Pilgrim’s progress

Traveling across Spain on one of Christendom’s most sacred routes to Santiago de Compostela.

cathedral spain 311 (photo credit: Sara Manobla)
cathedral spain 311
(photo credit: Sara Manobla)
The Camino de Santiago is one of Christendom’s most sacred pilgrimage routes, ranking third after Jerusalem and Rome. In effect, it comprises several itineraries, with take-off points scattered across Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and northern Europe. Each has its name, its own pathways and characteristic scenery, all converging on Santiago de Compostela, the ancient city of St. James the Apostle, in the far northwestern corner of Spain.
In the past two decades this medieval pilgrim trail has undergone an amazing revival, making it one of Spain’s biggest tourist attractions.
Legend has it that the body of St. James – Santiago in Spanish – was beheaded in 44 CE by King Herod and brought by boat from Palestine to the Iberian peninsular, to be buried there and then forgotten. The cult of the saint dates from the mid-ninth century, when he made a miraculous appearance and defeated the Moors in the battle that led to the Reconquista of Spain by the Christians. The great cathedral in his name was erected and his remains reburied in the crypt.
For the next three centuries, the flow of pilgrims grew ever greater. To serve them were built the fine Romanesque edifices that can be seen to this day across Spain – churches, cathedrals, hospices, inns and mansions – culminating in the magnificent walled city of Santiago de Compostela.
Our journey to Santiago began in Bilbao, on the edge of the Pyrenees in the Basque country. We continued westward across Spain’s northern coast, following the Camino de la Costa, which originates in France. Everywhere along the 780-km. route there are reminders that you are following in the footsteps of devout pilgrims who for centuries have been trudging this way to worship at the tomb of the saint and acquire absolution of their sins.
Full disclosure obliges me to reveal that (like many others whom we met en route) we journeyed as tourists and onlookers rather than footsore pilgrims, with bus and train as our main means of transport. We traveled on the small branch-line FEVE trains, whose primrosecolored carriages chug slowly along the wild Atlantic coast bordering the Bay of Biscay, connecting its rocky inlets and estuaries, its sandy beaches and towering cliffs, its small fishing villages and harbors.
An outstanding attraction of the region is the wealth of sites, many of them on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, where prehistoric cave paintings can be viewed. At some caves, access and visitor numbers are strictly limited in order to control changes in temperature and humidity that can affect the precious artwork, created between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago. Altamira, the most famous of the caves, is currently closed, and visitors instead can view an air-conditioned replica and see the museum. A more authentic experience was our visit to the Tito Bustillo cave, and there are many more caves worth exploring, of varying size and with varying ease of access.
Our journey across Spain was broken at small seaside villages where simple hotel accommodation was easy to find. A particularly delightful stopover was the small town of Santillana del Mar, a medieval gem, perfectly preserved and within walking distance of the Altamira site.
From our start in the Basque country, we continued westward through Cantabria and Asturias to Galicia.
Spain’s Atlantic coast has little in common with the Mediterranean coast and mercifully has escaped the runaway development of the Costa del Sol or the Costa Brava. Each region has its own character, its culinary specialities, and Galicia even has its own language, Galega. The rainfall here is twice the national average (visitors should come prepared for wet weather) and the countryside is correspondingly green and lush. Inland from the coast, the horizon is dominated by the Picos de Europa mountain range, containing Spain’s most spectacular scenery and walking country.
The FEVE railway terminates at Ferrol, on the far northwestern tip of the country. From here we took the mainline RENFE train to our destination, via La Corunna, an attractive historic port city with much to offer the visitor.
ARRIVING AT Santiago, the pilgrim, staff in hand, the shell emblem dangling from his backpack, enters the old city (traffic-free) through the Porta do Camina.
From there, he follows the traditional route to the cathedral, through the narrow streets, guided by the glittering metal shell emblems embedded in the flagstones.
At the square fronting the great edifice, the traveler drops his backpack and hugs his companions, a celebratory moment of achievement and spiritual uplift, for the secular no less than for the devout. In order to be awarded the Pilgrim’s Certificate, he must have covered the final 100 km. of the Camino on foot, with his Pilgrim’s Passport stamped as proof. On the way, there are numerous simple hostals and refugios where he can stay the night.
Santiago itself has an abundance of accommodation options, ranging from inexpensive inns to fivestar hotels. Top of the list is the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, in the square next to the cathedral, built in the 16th century for the pilgrim trade and now renovated as an up-market parador hotel to serve the wellheeled traveler. A less expensive but more authentic atmosphere can be found at the Hospederia Seminario Mayor, also near the cathedral, situated in a huge Benedictine monastery with an elegant cloister, echoing stone flagged corridors, simple rooms and a refectory dining room where monks serve up a decent meal.
The streets in the vicinity of the cathedral are abuzz with eating places, tapas bars and cafes where the footweary can rest and watch the world go by.
Everywhere there are tourist shops selling souvenirs decorated with the omnipresent shell motif of the pilgrim. And the scallop shell reappears in the many Galician restaurants serving seafood specialities to tempt the adventurous gourmand – crab, octopus, clams, lobster and of course Coquilles St. Jacques, named after the saint.
The student population alongside the tourist influx gives Santiago a bustling, lively air, and there is plenty to see and do. Walking through the maze of arcaded streets, one finds an architectural gem at every turn, and at night the alleys are crowded, with buskers, music and dance breaking out in the squares and under the arches.
The cathedral itself is the ultimate destination for every visitor. A dazzling mix of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic styles, it dominates the city, majestically chiming the hours from its bell towers.
The flamboyant double stairway rises from the square to the main entrance and to the richly sculptured Portico of Glory just inside – currently being restored and under scaffolding. The cathedral museum, spread over four floors, contains a wealth of historic and artistic treasures, and offers a magnificent view of the entire city from the roof.
Mass is celebrated daily at noon, and, depending on the pilgrim groups present, prayers may be recited in several languages. Unlike many European cathedrals, all comers are welcomed and invited to participate – muddy boots, backpacks and dripping rain-gear notwithstanding. The atmosphere is one of joyous anticipation, and if you are lucky, as we were, you might just be rewarded with a sighting of the Botafumeiro in action (if you miss it, YouTube has a number of good video clips).
Translated as the “smoke spitter,” this enormous censer, made of silver and weighing 167 kg., swings over the central aisle like a giant pendulum, soaring to the vaulted roof, emitting clouds of fragrant incense and missing the stonework pillars by a hairsbreadth.
The performance of the Santiago smoke spitter and the monks pulling the ropes brought the assembled congregation to its feet, applauding, cheering and taking photos. The organ thundered, the sun glowed through the stained-glass windows, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that getting to Santiago had been well worth the effort.