"Men may leave all games,
That travel to St James" Anon
Trekking a section of a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage route may not be everyone's idea of a relaxing holiday, but the road to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela is an experience all of its own.
The Camino de Santiago is a 1,000-mile-long journey over plain and mountains under a blazing sun and, often as not, in drenching rain. It is also one of the most exilarating, interesting and fulfilling journeys a visitor to Spain can undertake.
Bishop Goshalk of Le Puy in Auvergne made the first journey to the newly-discovered shrine of St James in Galicia in AD949, and over a thousand years later the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela still flourishes. Every year more than a million pilgrims make their way to the city which claims to be home to the remains of St James. The monk Amery Picaud, who made the pilgrimage in the 12th century and wrote a
guide book, Le Guide des Pelerins de St Jacques de Compostelle, considered Santiago the most fortunate and exalted of Spanish cities.
To be classified as a 'true pilgrim' you must cover at least 100 miles of the route on
foot, horse or bicycle. Most do much more than this, starting from Le Puy, or the other historic assembly centres in Arles, Paris, or Vezelay in Burgundy. English pilgrims go via Bordeaux, and Spanish pilgrims either follow the Moorish route from Seville or take up the trail at Jaca or
Roncesvalles, which still leaves them with 500 miles to cover before they can pick up their compostela. This is the certificate issued by the cathedral secretariat in Santiago which states that the holder has completed the true pilgrimage of St James and is entitled to free meals in the
Hostal de los Reyes Católicos just across the square - which has wisely reduced this bonus to one repast per pilgrim - and the remission of half the time he or she would otherwise spend in purgatory.
My own pilgrimage began in Le Puy. I travelled by cycle, taking a month to coomplete the journey during which time I made a host of friends and lost 10kg in weight. Classic pilgrim sites lie all along the route from Le Puy. I passed the first on Day Two - a church built by a medieval pilgrim to protect travellers on the bleak upland of the Aubrac plateau. The road dips to the River Lot and then climbs relentlessly over the hills to Conques where the statue in the shrine of St Foy greets passers by with an enigmatic smile. From there it was on to Rocamadour and
Moissac before skirting Toulouse to stop in the marvellous walled village of Laressingle. A couple of days later I crested a hill and saw in the distance the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees.
Getting to St Jean Pied de Port took another two days. St Jean is a meeting point for several of the pilgrim roads and people carrying the scallop shell of St James on their rucksacks or cycle bags were everywhere, chatting and comparing notes about the trip so far. Here, as elsewhere along the route, I took care to get my pilgrim passport stamped as evidence of my progress.
The ascent of the North Face of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles where Roland fell was a major challenge, but then it was down, down, down to Pamplona. From here, the pilgrim sites multiply and it's possible to stay in hostales and small hotels or just crash out in fields as I did, using my tent or windproofs against the morning dew. The days were shatteringly hot. One day we recorded a temperature of 46ºC in the shade - and there is very little shade in Navarra or Castile.
Every day offered new friends and something of interest. I saw the pilgrim chapel at Eunate,
stood on the grave of Cesare Borgia at Viana and inspected the famous cockerels in the church at Santo Domingo de la Calzada, reminders of a medieval miracle. By now I had the support of a score of people, all moving west at about the same pace, sharing water and advice - the Viallard family from the Medoc; Eve Livet, a lady from Lyon who was cycling on her own; Miguel and Santi from Madrid who were limping along on blistered, bloody feet.
And so over the Goose mountains to Burgos where I had a day off to rest and visit Vivar, the birthplace of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (better known to history as El Cid) which lies a few miles to the north. Then it was on again through a score of places with profound connections to the pilgrimage route, many of them bearing 'del Camino‚' as part of their names, such as Rabanal del Camino where the English Confraternity of St James maintains a hostal to shelter pilgrims.
By the time I reached León I felt in need of a little luxury and stayed at the wonderful, elegant and far from cheap Hotel San Marcos. Nobody batted an eye at my shorts, general scruffiness or sun-scorched face when I staggered in, exhausted. I was given a splendid room and one of the staff oiled and polished my bicycle, refusing payment if I would only light a candle for him at
Then it was past Orbigo and, after a stop at the Museum of the Road in Astorga, over the mountains of León by the old pilgrim road to lay a stone on the great pilgrim cairn of the Cruz de Ferro. From here I descended to Ponferrada and into green and mercifully-cool Galicia. I was fit now, clocking up 50 miles or more a day with ease over all kinds of terrain.
And so I came at last into St James, walking my bike along crowded streets into the square in front of the cathedral to take the few final steps.
First, up to the doorway, to place my hand on the Pilgrim Pillar where the fingers of millions of pilgrims have worn grooves into the stone. Then inside to visit the shrine of St James and attend a service where the Botafumeiro, the Great Censer of St James, comes whistling over the heads of the congregation like a guided missile.
Finally to the Secretariat to pick up my much-wanted and now-treasured compostela.
I had a well-stamped pilgrim passport but I asked the priest what he did if people turned up without one. "It is useful but it doesn't matter‚" he said. "The true pilgrims have a look about
That done, I went to a rather less impressive establishment, Suso's Bar in the Rua de Vilar where true pilgrims have been assembling for decades to celebrate their arrival with a few glasses of cold beer. A prosaic finale perhaps, but when I saw my face in the mirror behind
the bar, it looked very different from the one I had started out with a month before. Perhaps it was the sun and the loss of weight, but I suspect that, like all true pilgrims, I now had a look about me.
The truth is that the pilgrimage gets into you. You meet people from every country and all walks of life and all the 'true pilgrims' have an inner reason for the trip which usually comes out in time.
Unlike me, some are simply religious and are performing an act of penance, others were there to raise money for a charity, or on behalf of a sick friend, or simply to shake off a modern life that had become too stressful to bear. If that also sounds too serious, let me add that it was all great fun. The difficulties of the road brings out the best in people, a great deal of kindness and a real feeling of comradeship.