Camino de Santiago  (St James Way)

Guided Walks across Northern Spain

1,000 years on the Pilgrims’ Way
Sat Feb 28, 2004   Vancouver Sun Travel Section

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.

 Gazing at its imposing Baroque façade, we felt lucky to witness the rare opening of the massive front doors of the Portico de la Gloria, a 12th Century pantheon of statuary. Below the central figure of St James, people celebrated their arrival by pressing their right hands into the five-finger imprint formed by centuries of pilgrims.

 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, Oct.

The 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 pilgrimage.

We thought we’d prepare ourselves for the Camino, the famous pilgrimage hike across northern Spain, by having a few days revisiting Madrid, El Escorial and Toledo. In Madrid, King Juan Carlos doesn’t live in the Royal Palace anymore. Little wonder. With a house of 2800 rooms you could easily get lost and with 400 clocks in working order, the chiming would drive you insane. But the palace does have two vast halls of medieval armour, with lance-wielding conquistadors on horseback, all sheathed in armour, one knight even with an armoured dog, and scores of ancient muskets and crossbows. One “musket” of 1577 vintage is 2.5 metres long. Male vanity note: the codpieces on all the mounted gentlemen suggest they must have had access to a medieval equivalent of Viagra.

  At El Escorial the huge, hulking, but somehow splendid monastery was built by Phillip II in thanks for winning a battle against the French in the 16th century. The king commissioned sculptor Bellini to create a crucified Christ from a block of the whitest marble and a work of stunning beauty it is. But later monks thought Bellini went too far in presenting an unadorned Christ and have delicately draped his loins with a white cloth. Truly.

Toledo’s chief business, after tourism, is, of course, selling daggers. There are thousands of them shining from the walls of stalls lining the streets. Crossbows hang casually from nails on the walls of houses. Making amends somewhat, the town possesses, in the Iglesia de Santo Tome, one of the world’s finest El Grecos, The Burial of Count Don Gonzalo of Toledo. El Greco lived in the town in grand style, having a palace of 24 rooms with servants and musicians, but he was always broke. Guide Maria Luisa gives us a blunt explanation: “The Church never paid him.” Not only that. The iglesia was originally a synagogue but when the Jews were given three months to convert to Christianity or get the boot from Spain, the synagogue was seized and turned into a “house for repentant women”. Despite repeated requests, the Church has never given it back.

  Back in Madrid, a visit to the Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art for obligatory homage to Picasso’s Guernica presents another delightful sight: a young Spanish mother strolls from Picasso to Miros, Dalis and Braques happily breastfeeding. What a fine introduction to art for the baby.

  Talking of breasts: our Camino guide Liz warned the women in our group that at one monastery on the Camino is a middle-aged monk who has been known to touch women up while guiding them around the cloisters. But in Santiago a bishop eons ago took offence at the handsome breasts on one statue of the Virgin and ordered liposuction of the granite. In protest, cheesemakers of the region started producing cheeses in the shape of breasts, complete with teats. The queso tetillas are still on sale everywhere in the region today.

  Oh yes, the pilgrimage to Santiago. On the three hour drive to the mountains, our hiking guide, Garry Buddin, an Aussie living in San Sebastian, tells us Bilbao fishermen have cleaned out all the anchovy in the Bay of Biscay, so, apart from picking up state subsidies for not fishing, make a living by sailing cheap Spanish cigarettes into France where cigarette taxes are higher. That’s when they are not cleaning our fishing grounds in Antarctica, I guess.

On the march: we set out from Roncesvalles in northeast Spain, starting point of most of camino (the way) pilgrims. Charlemagne’s chapel there has a large ossuary pit. You are allowed to stick your camera in through a large opening and photograph all the hollow-eyed skulls and other bones. If you visit the town’s gothic church during a service be prepared for the pleasure of fine tenor voices but a long finger-wagging sermon. Our group consists of four Australians and 16 Canadians.

We 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.

Next day it’s a tramp through the village of Atapuerca (translation: Tie the Pig) which has 100 people who valiantly support four bars. So on to Burgos where the 16th century monastery of Santa Maria Real de Huelgas once housed more than 200 nuns. At their head was a coterie of royal nuns, daughters of the king. The head of these, the abbess, was so powerful that she could order executions. In Burgos Cathedral, the oldest Gothic one in Spain, having been started in 1221, the legendary El Cid and his wife are buried. At 7 pm six blasts rock the town. Terrorists/ No. Just more rockets being fired at another fiesta.

