Tuesday, 20 August 2013

El Camino de Santiago

The Way of St. James or El Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrim routes that lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. According to tradition this is the place where the remnants of apostle St. James are buried. Since the discovery of St. James there have been an uncountable number of pilgrims who have walked one of its routes and during medieval times this Christian pilgrimage used to be just as important as Rome or Jerusalem.

The symbol of the pilgrimage is the scallop shell that is often found on the shores of Galicia. It has a few legends connecting the shell to St James but I think they all sound a bit silly so I’m not going to include them here. The metaphorical meaning of it is that the way the grooves of the shell all meet in a single point represents all the different pilgrim routes that the pilgrims take and all finish in Santiago. Apparently the shell had a practical importance, too, as it was just big enough to have a good drink or to eat out from it. You can always recognise the pilgrims when you see the shell attached to their backpack.

The symbol is also used to show the right way for the pilgrims. The most basic sign is a yellow arrow. Then you can find many yellow stylized scallops on the walls. Then come the more elaborate signs and some of them are just truly beautiful. On the streets of Oviedo there are lovely brass shells attached to the ground to show the way.  

In Guernica:

In Comillas, Cantabria:

Sings from the Camino Norte, the Coastal Way:


Nowadays the Camino has grown out of its religious shell (sorry for the pun) and is open for everybody, young and old, religious or secular. It has the advantage of being a very relaxed pilgrimage as you can do it any time of the year, you can start it wherever you like, and you can walk as much as you want at the speed you choose. You don´t actually have to walk it, you can ride a horse or a bike, too. You can walk it alone or in groups and you can break it up into bits. In my intercambio group in Barcelona there was a lady who was over sixty and every year she goes and does only 200km of it. She is hoping to finish it next year.

You might be surprised by the length this lady walks every year. Even though you are free to choose where you start your camino, there are starting points for each of the popular routes. The most popular, the Camino Frances starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, goes over the Pyrenees and all the way through Spain. The Spanish starting point is in Roncesvalles and the distance from here to Santiago is 800km. It takes over a month to finish the walk although it largely depends on your fitness.

The pilgrims or peregrinos sleep in hostels or albergues (although there are many options to sleep in private albergues or in hotels). These are only allowed to host pilgrims for only one night and are usually very cheap, between 5-10 euros. Here you get a (usually bunk) bed and a shower, there’s hot water if you’re lucky. The facilities are varied, some of them offer a meal for the evening as well as a breakfast the next day, a washing machine and computers with free wifi to use. This however is not common.

You can prove that you’re a pilgrim by holding a ‘pilgrim’s passport’ or a credential. It allows you to sleep at the albergues and by collecting stamps in the accommodation, churches and restaurants on the way the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago can follow the route you took and at the end of your journey award you with a ‘Compostela’.

To earn a compostela you not only have to collect stamps but you have to walk at least a 100km, or cycle or horseride a minimum of 200km. The pilgrimage is then finished by attending the ‘Pilgrim’s Mass’ in the Cathedral of Santiago that is held every day at noon.

I have been wanting to do the Camino since we moved to Spain but there has never been an opportunity before. Now that we are living in Oviedo I am in the perfect position to do it. My chosen route is the Camino Primitivo, the oldest and the original route from Oviedo to Santiago, about 230km. According to history, when King Alfonso II heard that St James’ body had been discovered he took this route to visit the event, making him possibly the very first pilgrim. After reading a lot about the different routes this seems to be the one of the least popular, the most rural, the least visited by foreigners (I bet my Spanish will improve a lot!) and the most strenuous as it is very mountainous.

The tradition says one starts the pilgrimage from their front door and technically I will be able to do just that! During the last few days I have been packing my stuff for the road, only a few things have been missing. I needed a baseball hat and I found one in the Pyrenees in the middle of the road with nobody in sight. I needed a pole and I got a walking stick as a present from a Spanish friend. Paul is lending me his Camelbak so I can carry two litres of water evenly distributed on my back and Paul’s mum kindly brought me a sleeping bag. After stocking up on quick dry T-shirts and a spare pair of trousers from Decathlon I am ready to go. All is left to do is to visit the Cathedral and the pilgrim statue of St. James. I found the latter quite funny as the only person who CANNOT be a pilgrim is St. James himself! But hey, I oblige to the tradition and tomorrow I will start my two week long pilgrimage to pay my respect to St James in Santiago de Compostela.

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