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.
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.
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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