Road to Santiago
Part 1

Brian Sewell Voiceover

My name is Brian Sewell. I’m a sceptical art critic and columnist for the London Evening Standard, and this is me, last June, heading off to continental Europe. Not on a holiday, but on a pilgrimage, which… as you shall see… is something quite different.
I don’t know why some lunatic decided to send me on a pilgrimage. I’m a lapsed Catholic, I’m even a lapsed Christian. I think the idea was to look at beautiful cathedrals, drink too much wine and say something insightful about belief and art. As it happens I’d made this particular pilgrimage before, 40 years or so ago, and I was quite looking forward to doing it again. But this time the journey turned out to be one of the most difficult of my life. Little did I know this of course, when I cheerfully set out from Dover.England is a mere shadow on the horizon. We’re off on a trip, of something like a thousand miles, on foot, no not entirely, on horseback, again, not entirely, but a bit. We are going to investigate the medieval mind, and why medieval men went on pilgrimages. And I hope on the way shall we discover why people are still going on pilgrimages. We could have gone to the Holy Land, we could have gone to Rome, but instead we are going to Santiago de Compostela, and on the way, I’ll tell you why.

Brian Sewell Voiceover
My journey will take me down through France, over the Pyrenees and then across to the west cost of Spain. My goal is to visit the relic of St James the Apostle and the town that bears his name, Santiago. It is said that all that is left of him, apart from one hand and his head, is entombed in the cathedral there, and I aim to arrive in time for the feast of St James, to witness one of the greatest festivals in the Christian world. Along the way I’m planning to visit some of the most magnificent architecture in Europe. From the great cathedrals at Chartres and Leon, to the bold new museum at Bilbao. But the first view of France from the channel isn’t an inspiring start.
French modern architecture is the ugliest in civilised Europe. Look at it. Hideous. What a sight.


Wonderful. Nobody wants to look at my passport. That’s clearly the way to do it if you’re brining um… cats, dogs and illegal immigrants in. Wait until everyone has gone and there’s no passport man.
There are four main pilgrim routes to Santiago, and I’m to take what is known as the French road. My first stop is Paris, the great meeting point for pilgrims coming from Northern Europe. Even this trip would be a frightful schlep for a real pilgrim, but not so tough for a cheat like me.
I should be making this pilgrimage on foot, with my feet bleeding and bandaged by the time I get to Compostela. But the pilgrimage took from April to October and I cannot take off sixth months to do the job properly, not even six weeks. So I’m doing in within a month. The only way I can succeed is by taking my motorcar and cheating. My motorcar, for those who are interested, is a Mercedes. It’s the best part of 20 years old. It has a 5.6 litre engine and it guzzles petrol extravagantly, but I love it dearly like an old dog.
So I will drive my Mercedes most of the way, but fifty miles from Compostela I shall exchange it for… a horse, because as long as I ride the last fifty miles and arrive in the great city of Compostela on horseback I shall be regarded by the ecclesiastical authorities as a proper pilgrim.

Brian Sewell Voiceover
For pilgrims it’s the journey that counts. The harder it is, the greater the reward. And a few miles from Paris, I come across a virtuous couple slogging their way to Santiago by bicycle.

Brian Sewell: I think I know where you are going, but where have you come from?

Woman: We’re coming from Holland.

Brian Sewell: Why are you doing it?

Woman: err… because it’s hard… but also it gives a lot of satisfaction

Brian Sewell: (interrupting): You’re a masochist…

Woman: (continuing): …you get a lot of satisfaction. (laughs)

Brian Sewell: Is that why you are making the pilgrimage.

Woman: We are Catholics.

Brian Sewell: You are Catholics?

Woman: Yes.

Brian Sewell: Keeping up the old… tradition.

Woman: Yeah.

Brian Sewell to man: May I ask how old you are?

Woman: Today he’s 51.

Brian Sewell Oh, congratulations! Ha ha ha.

Woman: And I’m 50.

Brian Sewell: Gosh.

Woman: So maybe its something crazy from the menopause, I don’t know, but we like it so (laughs)… no…

Brian Sewell: I think you’re heroic.

