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The seashell and the saint

By Jerry Marterer

France is full of legends that have become part of daily life throughout the years. We found out about one of them in the market on the Rue Cler. We love the scallops that are brought from Normandy and are sold at the seafood vendor. We learned from a friend how to open the shells, rinse off the sand and remove them for cooking. One thing that was strange was their French name, “Coquilles Saint Jacque.” Jacque is French for James, and Saint James refers to James the Apostle, the first to be martyred, in Jerusalem in 44 A.D. The legend is that his disciples took his body, climbed into a rudderless boat and drifted to northern Spain where they buried him. The Spanish name for Saint James is Santiago. His relics were rediscovered in the 9th century and were placed in a silver casket in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

It is believed that during the middle-ages, Saint James appeared to Charlemagne and promised that the emperor would be successful in driving the Moors from Spain and showed him the path to the saint’s tomb. Saint James’s role as a miracle worker spread and more pilgrims began to make the journey to ask for his intercession. Pilgrims would collect a certificate of their visit and a scallop shell (coquille) from the nearby shore.

In Paris, pilgrims would leave for Spain along the Rue Saint-Jacques, a main road of medieval Paris that became the starting point to make their way along the Chemin de Saint Jacques that led eventually to Santiago de Compostela. A church dedicated to Saint Jacques was built in 1523 during the reign of King Francis I. It became a sending-off point for pilgrims heading for the Way of Saint Jacques and Santiago de Compostela. The church was destroyed in the revolution, but the tower, Tour Saint Jacques, was saved and is classified as a historic monument. It was restored under the Second Empire.

The signs of the seashell of Saint Jacques may be found throughout Paris, some hundreds of years old. The altar in the 12th century chapel of the Chateau de Vincennes has a gilded carving on the front side. Many historic churches in Paris have statues on their outside walls marking the Pilgrimage route. Badges are sold to future pilgrims

Today, walking the Camino de Santiago, known as “The Way,” has become popular. Thousands of pilgrims walk it every year. It has become a “bucket list” item for many. There are several routes, one from Portugal and one from Northern Spain. The Camino France, or the French way, accounts for 60 percent of the pilgrims. It starts from a small village on the French side of the Pyrenees and crosses some steep mountains before encountering hills and verdant plains on its way to Santiago de Compostela. There are hostels along the way for food and lodging that will mark the pilgrims’ “Compostela Passports.” The route is almost 500 miles long and takes about 30 days to complete.

To learn more about today’s pilgrimages, watch the 2010 movie, “The Way,” with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. It follows a father whose son dies hiking the Camino. He goes to Spain to claim the remains. Looking for insights into his estranged child’s life, he decides to complete the 500-mile walk.

We both usually order the Coquilles Saint Jacque when we find them on a restaurant menu. By then they are out of the shell and deliciously tender. It always brings to mind the legend of Saint James. We plan to travel to Compostela one day, but not on foot!

Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at


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