On July 2, bicyclists from around the world began the Tour de France, an annual race that weaves its way through the plains and mountains of the country. The race has been going strong since 1903 (interrupted only by the two World Wars).
This year, the race lasts 22 days, beginning in the north and ending in Paris. While I can’t imagine that the racers have any time to appreciate the history and architecture of the land as they whiz past, each stage of the race provides abundant opportunities for Catholic tourists to see and pray at some of the many sacred sites of this amazing country.
Stage 1: Mont Saint Michel
This beautiful abbey in Normandy — sitting atop a rocky island, once only accessible during low tide — is the race’s starting point, a great place to begin exploring the faith of France’s people. A small church was built atop this island in the eighth century at the request of its namesake, St. Michael the Archangel.
It has housed Benedictines and seen pilgrims come and go for centuries. Churches have been built here in the Romanesque, Gothic and Flamboyant styles. It has served as a prison and a valuable strategic fortification. Today, it is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site and is, once again, a monastery, housing friars and sisters from Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem.
Stage 2: Saint Lô – Cherbourg-Octeville
The city of Saint Lô houses a few beautiful Catholic churches, including the Flamboyant-Gothic Church of Notre Dame de Saint Lô, once drawn by Victor Hugo. The city was badly damaged during World War II, but this church was one of the few left standing. Pilgrims can also see the abbey Church of Sainte-Croix, believed to have been built atop the site of a chapel built by St. Helena in the fourth century.
Stage 3: Granville – Angers
The cities of Granville and Angers are home to some beautiful churches. Granville has the sturdy, yet relatively plain, Notre-Dame-du-Cap-Lihou and the domed church of St. Paul, while Angers’ Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral is so remarkable that it is considered a national monument of France. Its stained-glass windows are masterpieces of 13th-century glasswork. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that the head of St. John the Baptist was kept at this cathedral … although the cathedral at Amiens claimed to have it, as well. In between the two cities is the Marian Shrine of Pontmain, where Our Lady appeared in 1871.
Stage 4: Saumur — Limoges
The fourth stage takes us southeast, to the cities of Saumur and Limoges, where we find some of France’s finest wines, Sequoia trees and the homes of saints. St. Jeanne Delanour, canonized by Pope St. John Paul II, was born in Saumur and founded a congregation there. Saumur is also home to the chapel and miraculous statue of Notre Dame des Ardillers. Limoges, best known for its enamels and porcelain, is also home to a stunning Gothic cathedral noted for its rood loft and octagonal bell tower, as well as the Chappelle Saint-Aurélien and Church of St Michel-des-Lions, which house the relics of Sts. Aurelian and Martial, respectively.
Stage 5: Le Lioran
Le Lioran is in the heart of France; it is a resort town, big with skiers. It is home to the fortified Church of St. Peter (St. Pierre) and St. Paul, believed to be part of the Cluniac reformation period, a period of reformation within the Benedictine Order that sought to restore traditional monastic life.
Stage 6: Arpajon-sur-Cère – Montauban
In between the cities of Arpajon-sur-Cère and Montauban, we come to a stunning shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary at Rocamadour. Perched atop a rocky plateau, this shrine — which is named rocamadour after the French for “rock lover” — is believed to have been the home (and later burial place) of Zacchaeus, who once climbed a tree to see Jesus in Jericho. It’s said he came here to live as a hermit, bringing with him a black statue of the Virgin Mary. This statue — which actually dates to the ninth century — is still venerated by the millions of pilgrims who come every year. South of Montauban, in the city of Toulouse, pilgrims can visit the Basilica of St. Sernin and pray at the tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Stage 7: L’Isle-Jourdain – Lac De Payolle
Stage 7 brings us close to one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in all of France — and the world — the Shrine of Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary appeared to the St. Bernadette Soubirous. Here, sick pilgrims bathe in the chilly springs year-round in the hopes of receiving one of the many miracles that take place here.
