Did you know the golden shells on the streets of Brussels lead to Santiago de Compostela?

08/05/2017

Anyone who has wandered the streets of Brussels will have noticed the glint of the golden scallop shells that adorn the streets. Are they from the Brussels coat of arms? A modern art project maybe? Perhaps they lead to the nearest seafood restaurant? The real answer is somewhat more religious in nature. The shells are in fact signposts to the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

In the Middle Ages thousands of pilgrims made their way to Santiago de Compostela, and today the route still attracts adventurers and those in search of contemplation, who can complete it on foot or by bicycle. In order to prevent people getting lost the routes are well signposted, and one of these routes runs through Brussels.

The city of Brussels installed the fifty-odd gold-coloured shells along the footpaths about ten years ago. They connect the two churches in the city dedicated to Saint James: Église Notre Dame de Bon Secours ("Our Lady of Assistance Church") in the Saint James district of Brussels and Saint-Jaques-sur-Coudenberg near the Royal Palace. The baroque Église Notre Dame de Bon Secours Church occupies the site of the medieval St. James guest house, where pilgrims would take shelter during their journey south.

From the Saint James district, the shells mark two routes that lead out of Brussels and then later head in the direction of Paris. One route goes to the Collegial Church of Saint Peter and Saint Guidon in Anderlecht and the other goes to the Halle Gate via the Marolles. In the Halle Gate Park there is also a sculpture in the shape of a menhir called "Pilgrim". This sculpture, created in 1999 by the Spanish artist Manolo Paz, is a tribute to the anonymous pilgrim en route to Santiago.

A brief warning to treasure hunters: the shells are not actually made of gold, so when you visit Brussels please leave your hammer and chisel at home!

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