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El Camino de Santiago de Compostela

06/10/2015
  • El Camino: Spanish name for ‘the way,’ ‘the path,’ ‘the trail,’ ‘the route’ and ‘the road.’
  • Santiago: Spanish name for ‘St James,’ son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. You might turn to the New Testament for information about St James.
  • de Compostela: 1. Spanish name for field of stars from ‘campo and stella;’ and 2. Latin name for burial ground from ‘Composita Tella’).

The modern Camino fundamentally remains the same as it was for those brave medieval pilgrims. A pilgrim requires a great deal of humour, some common sense and a spirit of recklessness that’s lost to today’s travellers in search of comfort.

The account of St James in Galicia reads like a fable. Soon after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, St James sailed to Galicia and commenced his ministry amongst the people of the Celtic and Iberian Peninsula tribes. (However, there is apparently no evidence to support any of this.) St James later returned to the Holy Land, and was captured and beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in 44 CE. After his martyrdom, St James’ body was taken to the coast and placed in a glass boat guided by angels and 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 his two disciples: St Athanasius and St Theodore. And there they lay, forgotten until the 9th century.

Sometime early in the 9th century, Pelagius, a hermit who lived in that part of Galicia, 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 his find to bishop Theodomir, who declared the remains to be those of St James and his two disciples, and reported the find to the King of Asturias, Alphonso II, who forthwith declared St James to be the patron saint of Spain, or what would eventually be Spain.

According to a later tradition St James miraculously appeared to fight for the Christian army during the legendary battle of Clavijo on 23 May 844, and was henceforth called Matamoros (Moor-slayer). Santiago y cierra, España! (“St James and strike for Spain”) was the traditional battle cry of medieval Spanish (Christian) armies. Miguel de Cervantes has Don Quixote explain that “the great knight of the russet cross was given by God to Spain as patron and protector.” Yet there are academic spoilsports who claim that the battle of Clavijo is a fictional account.

Anyway a village and a monastery were established on the site, and 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 that elicited more miracles. Archbishop Gelmirez of Galicia and the cathedral authorities actively promoted Santiago de Compostela 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 Iberian Peninsula.

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 returning from Galicia with scallop shells as proof of their journey extended to other pilgrimages; for example, the palm of Jericho symbol was the recognised pilgrim badge travellers brought back from their journey to Jerusalem.

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.

The route known as El Camino de Santiago de Compostela is not a single route. There are any number of routes to reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims set out from starting points across Europe and further afield such as Australia.

At this point you may be wondering when I’m going to talk about my Camino experience. Well, I’m not! I would like you to experience El Camino. I would like you to walk to Santiago de Compostela and then speak of your own experiences to this meeting as a member of this group.

You might ask what stirs the passion that drives pilgrims to walk to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela? Pilgrims return to El Camino despite the hardships, deprivations, illnesses, costs. Pilgrims can be seen embracing the statue of St James at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Under the main altar, 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.

In 2014, 237,886 pilgrims (walkers and bicyclists) were eligible to receive the compostela (a certificate of accomplishment) given at the Pilgrim’s Office.
The joys of walking the Camino

  • El Camino Francés extends across  two mountain ranges, vast plains and a huge variety of countryside in between. 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.” I agree!
  • El Camino Francés passes through orchards and vineyards, along the occasional highway, takes you into hamlets, villages, towns and through the cities of Pamplona, Burgos, Leon to reach the city of Santiago de Compostela.
  • If you’re interested in glorious scenery, palaces (Gaudi’s episcopal palace in Astorga), holy places (the magnificent cathedral in Burgos), Spanish history (Leon’s monastery of San Marcos), contemporary Spanish life (good times and good food), you’ll find it on the Camino — and all that is before you’ve reached Santiago de Compostela and its majestic cathedral.
  • Albergues or refugios are cheap and gratis in Galicia. There are also small hotels and pensiones in most villages and towns — at about every 10km or so.
  • So, there is sensational scenery, great exercise, dazzling attractions, cheap places to stay and wonderful food (most restaurants and bars do a pilgrim menu), but none of this is the real reason for walking El Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
  • El Camino’s ancient heritage has a spiritual dimension to it, and for many pilgrims it is a quest of some kind or other: undertaken to ask, and hopefully answer, important questions about themselves. Of course, there are as many questions as there are pilgrims: about their lives, loves, faith, jobs, relationships or even the meaning of their existence.
  • Most pilgrims are open to conversations that quickly become as intimate as you want them to be. And it is this essential connection with others on the same path, with the same goal, the same human concerns, that makes El Camino what it is.
  • Pilgrims on the Way are free from the all-intrusive mass media and that presents a unique opportunity to re-assess, to reflect and decide what you ultimately want to do with your life. The experience of being free from the mass media is analogous to entering the peace, quite, calm and tranquillity of a Buddhist monastery. 
  • Pilgrims learn that we’re all capable of far more than we ever think is possible.
  • I cannot begin to describe the number and qualities of all those pilgrims I’ve met along the Way, many of whom have become my friends.

The most popular route is the Camino Francés, and much of the route described, in a 900-year old guidebook, is still in use today. El Camino Francés starts from either Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees or from Roncesvalles on the Spanish side or from some point along the way further afield, it’s entirely up to you, the pilgrim, from where you start.

The saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Really, that’s not true. It never was true as every journey begins with a plan. Thus you can think of the ‘single step’ as the plan to prepare for your journey: fitness, information, documents, money, communication, insurance, equipment, clothing.

I would like you to:

  • Look up the Confraternity of St James website for information.
  • Learn some Spanish.
  • Buy ultra-light-weight, high-technology: shoes, rucksack, clothing, sleeping bag, and so on. Travel ultra light! (Don’t be trapped by out-dated obsolete opinions.)
  • Buy the Camino Francés guidebook for £7.00. The book is updated annually and re-issued each January by the Confraternity of St James. 
  • Buy the credential online and, before you leave for Europe, have it stamped at St James Old Cathedral, corner of King Street and Batman Street, Melbourne.
  • Follow a fitness regime to prepare for walking El Camino.
  • Remember to take a scallop shell (the symbol of St James) and a smallish stone from your home.
  • Then, follow the yellow arrows. That’s all there’s to it to reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

I invite questions framed in a way that you are seriously thinking of walking to Santiago de Compostela.

This page is work in progress. Updated 12 December 2015

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