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A travel article by Pierre Mainguené, Circa Tours

"El Camino de Santiago" (Spanish for "the Road to Santiago") brings to mind images of unending lines of penitent pilgrims wearing wide-brimmed hats, leaning on their tall, knurly wooden staffs - sheepskin gourds dangling from the end - and walking barefoot for days over rolling hills and down shallow valleys. Well, except for the bare feet, the vision is mostly accurate. As you cross northeastern Spain, south of the Pyrenees Mountains and the Cordillera Cantábrica, you encounter a continuous stream of those pilgrims all day long. (They wear state-of-the-art hiking boots these days.)

Map of Spain

I have traveled several sections of the route myself, but in a more modern fashion - by motor vehicle (no walking stick needed). Although this method may not have gotten me the indulgences needed to save my soul, as the pilgrimage can do for you, I found my visits to be a fascinating way of witnessing centuries-old traditions of religious fervor and devoted spiritualism. But religion doesn't have to be your motivation for this kind of trip. To regular tourists, the area offers endless possibilities for meaningful cultural encounters: history, heritage, art, wine, cuisine, architecture and much more.

Historical Background

First, a bit of history. The world tourism industry as we know it today is barely 100 years old, and much of its modern infrastructure only goes back about 50 years. This is not the case in the northwest corner of Spain, however. People have been traveling to Santiago de Compostela for centuries, as religious tourism coming from Northern Europe through the Pyrenees actually started during the Middle Ages, around the 10th century.

The ultimate destination for those pilgrimages was - and still is - the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. After Christ's death, St. James (one of the 12 apostles) is said to have gone to Spain to spread the gospel. After his death in Jerusalem, his remains were lost but were believed to have been returned to Galicia, in northwestern Spain. They were supposedly found in 813 near Santiago de Compostela. This discovery, along with accompanying miracles, was the start of a never-ending spiritual attraction to the new holy shrine. The medieval tourists came to pay their respects to St. James, and they made Santiago de Compostela, along with Rome and Jerusalem, one of the main centers of Christendom for centuries.

The Pilgrimage Today

The movement that started so many centuries ago is alive and well today. A cousin of mine, after taking early retirement, has walked portions of the trail at various times. She has probably done the whole itinerary by now, starting all the way back in France. You can take a variety of different routes, including one going north from Portugal. The most famous is referred to as "the French route" (el Camino Francés). It starts from either of two mountain passes in the Pyrenees: Somport or Roncesvalles. The total distance from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela is 750 kilometers (about 450 miles).

Every year tens of thousands of pilgrims walk the road and visit the shrine. As you travel along the route you inevitably catch sight of some of them. Most are on foot, with their walking sticks and backpacks - others do the route on bicycles, and some even ride horses. I have seen many of these pilgrims during several trips in the area. They are easily identifiable because of a unique sign of distinction, a scallop shell - which, before plastic bottles, was used to drink water. The shell is also used along the road as a sign for directions. Bronze markers the size of the scallop shell are embedded in the ground or on walls to help pilgrims find their way.

The Indulgences

In addition to the sightseeing, the outdoor adventure and the physical activity that come with such a long hike, the pilgrimage remains essentially religious for many travelers. For those brave souls, the ultimate goal in reaching the shrine is spiritualism and the securing of indulgences (the remission of temporal punishment for past sins) - especially during Holy Years when repentant sinners are granted "plenary" indulgences (the "total" remission of punishment) - a "super size" type of indulgence, if you will.

Holy Years are the years when the saint's day falls on a Sunday. The last Holy Year was in 2004. The next one will be in 2010. During those years, the number of pilgrims can more than double from around 80,000 during regular years to 180,000 and probably more in the future as the pilgrimage becomes more and more popular. The minimum distance needed to obtain the indulgences is 100 kilometers (60 miles) on foot or on horseback or 200 kilometers by bicycle. To substantiate progress along the way each traveler must have the "Credencial del Peregrino" (the "pilgrim's passport") stamped and signed at various designated locations.

Refugios, Casas Rurales or Paradors

There are hostels ("refugios") reserved for the use of pilgrims along the route. They do not charge a fixed fee but usually welcome a minimal donation. You have to share a large room and bathroom facilities with others - most of them have hot showers nowadays - and they can be crowded at times.

For non-religious, "regular" tourists who prefer traveling in comfort or luxury there are other options, of course. Hotels ranging from quaint and charming country bed and breakfasts ("casas rurales") to high-end five-star accommodations are available everywhere.

