Shrines and cultural destinations
The Association Villes Sanctuaires de France brings together Sanctuaries and Tourist Offices from 19 destinations throughout France. Their principal aim is to continually improve the experience of the visitors and pilgrims searching for a spiritual or cultural journey of discovery.
A spiritual journey
These spiritual places are recognised for their international importance, and are often labelled as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The shrines include world-renowned places of worship such as Lourdes or the Mont Saint-Michel, as well as smaller shrines and cathedrals. The Sanctuaries and associated Tourist Offices share the same values of mutual cooperation, kindness and respect. Their common aim is to ensure the best possible welcome to travellers searching for spirituality, wellbeing, culture…The Villes Sanctuaires are situated all over France, from high in the mountains to seaside locations and from bustling cities to quaint remote villages. Each destination is unique, with its own traditions, architecture, food and a wide range of activities available nearby, including swimming, skiing, hiking and sightseeing.
From spiritual retreats to Christian pilgrimages, from cultural exploration to new discoveries, The Villes Sanctuaires Association will help you add a sense of purpose to your journey.
19 Shrines, 19 different stories
The term sanctuary comes from the Latin sanctus, meaning saint. The Association’s 19 shrines are all spiritual places linked to the Roman Catholic faith. In the past, pilgrims travelled to worship the relics of saints or because the sites themselves were remarkable, due to extraordinary spiritual experiences. Today, they are welcoming centres for believers and non-believers alike, who are searching for deeper meaning and/or refuge from the hardships of modern life.
In times when religion was associated with power, kings contributed to the notoriety of these shrines, by gifting relics found in far-away lands, or by financing their construction. These sites are full of history, combining spirituality, beauty, Christian and cultural heritage with artistic traditions from Romanesque to Gothic art and beyond. Despite their shared faith, each sanctuary is profoundly unique, a reflection of the image of its founders, their respective history and the message they convey.
Whether believer or agnostic, most of us will at some point seek the meaning of life, an attempt to understand the reasons for life’s tribulations. In the Middle Ages confession and prayer were the main purpose of these religious shrines but over time, societal changes have entrusted them with other missions. More and more people are looking for a break from the fast pace of modern life, through different forms of spirituality, meditation, yoga...
The Villes Sanctuaires Association can assist with organising your spiritual journey, from a few days to several weeks, alone or as part of a group.
Don’t hesitate to contact the Tourist Offices or the Villes Sanctuaires Association to obtain further information on cultural events, sightseeing, music festivals... elevating the soul and filling it with emotional sustenance.
Pilgrimage and physical activities
Pilgrimage is both physical and spiritual, beneficial for the body as well as the mind. It is equally popular with non-believers, who also are searching for wellbeing and a break from the sometimes exhausting daily routine. More than 300,000 pilgrims and hikers travel on the Road to Compostela every year. Whilst 38% make the pilgrimage for religious reasons, everyone benefits from switching off, finding themselves again and appreciating beautiful landscapes. Equally as important as enjoying silence or taking a holiday, sport is an effective way of soothing the mind.
The Villes Sanctuaires Association organises many sports activities throughout its 19 destinations. Hiking, skiing, cycling or mountain biking, walking in the forest, water sports... All have positive effects on the mind, just like tasting the delicious local cuisine on offer throughout France.
19 Villes Sanctuaires to discover
In the heart of Normandy between Mont Saint-Michel and Paris, the bucolic town of Alençon, birthplace of Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, is also famous worldwide for its exquisite lace and the Alençon needle point, part of the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity’ initiative by UNESCO. Louis and Zélie Martin first met in 1858 on a small bridge crossing the river Sarthe in Alençon. Both deeply religious, they had 9 children, 4 of whom died in early infancy. The youngest, Thérèse, became Saint Thérèse de Lisieux in 1925. Seen today as role models for Christian families, they were canonised by Pope Francis in 2015.
20 km North of Lyon, surrounded by hundreds of small lakes and overlooking the hills of the Beaujolais region, the peaceful town of Ars-sur-Formans was for 41 years home to the patron saint of all parish priests: Jean-Marie Vianney. Ordained in 1815, he was sent to Ars-sur-Formans three years later and dedicated his life to confession, spending sometimes 17 hours a day listening to the members of his parish. His kindness, devotion and dedication to the poor soon started to attract crowds of believers. In 1858, 100 000 pilgrims gathered in the small town to confess to him. He was canonised in 1925 and was named patron saint of all priests four years later.
