Lessons in Living a French Life

Bringing a touch of French culture to everyday life

Your Weekly Voilà: Walking the Medieval Compostela Through France 😊💕✨🇫🇷

Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time. - Steven Wright 

A bit irreverent using a comedian's quote to open the conversation on a sacred medieval Christian pilgrim route but there is a lot of truth in it. Give yourself a month to do nothing but walk across Spain and you'll be surprised at how far you can go. The Santiago de Compostela is a collection of routes criss-crossing Europe, passing through France, on its way to a cathedral in the northwestern corner of Spain. Construction on the current Santiago de Compostela Cathedral began in 1075 over what is believed to be the crypt of the apostle St. James. For centuries, pilgrims have been walking to pay their respects. It is 790 km or 490 miles from a small town on the other side of the Pyrenees in France, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where many travelers begin their journey. On average it takes one month to make the trip. But many begin their journey on the Camino de Santiago much farther away. Last year, my cousin started his pilgrimage from his home just outside of Vienna, Austria. Through the alps of Tyrol, Italy, Switzerland, and France's Massif Central, pilgrims make their way over the Pyrenees to walk across the northern part of Spain.

Pilgrims are moved to take the journey for a variety of reasons both spiritual and secular. Some are searching for personal answers. Some walk to enjoy the pleasure of the sights. Others look for a closer connection to God. In five years, a dear friend and I will take the journey to celebrate our 60th birth year. I'll walk the Camino for the history. To be a part of its story. And maybe there is a bit of wanting to see if I just can do it. As I house hunt in two different locations - Vézelay in Burgundy and the southwestern region of Occitaine - I realized that both locations have a connection to the Camino. 

Also known as the Way of St. James, the route weaves through many different terrains, small towns, mountains, and the countryside. This part of the path crossed just behind a property I looked to purchase last month. Our backup offer is submitted and fingers are crossed. It's not every day you can have the Camino in your back yard.
Walking the Camino is not easy. It will push you and your feet to their limits. But getting lost is not a major worry. Throughout France and Spain, the route is well-marked with yellow arrows, signs, and shells to point you in the right direction along the entire journey. Add in your favorite guidebook and you'll find your way. And whether you walk solo or in a group, you won't be alone on the trip.
Tim and I were exploring Gers last summer and as we departed Lectoure, we passed by a gentleman walking the Camino. At the end of our day's sightseeing, we arrived in the village of Condom. We were admiring the cathedral when low and behold the very same man came walking up the street to the square. We chatted for awhile and learned that he left his home in Köln, Germany 6 weeks earlier. He still had a long way to go to reach Santiago on the coast of Spain. The opportunity to meet people and make new friends is a definite plus for me.
I have written on the topic of "slow travel" as a mindset to experiencing different cultures up close. Taking your time to go from one place to another allows the opportunity to try new foods, learn a new language, and engage with local communities. 500 miles on foot will provide you with every chance to get to know the people and push you out of your comfort zone. The rewards of the journey are great and each pilgrim is left with a lifetime of special memories. 
The lighter you pack, the farther you'll travel. This is my mantra. Never will it be more true than when I pack to walk the Compostela. It is recommended that you carry no more than 10% of your body weight. That's difficult if you are encountering cold weather in the mountains. Plus, there are always luxury items that you want to slip into your pack such as a camera and / or sketchbook. Every pilgrim, no matter the reason they are walking the Camino, attaches a shell to their pack to identify where they are heading. 
My mother and I walked a tiny part of the Camino just outside of Santiago de Compostela in 2014. We walked far enough to get one stamp. The Pilgrim Passport or Credencial is the document of the Camino and it will be filled with colorful stamps of all the different stops you make along the way. It becomes a precious memento of the journey. More than one pilgrim has told me that the Credencial is more valuable than their actual passport.
There are a plethora of books and websites dedicated to walking the Compostela. The internet will be your friend in planning what to pack, where to stay, and how to plan your route. Written in the 12th century, the Liber Peregrinationis was a part of the famous Codex Calixtinus and is attributed to the French monk, Aymeric Picaud. It was the first comprehensive guide for pilgrims who embarked on the St. James Way to Santiago de Compostela cathedral. 
Alfonso II built the first church dedicated to Sant Iago in 829. It was enlarged in 899 to accompany the growing number of pilgrims traveling to worship at the remains of St. James. That Romanesque church was sacked by the Moors and then rebuilt in the 11th century. The Cathedral has been added onto over the centuries reflecting every architectural period from early gothic to baroque.
Within the cathedral, St. James sits and awaits his pilgrims. Religious texts state that the Apostle James was beheaded in Jerusalem by the Romans in 44 CE after he returned from his mission in northern Spain. Tradition holds that his disciplines then brought his body back to Spain. In 813, the story continues that a shepherd named Pelayo discovered the remains after being drawn to a field by a star. In Spanish, field is compos and stars is stella and St. James is Sant Iago. So we have the name Santiago de Compostela.
One of the most memorable moments in all my years of travel was watching the huge Botafumeiro sail across my head during a special Mass in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. This censer was created in 1851 and is made of an alloy of brass and bronze covered in silver. It weighs 117 lbs (53 kg) and measures almost 5 feet (1.5 m).  It is one of the largest in the world and is suspended 65 feet (20 m) above the congregation via a system of ropes and pulleys designed in the 16th century. On special occasions, the Botafuemeiro is released by a team of eight tiraboleiros who swing it across the cathedral at great speeds of up to 42 miles / hr (68 km/hr) filling the church with clouds of smoke and incense. One story is that this tradition began as a way to cover up the smell of the thousands of pilgrims arriving at the cathedral after their long journey.
While in Santiago, be sure to enjoy a piece of the famous almond cake found in the windows of every pastry shop and restaurant. It is usually marked with the shape of the cross of the Order of Santiago. 
In 1987, the Santiago de Compostela route became the first European Cultural itinerary. In 1993, the town of Santiago was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The old town is lovely to explore with all of its Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architecture. 

The total number of Compostelas or certificates of completion handed out last year reached almost 300,000 and pilgrims were from 180 different countries. Yet, the number of individuals traveling just a portion of the Camino is far more. In France, families take to the medieval trail for a weekend hike in summer, exploring different sections.
Even if you're not planning to walk the Compostela, take the opportunity this weekend to enjoy a long walk in your neighborhood. With enough time, there is no telling where you might end up.

À bientôt,

Karen 😊💕✨🇫🇷