Micro-Adventure: Hospice d’Illa and St. Etienne in Ille-sur-Têt

After visiting Les Orgues in the morning, Monday, July 20, we headed back to town to see the beautiful church, St. Etienne, that we had noticed while hiking the 4 km out to Les Orgues and back into Ille-sur-Têt.

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The current building circa 18th century expanded and remodeled an earlier 12th century church.
The current building circa 18th century expanded and remodeled an earlier 12th century church.

St. Etienne (St. Stephen in English; St. Eteven led Pedrequet in Catalan)

The first written mention of this pre-Romanesque church dates to the 10th century in 982 as a donation to the Abbey Cuixà. In 1016, a document refers to “the old church” while referencing the, then current, construction (one of many expansions throughout the centuries). To understand the size and shape of the earlier 12th century church you have to imagine it oriented east to west in the nave of the current building (from right to left). The building itself was at one time part of the wall surrounding the city (parts of which are still visible) and near the castle (which no longer exists).

The current interior of St. Etienne. The original church would have been
The current interior of St. Etienne. The original church would have been where the area where the pews now sit. The large organ is visible to the right above the arched side entrance (most likely the original entrance to the earlier church).
Remnants of the original ramparts
Remnants of the original ramparts

The bell tower was added sometime during the 1400s. The current tower was inaugurated in 1875, it’s most recent reconstruction. Originally, it had a defensive role as much as a religious one. It was used as a dungeon, a records room, a reliquary and treasure room. The bells in the upper part of the tower are truly remarkable. There is a carillon of 16 bells each an octave and a half apart. The largest and oldest is the F sharp major, cast in 1757. Another dates to 1766. The operators climbed 116 steps to use levers and pedals to operate the bells. In September 1933 an electric carillon keyboard was added and the bell ringers became a distant memory.

The bell tower housing all 16 bells of St. Etienne.
The bell tower housing all 16 bells of St. Etienne.

Excavation for a well some 50+ years ago revealed headstones nearly 30 meters underground from the graveyard that once laid beside the church. A more recent excavation near the current entrance revealed bones from one of the original graves.

The upper section of the main facade of St. Etienne in Ille-sur-Têt.
The upper section of the main facade of St. Etienne in Ille-sur-Têt.
The main doors of the entrance facade.
The large entry doors of the main facade.


Just a few blocks away was the Hospice d’Illa, a complex of several buildings that date to the 12th century.

The gated entrance to the chapel and hospice with St. James watching from above.
The original gated entrance to the chapel and hospice with St. James watching from above. The building on the left houses the small chapels, the building on the right a team of is currently being used by a team of restoration experts.

Hospice d’Ille-sur-Têt (Hospice d’Illa in Catalan)

Part of the Camino de Santiago, hospices like this offered refuge to those making the pilgrimage across Spain to the final resting place of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. There has been a large network of hospices operated by the Catholic Church, and her followers such as the Knights Templar and Knights of Malta, and other volunteers, throughout Europe for centuries. The Hospice d’Illa, though not the oldest of those still in existence, dates to the 12th century.

The complex of buildings at Hospice d’Illa include: the Hospice Saint-Jacques (St. James), which dates to the 12th century (the current building was remodeled in the 14th century); the Romanesque church Nostra Senyora de Rodona, 12th century; funeral galleries; and medieval ramparts which date to the 16th century. The church and funeral galleries of the cemetery were the privileged place of burial for the Illois (what the people of Ille-sur-Têt call themselves).

Side entrance of the original hospice.
Side entrance of the original hospice.
Arches near the ramparts on the hospice grounds.
Arches near the ramparts on the hospice grounds may have been part of the funeral gallery; though the cemetery no longer exists.

The Hospice continued to serve as a community hospital until 1981. Unfortunately it was not open for our tour. Current restorations are in the works making the area off-limits. The building to the right of the gated entrance has been tuned into a workspace for a team of experts handling the art restoration for the hospice and church. A display in the reception area of antique restoration tools showed that restoration efforts have been ongoing for quite a long time.

Display of antique restoration tools in the reception area.
Display of antique restoration tools in the reception area.