One hour South of Paris, the cathedral of Chartres is one of the best preserved gothic buildings in the world, and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary from the 6th century, the popularity of Chartres increased dramatically when Charles II, grandchild of Charlemagne, gifted the church with the Veil of Mary. The Chartres cathedral is a unique masterpiece. Its towering spires, over 100m tall, can be seen for miles around in the flat lands of the Beauce plains. Its incredible 2400 m2 of stained-glass windows lighten the interiors with hundreds of vibrant colours. From April to October, a magical light and sound show brings the city to life every night.
Nestled amongst the olive groves and the vineyards , Cotignac is a typical village of Provence, with coloured houses, fountains and narrow streets. In 1519, the Blessed Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus appeared in Cotignac to a woodcutter named Jean de la Baume, asking for the village to build a church so that she could perform miracles. In 1637, she appeared again with a message for the childless Queen of France. Nine months later, Louis XIV, the Sun King, was born. 20 years later, it was Saint Joseph’s turn to appear there to a shepherd dying of thirst, uncovering a spring. These visions make Cotignac the only place in the world to have experienced the apparition of the Holy Family.
At an altitude of almost 1100m with beautiful views over the mountains of the Cévennes and the Alps, the village of Lalouvesc is protected by two saints: Saint Jean-François Régis and Saint Thérèse Couderc. The Sanctuary was founded here when the Jesuit Saint Régis died on the 31st December 1640. The stained-glass windows of the 19th century basilica depict the life of the saint who walked the whole region to share his faith. The air is so pure you can see all the way to Mont Blanc, 200 km away. The pine forests are an invitation to walk and reflect while picking up a few mushrooms and wild blueberries along the way.
At an altitude of 1800m in the Alps mountains near Grenoble, this remote Sanctuary surrounded by sloping meadows is the perfect environment to find inner peace. In 1846, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to two young shepherds, Mélanie Calvat, 15, and Maximin Giraud, 11, at the exact spot where the basilica in now erected. She appeared to them in tears, sharing her concerns for the people, urging them to rekindle with their faith through prayer and kindness. La Salette is accessible via the famous Route Napoléon that the exiled emperor took on his way to Paris to bring down the monarchy.
Situated in Normandy, in one of the most beautiful bays in the world, the rock dedicated to the archangel Saint Michael stands 157m above sea level. One of the first ever pilgrimage sites in Christendom, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ever-changing light on the Mont-Saint-Michel is a sight to admire at least once in a lifetime. In days of old, pilgrims used to risk their lives in order to reach the rock, getting stuck in quick sand or drowning when they were caught by the high tide. Today, guides can take you there safely at low tide on a 3 to 14 km walk. Alternatively, you can choose the elevated walking path. Once you reach the rock, the climb begins through medieval houses, up to the black granite abbey.
Le Puy-en-Velay is situated in the volcanic heart of France, the Auvergne, with three Natural Regional Parks surrounding it. Standing dramatically on an ancient volcano at the start of the Road to Compostela, this steep city is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The cathedral and Hôtel-Dieu are perched high on the hill while the chapel Saint-Michael seems suspended between Heaven and Earth on a rocky peak, 268 steps above the town. Inhabited since prehistoric times, it became the biggest sanctuary to Our Lady in medieval Christendom, welcoming 13 kings including Charlemagne and Saint-Louis. The town is also internationally renowned for its traditional lace and green lentils, the famous “lentilles du Puy”.
One hour from Marseille, between marshland and the sea, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer owes its name to Mary of Jacob and Mary Salome who, with their servant Sara, are believed to have crossed the sea from Palestine on a boat with no sails or oars. Miraculously, these companions of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary landed here and then started spreading the Christian faith. Every year in May, a great pilgrimage of Romani people from all over Europe leads them here to pay homage to their patron saint Sara. Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is situated in the Camargue Regional Park, home to an incredible range of biodiversity including greater flamingos and wild horses.
Lisieux, amongst the orchards and fields of Normandy, celebrates unconditional love. In the late 19th century, Saint Thérèse joined the Church here at the age of 15. She wrote about her faith in her memoirs before dying of tuberculosis at 24. The book “The Story of a Soul” is translated into 60 languages and has sold 500 million copies. The basilica Sainte-Thérèse de Lisieux was built in 1929 and holds the remains of the saint and of her parents, Louis and Zélie Martin, both canonised by Pope Francis in 2015.
