El Camino de Santiago de Compostela

Italy is on the other side: Walking the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
Italy is on the other side

The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage: El Camino

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage – Sir Walter Raleigh (1600 NE)

By Sylvia Nilsen

It has been estimated that in 2019 around 336,000  people trekked the whole trail and got their certificate. Many more hiked parts of the pilgrimage trails in Europe known collectively as ‘The Camino’.

Over 272,100 pilgrims earned the ‘Compostela’, a certificate given to those who walk the last consecutive 100km (or cycle the last 200km) to the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The pilgrim office in Santiago claims that only 1-in-5 pilgrims on the trails plan on reaching Santiago. Some complete the walk in stages, walking a couple of weeks each year. Many pilgrims walk thousands of kilometers, starting out from their front doors in countries such as Holland, France, Italy, and Switzerland. (By comparison, just over 20,000 people have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in the US since its inception in the early 1930s).

When the tomb of an apostle was found in 814 near a Celtic Castro in the settlement of Libredon in Galicia, northwest Spain, it was declared to be that of Yaakov Ben-Zebedi (James the Greater – brother of John). The news spread through the Christian world and the shrine soon became the destination for millions of pilgrims including mendicants and penitents, clerics and Knights, Kings and Queens.

A Medieval Pilgrimage Network

‘The Camino’ (from the Spanish word ‘caminar’ – to walk) is the name commonly used for a network of hundreds of medieval pilgrimage trails across Europe all leading to the tomb of St James the Greater in Santiago de Compostela.

Unlike the Appalachian Trail which is basically a wilderness trail that avoids towns and roads, the Camino evolved along old Roman Roads and footpaths between fortified towns or monasteries. Pilgrims sought these places of safety and some towns offered as many as 30 pilgrim shelters or hospices to house the millions of pilgrims that trekked the paths in the middle ages.

Once the offer of indulgences for the remission of sins (and time spent in purgatory) was thrown into the mix in the early 11th century, pilgrimage became a life quest for a mainly illiterate population seeking entrance to their heavenly home through the intercession of saints and other holy relics housed in reliquaries in the churches and cathedrals of Europe.

Pilgrim Roads

From the 10th century, roads, bridges, churches, abbeys, and cathedrals were built in support of the pilgrims and it has been said that Europe was built on the roads to Santiago. These pilgrim roads became an avenue for art, architecture, music and religion.

The Knights Templar and their Spanish counterparts, the Knights of Santiago, built defensive castles and patrolled the northern routes to protect the pilgrims from Muslim attacks.

After peaking between the 12th and 14th centuries, the Reformation, Black Death, and wars brought a halt to the hey-days of Christian pilgrimage in Europe and the pilgrimage trails were largely abandoned and forgotten.

Four Main Routes

Since the late 1970s, there has been a revival in Christian pilgrimage destinations and a re-animation of the old pilgrim trails throughout Europe. There are four main St Jacques routes through France which join the Jacobean route par excellence (the Camino Frances) in the north of Spain. They start in Paris, Le Puy, Vezelay, and Arles.

Three of these routes join at the French pilgrimage town of St Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains below the Col de Lepoeder (1440m), whilst the fourth crosses into Spain via Aragon at the Somport Pass (1600m). In 1987 ‘el Camino de Santiago’ was named the first European Cultural Itinerary and in 1993 the 800km long Camino Frances was named a World Heritage Site.

Navarra 1
Along the Camino in France.

The Camino Frances runs for approximately 800 km from east to west, starting in the Pyrenees and ending in Santiago de Compostela. Many pilgrims continue their journey for a further 90 km to Finisterre – the end of the known world in medieval times. The route crosses three mountain ranges, innumerable rivers, and bridges and passes through over 350 villages and towns. Large towns include Pamplona, Burgos, and Leoñ.

Dormitories to Stay in

Many towns provide dormitory accommodation – Albergues del Peregrinos – for bona fide pilgrims on foot or bicycle. Pilgrims carry a pilgrim ‘passport’ known as the ‘credencial’ which they have stamped at each overnight stop, at churches, cathedrals etc.

Alternative accommodation includes country houses, pensions, hostels, hotels, and even sumptuous Paradores – monasteries and monuments converted into 5-star hotels – for those who can afford them!

There are dozens of routes of varying distances crisscrossing Spain, running along the northern coast, coming from the south and in the east and a few from Portugal in the west. Some, like the Via de la Plata (or Silver Route) which starts from Cadiz or Seville, are over 1000 km long.

