1,000 years on the Pilgrims’ Way
For more than a thousand years,
pilgrims have been making their way to the Shrine of St James in
north-western Spain along well-established routes that criss-cross
Europe. Although my husband and I had often thought about
walking the Camino de Santiago, the Pilgrims’ Road to that
shrine, we didn’t do so until last October. Twelve years
previously, we had covered some of the route by car. What whet
our appetites at that time was our experience at the Saint James
Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
Within the cathedral that day, as the organ resounded, people from many countries gathered in front of the altar’s golden relic of Santiago. Eventually, six red-robed acolytes moved forward, propelling a huge, silver censer (the famed Botafumeiro) toward a large pulley. Within minutes, coals alight in the censer, ropes were pulled, raising it high above the altar. As the censer swung more and more widely, flames and incense billowing, the priest welcomed pilgrims in several languages then delivered his message of peace.
That moving experience remained with us when we signed up for a walking tour. In a small group, ages 30 to 70, we would trek less strenuously and far more comfortably than traditional pilgrims, with a van to carry luggage and to pick us up after each day’s walk. Instead of spartan refugios (travellers’ hostels), we would have rooms in historic inns and renovated monasteries.
After a day in Bilbao, we joined up with the group and bussed to Burgos, home to Spain’s national hero, El Cid. From Burgos onward, signs along the Camino made us aware of centuries of pilgrimage. In medieval times some pilgrims were undergoing the journey as penance for sins, others to escape punishment. The sign of this serious pilgrim was his dress; a short cloak for ease of walking, a cape and wide-brimmed hat as protection from rain and heat. On the hat or cape, the pilgrim badge (a scallop shell) represented the traditional insignia of St James. Carrying a staff, an attached gourd for water and a deerskin pouch for necessities, the pilgrim traveled the long hard road to Compostela.
All along the Camino today, these pilgrim signs continue, though in slightly different forms; a walking stick for coping with uneven ground (no longer to keep off wolves or robbers); a hat (not necessarily wide-brimmed); walking shoes or runners (hardier than medieval footwear); a rucksack for carrying essentials such as a water bottle and sun cream.
At Burgos, founded 1,100 years ago as a stronghold against the Moorish infidel, many pilgrims congregated from all parts of Europe. As their numbers grew so did the number of churches, monasteries, hospital facilities and inns to assist pilgrims, walled fortresses and monuments. Art and architecture (Romanesque to Gothic) became signposts for pilgrims struggling along their route to salvation. These religious and cultural signs continue to mark today’s Pilgrims’ Way.
In Burgos we were stunned by a spectacular view of the gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria directly in front of our 15th century inn. Like pilgrims before us we appreciated the cathedral’s many statues, paintings and relics; walked through the 14th century archway of Santa Maria and savoured the 15th century Cartuja de Miraflores with its magnificently carved reredos.
Leaving Burgos, our van headed for the starting point of our walk; the Castillian meseta, or high plain. Gathering our gear together, we noticed, next to the path, a stylized yellow shell sign, its star-rays pointing the way along the Camino. We would see this symbol in simpler form all along the route. Many a yellow scallop shell and yellow arrow painted on rocks directed us along winding paths through the countryside. Sometimes a red, dagger-like cross, symbol of St James, surfaced. Later, we would see this sign on the delicious tarta de almendras de Santiago, an almond sweet cake produced for generations by nuns.
The first village we passed through was ancient Hontanas with its single street, crumbling adobe houses and friendly people. Beyond the village, following the arrow and shell signs, we carried on through the golden Castillian landscape to our first picnic site – the ruins of the Gothic Convent of St Anthony. There were a few tables and present-day pilgrims bandaging their blisters. In contrast to their basic pilgrim fare, we picnicked on fresh bread, cheese, ham, artichokes, gazpacho, avocados, white asparagus, fruit and bottles of local wine.
After lunch, emerging from the convent, we passed sand-coloured fortresses and towers on distant hills. After our first day’s walk, we arrived in the 11th century town of Carrion de Los Condes, once home to the villainous counts who married and mistreated El Cid’s daughters. At the edge of the town but right on the Camino, we stopped for the night at the restored San Zoilo Monastery, in front of which stands an abstract figure of a pilgrim, who would never have found refuge in such splendid accommodation !
