To make things easier for tourists, the city of Poitiers has designed three possible walking tours and marked their routes along the pavement in the central part of the town. The self-guided tours, marked by red, blue and yellow lines all start at the Notre Dame la Grande church – they split up and occasionally come back together, taking the visitor around the city’s central districts and main landmarks. It was way too cold to follow them systematically, but seeing them on the ground definitely made me look up and try to consciously look around at the churches, buildings and parks by which they passed.
Today, I walked along Sofia’s Vitosha Boulevard – theoretically, the city’s chicest street, although you wouldn’t know that from looking at condition of the pavement. Especially on weekends and when the weather is nice, this pedestrian main drag is where people go to walk up and down, gawk at shop windows and at each other or sit at the outside tables of the sidewalk cafés.
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?
As I walked along Sofia’s main drag – Vitosha Street, which has been closed off to cars for the last few years and now, after trams have been stopped too, it is only accessible by foot, I was reminded of the strange double meaning of the word ‘pedestrian’.
Most commonly, the word is used in reference to a person who goes by foot or to something related to, or designed for, walking, as in a pedestrian street (such as Vitosha), a pedestrian bridge or a pedestrian crossing.
I’m no etymology expert, but this makes sense, because of the Latin root of the word – ped- (foot): same one that gave birth to pedal, pedicure, bipeds, centipedes and even impede and expedition (but not to be confused with words rooted in the Greek ped-, meaning ‘child’ or ‘boy’, and serving as the root of pedagogy, pediatrician and, uhm, pedophilia.)
What I find endlessly curious though, is the second meaning of the word pedestrian, namely – as a synonym for dull, uninspired, banal, ordinary and prosaic. The first time I heard it used in this sense, it struck me as the strangest of parallels, this equating of the act walking to the idea for dullness.
I tried to think of similar usages of the word in other languages. Though my command of German, French and Spanish is pitiful when it comes to nuances and double entendres, a quick check (thank you, Google translate!) shows that the words Fußgänger, piéton and peatón are used only to mean ‘a person who goes by foot’, while the other meaning of the word is rendered through translations of its synonyms: prosaisch, prosaïque and prosaico. [Update: I stand corrected. As a reader pointed out in the comment below, the word pedestre in Spanish carries the word’s dual meaning – both someone who goes on foot and something which is plain, vulgar, uneducated and/or lowly. In French, I am now finding another interesting translation of the adjective pédestre – to mean ‘rambling’ or ‘incoherent’. Any ideas about the German, anyone?]
In Bulgarian, of which I have a semi-decent hold and in which I am sometimes able to play with double meanings, the case is the same: пешеходец – although not containing the Latin root of ‘pedestrian’, means a person going on foot and only that, and прозаичен (‘prosaic’), on the other hand, has nothing to do with feet or walking. (Now, I couldn’t stop myself and I’ve gone and looked up the etymology of ‘prosaic’ too: as suspected, it comes from prose and “having the character of prose” (in contrast to the feeling of poetry), which then got extended to the sense of ‘ordinary’.)
But, as I was trying to translate the two unrelated meanings of the word and thinking of walking, streets and pedestrian crossings, I kept having the nagging feeling that there is another word linked to these concepts that is also used to describe something completely unrelated (and this will be my last sidetrack, I promise). As lexical fate would have it, the word ‘boulevard’ in Bulgarian – in addition to its common meaning (a broad city street) across different languages, is also used as an adjective to describe something, especially literature, which is of low quality, vulgar and trivial. Not much removed, it turns out, from the second meaning of ‘pedestrian’ (one of the translations for ‘pedestrian’ in Spanish and one of the meanings of the Spanish pedestre is vulgar.)
So, back to pedestrianism and dullness. If put in that context, it seems that there is indeed an everyday quality to walking; going by foot is in fact the least exciting mode of getting from one point to another; it doesn’t compare to the dynamics of riding in a car, bus, tram, on a motorcycle or even bicycle, let alone the thrill of flying in a plane. Or, in other words, experiencing the street through your feet is quite boring and mundane when compared with the sense of adventure and excitement provided by, and maybe even inherent in, other modes of transportation.
Turns out I was off on the specifics, but not the concept in general, and only because my thinking doesn’t seem to stretch far enough back to times when there were no cars, buses, trams, motorcycles or planes around. One explanation of the second, and strange, meaning of ‘pedestrian’ that I found is that it was first used in contrast to ‘equestrian’, or going on horseback.
So, ta-da, there you have it!
And that is that. All a bit much, maybe? But don’t you feel smarter after reading it? I know I do, after writing it. Now, excuse me while I go engage in more pedestrian endeavors. But first, I’m going for a walk.