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Vancouver Sun: Pilgrims have flocked to Santiago...


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Read the article here.

Pilgrims have flocked to Santiago de Compostela for centuries

Andrew Renton, CanWest News Service
Published: Saturday, May 26, 2007

SANTIAGO de COMPOSTELA, Spain -- "You're off to do what?" "A pilgrimage!" My friends eye me with more than a hint of skepticism. Have I totally flipped? Am I seeking redemption for some dastardly deed?

Legend has it that the bones of St. James (Santiago), a disciple of Jesus, were washed up on the shores of Galicia in a stone boat. Discovered by a hermit monk in the hills of Compostela around 813, they were verified and sanctified by the local bishop.

King Alfonso II visited the site, built a chapel and made Santiago the patron saint of Spain. In 1189, Pope Alexander III declared Santiago de Compostela a holy city. All who completed the pilgrimage would receive 50-per-cent dispensation from their time in purgatory; 100 per cent if the journey was made in a Holy Year when Dia de Santiago fell on a Sunday.

Needless to say, thousands of pilgrims from Europe flocked over the Pyrenees to take advantage of the deal. They risked frostbite, starvation, attacks by bandits and Moorish armies.

Towns, churches, albergues (hostels) grew up along the route to feed, house and minister to the spiritual needs of the masses. Fervour peaked when Christianity regained control of the region, and waned throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1982, Pope John Paul paid a visit. In 1987, the EU declared the Camino to be Europe's first cultural itinerary, earmarking 1800 historic buildings along the route. In 1993, UNESCO declared Santiago a World Heritage Site. July 25th, Dia de Santiago, is a Spanish national holiday.

With all this hype, the Camino has a new lease on life. Today's pilgrims (70,000 last year) are a mixed bag. Religious. Cure seekers. Mid-life-crisis solvers. Hey -- why not take time to bond with your mother?

Others come to amble through unspoiled countryside and the fascinating towns and villages of northern Spain. Where else can you pay for accommodation by donation? Whatever the initial motive, no one returns without being touched by the experience.

To do the job properly, a pilgrim can choose from a handful of ancient routes. The Camino Frances, for example, begins in Paris, Le Puy, Vezelay or Arles. Many choose to begin in Spain. Some attack it in chunks, returning year after year. A good walker can cover the distance from the French/Spanish Pyrenean border in around a month.

We were grazers. Cherrypickers. With three weeks to spare and nothing to prove, we decided to walk the walk (we did hitch a bus or even a cab on occasion!), do the sights, try the wine and sample the food.

Easyjet flies from London's Stansted Airport to Bilbao. Book online early and the deals are phenomenal. You've got to do the Guggenheim Museum (closed Monday). It should only take a day.

The modern train from Bilbao to Leon is nine hours of heaven -- right up with "great train journeys of the world" as it weaves slowly through pretty valleys and across the flatlands of Meseta. Bring your own food and get there early. It's cheap ($27 Cdn) and popular.

We officially become pilgrims in Leon. We acquire credentials or pilgrim passports at the Monasterio de Benedictinas. It is a seven-leaf document to be stamped along the way at hostels, hotels and pensions. Essential if you plan on staying at municipal albergues and required if you want a compostela at journey's end.

I lift my pack with more respect than usual. This time it will remain on my back for the next 18 kilometres. A daunting thought. As I tighten the belt, I get a reality check. I have decanted my scotch supply into a "roll-up" bladder pack. Even chucked my shaving foam for a tiny bottle of useless "whisker wizard" to save weight. I will surely be crippled by lunchtime.

The Camino is clearly marked with painted yellow arrows. Scallop shells, once a pilgrim's tool for scooping water, are synonymous with the route. They decorate fences, doors, manhole covers and church walls. They hang from every backpack, often hidden by underwear drying in the morning sun. They adorn each regularly placed milestone showing the remaining distance to Santiago.

Northern Spain has not been subjected to the tourist boom of the Costa Brava or the Costa Del Sol. Residents go about their day without the need for McDonald's or Starbucks. Here, a cafe con leche grande is considered the perfect way to jump-start the day -- perhaps with a splash of cognac on the side.

Business hours are traditionally Spanish -- civilized but irritating to spoilt North Americans. Shops close from 2 to 5 p.m. Restaurants serve lunch between 2 and 4 p.m. With a 10 p.m curfew at most public albergues, some restaurants offer an early pilgrim menu del dia for a remarkable $10 Cdn (three courses and a half-litre of wine) from 8 p.m.

