A pilgrim's progress to the holy spots of Europe

Walsingham

Since 1061 when a replica of the Virgin Mary's Nazareth abode - the Santa Casa - was built, Little has been one of the foremost pilgrimage sites in Britain, rivalling Canterbury in popularity. Inspired by visions of the Virgin Mary, the local "lady of the manor", Richeldis de Faverches, built a shrine that attracted immediate attention to this little Norfolk village, and seduced English monarchs from Henry III to Henry VIII. Traditionally pilgrims would leave their shoes at the 14th century "slipper chapel" and walk the last "holy mile" barefoot. Despite making the pilgrimage himself, Henry VIII ordered the destruction of the shrine during the Dissolution, but pilgrimages were back again in earnest by the beginning of the 19th century, and today there are shrines to satisfy all, including two of the Russian Orthodox denomination.

The tourist information centre (from April-September) can be reached on 01328 820510.

Santiago de Compostela

The high-profile pilgrims' way to the city of Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, starts its well-trodden 500-mile route in the French border town of St Jean-Pied-de-Port. The Camino de Santiago walk finds its origins in the mythical discovery of the St James the Apostle's corpse by a star-gazing shepherd in 813. Following a guiding star this shepherd stumbled across the lost tomb of St James - later pronounced as authentic by the local bishop. In the centuries following, the myth gained strength and the magnificent Cathedral de Santiago Compostela grew up over St James' alleged remains. Today's successful pilgrims are presented with an official "Compostela" certificate upon completion of the route, for which they have to arrive on foot, horseback or bicycle.

For information about the pilgrimage, call the Confraternity of St James on 0171 403 4500.

Rome

Guarantee yourself a place in heaven and atone for all sins with a trip to Italy's capital, for in the eyes of the Catholic church any trip to Rome constitutes a pilgrimage. The Ancient Roman Emperors' penchant for killing Christians resulted in the numerous burial sites dotted around the city, which since the 5th century AD have been attracting pilgrims.

Today, one of the more popular roads to Rome starts from Sienna, and tour operator The Alternative Travel Group (tel: 01865 315665) owes its origins to this ancient track. The company started life based on the 140- mile trip from Sienna to Rome, along the medieval trade routes of Via Frantigena and Via Cassia. These trips are increasingly popular with millennial tourists, and Italian authorities are expecting some 30 million visitors around the year 2000. They are hastily renovating all the churches and buildings along this hallowed route to promote the tradition of pilgrimage. But be warned: ancient pilgrims on the path to Rome were rarely a pious bunch. Traditionally they were miscreants from around Europe who indulged in a little petty theft along the way.

Lourdes

Once a sleepy market town at the edge of the Pyrenees, Lourdes is now hailed as the Kitsch Capital of Christendom. This is medieval fervour complemented with astounding commercialism - plastic statues in the shape of Our Lady (complete with flashing halos) are the most appealing of the tatty memorabilia on offer. However, sanctity is maintained in the inner "Domain" where the grotto in which Bernadette Soubirous, in 1858, saw the Virgin Mary in a series of 18 visions. After investigation the Vatican confirmed the visions as bona fide and the city became one of the world's most important pilgrimage sites, annually attracting some 5 million pilgrims, including many sick folk seeking cures.

For information, call the Lourdes pilgrimage office on 01903 745180.

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