One of my preferred types of lodging is the "Paradores de Turismo" network. Paradors are hotels and restaurants which are owned and run by the Spanish government (over 100 of them at the last count). The organization was established in the early 1900s with a mission to act as guardian of Spanish culture and heritage. As a result, many of the buildings that were chosen for transformation into hotels are former castles, citadels, abbeys, convents, medieval palaces, etc. Staying in a centuries-old structure - where your imagination can roam and you can pretend to be the lord of the realm or a grand duchess or a rugged knight returning from the Crusades - is a truly thrilling experience.

I have stayed in two Paradors on the Santiago route:

  • Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a four-star hotel and a former hospital on the pilgrim's road. Built in the 12th century, next to the cathedral, its Gothic-style lobby, complete with wooden coffered ceilings, is exquisite.
  • The León Parador, a 16th century Plataresque construction, was originally a hospital, but over the centuries it was also used as a monastery and possibly a jail. This is a luxurious five-star hotel. I had a room in the main tower overlooking the River Bernesga. The Santiago route goes over the bridge at the foot of that tower, so I was able to observe a never-ending caravan of pilgrims coming by all day long at that particular corner. For a different kind of relaxation, you can sit in the hotel's two-story cloister and let Gregorian chant come to your imagination's ears and dream away.

The Countryside and Gothic Cathedrals

Reaching the shrine is the goal of the pilgrimage, but most of the fun is in getting there. After the two Pyrenees Mountain passes, the Camino Francés and the Camino Aragonés itineraries converge at Puente la Reina, a few miles south of Pamplona. As the route continues westward, it passes through many small towns and villages, revealing countryside that never ceases to amaze by its charm, rusticity and peacefulness. It also encounters a few small cities such as Logroño, the capital of the famous wine-producing region of La Rioja (the Bordeaux region of Spain).

Burgos and León boast two of the most resplendent Gothic cathedrals in the whole of Europe. I visited both of them. To me, the most noteworthy feature in these two monuments is the size, sophistication and beauty of their stained-glass windows. León, for example, has over 20,000 square feet of windows reaching all the way up to the ogives of the vaulted ceiling. Another stunning feature is simply the architecture itself. A French pilgrim I met, as she was describing the Burgos cathedral, exclaimed: "It's lace carved in stone!"

Santiago - the Ultimate Goal

At last, you come to the end of the road. Whatever your motivation was, you finally arrive in Santiago de Compostela. A UNESCO World Heritage City, Santiago is a friendly city of about 130,000 inhabitants, where you can walk almost everywhere. It has many monuments of great architectural and historical value, the most notable of which is, of course, the cathedral. This imposing edifice was built over several centuries and, consequently, displays an unusual combination of successive styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Plateresque and Neoclassical.

At the end of the journey, pilgrims can have their travel documents stamped, sealed and registered at the Pilgrim Office. Then, they can attend to their personal devotions inside the cathedral. Two common practices are embracing the statue of the Saint behind the great altar where his relics are kept, and the daily celebration of high mass. During mass, on the feast of St. James (July 25) and other holy days, the "Botafumeiro" - a giant incense burner, about 5 feet tall and weighing 100 pounds - is swung with ropes and pulleys by half a dozen red-gowned attendants in a wide arc from floor to vaults, emitting fragrant clouds of incense over the heads of the mesmerized (and perhaps slightly frightened) assembly. This is a truly amazing event to witness.

For pilgrims with luxury tastes, the local Parador, a former royal hospital, is right next to the cathedral. Like León, it is a splendid five-star hotel with elegant living rooms, spectacular bedrooms and luxurious dining rooms. Walking around its four cloisters will transport you into another age and another lifestyle.

Whether your journey is intended as a spiritual search or a simple tourist activity, the Way of St. James is a fascinating voyage. The discovery of tiny medieval villages and majestic Gothic cathedrals (not to mention the local wine) along this route never fails to reveal the richest cultural heritage in the most vivid way.

Historical forces and political ambitions, in addition to religious fervor, may have had an influence on the creation and development of the tradition of Santiago de Compostela - a counter offensive to the invasion by the Moors in the 8th century, for example, might be an explanation. But, regardless of the original causes and the ensuing reasons for the nurturing of the tradition, this slice of history, in this attractive region of Spain, has no match anywhere as a place of beauty, peace and meditation. This may explain why the route itself ("El Camino de Santiago") was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. It's an absolute "must see" in my opinion. And I am clearly not the only one to think that.

Circa Tours is a division of Circa Terras, Inc.
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