[Camino] [Journey] [Pyranees] [La Rioja] [Meseta] [Mountains of Leon] [Galicia & Santiago]

The concept of pilgrimage, a journey to visit a holy place, is something that is integral to all world religions. The Hindu pilgrimage to Barnaras and the Islam pilgrimage to Mecca are focal points of the lives of the adherents of those faiths. Judaism too has a long history of pilgrimage to the Temple at Jerusalem, going back to the days of the Old Testament. For Christianity, arguably the first group of pilgrims were the shepherds of Bethlehem who attended the stable, though it was the second group, the Magi, who provided the clearest statement of the pilgrim's mission: "we have come to worship Him"

The earliest sites to assume importance for Christian pilgrims were the Holy Land and Rome and their significance need no elaboration. Pilgrimage remains central to the Church up to the present day and the great Marian shrines at Lourdes and Fatima attract huge numbers. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela however, still retains a unique status even amongst this select company. That is because it places the emphasis on the journey, not the destination. For the Santiago pilgrim, the essence of the experience is as much to travel as to arrive - in the words of the Shinto poet Matsuo Bash§, "every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home".


The story of Santiago de Compostela begins with the apostle James who undertook missionary activity in the Iberian peninsular, now North West Spain. After his martyrdom in Jerusalem his body was believed to have been transported back to Spain in a stone boat for burial, but the site of his grave became lost in the following centuries. Then,  in the ninth century, his remains were reputedly rediscovered in a field in by a monk who had been guided by a star. A church was built to secure the sacred bones and the town that grew up around it was called Santiago de Compostela (St James of the Field of the Star). The discovery proved an immense boost to the morale of the Spanish Christians who were engaged in a war against the Moors and was a key element in their eventual victory. The reputation of the relics thus established, people from throughout Europe flocked to the site. The symbol of the pilgrim became the scallop shell, something that arose from the story of how a horse and rider plunged into the sea when the body of the apostle first arrived in Spain; miraculous intervention saved the rider's life and as he emerged from the sea he was seen to be  covered in scallop shells which fell away as he rode off into the distance.

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In the early days, people would approach Santiago by whichever way they could, but then a guide book believed to be written by a French priest, Aimery Picard helped to establish a particular route crossing the Pyrenees and running parallel to the North coast of Spain as the most important of all and as being integral to the Pilgrimage itself. This road was known as the Camino FrancÚs (The French Way) and survives largely intact to this day. This road is some 500 miles in length though there are alternative starting points in France such as Le Puy or even Paris which make the journey considerably longer.  


The great age for the pilgrimage was the twelfth century when the Camino was believed to have carried between half a million and two million pilgrims a year. While pilgrimage ceased to exert the same importance following the Reformation, the Camino never died and ever since has been used by Pilgrims, travelling the entire route propelled only by their own motive power. To bring the story up-to-date, the last decade has seen a surge in awareness on the Camino, particularly in Continental Europe and Latin America and this has resulted in vastly increased traffic of people travelling the route. They come in all ages, and from sections of society, often without fixed religious conviction and motivated by wide variety of forces, though there is little doubt that a desire to escape the banality and venality of the modern world is a central theme. They walk or cycle, stay in basic refuges and commit themselves to a journey that may take up to three months. They find a road that passes through a breathtaking variety of landscapes, including the mountains of the Pyrenees , the stark Castilian meseta and the green hills of Galicia . They can experience the beautiful simplicity of the ancient Romanesque pilgrim churches that line the route as well as the magnificence of the great Gothic cathedrals of Burgos and Leˇn.

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In addition to the physical character of the route, there is a vital spiritual dimension that arises from the knowledge that the Camino itself is akin to sacred ground. The sign of the scallop shell which recurs in numerous forms throughout the road and the many religious services available for pilgrims all serve to remind even the most casual traveller of the historic purpose and importance of the path. In essence they are reaching out and almost touching the sprit of the middle ages - an age of faith - by walking a road and finding themselves in country and circumstances that could have been recognised by Aimery Picard himself. They will share a common cause with fellow pilgrims, will experience both solitude and companionship, and  many cheerful evenings in a local bar. These factors combine to make the journey along the Camino a hugely rewarding experience.

Sadly, the approach through the modern suburbs to the city of Santiago de Compostela itself is something of an anti-climax; but on arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago the magic is rekindled. Here is a truly living Cathedral, one where long-term pilgrims are reunited and are joined by thousands of others who have arrived by more modern means. A mid-day Pilgrim Mass is celebrated in the Cathedral each day and is are hugely attended. Additionally, the massive thurible known as the Butofumeiro is swung on most occasions. This amazing object, which hangs by a rope almost the full height of the cathedral, is propelled virtually up to the ceiling by a team of six altar servers. Its purpose in ancient times was to fumigate the pilgrims staying in the galleries but is now it is used primarily for spectacular effect. This provides an unforgettable climax to the Santiago pilgrimage.



There are many sites which offer more detail: I would recommend two, not least for their comprehensive list of onward links-

The Confraternity of St James

The pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela in pictures

Camino links

A book I would suggest as a general introduction is:

Conrad Rudolph: Journey to the End of the World . ISBN 0226731278


This web provides a brief introduction to the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, including a summary of my personal journey.

I am afraid though, it offers only a little of the true spirit of the Camino; Nietzsche once said  'That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts' and this truth acts as a constraint on anyone seeking to present a record of what is essentially, a personal experience .

The nearest I can come is to share a memory of the conclusion of a meal at Portomarin when an Irish Pilgrim treated us to a rendition of a folk song called 'Bread and  Fishes'. It is a spiritually inspired evocation of country life; its gentle lyricism and its easy melody combined with the shadow of the ancient church, the dying light of the day and, no doubt, the effect of the wine, all served to encapsulate many of the happiest aspects of the Camino: walking, nature, memorable encounters, shared meals, simple food, good wine, and spirituality. The lyrics were:

As I went a walking one morning in spring
I met with some travellers on an old country lane
One was an old man, the second a maid
The third was a young boy who smiled as he said

    "With the wind in the willows and the birds in the sky
    There's a bright sun to warm us wherever we lie
    We have bread and fishes and a jug of red wine
    To share on our journey with all of mankind".

So I sat down beside them with flowers all around
We eat from a mantle spread out on the ground
They told me of prophets and people and kings
And of the one true God that knows everything.


So sadly I left them on that old country lane
I know that I never shall see them again
One was an old man, the second a maid
The third was a young boy who smiled as he said...

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