On the Pilgrims’ Tail
“He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster, let him in constancy eat lots of pasta….”
Hmm, that doesn’t sound quite right, but it’s close enough for this pilgrim. Bonjour, travel hounds, and bienvenue en France! This trip, I’ve been visiting St-Bertrand-de-Comminges, a really pretty medieval town in the Haute Garonne department, probably best known as a stopping off point on the Pilgrims’ Tail…er…Trail.
Every year, 100,000 people from around the world make the pilgrimage to the Spanish cathedral in Santiago di Compostela, where St James’ remains are supposed to be interred. You can walk down through France and over the Pyrenees all the way into Spain on the Pilgrims’ Trail, which is marked by signs bearing a scallop shell emblem, but it seems a lot of effort to me just to go and see a load of old bones, which probably aren’t even that fresh any more. St Bertrand has been one of the most important stops on the way for hundreds of years, and you can still see the ancient shape of a scallop shell carved into the stone on the archway of the ‘pilgrims’ gate’, one of several entrances into the town.
The town itself is set on a hill, chosen for its defensive position in the 11th century. Dominating the landscape is the cathedral of Sainte-Marie, a huge building that’s out of all proportion to the size of the town with its tangle of twisted cobbled streets.
My tip for visiting St Bert (as I like to call it, being a native) is park at the bottom of the hill. You can drive into the town if you like, but don’t say I didn’t warn you – you’ll have to come out through one of the medieval gates, and apparently they didn’t much go for big cars in those days. Let’s just say it’s more fun to watch someone else do it than to do it yourself.
Once you’ve parked in the big spacious car park at the bottom, it’s an easy walk up the hill, through the gate and up the stony street towards the cathedral. Unfortunately I normally have to go on the lead at this point, because…the smells. Oh my Gosh – it’s a doggy paradise.
Even as a seasoned professional, I’m not willing to raise my head and look at the camera as I’m far too busy sniffing the scents and appraising the aromas. Once I’ve been persuaded to climb the hill though, past the little shops selling local goods and food, it’s off for coffee at the Hôtel du Comminges in the main square. They know me there, and bring me out a bowl of water without being asked, while I lie under the table and soak up the sights. And the smells – did I mention the smells?
After coffee, we stroll round the shops, ending up at the little leather craft shop where the owner makes all her own stock. I have a little wander around out of politeness while Madame makes a fuss of me and asks me my opinion on her collection of bespoke leather dog collars.
Then, it was off to the cathedral of Sainte-Marie, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The nave of the building is open free of charge, but you have to pay to go into the cloisters and see the choir stalls. As dogs aren’t allowed in that bit, I can’t really give an opinion, but they’re meant to be rather fine.
After the cathedral, it’s time to go back down the hill and have a little splash in the river. There are miles and miles of stunning walks in the forests around the town, so if, like me, you appreciate your culture in very small doses, then round off the day with a good stretch of the paws – you can always look at the view of the cathedral on the way if you’re feeling guilty. Don’t forget to look out for the scallops on the signposts that tell you when you’re walking on the Pilgrims’ Trail, and make sure you allow plenty of time – did I mention you’ll need it? – for the smells.
Salut, mes amis, et à très bientôt, Monty.
- For more information and rates for the Hôtel du Comminges, visit www.hotelducomminges.fr. For further details about the cathedral and surrounding area, go to the website of the St Gaudens tourist office, www.tourisme-stgaudens.com, and click on the Discover tab.