Stage 8: Pau – Bagnères-de-Luchon
On the northern edge of the Pyrenees, Pau is rich in Catholic churches, including the Neo-Gothic Church of Saint-Martin — with its painted walls and ornate baldachin atop the sanctuary — the twin-spired Church of Saint-Jacques, with its beautiful rose window featuring Jesus in the center, surrounded by angels, and the 11th-century Church of Sainte Foy de Morlaas, a stop for many pilgrims making their way to Compostela. In Bagnères-de-Luchon, pilgrims can visit a 14th-century statuette of the Virgin Mary at the Church of Saint Etienne (St. Steven) and the Romanesque Church of Our Lady of the Assumption. In between the two cities, pilgrims should definitely stop at Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, home to a stunning basilica.
Stage 9: Vielha — Arcalis
Stage 9 crosses the border into Spain and Andorra — the sixth-smallest nation in Europe. The area surrounding these cities is home to many Romanesque and Gothic churches, including the Churches of Sant Estèue (St. Steven) de Betren and Mair de Diu dera Purificacion (Mother of God of the Purification) de Bossòst.
Stage 10: Andorra — Revel
The population of Andorra is more than 90% Catholic, and it is a monarchy headed by two co-princes — the president of France and the bishop of Urgell. Numerous Romanesque churches dot the landscape and provide a great opportunity to go “church hopping” amidst the mountains. There’s the Church of Santa Coloma, with its circular bell tower, and the Church of Sant Miquel S’Engolasters, overlooking the valley of Andorra. The Sanctuary of Meritxell was recently named a minor basilica, and the Canòlich Sanctuary is one of the area’s main shrines.
Stage 11: Carcassonne — Montpellier
France’s fortified town of Carcassone is home to a medieval fortress that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sandstone building materials for the Gothic Basilica of Sts. Nazarius and Celsus was blessed by Pope Urban II in 1096. The Cathedral of St. Michael was built in 1803. Moving up the Mediterranean coast, Montpellier provides pilgrims the opportunity to see Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, which suffered great damage during the “Wars of Religion” in the 16th century before being rebuilt in the 17th.
Stage 12: Montpellier — Mont Ventoux
The journey from Montpellier to Mont Ventoux brings us through the very historic city of Avignon, where, from 1309 through 1377, seven successive popes made their home away from Rome. The city of course has many Catholic sites, including the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), the Avignon Cathedral and the Pont Saint-Bénézet, a bridge partially built by Pope Clement VI. South of Avignon is the small village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where three Mary’s are honored — Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe — believed by some to be the first witnesses of the empty tomb.
Stage 13: Bourg-Saint-Andéol — Vallon Pont d’Arc
Bourg-Saint-Andéol is home to the 12th-century Romanesque Church of St. Polycarp and the 11th-century Church of St. Andeol, as well as the Convent of the Visitation and the Convent de Recollets (Franciscan). East of these cities lie two Marian shrines that would be worthwhile detours from the resort cities the bike race visits: La Salette-Fallavaux and Laus, both sites of Marian apparitions. In 1846, in La Salette-Fallavaux, a weeping Virgin Mary appeared to two children and gave them many messages in the tradition of Fátima. Laus’ apparition occurred between 1664 and 1718 to Benoîte Rencurel, and there is a beautiful shrine on the spot.
Stage 14: Montélimar — Villars-les-Dombes
The journey from Montélimar to Villars-les-Dombes passes through the city of Lyon, a city rich in Catholic architecture and history, most famously the stunning Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, dedicated to the Virgin Mary in thanksgiving for saving the city and its inhabitants from the Black Death that decimated Europe in the 17th century. Lyon’s cathedral, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, is also beautiful. Also nearby is the city of Ars-sur-Formans and the Shrine of St. Jean-Marie Vianney, Curé of Ars and patron saint of parish priests.
