Pilgrimage to Saint Jacques de Compostelle
By Martine P. Dulles
Since arriving in France, we have heard a lot about the pilgrimage to Saint Jacques-de-Compostelle (the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela) in Galicia in northwest Spain. Inside the cathedral there is the shrine of the Apostle James, son of Zebedee; The brother of John the Evangelist, James was the first Apostle to be martyred in 44 AD.
The Camino de Santiago started in the 10th century and is today Europe’s most popular Christian pilgrimage. [The two other big Christian pilgrimages are to Rome and Jerusalem.] In the 1950s a pilgrim’s guidebook was published. By 1985, there were were 690 pilgrims; by 2019, there were 347,538 pilgrims, representing many countries. More than 90 percent walked but some others rode bicycles and a few even did it on horseback. More than half came along the Camino Francés (the French Way) the most traveled portion of the pilgrimage in Spain.
One day around the luncheon table with some friends in the south of France, one of the guests, Sabine, told us that she had walked the 1150 miles from Paris to Santiago de Compostela in seven weeks!
In France, there are four major routes:
“Via Turonensis” starts in Tours (hence its name). This route is taken mostly by Parisians and people from the north of Europe. Before reaching Tours, they have the choice of going via Chartres or Orléans.
“Via Podiensis,” the oldest and most popular “chemin” starts in Le-Puy-en-Velay, in the Auvergne, a mountainous region in the center of France. It goes through Conques (see the article on Soulages in the February Charleston Mercury) and Cahors.
“Via Lemoviceuses” initiates in Vézelay and goes via Limoges and Périgueux.
All three routes converge in Ostabat, not far from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in the western Pyrenées near the border of Spain.
The fourth route, “Via Tolosana,” goes along the Mediterranean from St. Gilles-du-Gard, through Arles, Montpellier and Toulouse.
They all merge in the Spanish Basque town Hondarribia (Fontarabie in French), about 500 miles before the destination. All these major pilgrimage routes link to many minor ones where pilgrims from other countries arrive.
Boots, backpacks and prep
Sabine explained it took her four months to prepare this adventure, which she completed with a gentleman friend of her family named Olivier. During this period, they both discussed the routes they would follow and they planned on walking 12 to 18 miles per day. They had to find lodging for each night in France. Whenever they had friends along the way, they were able to stay at their home and enjoy a very good homemade French meal. Otherwise they would stay in an inn or a bed and breakfast. Every Sunday during the preparation period, they would walk 18 miles around Paris, to find the best way to get out of the capital and also to break in their walking shoes and get their legs in shape.
They gave great thought to the contents of their backpacks, which had to be as light as possible: 11 pounds maximum. A bottle of water, a pair of socks, folding raingear, a toothbrush and cream for the feet, to ease the soreness and the blisters! Sabine’s friend Olivier carried a very small hairdryer, not for their hair, but to dry their clothes.
Of course, a detailed map is necessary, but there are signs along the way. In many places, such as in Montpellier, there are iconic brass markers in the pavement every 100 meters to indicate the route. They have scallop logo, Saint James’ symbol. Apparently, in the early centuries of the pilgrimage, scallops were picked up along the way as a protection against witches. It also enabled the person to use them to drink water. The French term for scallop is “coquille St. Jacques.”
Once one has passed Saint-Pied-de-Port and arrives at the Spanish border, there is a road sign that indicates: “St. Jacques de Compostelle 800 km (500 miles).” Given that 60 percent of the pilgrims are Spaniards, at this point, apparently the “Chemins” become very crowded. This part of the pilgrimage is named “Camino francés” (the French way) as it is the one people coming from France use most.
Sabine mentioned that, in Spain, the pilgrimage is extremely well organized, as it is customary for young Spaniards to do it in the context of their studies. Unlike in France, one does not have to organize lodging for the night, because there are always rooms available in every village.
Some sites along the Way
This being a Christian pilgrimage, the cities and villages on the routes are all major religious sites.
In Tours, where the first route starts, the Basilic St Martin holds the body of St Martin-de-Tours, its bishop who died in 397.
Le-Puy-en-Valais is very significant given that the first non-Spanish pilgrim, named Gothescalc, left from there in 950. Further along, the Abbaye Sainte-Foy de Conques is a most beautiful Roman site that houses the stained-glass windows made by Pierre Soulages (see the article in the Charleston Mercury from February).
In Vézelay, the Romanesque basilica houses the relic of Mary Magdalene.
On the fourth route, in Arles, one of the nicest towns of France, is the Cathedral Saint-Trophime, with a remarkable Romanesque façade. (You may recall Vincent van Gogh lived and painted in Arles.)
Now, all those routes and the ones on the Camino Francés, in Spain, go through villages with vineyards. One Spanish village even offers 100 liters of the local wine to the pilgrims every day.
Before starting the pilgrimage, one gets a logbook called a “Credencial.” Every day, the pilgrim gets a stamp at the “mairie” (city hall) to prove his or her passage.
Upon arrival in Santiago, pilgrims queue in front of the office to present their Credencials filled with stamps to receive the “Compostela,” a certificate written in Latin, as proof of having accomplished the pilgrimage. The Credencial and the Compostela are very precious life-long memorabilia.
The motivations behind accomplishing such an adventure can be numerous. The walkers come from all over the world and are of all ages. Some do it for religious beliefs, others for the challenge, others to discover the countryside; some for silence, solitude and meditation; and for some meeting other people. Many friendships are created — though not with everyone.
One of Sabine’s favorite moments was the last day upon reaching Santiago de Compostela (not surprising after such effort) and attending the mass at the cathedral given in honor of the pilgrims arriving then. There, the people they met and lost along the way were all present. Everyone so proud and so happy. Everyone exhausted and many with tears. “Every day, a miracle of some sort happened,” said Sabine, who found the whole experience extremely enriching.
Martine P. Dulles lives in Tours, in the Loire valley of France. Martine was a docent at the MET in New York and later a licensed tour guide in Charleston where they lived for eleven years. She now organizes bespoke guided tours in France. She may be reached at email@example.com.