At the foothills of the Pyrénées, Lourdes is one of the most renowned sacred sites in Christendom. This is where Bernadette Soubirous, aged 14, poor and illiterate, saw the Blessed Virgin Mary 18 times in a grotto. At the bottom of the cave, she found a spring, linked to many miracles. Millions of people every year make the journey to Lourdes, seeking a cure for their sufferings, in a sanctuary of kindness, empathy and hope.
On the Road to Compostela, by the Loire River, Nevers is the last resting place of Bernadette Soubirous. After seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary appear to her in Lourdes 18 times, she moved to a convent in Nevers and dedicated her life to the sick and to prayer. Exhausted by ill-health, she died at 35 in 1879. When she was canonised in 1933, her body was exhumed in a perfect state of conservation and placed in a glass coffin. 400 000 people come and pray by her side every year.
In the South of Burgundy, on the banks of a canal, Paray-le-Monial was part of the Cluny sites for centuries. Even as a very young child, Marguerite-Marie Alacoque had wanted to dedicate her life to God. When she became a nun in Paray-le-Monial, Jesus appeared to her three times. On the third visitation, he showed her his heart and love for humankind and wished this to be universally celebrated. In 1686, the first Sacred Heart chapel was built and the Sacred Heart celebrations are now spread throughout Christendom.
Rocamadour seems to defy the laws of physics. Built against a cliff at the heart of the Dordogne Valley, the sacred city was one of the four pillars of Christianity, on a par with Rome and Jerusalem. The pilgrimage started in 1166 with the discovery of a body in a perfect state of conservation, believed to be either Saint Amadour or Zacchaeus, one of the disciples of Jesus. Many miracles were recorded here, often at sea, as the statue of the Black Madonna in Rocamadour protects sailors and prisoners. The Basilica Saint-Sauveur and the crypt Saint-Amadour are both listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
A few km from the sea shores of Britanny, Sainte-Anne-d’Auray is a highly spiritual place. Sainte Anne, grandmother of Christ, appeared here in 1624 to a young farmer named Yvon Nicolazic, asking to rebuild the chapel where she was once worshipped. She visited him again several times and led him to a wooden statue, marking the place where the new chapel had to be erected. This discovery prompted the start of a great pilgrimage, which has included the likes of Napoléon III, the Général de Gaulle and Pope John-Paul II. The site of Sainte-Anne-d’Auray is said to be the only one in which an earthy appearance has been made by Sainte Anne.
Saint-Maximin et la Sainte-Baume
Situated in Provence, this Sanctuary includes two highly holy places: the grotto where Mary-Magdelene spent the last 30 years of her life and the basilica where her remains were unearthed. First witness to the Resurrection of Christ, Mary-Magdelene came to France by boat to preach the Christian faith. She decided to stay in La Sainte-Baume to repent in a grotto, helping those who came to her. Her remains were exhumed in 1279 where the basilica Saint-Maximin now stands.
In the green heart of France, North of the Massif Central, Souvigny is a monastic city mixing art, culture and faith. In the 10th century, Aymar de Bourbon gave part of his land to the powerful Cluny abbey, hoping for the salvation of his soul. In 1008, the monastery was extended with a church and then a priory. The buildings have seen many improvements throughout the ages and today, Souvigny is an impressive, 84m long structure. A remarkable example of Romanesque architecture, it is recognised as a “Great Site” of the Auvergne region.
At the foothills of the Vosges mountain range, the story of Our Lady of Thierenbach started in the 12th century. A young noble man, thinking he was dying, offered to give all his possessions to the Blessed Virgin Mary in exchange for his life. His health improved, he became a monk and urged the clergy to build a priory there for Our Lady to perform miracles. Built in the Austrian Baroque style, the priory was destroyed on several occasions but every time, it was erected again.
Amongst the plains and vineyards of Bourgogne, sitting on a rocky peak named “The Eternal Hill” stands the impressive Romanesque basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine. Restored in the 19th century, the basilica and the village of Vézelay below are both listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In 1146, Bernard de Clairvaux preached here, urging a second crusade. The town was fortified and 44 years later, Philippe Auguste organised a rendez-vous with Richard the LionHeart to leave for a third crusade. The basilica holds relicas of Mary Magdelene within its walls.