spiritual reasons that are not tied to organized religion.
"It has something to do with how materialistic the world has become," she said. "People want to walk and do something for their soul."
Another major pilgrimage stop is the town of Moissac at the confluence of the Garonne and Tarn rivers, where the Romanesque St. Pierre Abbey and its 12th century cloister with delicately carved sculptures draw hikers in the bustling square.
On the St. James path outside the nearby city of Condom is the 29-room Chateau de Mons
, a castle-like hotel, parts of which date from 1285. The hotel, in the heart of Armagnac country and surrounded by vineyards, has exhibits and gift shop dedicated to the renowned French brandy.
One of the great cathedrals of the pilgrimage routes is St. Mary's in Auch, a pretty town on the Gers River. Auch is near the birthplace of the fictional D'Artagnan, and a huge statue of the Three Musketeers dominates the cathedral square.
The largest Midi-Pyrenees city is Toulouse, itself an ancient pilgrimage site and known as the "pink city" because of its handsome redbrick buildings that appear pink. Today, it's also a vibrant modern metropolis, a lively university town and Europe's aeronautic center.
Airbus' sprawling headquarters and plant where the A380 is produced is open to visitors. In March, the complex is expanding with the addition of Aeroscopia, an aviation museum with 19th century unmanned flying craft dating from the times of the pioneering French aviator Antoine de Sant-Exupery.