Les Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle

Easter Egg
Easter Egg

Happy Easter. I know it’s a bit late but I took advantage of rare and unexpected sunshine to work in the garden yesterday. The magnificent ceramic egg above, was nestling in last year’s Virginia creeper cuttings outside Catherine Smedley’s art gallery this weekend. As well as being a talented artist, Catherine is also a keen gardener. I’ve written about her garden here.

As it’s Easter, a time of pilgrimages and reflection, a few words about les chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle seemed appropriate. Part of the route passes through our region. We recently attended a talk given by singing friends Ginette and Pierre. In 1999, they walked the pilgrimage route all the way from Paris to Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain.

Several routes lead to the destination. Some people start from Paris, others from le Puy en Velay, Vézelay or Arles. Another member of our choir started from Ghent and did the whole journey on his own. And variations from the main route spin off along the way.

Ginette and Pierre said that in 1982 100 pilgrims walked the route. By 1999 this had multiplied a thousand times to 100,000 people. Ginette and Pierre walked 2,300 kilometres. It took them three months, from the end of March to the end of June. Ginette was working for a charity for sufferers of muscular dystrophy and they filmed their experiences for the charity. They braved snowstorms and hostile herds of cows in the Auvergne and blisters in the Basque country. I asked Ginette if they had considered giving up at any point. The blisters made it a close run thing, she said.

Our friends explained that you don’t have to have religious beliefs to do the route but it is nonetheless a spiritual experience. And you can do it on foot, by bicycle, on horseback or even by car. Some people do it in several stages every year while others do the whole lot at once. They are united in their desire to get away from daily life and material preoccupations. Countless people along the way, who were unable to make the journey themselves, asked Ginette and Pierre to put in a word for them at the end.

The route began as an alternative to the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem. The tomb of the apostle St. James was discovered around 800 at the site of Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrimages took off from about 950 but Santiago reached its apogee from the 11th century onwards and became fabulously wealthy. The worship of relics encouraged the growth of pilgrimages and thousands of people made the journey every year.

Spire of La Basilique Saint-Sernin

In our region the route from Le Puy passes via Conques, Villefranche-de-Rouergue, Cahors, Moissac and Lauzerte but there are several variants. It’s marked by pilgrimage churches, such as Sainte-Foy in Conques  and Saint-Sernin in Toulouse (on the route from Arles), pilgrims’ bridges and crosses.

Cahors - St Jacques de Compostelle
Cahors – St Jacques de Compostelle

Everywhere, the scallop shell (coquille) that was the signature of Saint-Jacques appears. I asked why this was the chosen symbol. Apparently, if you go from Santiago de Compostela to the very end of the pilgrimage route, you come to a beach littered with scallop shells. Also, the grooves in the shell symbolised the different pilgrimage routes converging on a single point.

At every stage along the route you get your “passport” stamped as proof that you have passed that way. And you receive a diploma at the end. In the cathedral at Santiago, pilgrims have worn down the ornate stone column dedicated to Saint-Jacques by placing their fingers on the carvings.

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  1. There are 12 main way-marked routes through Europe, all converging on Santiago de Compostela. My husband and I walked from Porto to Santiago de Compostela last September along the Camino Portugues. We used a guide book by John Brierley (he has also written one on the main Camino de Santiago route). It took two weeks and was a lovely, relatively easy walk, although some of it was along tarmac roads. It is a lot quieter than the main route. We met some lovely people along the way. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I found the whole journey very spiritual. We enjoyed it so much that this year we are hoping to do the Camino del Norte from Irun to Santiago (or some of it!) Anita


    • Hi Anita, The route you took sounds lovely and probably less populated than the other routes. Our friends also said they met some lovely people en route, many of whom asked them to pray for them or at least put in a word for them at Santiago. Good luck with your plans this year.


  2. I have been told that much of the Camino in Spain is along an ugly freeway with bad and expensive food and lodging to boot, so check that out before starting. I know many of the paths in France and they are beautiful.


    • That’s interesting since our friends – and other people who were at the talk and who had done the route – said it was cheaper in Spain than in France. Maybe it’s changed since they did it. They did say you couldn’t book in advance in the refuges in Spain, which can be a problem at certain times of year. I don’t think I’ve yet been along one of the chemins in France, although there is reputed to be a variant that passes close to us.


  3. Nice post, Vanessa! It’s my dream to some day walk from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostela, bad knee permitting. Have you seen the movie “The Way?” It’s about a father’s walk on the Camino through Spain. Quite beautifully filmed and a good story as well.


    • Lots of prior training and good boots are the key, I understand. I haven’t seen the film you mention, although I have heard of it. I must see if I can get it on DVD.


  4. Belated Happy Easter to you too Vanessa, my husband and I are contemplating walking the Camino, from France to Spain, perhaps even next year. We’ve not quite started training yet though!! Getting shoes for my painful arthritic feet is the biggest issue, but my physio suggested I get some made to order. Perhaps we’ll meet one day yet! Take care and kep on writing your wonmderful blogs. Kate 🙂


    • It’s quite an undertaking so good luck to you. Good shoes are probably the most important investment you can make. Our friends almost gave up because of blisters. If you do it, you’ll pass not far from us so maybe we can get to meet.


  5. My mother would love to do this, as do I. I always refer to it as the Camino de Santiago because most people I know usually start in Spain. There are routes that start all over Europe, I don’t think there is one “official route” that I’m aware of. We have some family friends who did it last fall, starting from Pamplona. They walked most of the way, but the wife of that couple suffered from bed bugs at one of the hostels and at one point her shoes were taken by another pilgrim! (They had the same pair and the person who left behind her shoes were two sizes too small! So they had to make a detour to buy some hiking shoes)
    You can see the scallop shelled signs all over Spain too. Pretty sure that’s where coquille Saint-Jacques gets its name!


    • I understand bed bugs are an occupational hazard! In France there are four main routes starting from Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy en Velay and Arles respectively. But there are numerous variants and you can start anywhere. I’m not sure you get the diploma if you don’t do the whole thing from an official starting point, though.


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