Our walks on the following days along rural roads and cow paths, afforded pleasant treks through tiny villages and undulating, sometimes stark Spanish countryside. Passing or being passed by walkers or cyclists, we all called out the traditional greeting, “Buen Camino” (Good journey).
Both history and landscape mark the way to Santiago. Historically the route was a Roman trade route, nicknamed by travelers “la voie lactee” (the Milky Way), the road under the stars. In fact, the site of a cemetery in Roman times became known as the Campus Stellae (Star Field), the origin of Compostella. In legend, the spot where the remains of St James (Santiago) were buried was discovered in the 9th century by a pious hermit, directed by a star to the site where the Cathedral now stands.
Not only are there traces of Roman roads and ruins, the latter particularly evident in Leon and Astorga, but also medieval signs. The 13th century stained-glass windows and buttresses of Leon’s Gothic Cathedral typify that architecture. Beyond Leon, as we started our walk at Orbigo, we stood on the famous bridge where, in 1434, the knight Suero de Quinones, scorned by his lady love, challenged other knights to fight. Near the bridge, a jousting field is marked for present-day tournaments.
Features of the landscape continue to mark the Pilgrim’s Way. At Orbigo, the terrain changes from flat plains to the foothills of the Leon Mountains to the west and the Cordillera Cantabrica to the north. Beyond Astorga, the landscape around Mt Irago, although bleak and rugged, eventually changes with the descent into the lush Bierzo Valley. The beauty and peace of the ancient town of Molinaseca, with its Roman bridge reflected in the river, provided a perfect setting for our picnic.
One of the most dramatic terrains, however, begins at the Cebreiro Pass, high in the Galician Mountains. Our van drove us almost to the top to begin the walk that day. Near the summit, the 9th century village O Cebreiro, in legend the hiding place for the Holy Grail, dots the misty landscape, its slate-grey, ovular stone cottages with sloping thatched roofs, called pallozas, reminiscent of ancient Celtic times. From the wild terrain at the top of the pass the walk down changes to gentler countryside of Galicia – so like Wales, grey slate and green hills predominating. From the stone-fenced fields, we viewed the ruins of castles that once protected pilgrims. In the village of Portomarin, its bridge an important pilgrim stop, we spent two nights at the Pousada de Portomarin in the verdant Mino Valley. From nearby Samos, with its imposing Benedictine monastery, our longest trek took us through gently rolling, hamlet-spotted countryside, past herds of cows, horreos (corn cribs), stone mills and slate crosses.
Just outside Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims prepared for their arrival by stopping at the Mount of Joy, affording the first view of the spectacular cathedral’s twin towers. For us, arriving into Compostela, through narrow streets and past star and shell-studded buildings, produced feelings of satisfaction and respect for the many pilgrims who had spent far more time on the road than we had. In the historical Plaza del Obradoiro, near the central spot marking km zero of the Camino, pilgrims sat facing the Cathedral of St James.
The theme for Santiago 2004, The Way that Never Ends, seems very apt. The journey along the Camino, with its enduring signs, continues to represent a spiritual quest for many; a rich cultural and historical experience; an opportunity for reflection, adventure or salutary exercise; a time to appreciate and share a peaceful environment.
IF YOU GO .. Our walking tour along the Camino was with: Walkers’ World
Weather: Best months May, June,
Sept. Hot in July and August. Chance of rain in April,
following article was published in an Australian newspaper after
the author, John Kiely, did a Walkers’ World walk on the Camino
de Santiago and wrote a slightly irreverent story of his
hike over a high range to a 12th century church built
by the Knights of St John and next day to the 7th
century monastery of Suso whose main attraction is the tombs of
seven princes beheaded by the Moors. For the more culturally
inclined, another monastery, Yuso, down the hill, has copies of
the first texts written in Spanish and Basque, translating Latin.
day it’s a tramp through the village of Atapuerca (translation:
Tie the Pig) which has 100 people who valiantly support four bars.