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From The Times December 26, 2009

Santiago is bracing itself for the Holy Year bonanza

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Bess Twiston Davies 2 Comments
Recommend? The pilgrimage route to the shrine of the Apostle James at Santiago de Compostela is experiencing its greatest popularity since the Middle Ages.

In 2008 around 118,000 pilgrims obtained the compostela, the Latin certificate confirming that they have travelled 100km on foot or 200km by bicycle or horseback to the shrine. A further 200,000 pilgrims are expected in 2010, a Holy Year, when indulgences, or remission of sins, are granted to those who complete the Camino, as the pilgrim route is known.

Usually pilgrims sport a scallop shell either pinned to a hat or elsewhere on their clothing. It is the symbol traditionally associated withthe Camino, a pilgrimage site since the 8th century. Its origin, according to Pope Calixtus II, who died in 1124, was that the shell was a symbol of generosity and represented an open human hand.

“The shell reminds us of all the generosity we’ve received on the way,” says Dr William Griffiths, chairman of the UK-based Confraternity of St James, which offers advice and support to the modern pilgrim. “A pilgrim is a person without rights, so hopefully one can enjoy everything one receives a gift,” Griffiths says, referring to the act of “hugging the Apostle” or touching the vast image of St James, dominated by a huge silver shell, above the high altar in Santiago Cathedral. Pilgrims are invited to do this after the daily Pilgrim Mass. “When one hugs the apostle, one thinks of all the people who have been generous en route.”

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He, like many pilgrims, has encountered unexpected instances of generosity en route. “Once I was in a restaurant north of Paris and found my bill had been paid. Even that far north someone had recognised a pilgrim,” he says. He has been a regular on the Way since 1992, although like many modern pilgrims he will travel in two-week stretches, because it is so difficult to take off work the four or six weeks to complete the full route. For Griffiths, as for other pilgrims, the high point is arriving in the cathedral and attending the midday Mass after which the botafumeiro, an enormous silver thurifer, swings, spilling incense, from one side of the main altar to another.

In 2010 pilgrims will also be able to admire close up the Portico of Glory, the cathedral’s original Romanesque façade, split into three arches depicting, with a wealth of biblical detail, the Last Judgment.

“The portico is a depiction of how John the Divine imagined the heavenly Jerusalem,” says Victoria Romero Pazos, the guide who takes visitors, six at a time and wearing hard hats, up the scaffolding to view the portico. She explains that the motifs on the keystones on the vault and the tribune, showing the Sun, the Moon and a lamb, are symbols from the Book of Revelation. The portico is found inside the cathedral nowadays — in the 17th century a new Baroque exterior was built on the front of the cathedral.

Since 2006 the portico has been the subject of a grand restoration financed by the cathedral chapter, the diocese, and the Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza. For a year its fine granite carvings are being tested to measure the impact upon them of changes of humidity and temperature within the much visited cathedral — and more will come during the Holy Year.

So captivating is the experience that many ex-pilgrims suffer a form of “post-Camino syndrome, according to Griffiths. “Re-insertion can be difficult. If you are returning to the same job it can seem less real, less satisfying than the experience you have had in the past weeks, of life reduced to its essentials.”

“Many who go say it is a life-changing experience and some go on to become pilgrimage addicts — they want to recapture those moments of freedom that they have because they are released from the obligations of everyday life,” says Marion Marples, secretary of the confraternity. “People are searching for a deeper meaning to life. Mentally the Camino helps them get their priorities sorted.”

While the most-travelled route remains the Camino Francés, beginning at St Jean-Pied-de-Port near Biarritz in France and Roncesvalles on the Spanish side, there are several routes for the repeat pilgrim to try including those starting in Denmark, Portugal and Budapest.

If they acquire a credencial or pilgrim passport at the beginning of the route, they will have the right to stay at refugios, pilgrim hostels that make a minimal charge (about €3-€10) or ask for a voluntary donation. The key advice that the confraternity offers first-timers is to travel light.

José Álvarez, a Spaniard who set out in 2005 to make a documentary about the Camino, agrees. He set out from Roncesvalles with a 4kg camera, and heavy photography equipment, part of which, after developing blisters — “my feet looked like sausages fit for a stew” — he left with a convent in Pamplona. Álvarez’s documentary, The Way of St James – Not a Path of Roses emphasises both the spiritual reward and physical exertion “Some very good things are written about the Camino but sometimes it all sounds a bit too lovely.”

Ultimately, Álvarez concludes, “the Camino is something you need to do in person to really discover what it will take out of you and also what you have deep within you.”
 

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