Woman: Oh thank you very much.

Brian Sewell: And very happy birthday.

Man: (mumbles thank you)

Brian Sewell: What a mad way of spending it.

Music/ Brian Sewell voiceover
Medieval pilgrimage was all about seeking forgiveness for sin. In this respect of course I’m as qualified as any to make the journey. Indeed travelling to Paris is an especially poignant reminder of my own sinful past.
It was in Paris I lost my virginity to a sixty-year-old Grandmother when I was twenty. She knew how to do it and she was determined. For years afterwards she wrote me obscene letters and sent me chocolate muffins from Charleston Carolina.

It must have been extremely puzzling coming into a big city like this. No maps, no guidebooks, no preparation of any kind. You come upon it and there are some things that you need, you need something for yourself, you need accommodation for your horse, you need new shoes, you need fodder, and you’ve no idea where you’re going to get it. The only thing you know is that you ultimately have to get to Sainte Chapelle or Notre Dame or Tour Sainte Jacque, and that these are the only places where you are going to meet other English speaking people.

Brian Sewell Voiceover
So like a medieval pilgrim I too have come to the Sainte Chapelle right in the middle of Paris on Ile de la Cite, tucked around the back with the Palace de Justice.
Pilgrims have always stopped at churches and monasteries on their journey, to rest and receive indulgences, forgiveness for their sins. And the holy places that they were most interested in visiting, were those which housed holy relics, artefacts with some connection to Christ or the Saints or even their bodily remains. And here in the Sainte Chapelle, which is one of the most exquisite religious buildings of medieval Europe, was one of the most revered relics in the Christian world.

Echoing inside church
We’re in the heart of what was the medieval palace of the Kings of France. It used to have a great courtyard. In the middle of the thirteenth century the then king of France, Louis IX, later Saint Louis, bought from the Venetians the crown of thorns, that had once surrounded head of Christ. A most precious relic. And to house it, he built in his courtyard his private chapel, the Sainte Chapelle. In one of the windows in the corner behind me, there is the story of his bringing, he himself, carrying the crown of thorns into this chapel. It is not a building for a great press of pilgrims, it was for the King’s private … benefit. But the press of pilgrims knew that it was here, they knew this wonderful building existed, that within it there was wonderful reliquary and that within that was the crown of thorns, and that brought them great comfort. They were, as it were, within spitting distance of the most precious relic in Europe.

Brian Sewell Voiceover
The elegant simplicity of the Sainte Chapelle disguises the cleverness of it’s design. Iron chains hidden inside the tracery, allowed it’s builders to create these great expanses of glass, which even on a dull day like this, flood the interior with coloured light.
Echoing inside church

The old palace is long since destroyed. The Kings moved off to live in the Lourve, by the river. But the Sainte Chapelle remained. Here it is, all these centuries later, a miracle of medieval stained glass. An enormous amount of money was spent on this little building, and it went up in no time at all. The great masters of glass painting of the period were all brought in to work on this. It is like being inside a cabinet of jewels with the light shining through. No church in the whole of Europe has glass to match it. Come into this building and you are in, as it were, walking about in paintings by Kandinsky.

Brian Sewell Voiceover
But of course this is a Kandinsky. Sainte Chapelle is more than art, it is a place of worship. It was here that Eleanor of Aquitaine herself a pilgrim to Santiago, married Henry II, King of England. It was here that the Monarchs of France’s Ancien regime humbled themselves before their God.

Long pause
For many years now I have felt quite untroubled by my loss of Christian faith, but this visit to Saint Chapelle is more moving than I had expected it to be. A simple status of St James reminds me of the journey ahead but pilgrimage may not after all be quite the carefree romp I had been promised.
The great relic of the crown of thorns has long since been transferred to Notre Dame and the Sainte Chapelle is now opened to the great unwashed. Of course while the great churches of Paris still attract pilgrims, they now also bustle with tourists clutching guidebooks instead of prayer books. But for tourists on their pilgrimages of pleasure, the beautiful Sainte Chapelle is surprisingly not the most popular church to visit. Instead they flock to another far less worthy, more famous building up the hill in Montemartre. And that, alas, is where I have been told to head next.

