Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Camino de Santiago

In Mediaeval times, when pilgrimages were all the rage, The Way of St James, El Camino de Santiago, was considered to be right up there with Rome and Jerusalem as a top notch Christian destination. It had two big advantages. It was closer to home for lots of western European Catholics and it didn't (usually) involve crossing territory held by Muslims.

By the 1980s very few people still made the pilgrimage to the imposing Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the bones of one of the original 12 disciples, St James the Great, are said to lay. Some clever promotion by the Galician Tourist Office changed that and now the Camino is, once again, alive with people keen to share the fellowship of the journey.

Many people think the Camino is a particular route but that isn't quite true. There are several recognised routes. Use one of them and you will find like minded souls and facilities for travellers all along the route. In reality though it is the destination that is important. The goal is to reach the cathedral in Santiago. For most Europeans the main route into Spain would be through France. The 12th Century Pope Calixtus II described four principal routes and these are now the most travelled. Nonetheless, for British and Irish pilgrims the journey involved a ship to la Coruña and then a short trip to Santiago. There are a couple of Portuguese routes and lots more from every corner of Spain.

The Credencial, serves as a passport to record the journey and as identification to obtain cheap accommodation along the way. It is available from tourist offices, churches and offices that promote the route. Pilgrims have to walk at least 100kms or cycle 200kms to be able to exchange their Credencial for a certificate called the Compostela when they arrive in Santiago. Proof of the distance covered comes in the form of stamps available from points along the way. Pilgrims can choose whether they claim a religious or a lay certificate and the first ten people into Santiago in the morning are also entitled to free food in a special reformatory below the Parador alongside the cathedral.

Whilst you might see people travelling the route from Novelda (there's an office in the Calle Mayor) it's much more likely that you will come across pilgrims in the north of Spain following the blue and yellow Camino signs. Traditional Pilgrims are easy to spot as they carry a scallop shell and use sticks hung with a water gourd.

The stick and gourd have an obvious practical purpose and it is likely that the scallop shell was originally no more than a  souvenir that pilgrims took home from Galicia. However, the Camino is both a real and a mystical journey so, over time, the shell has come to have a more profound meaning. There are a couple of versions of a story which has the body of St James being transported to Galicia and it, or someone else, falling into the sea but emerging miraculously covered in scallop shells. The shell is also a metaphor; in that all the grooves of the shell come to a single point just as the pilgrims do.

A friend who did the walk tells me that everyone is greeted with “Good day, Pilgrim.” Just like John Wayne I thought.

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