Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Best Pilgrim House – Saintes

The idea of modern pilgrim houses is a spectacular one, and little known by pilgrims off the main Camino Frances, the most popular pilgrim trail across northern Spain. The concept of inexpensive basic accommodation for people passing through on a long journey is ancient. In its modern usage, it’s not just for pilgrims. Scouts from teen years up to mid twenties traveling around to explore the world as well as students pursuing their studies generally have access, too.

The expression in French is ‘gîte de pèlerin’; in Spanish, the terms ‘refugio del peregrino’ and ‘albergue del peregrino’ seem to be used interchangeably. In Italy, ‘albergo per pelegrino’ worked well for me. I’ve never seen a map of them or found reference to them on a town’s website, but a network exists. I found them by asking at the tourist information center or at the mayor’s office or at the parish office of a priest, or failing the existence of such public institutions, asking at the bar/café/grocers/bakery generally works well, too. Sometimes the key is possessed tightly by a volunteer who comes out to receive each visitor, giving unnecessary militant instruction on the house rules; more often and more comfortably, the key or combination to a keyless entry is given freely for the asking.

This type of random accommodation may not be the thing for people who insist on planning out every little detail before leaving home, but 42 of the 84 pilgrim nights of my journey, I slept in a pilgrim house. They’re generally on the high end of ‘adequate’ – clean, tidy, organized, supplied with some basic kitchen items. Only a few times was there no heat source, and on just three of the 42 nights there was no blanket available. These digressions from my desires were all on the over-used Camino Frances in Spain.

The form of the pilgrim houses varies. In the Spanish autonomous regions of Castilla y León and Galicia, pilgrim houses are owned and operated at a central government level and therefore have a similar institutional appearance. The fee in these places is set at three euros a night. All in all, I paid an average of 6 euros per night at all the pilgrim houses I stayed in and never more than 11 euros.

I always considered it great luck to be able to stay in a pilgrim house, hoping for the off chance that it would be one particularly full of character. Of these, the pilgrim house in Saintes in the west of France gets my hat for the best pilgrim house.

Saintes was no doubt a spectacular and bustling place during the first centuries of the Christian era. In the third century, the story goes, when Christianity was still an outlawed activity, Eutrope, a pal of Saint Denis who met his martyrdom in Paris, became the evangelist of the day in the local community of Santones, who gave their name to Saintes. He did his job well enough that he got his head cleaved in two for converting the daughter of the governor. His work was appreciated to a level that his followers entombed him in a massive sarcophagus and later brought his case to the Pope so he could be sainted.

A series of churches were built around his tomb on the hill and the version that stands today is a massive gothic structure with soaring stain glass windows in the upper part and a lofty white stone crypt below where the sarcophagus stands surrounded by creepy but ornately carved columns.

Today, the roads of centreville Saintes retain their original Roman alignment and the ruins of the amphitheater, aqueduct, triumphal arch, and thermal baths are sprinkled around the steep hillside along the bend in the river, and the historical pilgrim path from Paris to Santiago de Compostela follows the same route as it did in the Middle Ages.

As in the Middle Ages, traditional accommodation is offered to pilgrims. A stone shed has been added onto the south wall of the church of Saint Eutrope, tucked into the space between two flying buttresses where the transept and apse meet. It’s large enough to house a handful of bunk beds, a kitchenette, and a restroom. Because the room was added onto the outside of the gothic church, two of what were exterior walls in the 14th century are now interior to the pilgrim room, complete with little statuary niches. Full of character!

I’m not sure when the pilgrim room was added – within the last few decades, I would guess. I applaud the inspiration the local folks had to build it and the volunteers who manage it. I doubt I would have known anything about Eutrope and the efforts that led to his sainthood had the pilgrim house been placed somewhere else in town. I went into the crypt and saw the sarcophagus and the sinister images carved into the surrounding columns. But as spine-chilling as I found some of the carvings in the crypt on the other side of the wall from my bunk, knowing the story of Saint Eutrope sort of allowed me to ‘befriend’ them. I slept as peacefully as always after a day of hiking and sightseeing and put the key through the mail slot when I left in the morning. A fine exchange of my 6 euros.

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