The largest scallop shell on the Camino de Santiago trail! Photo by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: the Scallop Shell

The scallop shell is a definite part of the el Camino and has been for centuries. Like many things unknown to me until I became entrenched in the walking of the el Camino, little did I realize the impact it makes each day. The scallop shell is the trail marker through all the cities and towns. It is brass, cemented into granite posts and under our feet on cobblestones. I saw scallop shells in iron fence designs in front of people’s homes. The scallop shell was painted on signs for places of business. One home, on a curve in the path through the village, stood out because the entire part of the building facing the path was covered with scallop shells, cemented into the walls top to bottom.

After the first day of walking the el Camino, when I signed in at the albergue in Roncesvalles, I bought an official el Camino scallop shell, with the tiny red symbol painted on the back; I tied it to the cover of my pack and wore it all across Spain. It was a visible sign, along with my well-worn clothes and trekking poles, that I was indeed a pilgrim of the el Camino.

One day recently I saw the largest scallop shell symbol on the el Camino. It was out in the country, on the side of a small, one-story building. A well-worn path went to the front door, as you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. It was a small trail café, and when my friend Jack and I entered, it was standing room only. People are so friendly and pleasant on the trail. I spotted familiar faces, and enjoyed a coffee and a snack there before moving on, with more scallop shells to follow.

The scallop shell made me think of the maintenance of the trail. The signs were always in good shape. The trail all along 500 miles was safe, hazard-free, and clean of liter. There was graffiti on the cement trail underpasses near the cities and larger towns and on a few signs there, too.

The scallop shell symbols also brought to mind the cruceiros along the entire trail. As I would be walking up a hill or near a mountain pass, there would often be a big cruceiro, which is a stone cross where pilgrims pile stones in memory of those they love. For my part, in memory of my son Michael, I had brought a very small bag of tiny black pebbles from the fireplace mantel of his home on the Maine coast. Michael had placed those on his mantel for a special reason—a memory of one of his adventures. As I walked along the Camino de Santiago, I took those smooth, tiny pebbles and placed each one at the base of a different cruceiro. One very tall cruceiro had wide beams, and I decided to throw a pebble on to that cross beam. After two or three tries, I landed my pebble on the cross beam, and there it sits as a reminder that special people are never forgotten. Now only one of Michael’s pebbles is left for Santiago—the finish!—and a few more scallop shell signs will lead me there.

(posted June 16, 2015)