Stage 15: Bourg-en-Bresse — Culoz
Stage 15 brings us to the city of Bourg-en-Bresse, home of the part-Renaissance, part-Gothic-styled Co-Cathedral of Our Lady of the Annunciation (Concathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l'Annonciation de Bourg-en-Bresse). The suburb of Brou features the Flamboyant-Gothic Royal Monastery and Church of St. Nicholas of Tolentino (Église Saint-Nicolas-de-Tolentin de Brou), built in the early 16th century by Margaret of Austria, daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. West of the city is Paray-le-Monial, home to a beautiful basilica and the Visitation convent where Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and asked her to help make devotion to his Sacred Heart known.
Stage 16: Moirans-en-Montagne — Bern
Founded by an abbot, the small village of Moirans-en-Montagne prides itself on its history of toy making. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that its 15th-century church is named after St. Nicholas. From here, we venture out of France to Switzerland’s city of Bern. The predominant religion in Bern is Swiss Reformed, as is the Bern Minster cathedral. Holy Trinity Church (Dreifaltigkeitskirche) is a beautiful little Catholic church in the city. Northeast of Bern, pilgrims can find the magnificent Eisendeln Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded by St. Meinrad and dedicated to Our Lady of the Hermits. Head north, and you’ll come to Mariastein Abbey, another Benedictine monastery.
Stage 17: Bern — Finhaut-Emosson
From Bern to Finhaut, the Catholic population increases, and on the way, we find the picturesque sixth century Abbey of St. Maurice (Abbaye de Saint-Maurice d'Agaune) in the Canton of Valais. Once the chief abbey of the Burgundian kingdom, the monks here sang perpetual psalmody from A.D. 522 to the ninth century in honor of the martyrs who died here in A.D. 286. This abbey was built atop the tomb of the Martyrs of Aguanum, an entire Roman legion (about 600 men) who converted to Christianity and were martyred by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian for refusing to honor him as God.
Stage 18: Sallanches — Mégève
Back in France, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the city of Sallenches is proud of its beautiful Collégiale Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur, a Baroque church with trompe l’oeil paintings inside. Mégève is home to a number of beautiful churches, including the Church of St. John the Baptist (Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Megève), with its beautiful, large wooden doors and a retablo that dates to the 18th century. The Calvary trail leads pilgrims up the slopes of Mont d’Arbois to 15 chapels and oratories, each marking one of the Stations of the Cross. West of the city is Annency, where pilgrims can visit the Basilica of the Visitation, inside of which are the tombs of Sts. Francis de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal.
Stage 19: Albertville — Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc
Albertville is best known as the host of the 1992 Winter Olympics. This region is a great place to marvel at God’s creation in nature, but there are still beautiful churches to be seen, like the 14th-century Baroque Church of Saint-Grat. South of Albertville, the village of Moutiers has a stunning cathedral that is worth the short trip. Saint-Gervais is home to a few small churches, like the 19th-century Church of Saint-Nicolas-de-Véroce, which features the saint’s wrist bone in a reliquary, and the Church of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, dedicated to a first-century martyr.
Stage 20: Mégève — Morzine
Morzine was originally an agricultural center for the nearby Aulps Abbey, once the most powerful Cistercian monastery in medieval Savoy. Today, Morzine is a resort town, and the 11th-century abbey ruins can still be visited. Guests can tour the gardens and visitors’ center, in addition to roaming the ruins of the abbey.
Stage 21: Chantilly — Paris
The final stage of the race goes from Chantilly to Paris. While Chantilly might bring up thoughts of cream and lace, the Catholic pilgrim might also be interested in the three abbeys surrounding the city — Chaalis (Cistercian), Moncel (Poor Clares) and Royaumont (Cistercian). And, of course, in the City of Lights, there is no lack of Catholic touristy things to see, like my favorites: the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Basilica of Sacre Coeur and the Miraculous Medal Chapel at the Rue de Bac!
While the Tour de France is an exciting race, sure to get its participant’s hearts pounding, I think this Tour de France Catholique is just as exciting! Bon voyage!
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