Musian Brian Sewell Voiceover
If you want a panoramic view of Paris, but don’t fancy queuing to go up the Eiffel Tower, you might head to the northern arondisment of Montmartre, where tourists gather, not just to look out over the rooftops, but to gawp at one of the city’s most famous landmarks and one of the most popular destinations for modern pilgrims.
And here I am, on the hill in Montmartre, on top of which is the church of Sacre Coeur. Most sacred heart of Jesus, it says on the facade of the monstrous building. It contains nothing, it doesn’t have the sacred heart of Jesus, it doesn’t have his foreskin, it doesn’t have his toe nails, it doesn’t have anything of any interest at all. It pretends to be Byzantium, it pretends to be Santa Sofia in Istanbul, it pretends to be any great church of the Byzanti, Romanesque, or whatever period you like, and it is a monster. Idiot tourists in their millions flock up the fenicular, come here in some toy train borrowed from Disneyland, climb the stairs, go in, wander round, wonder why they’re there and come out again, having bought a souvenir or two. That’s the sum total of it. Why do they do it? They do it because it is here. Just look at it. It’s hideous. HIDEOUS!

Brian Sewell: Why here?

Woman 1: Why here? What Paris? Or…

Brian Sewell: Oh I understand why you here for Paris… Yes…

Woman 1: Well we decided…

Brian Sewell (interrupting): …all those lusty Frenchmen…

Woman 2: Absolutely right. We’ve left our husbands at home. We’ve left our children at home, and we’re having a girly weekend.

Woman 1: We are.

Woman 2: In this beautiful, beautiful weather. We’ve left sunny England for Paris… looking like this…

Woman 1: Yes for rainy Paris.

Brian Sewell: Yes but why are you looking at Sacre Coeur?

Woman 2: Sacre Coeur?

Woman 1: Well I suppose it’s… it’s a monument, it’s got beautiful views.

Brian Sewell: I mean you’re not here because you’re Christians?

Woman 1: Oh yes.

Woman 2: Well we are.

Brian Sewell: Oh you are?

Woman 1: We’re going to mass at Notre Dame. Hopefully on Sunday.

Brian Sewell: Are you?

Woman 2: But we’re not Catholic.

Woman 1: No.

Woman 2: But we shall go to mass.

Brian Sewell: They were broadcasting some music this morning which was electronic and… sort of recorded service with nobody there. (Laughs)

Woman 1: Whilst you were away (laughs).

Brian Sewell: Absolutely empty choir, but a great deal of choir music, and so I thought that really does sum it up doesn’t it, something to entertain the tourists.

Women: Yes. Yes.

Brian Sewell: I love your blue eyes, they’re wonderful.

Woman: ‘scuse me?

Women: (Giggles)

Woman 1: No don’t say want you said before.

Brian Sewell: Exactly like mine, your eyes are, they’re the colour of dark urine. Somebody with liver problems. Well have a lovely time.

Woman 1: Thank you very much, you too. Nice to see you.

Woman 2: Nice to see you.

Brian Sewell Voiceover

Sacre Coeur was built in an age of increasing faithlessness and it betroths a terrible crisis of artist confidence. Although this church is the counter
product of the modern industrial era, it’s nervous builders felt the need to ape the architectural style of another bygone age, even another country.
It doesn’t get any better the closer one gets. In fact it has a rather nasty smooth, unworn look about it. It still looks new. Best part of a hundred years old and it still looks new. Though needless to say they are appealing for funds for its restoration. Everywhere you go in this church you will find an offertory box. Money for this. Money for that. Money for the other thing. And money for restoration. I think they should knock it down, indeed I think God should indeed knock it down. It is so hideous. Just imagine if God has any aesthetic sense, what he must have been thinking of this vile church for the last hundred years.

Music/ Brian Sewell Voiceover
Since it’s construction Sacre Coeur has been the inspiration of many of the painters who have gravitated to the old artist’s quarter of Montmartre. This area was once home to Toulouse Lautrec and Pablo Picasso. The painters are still here but the art sadly is gone.

