So why do all roads lead to Compostelle?
It seems incredible to me now, but when we first moved to Maison Lamothe, I had only the vaguest idea what the Chemin de St Jacques de Compostelle was and was completely unaware that it ran through our new village. Two and a half years later, every time I wave off another group of pilgrims, I feel a surge of envy that I’m not going with them as they continue their journey. They have 1,000 kms or so to go before they reach their final destination, the Cathedral at St Jacques de Compostelle in Spain, where it is said the relics of one of Christ’s 12 Apostles is buried.
Every year the number of people who undertake this pilgrimage grows and whilst many do so on religious grounds, there are many more who see it as a personal challenge of self-discovery or a bonding activity to complete with a group of family or friends. Whatever the reason for taking the first step, it would seem that everyone who completes it, learns a lot about themselves and others and are changed in ways they never imagined.
Many people start the walk to Compostelle from their home wherever that might be, whilst others gather at a traditional starting point. The pilgrims that stay at Maison Lamothe are walking the most famous of the myriad of routes, or chemins as they are known in France, that converge on Compostelle.
The GR65 as it is sometimes referred to as it follows part of the officially so-named Hiking Route, starts in Puy-en-Velay in the Massif Central. It crosses stunning and dramatic countryside of valleys, gorges and plateaus and takes in many of the medieval heritage sites and stunning villages which have been providing hospitality to travellers for well over a thousand years.
From St Puy it’s more than 1,500 kms to Compostelle and most people cover around 20 kms per day. Some brave souls do the entire journey, which takes about 10 weeks, in one go, others take several years, taking up the route from where they left off. By the time they arrive in Flamarens they have at least 450 kms behind them and plenty of stories to tell about their experiences so far. As we gather together over supper or maybe in the sunny shade of the terrace sharing a cool drink when they arrive here, they recount the travails of the day, a funny incident, an amazing discovery.
There is, they tell me, a special magic about the chemin and through the best of times and the worst of times, whatever you need just seems to appear at the right place at the right time. And whether travelling as a group or alone, the journey can be as sociable or as solitary as you wish it. Even when part of a group some people prefer to walk by themselves at their own pace, whilst solitary walkers often rely on the company, encouragement and support of others.
So why is Compostelle so important? St Jacques, James as he is known in the UK, or Iago in Spanish and his brother John were two of the 12 Apostles of Jesus. He was a fisherman and after Jesus died, he travelled to northern Spain to preach the Gospel. On his return to Jerusalem, he was beheaded by King Herod and denied a grave. When his disciples in Spain heard of his death, they retrieved his body and bought it back to Spain where it was interred under a rock.
800 years passed and the grave was forgotten until a shepherd saw a blinding light and heard beautiful singing in the abandoned cemetery where the grave was situated. He reported the miracle to the King. At that time the Christian communities in the north of Spain were fighting the invading Moors in the south, a force of strength and power. At the point when almost all hope was lost, the ghost of St Jacques appeared on horse back and led them into battle defending them against the invaders. In thanks to their saviour, St James – the Moor slayer, a church was built over the grave and St James became the patron saint of Spain.
And so Compostela de Santiago (St James’ field of the star) became a gathering point. Firstly Crusaders from Northern Europe wanting to join forces and fight against the Moors and then Medieval pilgrims who arrived at the site of the miracle to pay their respects, do penance and receive an indulgence from the Church.
It was for many centuries the most popular Christian pilgrimage, travelled by Kings, Bishops, Emperors as well as paupers and many more miracles were reported to happen along the way. With the rise of Protestantism throughout Europe in the 16th Century, spread of the Plague and then the Enlightenment, its popularity began to wane and by the 19th Century hardly anyone walked the path.
That all changed with the rise of tourism in the 1960s and in the 1990s, UNESCO gave world heritage status to several routes to Compostelle in both France and Spain. The popularity of walking the chemin is growing every year. In 2019 about 350,000 pilgrims reached the final destination but many more were walking the stages and although these numbers dropped during the pandemic with only 50,000 making it to the Cathedral at Compostelle, that figure had risen to 150,000 in 2021 despite the continued pandemic restrictions. It is anticipated that this year will see figures significantly rise again.
Here at Maison Lamothe we always look forward to welcoming our pilgrims and are anticipating a busy season.
The first pilgrims of 2022 will arrive within the next few weeks. We can’t wait to provide them with rest and recuperation, hear their stories and send them rejuvenated on their way.
I’m sure it won’t be that long before I join them.
Michelle Martinez – March 2022