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The Scotsman

William Marques

Staff member
Pilgrim's progress

WE WERE WAKENED around 5:30am by a horn blast from the nearby rail yard. Below our hotel room window, we could hear laughter and the tap of metal-tipped pilgrims' staves, a sound with which we would become well acquainted over the next five days.

As we set off, just before eight o'clock, through the still dark streets of Sarria in north-west Spain, jovial crowds of youngsters were bantering with new arrivals outside the police station, as they queued to have their credencial del pellegrino or "pilgrim's passports" stamped. Staves seemed pretty well obligatory, but by the end of the day, some wouldn't be wielded quite so jauntily, scraping wearily rather than rapping off the road.

We chose to go staffless. Ahead of us lay the last stretch of el camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim route to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela. We had become peregrinos, tramping in the footsteps of countless pilgrims who, since the tenth century, have followed this and other routes to the Galician cathedral town, founded around the burial place of St James, now the patron saint of Spain.

The route's popularity lapsed after medieval times, but was revived in the 1960s, and in 1987 it was declared a "cultural itinerary" by UNESCO. Every year it attracts thousands of walkers, cyclists and even horseriders. Known also as the camino Francés, due to its historic popularity with French pilgrims, the full 800km starts at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France.

My wife and I were pretty wimpish pilgrims, walking just the final 70 miles through Galicia. We did it as a self-guided tour with Walks Worldwide and were staying in hotels, rather than refugios, the free traditional pilgrims' hostels. Moreover (the shame, the shame!), the bulk of our luggage was transported from hotel to hotel. So we were doing it the easy way, unlike some of those we met, who had foot-slogged from Pamplona or further, or had cycled from central France.

Here was I playing the pilgrim, a lapsed Protestant, married to a Roman Catholic, with a scallop shell - symbolising pilgrimage in general and St James in particular - on my rucksack and a head full of vague scepticisms and residual prejudices. I felt a bit of a fake. How would I react once I got to Santiago de Compostela? Would my burden of troubles (minor and generally self-inflicted: I've been lucky), guilt and accumulated karma tumble from my back as I staggered up to the shrine, like Pilgrim in my childhood copy of Pilgrim's Progress?

On our five-hour train journey from Bilbao (where we'd flown from Heathrow) to Léon, feeling pleasantly cut off from everything, I listened on my Walkman to self-consciously travel-related music - the mysterious eighth symphony, The Journey, by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara - as we rolled past chalet-like houses and goat-munched meadows, fields of maize and blackening sunflowers, then the white rampart of the Cantabrian Cordilleras. Then there was John Tavener's haunting Funeral Ikos, with its lyrics about leaving behind earthly attachments and departing ... where? My father had died a few weeks beforehand and the whence-come-we-whither-go-we question seemed moot enough. That pilgrimage thing.

It cropped up in Léon, when we attended a pilgrims' gathering in an old convent. I stood before a rococo gilt altar screen, swirling with saints, amid a crowd that I presumed to be more devout than myself. But as the elderly nun who greeted us remarked, some of us would have no idea what we are looking for in our journey. I gratefully identified with that contingent.

Whatever your motives, the camino is a marvellous way of viewing a country. On that first day out of Sarria, we walked through hilly but lush Galician countryside, a cross between the west of Ireland and the Auvergne, with its dry stane dykes and beautifully organic-looking houses. Then there were the Galician hórreos, the raised mini-granaries that presided over farmyards and gardens like shrines to agrarian gods. Occasionally we would encounter timeless figures in faded smocks and straw hats, released, it seemed, from an Impressionist painting. Standing in fields, driving cattle or trundling along on a bullock cart, sometimes they'd shout a greeting, sometimes just stare at us impassively.

Wilderness walking it is not. You pass through rural communities and towns as well as moorland and forest, escorted by any number of fellow pilgrims. Every so often there would be a holler of "buen camino!", nanoseconds before a bike or six hurtled past you, hell-bent on salvation. Buen camino is the traditional pilgrims' greeting, although clearly it can also mean "get of our way before you're roadkill".

