What is it?
This route is a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain – in the region of Galicia, to be precise. Tradition states that this is where the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried (James the Greater, not James the Lesser). Reality kicks in once it is realized that the tradition didn’t start until the 9th century – dude died (via head chopped off) way back in 44AD…
While there are several traditional routes, pilgrims can to start the pilgrimage anywhere. The only restriction is that to obtain the Compostela (certificate of completion in Latin! Yes, I’m a nerd…), the last 100 km before Santiago for walkers (200 km for cyclists) must be documented.
How did the pilgrimage come to be?
After James lost his head, believers say that his body was put into a boat which was guided by angels beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar) and it landed near Finisterre, Spain. His body was then transported by locals to Padrón where he was buried. And then forgotten about. In the 9th century, a hermit had a vision (it was either a star or a field of stars) and it led him to poor neglected James. The local bishop confirmed the remains to be James, one of the original Twelve.
News spread quickly (well, quickly for the medieval times, anyway) and soon Santiago de Compostela became a place of pilgrimage with people coming from across Western Europe. In 1139, the first pilgrim guidebook was written. It was Book V of the Calixtine Codex (attributed to Pope Calixtus II). It outlined the route from Roncesvalles to Santiago and it listed the facilities available to pilgrims. The 12th century turned out to be the heyday of the route. For various reasons (like disease, political unrest, and wars), its popularity waned over the years but it was never totally forgotten. The past few decades have seen an increase in its popularity again.
Who is a true pilgrim?
Some people think a real pilgrim is a mendicant. Others say a true pilgrim carries his stuff for every single step of the way and only stays at cheap/free lodgings. Yet others say that you must walk the whole thing and take no forms of transportation. I say, what a load of prideful, arrogant BS!
When you examine the original pilgrims, the ones who started this whole thing, you will note that they ran the whole gamut: mendicants to merchants to Kings and Queens. And no one who could afford it, especially royalty, carried their own stuff and nor did they walk the whole way on their two feet! Would you really expect to have seen Lord So-and-So to shoulder a pack and walk for months on end when he had a perfectly good horse or a wagon in which to ride? Especially when the Way was fraught with dangers ranging from bandits to dirty commoners? If you thought that the Camino was the great equalizer, bringing Seigneur X to hobnob with the pig boy, sorry to burst your bubble. Pig Boy slept outside or on year-old straw or even with his left-behind charges’ relatives. Those who had the status and the money, slept and ate at the monastery and fancy inns.
In my opinion, a pilgrim is simply one who does a pilgrimage, however they choose to do so. And a pilgrimage is:
1. A journey to a sacred place or shrine; OR,
2. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.
How you choose to define sacredness or morality, that’s your business. As for me, I’m doing a journey to a sacred place. Please note that the definition does NOT say that I must believe that the place is sacred. Quite frankly, I don’t believe that St. James is at Santiago. But I freely admit, I could be wrong. Maybe.
So why am I doing a pilgrimage? Many reasons: because it’s there, the amazing photo opportunities, the adventure, to be outside, to be part of something historical, to contemplate life… It’s just bonus that I get to escape work as well!
Medieval vs Modern Pilgrim
So how do I differ from the medieval pilgrim? Well, for one, bathing every day is a high priority for me, as is brushing my teeth and washing my clothes. The other main difference is that I will be taking full advantage of modern conveniences and will not be walking home. Yes, that’s right – old time pilgrims didn’t have that luxury – no matter who they were or how much money they had, reaching Santiago was only half of their journey.
The Way can take one of any number of routes to Santiago de Compostela. In the past, the pilgrimage began at your home and ended at the pilgrimage site. Today, most people are not willing to walk that far if they don’t live relatively near the route. As for me, I am not walking from Canada to Spain.
The route I will be walking is the Camino Frances. I start in St. Jean Pied de Port (SJPDP) – it is a town on the French side of the Pyrenees. I then cross the mountains into Roncevalles, where the trail will take me through 4 major cities: Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, and Santiago. SJPDP to Santiago is about 800km. According to Google, it would take someone 8 hours to drive. I plan to walk it in 36 days, reaching Santiago on May 26. I’ve built in a few rest days into my schedule which would allow me to sightsee in the bigger towns/cities (but I may end up having to use them to nurse a body that will hate me after day one).
Finisterre / Fisterra
Many pilgrims continue past Santiago de Compostela to finish their journeys at Cape Finisterre, also known as Fisterra. The name means “end of the world” or “Land’s End” since people used to think it was exactly that. Sometimes I wonder how humanity has survived as long as it has…
The walk to Fisterra is 3-4 days of walking past Santiago, an additional 89 km. There is a lighthouse on the coast where it is tradition to burn something, preferably an article of clothing. It is my goal to end my walk here.
No, I’m not walking back to Santiago. Buses can be wonderful things.
- The Camino de Santiago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- While the most popular method is on foot, you can do the Camino by bike or by horse. You can even use a donkey to carry your stuff, if you’d like.
- Saint James is the Patron Saint of Spain. Tradition states that he appeared to fight for the Christian army during the Battle of Clavijo in 844 AD. This earned him the refined and peaceable name of “Matamoros” or Moor-slayer.
- From Roncevalles, the Way passes through five regions and 166 towns or villages. It also includes over 1,800 buildings of historic interest.
- Medieval pilgrims walked in order to receive a plenary indulgence which absolves them from the temporal punishment (suffering that occurs either in this life or in purgatory) due because of their sins.