I was somewhere near Betanzos and I didn’t know I was lost, but a passer-by guessed I was doing the Camino, said something I did not understand and pointed down the hill. So I retraced my steps about 50 metres, and there was the sign of the scallop shell.
The Camino de Santiago—or St James’s Way—started attracting international pilgrims more than 1,000 years ago. By the 12th century, half a million a year were arriving in Santiago de Compostela to pay homage to a mythical early missionary who had a habit of appearing on battlefields to help the Christians. An early guidebook, the Codex Calixtinus, detailed the route, and a chain of hostels (called albergues) was built to give the pilgrims places of rest.
Nowadays, the hostels are still there, and they are so cheap as to be almost free. In Galicia official hostels cost €6 per night; some hostels along the way ask only for donations. The route is still waymarked with the scallop shell that became the pilgrim symbol, and after many centuries of little use the numbers of pilgrims are increasing again.
In a Holy Year, the pilgrimage is even more valued. Holy Years pilgrims occur whenever St James’s Day (25 July) falls on a Sunday, as was the case in 2010, when 250,000 pilgrims— double the usual number—arrived in Santiago to claim their compostela (certificate of completion) and hug the statue of St James in the cathedral in the hope of absolute forgiveness. Even the Pope made an appearance this year.
There’s not just one Camino across Spain, but five. The main route is the French Way, a difficult walk across northern Spain. Then there’s the Portuguese Way, the Silver Way, the Northern Way and the English Way. This one is the shortest and the least crowded—and the one I was taking. It starts from the ports of either La Coruña or El Ferrol, where the English originally arrived by boat. It mixes coastal scenery with rural Spain, includes some handsome seaside towns and less handsome industrial sites, and can be done in less than a week. At times it felt to me quite English, too, as I walked between flower-rich hedgerows and crossed rivulets that could have been in Cornwall, except for the fragrant eucalyptus and vineyards on south-facing hills. And although it would probably have been more appropriate to stay in an albergue, I chose to do it the easy way, walking between designated points, and stopping at lovely rural hotels in the evening.
I’m not, really, a true pilgrim and I’m no believer (but neither are many of the walkers who set out every year on this oldest example of mass tourism). I wasn’t expecting absolution. I wanted simply to enjoy an inexpensive long-distance walk through a little known part of Spain.
That didn’t diminish my satisfaction on arriving in Santiago, however, a historic city which makes an appropriate end to a form of tourism that hasn’t fundamentally changed since medieval times.
Although I hadn’t done enough to collect my compostela (you must complete at least 100 km and have the stamps to prove it), I felt so satisfied with myself on arrival that I went to pilgrim Mass in the magnificent sculpture-covered cathedral. Outside, the main square was full of buskers, beggars and pilgrims, tanned and smiley, just as it’s been happening over the centuries.
Text adapted from The Independent (July 24, 2010)
- scallop shell: petxina de vieira / concha de vieira
- pilgrim: pelegrí / peregrino
- waymarked: senyalitzat / señalizado
- hedgerow: tanca / valla
- forgiveness: perdó / perdón
- to set out: sortir, començar el camí / partir, empezar el camino
1. The writer got lost while he was doing the Camino…
- and asked the way to a passer-by.
- but he was lucky to find the scallop shell that marks the way.
- and a man gave him directions even before he asked.
- and he had to walk a long way back to get on the right track.
- Pilgrims started to come to Santiago in the 12th century.
- Pilgrims who take on St James’ Way come from many different countries.
- St James is a legendary character who helped win many battles.
- The Codex Calixtinus was written as a guide for the pilgrims.
- you can stay for free in all the hostels on the route.
- you just pay a small amount to spend a night in an albergue.
- you must make a donation in all the hostels.
- official hostels are cheap, but unofficial ones are not.
- the Pope always visits Santiago.
- pilgrims cannot get their compostela.
- the number of pilgrims always doubles that of a normal year.
- pilgrims who take on the Camino expect absolute forgiveness.
- starts in Cornwall and runs through coastal towns.
- must be taken along the seaside by boat.
- was preferred by the English people because it was easier.
- doesn’t take as long to complete as the other routes.
- as if he was in England because the landscape was similar to that of Cornwall.
- that the eucalyptus and the vineyards he found on the way are typically English.
- that it was just as easy to stay in an albergue or in a hotel.
- that staying in rural hotels was what an English pilgrim should do.
- he had strong religious beliefs, just like many other pilgrims.
- as a pilgrim, he was looking for absolution.
- he wanted to experience a cheap walking holiday.
- he had never been to Santiago before.
- he had won his compostela.
- he had to attend Mass in the cathedral.
- he could see the buskers and beggars in the square.
- he had completed the Camino.