The ramparts, which are integrated with the church’s North and East walls, were part of the city’s fortification system (a section of which is visible near the current parking lot along the east side of the church). The closest access for the hospice and church were through the fortified gate of Parayre (which still exists and is still used as a main street for that section of town).

Ramparts of the original city defense system which incorporated the East wall of the Hospice.
Ramparts of the original city defense system which incorporated the East wall of the Hospice.
The current sign for the Hospice outside the gate near the rampart tower.
Signage for the Hospice near the rampart tower, it hangs above and slightly to the left of the Parayre Gate..
The xxx Gate which allowed entrance into the city near the Hospice from inside the ramparts.
The Parayre Gate which allowed entrance into the city near the Hospice, taken from inside the ramparts.

The church consists of a single nave, typical of early churches of that era, with an incredibly high ceiling and a small sacristy off to the right. We did not see any of the grave markers inside the church, but most of it was covered with carpet for the museum display. There were eight small chapels on the ground floor opposite the main entrance to the nave and connected through a small hallway with St. James painted above the doorway (found during restoration efforts). Eight additional chapels on the floor above are accessed by a small tight staircase. The small chapels were dedicated to the many worker guilds of the city. Above each of the chapels are Roman numerals which were also found during current restoration work.

St. James painted above the small hallway between the main nave of the church and the ground floor chapels.
St. James painted above the small hallway between the main nave of the church and the ground floor chapels.
Staircase with handcrafted metal railing.
Staircase with handcrafted metal railing.

These days the church is a museum, the sacristy (to the right of the altar) holds remnants of Romanesque frescoes discovered during restoration. The nave has holds a variety of pieces found over the years, sections of stone columns, a model of the original church, and some large information pieces – in French, of course! The chapels on the upper floor have a permanent collection of artifacts from both the Hospice d’Illa and St. Etienne’s. The chapels on the ground floor have a rotating exhibit. Currently it is an exhibit of Romanesque and Baroque art from around the region.

The interior of Nostra Senyora de Rodona housing a small museum.
The interior of Nostra Senyora de Rodona housing a small museum.
Romanesque fresco found during restoration.
One of several Romanesque frescoes found during restoration.

The altar is still in place and was specifically crafted for the church by guilds operating within the city. It is a beautiful white marble carved with birds. I didn’t recognize which type of bird, they look a little bit like Cormorants to me but are most likely something indigenous to the area. The large altarpiece has three alcoves that are now devoid of the wood statues they once held — though some are now on display in the permanent gallery. (*We did notice that at some point in recent history that someone had added carnival lights around each of the alcoves, many of the small bulbs were still in their sockets.)

The altarpiece of
The altarpiece of Nostra Senyora de Rodona.
Altar detail of doves.
Altar detail.

It still amazes both of us that before we moved to France we had never heard of the Camino de Santiago, well just a short sound-bite on an episode of Rick Steve’s Europe. Literally a 5 second blip. Yet now that we have traveled a bit of the Camino ourselves, we find we are surrounded by the richness of this 1000 year old tradition. Kind of like when you buy a new car and then notice them everywhere you go.

We find references everywhere. The hospice in Ille-sur-Têt is one, the pilgrim hospital and small chapel in Carcassonne that was just at the end of our street another. We find that way markers that pop up all over, signs along the highway that denote it follows the Camino de Santiago in a particular section, and recently a brochure which explained the route from Montpellier to Perpignan and included the albergues available between the two locations. The other day we saw a museum display of old horseshoes and spurs from a fort we were visiting (Fortress le Salses). The spurs had a scallop shell design, the symbol of St. James and the Camino de Santiago. So if you’re ever visiting Europe and run into a scallop shell design, you’ve found a piece of the Camino. Send us a photo!

As we prepare for our next Camino, we are in awe that it has become such a huge part of our life here in France. We are elated when we notice that there are trails near or in the places we live, and are constantly amazed that this millennia old pilgrimage still has a huge following. We’ve even been discussing doing the shorter Portuguese route next year and taking Sami along with us. Though we would have to stay in hotels because the albergues do not allow dogs. She’s SO spoiled!

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