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El Camino de Santiago de Compostela


Pilgrimages are walking zen; step by step the practitioner makes his or her way through blue sky temples and white cloud monasteries. Conducted in the traditional manner – on foot, in old-fashioned garb, carrying no money, accepting whatever comes – pilgrimages are among the most demanding, and therefore most rewarding, of all religious disciplines. (Martin Roth & John Steven, p. 108, 1985)

1. My pilgrim curriculum vitae
I have always enjoyed walking – especially repetitive long-distance walking. I became interested in the Camino de Santiago de Compostela some 14 years ago. I read some articles on the Camino, there was a documentary on television that excited me, and I met two pilgrims who had recently returned from Santiago de Compostela, Spain who spoke about their experiences. My wife and I became members of the Confraternity of St James and attended an open day and listened and learned from knowledgeable speakers and mingled with experienced and budding pilgrims. We decided to become pilgrims and pored over maps of France and Spain and chose Le Puy-en-Velay, France as our starting point. We negotiated extended leave, purchased our equipment: rucksacks, sleeping bags, guidebooks, and made our way to Le Puy-en-Velay. We attended Holy Mass in the cathedral, and the kindly bishop sent us on our way with his blessing and gifts. That was a memorable moment.

I have a stirring that leads me to want to walk in the footsteps of earlier pilgrims and directly experience holy places. No matter how weak and far from the Christian religion I may feel before going on pilgrimage – during the time on the road I’m changing and experience lightness and freedom despite the hardships and on-going uncertainties (the availability of nice nutritious vegetarian food is high on my list of on-going uncertainties), and the monotonous routine of repetitive long-distance walking and daily chores. I explore new horizons. I’m in contact with God.

2000, The cathedral of Le Puy-en-Velay, France to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to finish at the Faro de Finisterre. The route GR65 (Grande Randonee) passed through Conques, Figeac, Cahors and Moissac before reaching St Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and in Spain through Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Puente la Reina, Estella, Logrono, Burgos, Leon, Astorga, Ponferrada and Sarria before it reached the City of the Apostle James.

2002, Winchester cathedral, Hampshire, England to Le Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France. The route passed through Portsmouth and by ferry to Cherbourg, Barfleur, the Normandy coast, to Saint-Mere-Egise, and Genets on the north shore of the bay that was crossed with a guide to the iconic Le Mont Saint-Michel.
In the Middle Ages Barfleur was one of the chief ports of embarkation for England.
1066 – A large medallion fixed to a rock in the harbour marks the Norman departure from Barfleur before the Battle of Hastings.
1120 – The White Ship, carrying Prince William, only legitimate son of Henry I of England, went down outside the harbour.
1194 – Richard I of England departed from Barfleur on return to England following his captivity by Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor.
6 June 1944 – Normandy Landings

2005, Saint Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose Abbey to Lindisfarne (Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland.

2007, Camino Portugues from the cathedral of Porto, Portugal to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

2008, Le via Francigena to Rome, Italy. I began from my home in north London and walked to Trafalgar Square to link with St Martin-in-the-Fields’annual pilgrimage to Canterbury cathedral and continued to Dover and by ferry to Calais and crossed: France, Switzerland (followed the north shore of Lac Leman) to arrive at the Great Saint Bernard pass and crossed into Italy and continued through Aosta to Rome to finish at the Basilica of St Peter.

2010, Cami de Llevant runs from the cathedral of Valencia via Albacete, Toledo, Avila, Toro, Zamora, Ourense to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to finish at the Faro de Finisterre, once again.

2011, I returned to Rome, Italy and reached Bari, Italy.

I plan to complete my pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2012 to follow my revised route: Durres, Albania following the ancient Roman road the via Egnatia via Macedonia, Greece to reach Tekirdag, Turkey to bypass Istanbul. From Tekirdag cross the Sea of Marmara by ferry to Bandirma. My route follows the coast and island hops: Samos, Patmos, Kos, Rhodes, Cyprus. From the Republic of Cyprus it’s either by sea or air to Israel and that will determine my route in Israel (either from Haifa or Tel Aviv) to reach Jerusalem, my destination.

2. History
The account of St James in Galicia reads like a fable. Soon after Jesus’ crucifixion, St James sailed to Galicia and commenced his ministry amongst the people of the Celtic and Iberian Peninsula tribes. (Of course, there is no evidence to support any of this.) He later returned to the Holy Land, and was captured and beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in 44AD. After his martyrdom, St James’ body was taken to the coast and placed in a glass boat which guided by angels carried by the wind beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) to land near Finisterre, at Padron, in north-western Spain. The local Queen, Lupa, provided a team of oxen to draw the body from Padron to the site of a marble tomb that she provided. According to legend, St James was buried there with two of his disciples. And there they lay, forgotten until the 9th century.

