Paris is a beloved city for so many good reasons. In preparing for my pilgrimage, I spent much of the past year reading about the medieval pilgrims who made their way to and through the city, and wanted to explore their routes and their legacy. Armed with maps and research, I was determined to find the footprints of those long-gone pilgrims so I could follow their footsteps as closely as possible.
On the Ile de la Cité just a few blocks south of the Tour St. Jacques (where Parisian pilgrimages traditionally begin) is the stunning cathedral of Notre Dame where St. Jacques (St. James), the patron saint of pilgrimage stands forever at the central portal. During the day when Notre Dame is overrun with tourists, the cathedral can feel crowded and commercial. While I always appreciate the beauty of the windows and enjoy the sense of sacred history, it wasn’t until we tiptoed in just as the cathedral was opening, well ahead of the tour groups, that I truly experienced its divine spark. For nearly an hour we enjoyed relative privacy in the hushed space of a national treasure, which gave us time for both prayer and exploration as we prepared to embark on our first full day of walking, an opportunity that reflected the way we were deepening into our selves even as we were gearing up for physically navigating an unclear route through a beloved but unfamiliar territory.
I worried about finding a route. I worried about whether my body would hold up to the demands of the walk, and about whether I would be able to communicate my need for coeliac-approved food. I prayed for safety and deliverance. Would we ever find our way to the next Notre Dame cathedral, the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres? Here amongst the splendor of the Parisian cathedral, we left our worries on the altar so that we could take our places in the colourful procession of pilgrims who have made similar journeys over the centuries.
On our way out, we sought out the iconic and familiar scallops shells adorning St. Jacques’ bag, then made our way to the traditional road that would lead us out of Paris. The scallop shells (coquilles St. Jacques) are symbols of pilgrimage that speak to us even now and connect us to an age-old tradition on this ancient pilgrim road that leads eventually to Santiago de Compostela on the coast of Spain. As we made our way out of the city, we continued to look for additional scallop shells that have been artfully incorporated into the fabric of the city in recognition of Paris’ pilgrims, past and present. It felt rather like a modern-day treasure hunt in which we were following clues laid down centuries ago.
Crossing the Petit Pont over to the Left Bank, we headed down the rue St Jacques, only to detour immediately to visit the Eglise Saint-Julian-le-Pauvre, a gothic-style church dating from the 13th century that was built on the site of an even older pilgrim refuge. From the adjacent garden, the Square René-Viviani, there was a beautiful view looking back over the river, giving us our last glimpse of Notre Dame.
The garden is also home to what is said to be the oldest tree in Paris, which was planted in 1601 — it is now showing its age and needs shoring up with concrete. The fact that it is right there in the center of the 5th arrondissement, in such an exquisite setting where it receives such care, gives an indication of its veneration by successive generations of Parisians and visitors.
We, too, paid our respects, and also bent low to look into a nearby well. Knowing the importance of water to any community, we recognized it, too, as holy for its service to the city.
Continuing down the rue St. Jacques, we turned to enjoy Salvador Dali’s twentieth century salute to the Pilgrim road, a sundial with a scallop shell face.
By now, we were warming to our medieval symbol hunt, and were not far from the Musee National du Moyen Âge, the Cluny, a world-class museum housed in a building that was originally intended to serve as the Paris home for officials from the Cluny Abbey in Burgundy. We marveled at the many scallop shells that decorate the windows and courtyard of the building:
Today the Cluny is famous for the beautiful La Dame à la Licorne tapestries which hang inside, as well as for its extensive collection of medieval artefacts and sculptures. Of special interest to us was this statue of St. Jacques which used to stand in Notre Dame.
Leaving the Cluny, more scallops could be seen on the architecture as we continued to follow the traditional route out through the Porte St. Jacques and beyond, a story that I will continue in the next post. Medieval Paris as it was known to long-ago pilgrims is alive in my imagination as my modern heart is stirred by the miracles that still unfold along the Path.