  Next day a slog across the meseta (That’s a Spanish word for a flat, brown, hot, boring, endless plain). People here once had to build wooden palisades around their villages to keep out wolves. Oh for just one wolf now to provide some excitement.
On to Castrojeriz to the Virgin of the Apple Tree church where legend says St James (Santiago) saw the Virgin in a tree. He leaped on his horse and took off. The horse’s hoofprints are supposedly imprinted in stone outside the church.

  Through Villalcazar and Carrion de los Condes to Leon where you find one of the don’t miss glories of the trail: the pantheon (burial chamber of royals) in the Basilica of San Isidoro. The walls are splashed with superbly preserved Romanesque frescoes showing Gabriel, the Virgin Mary, Herod’s men slaughtering babies with knives and spears and Christ’s last supper.

  Here, guide Bianca gives us a wry, cynical view of the whole Camino business. Northern Spain, she says, was sparsely populated and impoverished 1000 years ago. Then the leaders in the area “discovered” (she makes quotation marks with her fingers) the tomb of St James at the far western end of Europe.

  Tens of thousands of pilgrims get indulgences for visiting it and, hey presto, the region burgeons with bridges, inns and finally cities. It reaches the point where rival groups chanting and singing at the tomb in the Cathedral of Santiago try to drown out each other, leading to fights and even murder.

  The Black Death killed off the whole grand scheme for centuries but now it has revived, with nearly 40,000 tramping or cycling the track each year.

  From Leon to Orbigo where a knight, Suero, in 1434 held probably the last great medieval tournament, challenging other knights to a joust. It was all over a woman.

  Next stop Astorga, where between the cathedral and another church is a 14th century cell block in which prostitutes were locked up. On the walls a warning inscription survives: “Don’t judge me. Me Yesterday. You tomorrow.” Here also is the famous if Disneyesque chapel by Anton Gaudi. The bishop was so horrified when he saw the finished article that he refused to live there. Astorga is quite proud of its Roman sewers and offers guided tours. The guides say that when the Visigoths took the town, they didn’t bother to use them. But they are so well built that some are still used today.

  At the top of the mountain pass of Foncebadon we come to a significant site on the Camino, the Cruz de Ferro (Cross of Iron) where pilgrims place a rock that they have carried for penance. There is now a mound of rocks, many of them painted or signed. But on the pole carrying the Cross, the irreverent have placed old shoes, coins, flags, scarves, bike chains, badges, pictures of the Virgin Mary, pics of Dad, of their children, of their dog, of their girlfriend, even a toy Muppet.

  Our next stop is Samos where the monastery founded in the 6th century is run by Benedictine monks. There used to be 84 of them but now they are down to 14 because in 1951 monks distilling (what else?) Benedictine caused a huge blast and fire destroyed much of the monastery.

  We bus it to Lavacolla, which colloquially translated is: wash the butt. This is literally what the pilgrims of old did because from here they could see the spires of the cathedral of Santiago, their destination four kilometres away. There St James allegedly lies, having been brought there after being beheaded in Jaffa in Palestine.

  So finally, Santiago. Be aware if you make the “pilgrimage” that there is a powerful pecking order of pilgrims. Top of the tree are those who walk barefoot all the way from Roncesvalles with full backpack kit on their back and who stay only at refugios. Next down the ladder are those who wear shoes. After them come the cycling pilgrims and finally the lowly “turistas” like us who do some stages by bus and stay at paradores and pleasant hotels. So, after all that track-trudging, in Santiago cathedral, the guide Maria tells us that although Spain is more than 95 percent Catholic, it has a socialist government, sanctions abortion and the marriage of homosexuals and, with Italy, has the lowest birthrate in the EU. St James must be shaking his haloed head in despair.

  Still, we wait to see the famous event at the cathedral, the swinging of the incensario, a brass incense bowl about half a metre wide and a metre tall, suspended by a long rope from the high cupola. At the appropriate moment in the Mass, the incense in it is lit and six burgundy-robed men pull on ropes to make the bowl swing high and wide in the transept like a demented pendulum. It almost touches the roof and one wonders how many martyrs would be created if the rope gave way. But the transfixing moment is actually when a tenor in the choir loft sings Panis Angelicus and his pure voice soars to the granite heights, piercing your soul. This sublime moment alone makes the whole Camino worth while.

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