Early that century, Pelagius, a hermit lived in that part of Galicia, and had a vision in which he saw a star or a field of stars that led him to an ancient tomb that contained three bodies. He reported this to the local bishop, Theodomir, who declared the remains to be those of St James and his two followers, and in turn reported the find to the King of Asturias, Alphonso II, who forthwith declared St James to be the patron saint of Spain, or of what would eventually be Spain.

A village named Campus de Ia Stella (Field of Stars) and a monastery were established on the site. (Or possibly the Roman word for cemetery, "componere": to bury, is the source.) In any event, news of the discovery spread and a trickle of pilgrims began to arrive. Miracles were attributed to the site, and the miracles encouraged pilgrimage and pilgrimage elicited more miracles. Archbishop Gelmirez of Galicia and the cathedral authorities actively promoted Santiago as a pilgrimage destination, as did the monks of the Abbey of Cluny in France who supported the Spanish Church in its struggle against the Moors on the Peninsula.

There is some historical support for aspects of the story and, on the other hand, there are complications and contradictions. The 1884 Bull of Pope Leo XIII Omnipotens Deus accepted the authenticity of the relics at Compostela, whereas the Vatican remains uncommitted, while continuing to promote the more general benefits of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It is impossible to know whose bones were actually found, and precisely when and how. (But the same can be said about other relics, and perhaps it does not matter.)

The earliest records of visits to the shrine of St James date from the 8th century. This became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage; and the custom of those who carried back with them from Galicia scallop shells as proof of their journey gradually extended to other forms of pilgrimage; for example, the palm of Jericho symbol was the most well recognised pilgrim badge travellers brought back from their journey to Jerusalem. Across France and Spain the pilgrimage routes led from shrine to shrine, just as a caravan route leads from oasis to oasis.

Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela reached its peak during the Middle Ages and constituted a major cultural aspect of that period of history in Europe. By the 12th and 13th centuries, half a million pilgrims made their way to and across northern Spain and back each year. It is likely that many were directed to undertake these journeys as a form of penance by their priests, acting as God’s intermediary.

Thus began the millennium-long relationship between the holy, political, and commercial. An infrastructure developed to support pilgrims and, not coincidentally, to gain profit from them. Roads and bridges were built to draw pilgrims to certain cities and they prospered. Pilgrim hospitals and hospices were chartered by religious orders, and kings and queens. All manner of businesses were established to support pilgrims. The Knights Templar patrolled the Camino, providing protection, places of hospitality, healing and worship, as well as a banking system that became one source of their fabled wealth. Cultures mixed, languages merged and history was affected by these developments.

After its peak, the phenomenon of pilgrimage to Santiago tapered off, and politics, disease, religious, and technological advances were among the likely causes for the decline in pilgrim numbers.

3. The mystery of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela
A history of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (City of the Apostle) could ask how the Galician cult of St James morphed into an international one attracting thousands of pilgrims from distant parts of the world. The answer may be lie in the approach taken by church, political, and commercial Galician authorities, as in earlier times. These authorities recognise the value of pilgrims to the economy of that autonomous community.

The answer may be also found in modern day pilgrim behaviour. For example, what is the passion that drives pilgrims to Santiago? Many return time and time again despite the hardships, deprivations, illnesses, costs that many can ill afford, and often increase the distances of their journeys. On their arrival at the cathedral, pilgrims embrace the statue of St James, and lavish him with hugs, kisses, caresses. Under the main altar of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, inside a silver urn, is the Tomb of St James. It is allegedly where his mortal remains, together with those of his disciples St Athanasius and St Theodore, rest in peace, and where modern day people sit and pray.

4. The routes

A map of European routes arriving at Santiago de Compostela.

The route known as the Camino de Santiago is not a single route. There are any number of routes to reach Santiago de Compostela. Today thousands of pilgrims each year set out from their homes, or from popular starting points across Europe. The most popular route is the Camino Frances on which most pilgrims start from either Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees or from Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. Much of the route described in a 900-year old guidebook is still in use today. It is a route that writer James A. Michener calls "the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world." He did it three times and mentions passing "through landscapes of exquisite beauty."

5. The Modern Camino
The decline in church attendance coincides with a marked increase in pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago. Over a period of 25 years pilgrims numbers have increased from 690 in 1985 to 200,000 in 2010 (estimate). Modern-day pilgrims walk for days, weeks or months to reach the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. A few travel on horseback; and many by bicycle. In addition to people on a religious pilgrimage there are those who walk for non-religious reasons such as for enjoyment, travel, sport or the challenge of walking in a foreign land. The Camino brings back the critical elements we have lost as we have moved further and further away from more primitive conditions and are as follows: engaging activity (reducing excessive mental rumination); physical exercise; sunlight exposure (Vitamin D supplementation); social support (avoiding isolation); proper sleep.

The modern Camino fundamentally remains the same as it was for medieval pilgrims. It is a repetitive long distance walk, and at the end of the day, to maintain a healthy body and mind, pilgrims require a comfortable bed, a shower, a toilet, nice nutritious food and thirst quenching drinks, facilities to wash their clothes. The infrastructure is growing and are operated by religious orders, but more commonly by municipalities or associations while others are private businesses. Typical are albergues with bunk beds in dormitories and communal shower and toilet facilities. Of course, pilgrims have access to other types of accommodation.

