For more than a thousand years, pilgrims have followed routes from different parts of Europe to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, where it is believed that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried. The pilgrimage is what the Spaniards know as “el Camino de Santiago”, the French as “les Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle”, and what English-speakers call “the Way of Saint James”.
The Gironde département lies on one of the historic pilgrimage routes, namely the Via Turenensis (the Tours route), which also happens to be the main pilgrims’ route down from Paris (the stretch in the French capital is detailed in the article published simultaneously by Invisible Paris). In the Gironde area there are a number of variants. Those that avoid Bordeaux include a coastal itinerary, routes that run across the Médoc and another that loops around the south of Bordeaux from the Dordogne.
|The Way of Saint James through Europe (source: Wikipedia)|
The itinerary into Bordeaux splits at Blaye, on the right bank of the Gironde estuary. Pilgrims either carry on down the same bank, crossing the Dordogne at Saint-André-de-Cubzac and crossing the Garonne into central Bordeaux, either by boat or, from 1822 onwards, over the Pont de Pierre. The alternative is to cross the Gironde by boat from Blaye to Lamarque and proceed south through Margaux, Arsac, Le Pian-Médoc, Blanquefort and Le Bouscat.
Le Bouscat is where I picked up the pilgrims’ route into Bordeaux with a view to following in the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims, a task made easy in the city centre thanks to the bronze studs that can be seen on the ground (and a handy map showing the itinerary which has been added to the Invisible Bordeaux GoogleMap).
As well as cheating by being on my bike, I was doing this incognito, i.e. I did not have a scallop shell on my person. This is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago; its grooves represent the various routes travelled by pilgrims. The shell also traditionally served practical purposes as it is the right size for gathering water to drink or for using as a makeshift bowl. I didn’t have to worry though as I had a well-stocked water bottle and would be home for lunch…
Refuge des pélerins
My starting point was this pilgrims’ refuge. It is located just next to the municipal cemetery and provides bedding, washing facilities and a kitchenette for up to six people, all for the grand sum of 10 euros per night. In this modern day and age, the refuge even supplies access to a wi-fi network free of charge.
Don’t turn up unannounced though. There are full details of how to book on this page (as well as photos of the refuge)… and to be eligible you need to present your “Credential” passport to prove you’re a genuine pilgrim, and not just on the lookout for cheap accommodation and free wi-fi. I was hoping that the refuge would be a hive of activity with pilgrims, backpacks and their scallop shells all jostling for position ahead of a long day of walking. Instead of that there was not a soul to be seen. Maybe that night’s pilgrims had already packed up and left…
Parc de l’Ermitage and milestone
Across the road from the refuge is Parc de l’Ermitage. A hermitage was located at its heart for many years. The hermitage is no more but in its place a music and conference venue, known appropriately enough as “L’Ermitage Compostelle”, can now be found. The surrounding grounds became a park when it came under the ownership of the town in 1915. It now includes a number of scenic features such as a rose garden.
By one of the entrances to the park, a milestone reminds pilgrims of how much ground still remains to be covered before they reach their destination: Le Bouscat – Santiago: 1,150kms!
Rond-point des Pélerins
Rond-point des Pélerins
The silhouettes of three pilgrims are permanently stationed on a roundabout known as Rond-point des Pélerins. They are facing different directions: one is looking northwards back towards the refuge, one is facing west towards the hermitage and a sister roundabout known as Rond-point de Compostelle. The third is seemingly heading south towards Bordeaux, located just a few hundred steps away down Avenue de Tivoli…
And it is in Bordeaux that we pick up with this pilgrim’s trek in part two.