Camino del Levante

The Camino del Levante which starts in Valencia is 1 300 km long. Old forgotten paths are constantly being rediscovered like the “Viejo Camino” used by early pilgrims in the 9th and 10th centuries (before the Camino Frances was populated) which followed old tracks and Roman Roads running between the mountains and valleys of the Pyrenees and Cantabrian ranges. Pilgrims followed these ancient roads seeking safety in fortified communities, far from the threat of Muslims from the south.

There are as many reasons for walking a Camino today as there are pilgrims. Some do it for religious reasons. Some people do it at a turning point in their lives, perhaps after losing their job or having to make a new career choice.

Many people walk the Camino after surviving a life-changing illness or suffering the loss of a loved one. Others merely enjoy the challenge of a long-distance hike or have a special interest in medieval history or art. For some, it is the journey that is important, not the destination.

Toomanyblisters 1
Too many blisters to count!

“Difficult to Describe”

Many pilgrims with no religion recount having had a ‘spiritual’ experience whilst walking the Camino even though the majority find it difficult to describe the experience.

Leaving aside the history, the religion, the traditions, and the folk-lore, trekking a long-distance trail for over 30 days; getting up with the dawn and walking through ancient forests, acres of vineyards and cereal fields or glorious mountains, one reaches that exquisite state (or Zen) of non-awareness.

You are no longer aware of the pack on your back or the blister on your heel or the sun on your head. You are one with everything around you and although you see everything, you do not think about them in words, they just are.

From the 9th century, the scallop shell became the symbol of the Apostle – fisherman, evangelist, and first martyr. Medieval popes decreed the pilgrim’s dress; long woolen robe, a wide-brimmed hat, staff, gourd, and scrip (shoulder bag) for a few personal belongings.

Although modern-day pilgrims to Santiago wear hi-tech apparel, Gortex boots and carry telescopic poles, they still display the scallop shell, which sets them apart from the ordinary tourist.

High Tech Clothing

The majority of pilgrims hike with just a small backpack bearing a change of clothing and a few necessities. With an abundance of pilgrim accommodation, there is little need to carry camping equipment although a few pilgrims do wild camp along the way. Experienced pilgrims know to keep their pack light. All along the route, however, one finds evidence of people shedding excess weight in the form of abandoned boots, clothing, books, and other unwanted items!

Arriving is Santiago one is confronted by the elaborate 18th-century Baroque facade of the Santiago Cathedral. Ascending the double staircase, one enters to find a 12th-century Romanesque church with an original, magnificent marble sculpture – the ‘Portico del Gloria’ or Gate of Glory – sculptured by master Mateo between 1168 and 1188. It is traditional to hug an effigy of the saint and visit his relics in the crypt under the altar.

After attending a special pilgrims’ mass in the cathedral – where one might be lucky enough to see the largest incense burner in the world – the Pilgrim presents the stamped credential at the Pilgrims’ Office, proving that the last 100km has been walked or cycled.

If the pilgrim can profess to have walked for a religious and/or spiritual reason, the coveted ‘Compostela’ certificate, based on a 14th-century document in Latin, is granted. About half of the pilgrims receiving the Compostela profess to walk the pilgrimage for a purely religious reason.

Paupers and Priests

Path to Santa Cilia
Path to Santa Cilia.

Today one finds Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Taoists and Secular Humanists trudging the many paths to Santiago. Priests and paupers, housewives, and executives all share frugal pilgrim meals and simple pilgrim accommodation and ‘Everyman’ is a pilgrim on the Camino. It seems that has always been so. The 12th c Latin hymn, the La Preciosa, says:

Its doors are open to the sick and well
to Catholics as well as to pagans,
Jews, Heretics, beggars and the indigent,
and it embraces all like brothers.

Paulo Coelho made the Camino the setting of his first book “The Pilgrimage” and Shirley Maclaine wrote about revisiting her previous lives in “The Camino – a Journey of the Spirit”. Now a new film by Emilio Estevez, starring his father Martin Sheen, titled “The Way” was recently released in cinemas around the world in 2011.

silvia nilsenSylvia Nilsen has walked over 5000 km of Pilgrimage trails in France and Spain, Switzerland, and Italy. She has worked as a volunteer in a pilgrim shelter and runs Spanish Federation approved volunteer training courses in South Africa. She is the author of the pilgrimage planning guide, “Your Camino on foot, bicycle or horseback in France and Spain” published by Pilgrimage Publications.

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