The pilgrim carries a credential which is stamped daily and serves as proof that the route has indeed been walked or cycled. When registering at an albergue, their credential verifies that they are genuine pilgrims. In addition, upon reaching Santiago de Compostela, at the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos, pilgrims present the credential to confirm having walked the prescribed distance as walkers or cyclists (the last, westernmost 100-km for walkers or 200-km for cyclists), whereupon they are issued a certificate that certifies their pilgrimage.

What is it that binds pilgrims together on the Camino de Santiago? The Camino de Santiago is a community of spirit among pilgrims, a peace brought by the simplicity of that life, and a common goal, that binds us together. The Camino, with its winding roads and footpaths, offers respite from the business of modern existence. It provides an opportunity to reappraise our direction, and helps us shift to a more evolved state.

The Camino allows time away from the familiar and habitual so that new insights can be revealed. A wider perspective opens up, where we begin to realise who we are and what we came here to do. Each day is lived in the simplicity of the Way where we travel at a more natural pace. This allows time to witness the rising sun, the landscape that surrounds us with its array of fauna and flora. We proceed towards the welcome that awaits us at the day’s end where the hospitalero (a term from which we get the word hospitality) of the next albergue greets us.

Mindful walking is a form of meditation that reminds us of the divinity within ourselves and all life. The passing landscape of Spain reminds us of that spirituality that connects us, irrespective of our differing religions and philosophies. We find ourselves in the company of like-minded community of nomadic people. The Camino de Santiago transcends our differences to unite us in an eclectic bond of openness and shared values.

Many pilgrims’ stories contain a hint of let-down or anticlimactic feelings at the end of the journey. It’s hard to return home without being a changed person. You return to your regular life, and struggle to re-integrate into your previous daily routine. Some manage to after a short while, whilst others make radical and drastic life changes. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela redefines ourselves by pushing our limits, challenging our beliefs, and learning about ourselves.

6. Comfort
Every now and then, I will speak of my pilgrimage experiences. And, some are impressed and spellbound, and others will quickly and predictably state that such journeys are beyond them and that they need their "comfort". A little probing will reveal that a major concern is with bed hygiene. They focus on dormitory accommodation and that beds are occupied 365 days per year by a different person: young or old, male or female, unwell or well, white or black or some other shade, and that causes repulsive shudders to reverberate. However, when I stop to ask how that is different for hotel accommodation. Some are visibly shocked when they realise that the realm of starched sheets and fluffy towels hides the reality of bed occupation by total strangers from all walks of life and with all kinds of potential infectious risks. Both situations are liable to health risks. This was minimised on the camino by the issuing of packaged bedding: single use sheets and pillowcase that are binned and properly disposed off on departure. And that’s an excellent remedy.

7. Equipment
I’m repeatedly asked for equipment advise by pilgrims. My advise is simple: think ultra-light-weight and pack only what you will definitely need en route. It is important to be open to technological advances in shoes, tents, rucksacks, mattresses, sleeping bags, and the list goes on. Give some thought to your actual capacity need of the rucksack. There is no point buying one that’s too small or too large or too heavy. Think ultra-light-weight. Compare. Discuss. Search online.

For example, the sturdy leather boot has had its day and is readily replaced with trail running shoes. (I know, I know that view is not universally accepted, and ankle support is immediately raised as essential, and that’s a myth!) My point is this, your shoes will significantly determine your well-being (or otherwise) en route. You will engage in long-distance repetitive walking and for that it’s essential to wear the best fitting, ultra-light-weight and most appropriate footwear to engender a feeling of deep comfort. Your shoes must ideally feel like your favourite slippers. I want to emphasise that our feet are unique to each of us and change size and shape during the course of our lives and have special needs for long-distance repetitive walking.

Your budget should be sufficient to cover the cost of: 1) ultra-light-weight trail running shoes or similar; 2) podiatrist’s fees to assess and possibly treat your feet; 3) orthotic inserts if indicated; 4) suitable socks; and 5) lotions to maintain your feet fresh and healthy.

The enjoyment of comfortable and trouble-free long-distance repetitive walking is priceless. If you rip off your shoes at every available opportunity and seek remedies en route you had not given due care to selecting and preparing your feet and footwear – so select your shoes with extreme care. This advise applies equally to all your pilgrimage equipment needs. Travel well!

8. ‘The Way’ (2010)
The film “The Way,” written and directed by Emilio Estevez and filmed in Spain and France along the actual Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Runtime: 128 minutes; Starring: Martin Sheen, James Nesbitt, Deborah Unger and Yorick van Wageningen.

YouTube hyperlink: 

English with Czech subtitles.

© 2012 Alfred L. C. van Amelsvoort Ph.D


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