As I recently planned my walk with Walks in Spain along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I was inspired to ‘re-visit’ the many places I have already been to which form part of this pilgrims’ walks throughout France.
The Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James, is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain. According to legend, the remains of the apostle Saint James the Great lie here. In medieval times, Christians worshiped the relics of saints and martyrs. They believed that touching the shrines or remains would bring them closer to God. Over the last 20 years, there has been an increased interest in undertaking this pilgrim’s walk. It has definitely fascinated and intrigued me. This road, sometimes just a country path has been classified by UNESCO as a European Cultural Itinerary of significant value.
See one of France’s most spectacular cathedrals: Cathédrale Saint-Étienne
It was my visit to the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne in Toul and the neighbouring village of Villey-Saint-Étienne where I discovered their connection to the Camino de Santiago.
Our old Dutch barge, the Betty B, lived in Lorraine Marine at Toul for several years so we came to know the city and its environs well. The Toul Office of Tourism is located right next to the beautiful Cathédrale de Toul, and of course, had brochures on the history of the cathedral plus a walking tour of Toul; consequently, I learnt of its remarkable medieval and more recent history. I loved visiting the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, which always presented me with new discoveries. I passed it often on my way shopping and we could see it towering through the trees as we barged out of Toul on the Moselle River.
The cathedral, built between 1221 and 1500, is a fine example of Gothic architecture with a Romanesque layout, both symbolising Toul’s rich past. It was the first Gothic cathedral of the Holy Roman Empire. Its flamboyant Gothic West façade, the most ornate section of the building, contrasts with the austerity of the radiating Gothic style that is prevalent in the rest of the building.
The beautiful cloister built in the 13th and 14th centuries, and measuring 54m by 42m, is one of the largest in France. We enjoyed many summer concerts there as well as the ‘sons et lumière’, sound and light shows. From the top of the ancient bell-tower, there is the most spectacular view of the cathedral’s roof, turrets and towers of spires, including the tall, central spire, plus the fascinating and menacing looking gargoyles. Looking further out over the roof, you can see the beautiful surrounding countryside with the Moselle River winding its way past the city.
Explore the pilgrimage routes through France and Spain
Sometime later, during my time studying at the nearby University of Nancy summer language school, and not, I must say, in the tourist brochure, I learnt that Toul and its cathedral are situated on one of the four major, spidering pilgrim routes in France, all heading for the final destination in Santiago de Compostela, north west Spain. These four, formed part of Europe’s nine pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, which pass through France before reaching Spain to form the Camino Frances which runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France into Santiago de Compostela. One of these pilgrim routes begins in Poland, winds through Germany, then through Toul, and the neighbouring villages Villey-Saint-Étienne and the medieval town of Liverdun.
At summer language school, we enjoyed a few cultural days, one of which was a ‘pilgrimage’ to a nearby little town of Villey-Saint-Étienne, and as I learnt, one of the villages along the pilgrim’s camino. The history professor led our expedition, all 123 of us language students from 21 countries around the world, to experience part of the pilgrim’s walk, emanating from Toul’s Cathédrale Saint-Étienne and into Villey-Saint-Étienne. It was on this visit, I first noticed the scallop shell at the cathedral entrance and realised its significance.
The professor gave us an informative tour of the cathedral, all in French, during which he explained the camino routes and the significance of the scallop shell ‘guides’. We took a bus to the outskirts of the tiny village, Villey-Saint-Étienne, and would walk for about an hour in the rain, just as medieval pilgrims did so long ago. Our walk was just a very short part of the old pilgrim caminos, which sometimes took Medieval pilgrims years to complete.
See one of most beautiful villages in Lorraine
Villey-Saint-Étienne is one of the designated ‘most beautiful villages in Lorraine’. It stands at the confluence of the Moselle and Terrouin rivers which can be seen from the high vantage point in the Renaissance gardens next to the church.
On our arrival into the village, we were warmly greeted by the mayor and the villagers, dressed in Medieval costume just as the pilgrims would have been greeted years ago. We then all formed part of the ‘pilgrim’ procession to the church in the centre of town to join in a celebratory service to welcome the pilgrims’ arrival. A dinner followed in the town’s covered market place where there were more speeches of welcome. This event symbolised the welcome given to the pilgrims hundreds of years ago.
This was my first ‘experience’ on the Camino. Since then, I have followed its many paths, throughout France and recently in Spain where we did walk along the Camino Frances and into Santiago de Compostela.
Learn about the symbolic scallop shells
Scallop shells were often fashioned into the entrance arches or appear somewhere inside the churches and cathedrals along the pilgrims’ routes, as in the cathedral at Toul. It has become one of the most iconic symbols of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage and is still used, along with a modern version and a simple yellow arrow, as signpost ‘guides’ for pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela, leading the pilgrims in the right direction. These signs are often painted on trees, sidewalks, tiles, rocks, and fences, all helping pilgrims to find their way.
Today, you will find red and white directional signs indicating that you are also walking on the GR, Grand Randonnée. It’s a major French walking path and one which often runs alongside the pilgrims’ camino. But do not be confused with it or you may take the wrong route.
There are many stories explaining the link between the shell and the Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle (Saint James Way). The French word for scallop is Coquille Saint Jacques, while Germans call scallops ‘Jakobsmuscheln’, meaning James’ mussels.
Many believe that the scallop shell is a metaphor, with its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travelled from all over the world. It also signifies the ‘spider-web’ of walking trails leading to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.
The symbolism of the shells
Medieval pilgrims, and now modern-day pilgrims, wear a scallop shell attached to their cloaks, backpacks or hats during their journey. More than just a symbol or a pilgrim badge, the scallop shells also had a practical purpose in Medieval days. They were a handy and light replacement for a bowl to hold food and drink on the pilgrims’ journey. Pilgrims would also be given food at churches and other establishments; a scallop shell scoop was the measure for the food given by the monks.
Since the scallop is native to Galicia, the shell also became a memento of having completed the pilgrimage to Santiago.
The scallop shell also has a connection with Madeleines de Lorraine. Madeleines are plump shell-shaped cakes that you mould in the fluted scallop shape of the pilgrim’s shell. Legend has it that the shape is an homage to the pilgrims of the Santiago de Compostela. Shells would be cooked and given to the pilgrims along the Camino.
The Camino and the pilgrims hold so many fascinating stories from this medieval past which we continue to unravel today.
My recipe for the Madeleines de Lorraine
Makes about 20 medium sized Madeleines
1 tsp baking powder
125g caster sugar
|1 tsp orange flower water
zest of 1 orange or 1 lemon
125g butter, melted
Icing sugar for sprinkling
Pre-heat the oven to 230ºC. Thoroughly butter and flour the moulds. Sift the flour with the baking powder. Whisk the caster sugar and the eggs together until thick and light; then beat in the orange flower water. Fold in the flour, sifting it over the egg mixture in three batches. When the last batch is almost mixed, sprinkle the melted butter over it and fold together as gently as possible; the batter quickly looses its volume after the butter is added. Chill the batter for 20 – 30 minutes or until the batter hardens slightly and the dough is stiffer. I often leave mine overnight.
Using a large spoon, pour the mixture into the Madeleine moulds, filling them by two thirds. Bake the Madeleines in the heated oven for 5 minutes; reduce the temperature to 200ºC and bake a further 5 – 7 minutes or until golden. The timing here depends on the size of the moulds, so watch carefully. A peak in the centre of these cakes is characteristic. Transfer to the cake rack to cool. Dust with icing sugar and serve.