The French way | Montpellier, France

No, not that French way. Rather, what I’m referring to is the Camino Francés – the last stretch of the Via Regia and the most popular of the routes of the Way of Saint James, the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the remains of Saint James are said to be buried.

The route has existed for over a thousand years: during the Middle Ages, it was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages – together with those to Rome and Jerusalem, made by penance-seeking Christians; nowadays, it is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and continues to attract hundreds of thousands of people every year, who walk, bike or even ride a donkey along it for religious, spiritual or recreational reasons. Technically, the Way of Saint James could start anywhere, from a major city or even from one’s front doorstep, as long as it ends at the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. There are, however, several main and popular routes, of which the French Way is one.

Montpellier stands along the French Way and, as a reminder, many of the pavements in the central part of the city are dotted with brass markers, embedded into the ground. A scallop symbol is embossed into the markers, surrounded by the words Camin Roumieu (meaning ‘route of pilgrimage”) and Montpellier.

The scallop shell has become an emblem for the Way of Saint James and there are several interesting explanations for that. A couple of legends trace it to the Saint himself and the actual journey of his remains to Compostela: in a couple of them a body (his or a knight’s, depending on the version) gets lost in the ocean during a storm off the coast of Spain, but washes ashore undamaged, covered in scallops. Other accounts explain that pilgrims on the Saint James Way wore a scallop symbol on their hat or clothes and also carried an actual shell (although how they would be in possession of one before reaching the coast is highly questionable), to be filled with sustenance on their stops at homes and churches along the way. Perhaps the most logical explanation is that, upon reaching Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims would walk even further west, to a place known as Finisterre (that, as its name suggests, was thought to be the end of the Earth) on the shores of Galicia and take a shell from there as a souvenir and testament of their completed pilgrimage.

Either way, the scallop shell now serves as an emblem for the Way of Saint James, its lines and grooves mirroring all of the pilgrimage routes that eventually converge at a single point, the final destination of the pilgrimage.

There seems to be an entire – equally fascinating and foreign, subculture related to making the pilgrimage along the Way of Saint James: from special documents, such as the credencial (the pilgrims’ passport, which gets stamped at different stops along the way) or the compostela (a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage); to the particular hostels, sometimes located in monasteries or run by parishes and churches, that accommodate the pilgrims along the route (and where, accordingly, the tired pilgrims can stay for one night only, expected to be on their way at 8 in the morning).

As fascinating as all this is, in all likelihood (based on 1. my established disdain for walking and 2. the factors that determine how and where I usually choose to spend my holidays), these markers in Montpellier’s center are probably as close as I would ever get to walking along the Way of Saint James, as I make my weekly pilgrimage to my favorite English bookstore/coffeeshop, the corner crêperie, and that little street with all the cute French shops on it. Better than nothing, though, right?

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