Sunday, October 16, 2016

TRO BREIZ – a last long walk


 I am thinking of walking the Tro Breiz next year. It would need to be in stages, as the entire route tops 600km and would definitely be my last long distance walk. Let’s see how my fitness stands at the end of 2016 before the big decision.
The Tro Breiz pilgrimage connects the seven cathedrals associated with the seven founding saints of Brittany: ‘founding' because they represented the initial wave of proselytising Christianity which took hold of Brittany in the 5th and 6th centuries. Indeed this was the time when Brittany itself came into being in an embryonic state, as migrants from the British Isles arrived to start new lives, mingling their language with that of the indigenous population.

The name Brittany of course means 'little Britain'. Five of the seven saints were probably of Welsh origin, only two being natives of the Armorican peninsula (Amorica was the Roman name for NW France), perhaps sons of immigrant parents. The cathedrals later associated with the seven – and in order of the route I’ll maybe take - are St-Pol-de-Léon (St Pol), Tréguier (St Tugdual), St Brieuc (St Brieuc), St Malo (St Malo), Dol-de-Bretagne (St Samson), Vannes (St Patern) and Quimper (St Corentin).

There is evidence that this ‘Breton journey’ was a genuine medieval pilgrimage route, an undertaking of serious commitment to be achieved once in a lifetime to be that much more secure of a heavenly future. Although the actual paths are mostly lost, old Roman roads, still major highways in later periods, certainly formed important links: for example, we know that a pilgrim from Morlaix took the 'Roman road nearest the shore' on his way to Dol. Another Roman road connecting Vannes and Quimper must also have been part of the chain. There are many place-names containing references to pilgrims (although these may just as likely refer to those on the Compostela trail), such as Le Champ du Pèlerins and La Fontaine-aux-Pèlerins. Some see an allusion to the 'Green route of Hope'(= salvation, by completing this journey) in names like Le Chemin-Vert and Les-Croix-Vertes. The study of toponyms is so often not a conclusive investigation. Another approach to establishing the ancient ways involves looking at where pilgrims would have stayed along their route. Abbeys and establishments of the Knights of St-John, such as that at La Feuillée, made natural stopping-places for travellers anxious about security. And certain chapels and fontaines along routes between the great cathedrals are known to have been focal points for spiritual travellers on the Tro Breiz: for example, La Trinité near Melgven.
I have often written and publicly spoken about these saints, I know the seven cathedrals well and have walked many miles of the paths used for the contemporary version of the Tro Breiz, recreated by the hard work and dedication of an association based in St-Pol-de-Léon. But the idea of one last great big walk with ancient connections, full of modern logistics, drenched in beautiful Breton coast and country, doubtless spiritually uplifting even to an old animist like me is almost irresistible, despite the inevitable physical trial it will also provide.