You meet, you talk, then, according to pace, you overtake or are overtaken, or perhaps you mosey along together for a while, as we did with the Englishman we christened the London Canal Walker, who had explored all the metropolis's waterways. Then there was the Fat Man in White, hirpling along, red-faced but game, cricket socks up to his knees. But he made that day's stretch at any rate. I was sitting in an arcade in the hill town of Portomarin that evening, downing a beer and watching pilgrims drifting in, staves tapping perhaps a little less crisply on the road, and there he was, knackered but smiling.

There were even more pilgrims than usual last year, a holy year. Traditionally, if Catholics walk at least 100km of the camino, they qualify, my wife assured me, for a plenary indulgence and could bypass Purgatory (the ecclesiastical opposite, one supposed, of go straight to jail, do not pass go, do not collect £200). Whether or not this applied to a disaffected Prod remained to be seen.

And so we journeyed under shifting September skies, amateur peregrinos trying to give Purgatory a body swerve - although we didn't quite escape: amid a lucky stretch of fine September weather, a vicious squall pelted us with near-sleet just before we arrived in another hill town, Palas del Rey. We found it in the throes of a local fiesta, with a band tuning up in the rudimentary town square, its younger members breaking into subversive Deep Purple riffs while the conductor glared in exasperation.

We passed through vast woodlands of eucalyptus (a legacy of Franco, whose cash-crop plantings are acidifying the ground) as lizards skittered out of our way. And at last we descended into the stone warren of Santiago de Compostela's medieval city centre. We approached the bristling magnificence of the cathedral, half expecting to trudge the last few steps amid cheering throngs of the redeemed, blistered rather than Bunyan'd.

Instead, with a very British bathos, we found ourselves in a queue, prey to beggars and vendors of religious trinkets. Bells gonged two o'clock over a guitarist at a nearby café playing a jazzy version of My Way. ("Bet he plays that for all the pilgrims," I thought).

Amid Gothic gloom, we filed up a stairway behind the shrine of St James, where it was customary to "hug the saint" - his statue rather than his remains - although I made do with an ecumenical pat on his bejewelled back. So far, so good. But in the pórtico de la gloria, the spectacularly carved 12th-century doorway, while I did place my hand, according to tradition, on the imprint worn through centuries of usage on the pilgrims' pillar, I couldn't bring myself to complete the required act and bang my forehead against the bust of the cathedral's architect. Instead I stood and admired the overarching angelic orchestra, carved into the original entrance, which is regarded as one of the marvels of Romanesque Europe.

But before we left the cathedral, we discovered another statue, and another, less benign, aspect of the saint. Astride a prancing steed and brandishing a scimitar, this was not the compassionate patron of pilgrims, with his scallop and staff, but Santiago Matamoros, St James the Moor slayer, who is supposed to have appeared on a white horse in 844 AD to lead Christian Spaniards against the Moors - not really an image we need during our present global troubles. We had stumbled upon Catholic Spain's answer to King Billy.

Three hours and a cooling beer later, and we were queuing again, this time at the Oficina del Peregrino, where we would receive our certificates. On the stairs, we found ourselves behind an ebullient contingent of French cyclists. "Spirituelle ou sportive?" they were querying among themselves, rehearsing the reason they'd have to give for their journey. Spirituelle ou sportive?" I asked myself. What was I doing here?

At one point, a couple of young girls appeared to skip the queue, to much booing from les cyclistes. After all, they'd pedalled some 1,700km from the Auvergne. At the final door, a "wait here please" notice was plastered with graffiti scrawled by impatient pilgrims. There was a palpable feeling of waiting outside the headmaster's study. At last, a pleasant girl at a computer asked the reasons for my journey. I almost blurted, "Me? I only wanted a holiday. I'm a heretic, burn me if you must." But it mustn't have come out like that, and I left clutching a little scroll. Outside, I opened it, only to find it was in Latin.

"Didn't we have a Reformation to do away with all this?" I asked my wife, testily. She smiled - she'd just bypassed Purgatory, after all.



• Sarria to Santiago de Compostela can be done as a self-guided walk with Walks Worldwide. Prices start at £895pp, covering flights, accommodation, baggage transfers and some meals. Tel: 01524 242000 or visit

• Iberia fly daily from Heathrow to Santiago de Compostela for £107.60, and to Bilbao for £94.60. Flights from Edinburgh to both destinations, via London or Madrid, are also available. Tel: 0870 609 0500.

• Hotel Herradura in Santiago de Compostela (tel: 00 34 981 55 23 40) has double rooms from £60. See also
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