Year after year, thousands of pilgrims from all over the world arrive in Santiago de Compostela. Many of them fly in or come by car nowadays, but the traditional Camino de Santiago is to be completed on foot, by bike or on a horse. Signposted pathways stretching as far as Istanbul and Helsinki indicate the way to Santiago. Question of the day: why Santiago and why walk such a long way at all?
According to the Bible, Saint James (= San Tiago), was one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. Saint James, today the patron saint of Spain, was one of the first followers of Jesus to be prosecuted and sentenced to death. Saint James` relics are said to have been discovered in Santiago de Compostela in 832 ? a discovery which at that time motivated many Catholics to come to Santiago. It is also in those days that the pilgrimage came into existence. For over 1000 years, the Camino de Santiago has been one of the major pilgrim routes of the Catholic faith. In 1987, it was even distinguished by the European Community as the first European Cultural Route.
..didn`t walk to Santiago but cycled instead
Luc?a (20) and Hector (26) explain that the official requirement for pilgrims is to start their trip at a minimum of 100 kilometres from Santiago. Travelers are free to cover the distance by foot, by bike or on a horse. Once arrived in Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims are supposed to attend mass in the cathedral, confess their sins to a priest and touch the Saint James statue. Since pilgrims in the old days used to smell quite bad when they arrived, the cathedral installed the Botafumeiros, a device that is still in service today. The Botafumeiros spreads the smell of incense so regular attendants of mass are not be bothered by smelly arriving pilgrims.
Pilgrims can freely choose a starting points along one of the routes extending to the far extremes of Europe. Most of these routes meet at the southwest side of the Pyrenees. Some pilgrims choose to start walking from home, some select another point of departure or cut the walk into several stages. The road itself has no interest in individual motives. It is accessible everybody who feels like using it.
Although the origin of the pilgrimage is religious, many people now undertake the trip for reasons that would be qualified as spiritual more than religious. According to Marga (27), the Camino is a perfect way for people to get to know themselves better, get to know other people with different origins and to teach themselves the virtues of humbleness and sacrifice.
For those who have the energy to look around themselves, the landscape changes between the Pyrenees and Santiago are quite dramatic. Starting with mountains but mainly walking downhill, followed by green flatlands and than up and down again for the final stages of the Camino. Pilgrims rest in Alberguis, hostels, many of which are for free. The most exciting one is supposed to be Monte do Gozo. It is 15 kilometres away from Santiago and people who make it to there know that they will make if to the end. There is not as much tourism as in Santiago, which makes Monte do Gozo a good place to have a walkers-only party.
Meeting the pilgrims
In the centre of Santiago, it is not very difficult to distinguish between regular tourists and arriving Caminandos. People having completed the Camino look tired and sweaty, usually wear sports clothes, a backpack and walking sticks. November is by no means part of the high season, but even today, I regularly walk into people who have reached the end of a long trip.
Xavier (34) and Jordi (44, both in photo) arrived in Santiago by bike. They cycled 487 kilometers in the past seven days to get from their starting point Ereixa to Santiago. No religious motives were involved in the trip. The two friends picked Santiago as a destination because Xavier had never been to Gal?cia before and because they like cycling. Both praise the friendliness of people they met along the way
Kristina (46) from Sweden took a few months off work to walk the Camino. She shows me the stamps that she collected upon passing the different posts on the way. Some are issued by churches, others by hostels or even local police stations. Her route was not the conventional one, as she started in Madrid. She walked the way in three stages, her main motive being boredom with her previous job as a journalist.
Kristina was expecting to gain deeper insights during the trip but did not really find those. Her main concerns during the walk were to find a place to sleep for the night and to have enough food and drink. Apart from that, she found surprisingly little time to spend on reflection. She did however experience the walk as an enriching experience. She is tired, but satisfied with the achievement.
Michelle (25) and Anna (26), both from Australia, arrive in Santiago after today`s walking stage of 18 kilometers. They started their trip in Roncesvalles, and have covered a distance of well over 700 km to arrive in Santiago. Their personal was to celebrate their friendship and enjoy each other`s company. As it shows from their faces, they had a good time, but are just as happy to have reached the end of their journey.
Pilgrims who have a proof of completing more than 100 kilometres of pilgrimage can obtain a certificate at the pilgrim`s office in the city centre. For those who have not yet purchased or manufactured a walking stick on the way can obtain one in the souvenir shops. T-shirts come in all designs and sizes and, besides a spiritual journey, the Camino is also good business. Even budget companies see opportunities in Santiago. For those with sore feet: Ryanair will fly you to and from Santiago at bargain rates.
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