It doesn’t even look like the wretched church, and it’s wobbling like some slightly melting ice-cream.
I’m just thinking that in my old age I can retire here and paint bad pictures. (pause) I could get away with it. I could paint just as badly as all these people. This was for many many decades, the artists quarter of Paris, but you can see now how degraded it has become. It’s a tourist trap, just like Sacre Coeur and a pretty little square like this, which ought to be as it were, a market square selling vegetables is now filled with cafes bars and this kind of terminal rubbish. Occasionally if you come to a place like this, as you come up to the railings of Green Park or Hyde Park, you find somebody who stands out as having a bit of a spark. You can do something with him, but here I’ve seen nothing but rubbish.

Slower Music/ Brian Sewell Voiceover
But I’m a pilgrim, not a tourist, so after indulging myself with a lemon sorbet I shall head off to where proper pilgrims gather before setting off on the road to Santiago. In Paris there are two historic meeting places for pilgrims destined for Compostela. One is the Tour Sainte Jacque the Tower or St James, which is unfortunately closed for restoration. The other is the grand cathedral of Notre Dame. This majestic building with it’s great flying buttresses and gruesome gargoyles is a very different proposition from Sacre Coeur. Here we have a hundred percent authentic medieval cathedral. Or do we?
A medieval English pilgrim, coming upon Paris where his pilgrimage began found a medieval huddle extending right out into the countryside. Confusion, dirt, squalor, general beastliness. Rising above it all like a great beacon of faith, hope and charity, was this cathedral with its twin towers, dedicated to the Virgin. And here he came and met the companions who would go with him all the way to Compostela. The cathedral remained much the same for as many as five centuries, and then came the revolution. And the revolutionaries were atheists, agnostics at best, and turned the great church which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in to a temple of pure reason. It was after all the age of reason, the age of enlightenment. Then they did something which was not in the least enlightened, they started knocking the building about. They tore the sculpture down, smashed it to pieces and generally wrecked the façade. A few decades later, a nineteenth century restorer, um did his best to put it back. He made a very correct and rather muted job of it, very like any English restorer. And so it stayed. Paris in the nineteenth century was a very dirty place, full of smoke and general smog and mess, and… this… settling on the façade, smudged the edges of it and made it look very paintily and lots of people painted it. Then ten years or so ago they decided to clean it and now it looks as it does. It looks as it did when it was first restored.Woman: Brian come on, what do you think of the Notre Dame?

Brian Sewell: No you tell me, because I…

Woman (interrupting): Inside or outside?

Brian Sewell: This façade…

Woman: Outside

Brian Sewell: …I’d like an honest reaction.

Woman: Well I think it’s, quite frankly a work of art. I think it’s wonderful, and that’s what I see, I see all the beautiful carvings and the recognition and the grandeur and the hugeness, erm… that’s what I see. I think it’s… you know… What do you see?

Brian Sewell: I like my ruins to look like ruins, I don’t like the…

Woman: Do you think they are too fresh?

Brian Sewell: They are a bit fresh.

Woman: I wondered if it had been cleaned?

Brian Sewell: It’s been cleaned very recently.

Woman: It’s a bit white isn’t it?

Brian Sewell: Too white.

Woman: Too white.

Brian Sewell: It needs… it needs a little bit of dirt.

Woman: It does.

Brian Sewell: Maybe we should chuck some buckets of slurry at it.

Woman: Maybe we should organise an action party for distressing it.

Brian Sewell: A slurry party.

Woman: A slurry party. (laughs) I don’t think that would go down terribly well with the French government.

Brian Sewell: I think we would all be arrested.

Woman: We’d all be arrested.

Brian Sewell: Yes.

Choral Singing in the background
Here, set into the pavement outside the cathedral of Notre Dame is a very important point. It is point zero, and from this point are measured all the distances from Paris. It is here we begin our pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and we have two thousand five hundred kilometres to walk from this point here. I’m off.

Music/ Brian Sewell Voiceover
And so my pilgrimage began in earnest. A rediscovery of places like Chartres and Orleans and Bordeaux, which I haven’t visited for many years, but also a journey back into my own past. A journey I did not expect to make.
Music to end.