Pilgrimage is like life: there are many different ways of making the journey. Those of us who have walked in Spain on one of the Caminos to Santiago have our own particular memories: experiences of the Way and of the people we met. The sense of community and common purpose: perhaps sharing the days with a few people and then the nights with greater numbers. But there are other ways to experience pilgrimage and the journey towards Santiago – and Brittany is one of them.
Here, in the north west corner of France, you will indeed find the familiar scallop shell way marks, but the crowds of fellow pilgrims are nowhere to be seen. You will walk alone or with the company you bring with you. You may go for days without meeting another pilgrim, though your evenings will be what you wish to make them. You’ll have the possibility to stay in pilgrim homes, often as the guest of someone who has already walked a Camino to Santiago.
The directions for each of the Ways in Brittany, stage by stage, have been translated into English on the Breton Association website. At this address:
https://www.compostelle-bretagne.fr/index.php/en/ you will find the English language version of the site. Here you can read the Association’s welcome and click on the “Ways of Brittany” link on the left of the page, from which you can then select your route to print the guide and also maps if wished for (note that to do any printing you click on the ‘Flower’ icon which is on the right just below the main photo on the page). The written guide takes you on your Way, while the maps show you the wider environmental context and so, of course, are invaluable if you want or need to leave the path and head for the nearest big town at any point.
Accommodation possibilities are outlined in the English translations for each area of habitation you will pass through. As well as the tourist hotels and B&Bs, there are two other possibilities for pilgrim overnight stops (in all cases the accommodation information includes phone numbers for making reservations in advance – a good idea and a courtesy where accommodation is provided for a donativo).
The two special possibilities are:
1) A Pilgrim Hostel
Not every town has one and villages certainly don’t. These are run by the Mayor’s office and sometimes by a religious community. Beds are available on a first come/first served basis and it is advisable to book in advance, simply so that people can be ready for you. The usual procedure is to go to the Mayors office to get directions and the keys. These places are never far from the town centre and are often on the Way itself. There may be a charge (usually ten euro) or it may be a donativo. What you get is what you’re used to in Spain, just not as big: a small dormitory, showers, toilets and a kitchen. Food is often left by previous visitors, but you’re probably as well picking up something at the local supermarket. If the budget allows, a meal out in a restaurant is a treat: prices considerably below what you’d expect to pay for a similar meal in Ireland but you are unlikely to find a
‘Pilgrim Menu’ as such.
2) Acceuil Pelerin / Pilgrim Family Home
It may be an older couple, a widow, or people with a young family, but they will offer a night’s rest for a donativo. You’ll be one of the family, sharing the facilities though sometimes you can find yourself with an annex all to yourself. You’ll have dinner and breakfast with the family and can expect wine and often an aperitif in the evening. It’s not unusual to be offered a cup of tea or a bottle of beer on your arrival. Often these homes are on your Way; where they are not, your hosts will usually, on receipt of a phone call,
drive to pick you up and drop you back next morning. The pick up poin will be an obvious landmark on your walking route. The guide donativo amount for all this is 20-25 euro. Most days you’ll pass through a town or village with lunch time possibilities. The other option is to pick something up at the start of the day. Boulangeries (every town has at least one) sell bread, pastries and sandwiches, and are usually open for business by 7am.
By day you’ll walk by water, along tree-shaded tracks (see the photos). You will climb a little but you can find some very flat routes. The Way from Mont St Michel (which is actually in Normandy) includes three consecutive days walking along the banks of the River Vilaine. You will spend some time on minor tarmac roads, but you will be struck by the absence of traffic on them. On these Breton Pilgrim Ways, you have the possibility to leave behind all that is familiar. To let go of where you have come from and adventure to somewhere new. By day you will pass through peaceful pastures, and at night people in the family homes will understand if you want to slip off to bed early. Equally, they will be ready to relax in after-dinner conversation in which they will no doubt share their own pilgrim experiences – and they’ll be very interested to hear of yours. Those who haven’t been to Santiago will usually have a story to tell about how they became involved in supporting pilgrims on their Way.
A word of caution. It does help to have a smattering of French. Many people will have a few words of English just as we have some schooldays French, and there will be some who speak perfect English. But – to be on the safe side – brush up a bit before you go.
What are the rewards of a Breton Pilgrimage? I can only speak for myself. It’s the peace of being on my own, the ever changing landscape, the excellent food and wine (which you will not be able to escape) and the deep friendliness of the Breton people. Look out for the occasional Irish flag in bars and hostels. They know we’re Celts, they appreciate us, and they make us feel welcome as we travel our Way.
By Mike Timms.