A Pilgrimage Through Brussels


Early in June, I was one of twenty members of the American Club (yes, Canadians and people of other nationalities are welcome to join!) who put on their most comfortable walking shoes and headed off to follow part of the Route to Compostela, otherwise known as the Way of St. James. (That’s St. James in the middle, on the façade of the Cathedral in Brussels.)

This is perhaps one of the most well-known and wondrous wanders in history. It continues to fascinate people after hundreds of years because of the many reasons people choose to take t293 St James Facadehis pilgrimage to the northwest corner of Spain.


It was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, along with journeys to Rome and Jerusalem. And many people still follow the route for religious reasons.

Yet, many more choose to walk the Route to Compostela for the personal challenges it presents…. for the ability to test one’s mettle on a long walk made difficult by weather conditions, physical challenges, loneliness, even by boredom.


Like the Wondrous Wanders I have been on while travelling and those I lead in Brussels, there is an element of the fixed and the flexible, the known and the unknown and the highly significant role of curiosity in changing plans or taking the road less travelled when something captures your attention.

The walk to Santiago de Compostela began in the 10th century in honour of St. James. He and his brother John were the first two disciples to join Jesus.

St. James became a martyr when he was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 AD. He had spent many years preaching the gospel in Spain, so his followers returned his body there and built a tomb in his honour, which then became an important pilgrimage site. ‘Santiago’ translates as ‘St. James’.


People have made this journey throughout the centuries, right up to the present day. The Plague, the Protestant Reformation, wars and political unrest in Europe in the 16th century meant that numbers declined significantly, until by the 1980s only a few pilgrims arrived each year in Santiago de Compostela.

There are many different routes through Europe, depending on where a person begins their journey.


On the trail of the pilgrims


We followed the route the pilgrims most likely used as they passed through Brussels on their way to Spain, tracing their steps by following some of the 48 bronze scallop shells that are embedded in the cobbles of our fair city. They are made by an artisan in Leon, Spain, and were installed in Brussels in 2005.

A pilgrimage like the Way of St. James was one way a person could do penance for their sins by the church. Whereas a wealthy person could make a generous donation to the church, the majority of people needed to do something less costly — and often more dramatic.

431 Anneessens Tower



Many of those setting out from northern Europe or the British Isles took the route passing through Brussels. They entered the city via the Porte de Louvain or the Leuven gate in the city wall and made their first stop to worship at what is now the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula.




333 Cathedral Turq

The Cathedral is where we modern pilgrims began our journey…

We walked downhill from the cathedral (on an exceptionally hot day) and made our way to the Grand-Place. This would have been an important stop for the pilgrims — remember, it was a marketplace and they needed food to sustain themselves and continue on their way. 

We carried on through the area known as the quartier St-Jacques (the St. James neighbourhood) to the church of Notre-Dame de Bonsecours, where a chapel for pilgrims stood from the 12th century until the church was built in the 17th century.


St. James and his symbols are everywhere

There is much evidence of the cult of St. James on the facade of th100 ND de Bonsecourse church. The modern day blue and yellow mosaic shell representing the Route to Compostela sits on the wall by the entrance, and the old wooden door is sculpted with the other symbols of the pilgrimage:

a hat, with a shell on the front, which protected them from sun, rain and snow

a staff to help the pilgrims walk over rough terrain, with a hook to carry things

a purse to carry the little money they had, usually worn open to symbolise generosity

a gourd to carry water, precious cargo on a long walk


At the corner of rue du Marché au Charbon near the church, pilgrims could decide on one of two different routes through the rest of Brussels: via Anderlecht, or via the Porte de Hal and south from there.

This dividing point is the only place you’ll see two scallops together in Brussels, indicating the two routes.

087 Coquilles Orlon re-sized

The church itself is intriguing, as the nave is not a usual cross shape; it’s round, and holds another unique sight – an oak statue of Mary over the altar that was found on a garbage heap in the 14thcentury and came to be considered miraculous.

With the addition of the statue of Mary, so many people came to worship at the chapel that they needed to build a church in the 1600s.

512 Wooden Mary NDdB

Wondering why the scallop shell is the symbol of the Way of St. James?

When a pilgrim arrived at the church of Santiago de Compostela, they would collect shells off the beach to prove to those back home that they’d finished the journey. A shell was also a very useful tool for scooping water and using as a bowl for food.


115 Coquille Turq Frame


Our tour guide, Yolande, reminded us of a popular item in seafood restaurants: Coquilles St-Jacques… ring a bell? ‘Coquille’ is French for shell and St. Jacques is St. James in French. Fancy scallop dishes were a tasty souvenir that the pilgrims definitely didn’t have the privilege of enjoying on their route!


A 12th century travel guide

We still had a ways to go to the end of our pilgrimage. We stopped at the church of Notre-Dame de la Chapelle in the Marolles, where there is a statue of St. James that is used in an annual Pentecost procession. 

011 St James

St. James is holding the Codex Calixtinus, a 12th century book written under Pope Callixtus II that listed the four pilgrimage routes originating in France at that time. Was this perhaps the world’s first travel guide book?

Finally, our overheated group arrived at the Porte de Hal, the final spot on our Brussels route and the gathering place for pilgrims leaving Brussels to continue south to Spain. 


The wonders of wandering in the 21st century


As we wandered, I was struck by the parallels between the Way of St. James and my modern-day Wondrous Wanders walks.

I follow an established path (for example, the route of the 13th century city wall) or one I’ve composed myself (the 10 Secrets Even the Belgians Don’t Know About Brussels). Yet, if curiosity calls to me or conditions change, I can be flexible and adapt the route.

395 Group @ Viller Wall Logo


Most importantly, as the pilgrims did, I wander for a reason. I’m seeking hidden gems and little-known stories so that I can unveil them for you — allowing you to experience Brussels through new eyes.





In the end, no matter which era we’re from, a wander that is truly wondrous brings us a feeling of joy, of accomplishment, of sharing with others and, almost certainly, a change of perception.



062 PdeH Marker Turq


Oh, by the way, if you’re thinking of following the pilgrimage route yourself, from the stone obelisk beside the Porte de Hal to the church of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, it’s only a distance of 2,200 km!



Happy wandering!









Note: I’ve adapted this post from the version I originally wrote for the American Club of Brussels. It appeared on their web site on 29 June 2016.

If you’re interested in obtaining more information on the American Club or becoming a member (all nationalities are welcome), head over to www.americanclubbrussels.org

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