The trail doglegs through villages lined with stone-built slate roofed houses. Past tiny churches. Storks choose flat belfries to build huge nests and pop up like finger puppets when a summons to evensong peals out.

We are lucky to arrive during Semana Santa or Easter week. Processions in Leon and Astorga are riveting, colourful affairs. Jesus and the Virgin Mary are carried on the shoulders of hooded men from surrounding suburbs and villages. Bands play. Bars do a roaring trade between shifts. It's a thirsty job.

Sometimes we must follow a highway but more often the Camino will snake up through a eucalyptus forest or along a farm track. We come face to face with cows heading for the dairy.

We vary our accommodations. Immaculate rooms in small hotels are a bargain at $35 to $49 Cdn. Private albergues offer dormitories with all the bed linen provided. Public albergues -- refugios -- are more basic, but great places to share a bottle of wine and a story with an eclectic bunch of people. These are generally run by the municipalities and the concept of "pay by donation" goes back 1,000 years.

The last hill seems never ending. We break up the day with a picnic lunch beside a stream. Pilgrims are supposed to wash their "parts" here before heading into the final stretch. I test the freezing water and rely on a morning shower to see me through.

We struggle up Monte de Gozo past radio towers. The giant steeples of Santiago's massive cathedral appear in the haze. Phew! It's downhill from now on.

We experience a huge feeling of elation heading through the outskirts of this ancient city. We are following the well-trodden path of millions who came before us. We proudly present our credentials at the Oficina del Peregrinos. Did we walk the mandatory last 100 kilometres? Did we ride a horse or perhaps a bike -- which requires 200 kilometres to qualify? Were our intentions "religious" or "other"? Compostelas -- certificates -- proudly in hand, we head through narrow alleys to the cathedral.

Each day, a noon mass is held for newly arrived pilgrims. Names are read. Eight priests haul the botofumeiro, a huge silver smoke-belching incense burner, into the air. It swings dramatically from side to side like a giant pendulum. We have reached our goal.

We ate pulpa in Melide. Cocina maragato in Astorga. Quiexo tetilla, or nipple cheese, in Arzua. We shared bars with families pushing baby strollers. We made new friends from Germany, Holland and Belgium. We felt like spoilt guests in a corner of Spain still locked in a time warp. Just one word for the experience: wonderful.


- Fitness: It may sound like a stroll in the park, but do you walk 15 to 25 kilometres every day with a pack on your back? Build your strength before you go.

- What to take: A serious backpack with frame and waist-belt. Half a dozen T-shirts. Six pairs good, double-layer, wool walking socks. Two pairs of quick-dry, zip-off pants. Fleece. Thin wool sweater. Gore-Tex jacket. Sun hat. Worn-in walking shoes. Sandals. Moleskin for blisters. Sunscreen. Extra lightweight sleeping bag. Spain is a civilized country -- anything you forget is available.

- Should you pay to join a group? There is absolutely no need. You will meet lots of nice people and you can send your luggage -- and yourself -- ahead by cab (Approximately $1.40 per kilometre) if you are really desperate. Just go and enjoy.

- Cycling: Many people cycle the Camino. Though not a cyclist myself, I imagine you would need a strong off-road mountain bike. Walkers receive priority at public albergues.

- When to go: Spring and fall are the best times. Cooler weather. Less crowded. No problems with accommodation. If you go in summer, try to book your accommodation ahead. Try for Easter -- it's magical.

- Cost: For a civilized European country, it's a steal. $60 a day will keep you in reasonable comfort. Half that if you stay in public albergues.

- Useful books: Walking the Camino de Santiago by Vancouverites Bethan Davies & Ben Cole was our bible, supplemented by Lonely Planet Spain for when we strayed off the straight and narrow. Oh, and pack a dictionary.

- Health and safety: Spain has excellent medical facilities. I have never heard of security problems along The Camino. This said, use normal caution with your possessions, especially at the albergues.
Peaceable Projects Inc.
Peaceable Projects Inc. is a U.S.-based non-profit group that brings the vast resources of the wide world together with the ongoing needs of the people who live, work, and travel on the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail network in Spain.
Camino Way Markers
Original Camino Way markers made in bronze. Two models, one from Castilla & Leon and the other from Galicia.


Active Member
Past OR future Camino
Camino Frances (2006)
Hmm, Monte de Gozo radio towers? I though they were TV antennas. And the Lavacolla stream? Never got to see it, and I WAS looking for it.
The cathedral towers visible from Monte de Gozo? I doubt it. Priests hauling the botafumeiro? Nope.

6 T-shirts? Far too many.

But otherwise a good read.

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