Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Day 49 - Down to basics - what is the Camino de Santiago really all about?

One of the first questions I'm asked when people hear that I'm planning to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrim's walk is: 'What is the origin?' or more often simply: 'What's it all about?'

The second question is the simpler one as I normally start chatting about the route, the albergues, the fact that you walk with just a backpack etc., etc. Easy stuff. The first question has caught me off guard a few times and I realized that if I'm serious about this business, I can't just start walking because it feels right and I know (or hope at least) that it's going to be a spiritual experience for me.

In other words - don't sound like a fool now Emilene. Educate yourself. Or at least feel like an educated fool by the time you start walking that long road with just your boots on your feet and a bag on your back...

I decided to start with a map of sorts. Hence the map above. I liked that one because it details the Camino Frances route, the route that I have chosen to walk.  I intend to start in the little town known as St Jean Pied de Port (St John-at-the-foot-of-the-mountain pass). It sounds like a delightful little town and this is also where I will be collecting my pilgrim's passport. (Not to be confused with a regular travelling passport, I read. ) ;-)

To learn more about the little town - visit this site: http://www.caminodesantiago.me.uk/st-jean-pied-de-port/

Anyway. Back to the history.

The word camino means 'the way' and 'Santiago' is the Spanish name for St James. (Santiago, as a matter of interest, is a compression of Santo Diego). St James of course being one of Jesus's apostles. The story goes that when the Apostles divided the world into missionary zones, St James was sent to the Iberian peninsula. He eventually returned to Jerusalem where he was beheaded by Herod, in the year 44AD.

His followers put his remains in a stone boat that was then guided by angels and carried by the wind beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. It went ashore near Finisterre, at PadrĂ³n, in northern Spain. There his remains were buried  in a marble tomb together with that of two of his followers. The tomb remained forgotten, until the 9th century.

During that time, a local hermit, named Pelayo, had a vision. He saw a field of stars, which led him to the ancient tomb. The tomb contained three bodies. The local bishop confirmed that this was indeed the tomb of St James and his two followers. St James was subsequently declared the patron saint of Spain.

A small village named Campus de Ia Stella (Field of Stars) and a monastery were established on the site. The news of the discovery spread like wildfire and a trickle of pilgrims began to arrive. Miracles came to be attributed to the site, and the miracles encouraged pilgrimage and pilgrimage elicited more miracles...

At the time the Spanish church struggled with the Moors on the Peninsula and it certainly was in their favour to promote the idea of this pilgrimage. In fact, it became one of the most significant pilgrim's routes in the world, the other two destinations of course being Rome and Jerusalem.

The pilgrimage reached it's peak during the Middle Ages with the infrastructure along the routes being developed to support pilgrims. Bridges were constructed across rivers, hospices were built by religious orders and businesses thrived because of the steady flow of feet on the route.

The sheer number of pilgrims on this route during that period might very well account for the fact that the Moors never successfully conquered the northern part of Spain.

By the end of the 16th century Spain engaged in war with both France and England and effectively was largely cut off from the rest of Europe. This, together with other major developments, such as the Reformation that was initiated by Martin Luther, were possibly contributing factors as to why the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage became less popular during that period of history.

The 1900's saw a revival of the pilgrimage for a number of reasons. Let's pick up Tony Kevin's dialogue from here on:

' I thought more about how the Santiago pilgrimage,which by the early 20th century had become defunct medieval history, had revived spectacularly after World War II  and the return of democracy to Spain following Franco's death in 1975. It's an interesting story and in itself says much about the changing mood and values of our times.'

'Spain itself was searching for new approaches to civil society and to church-state relations. Franco's coercive and now discredited clerical-fascist ascendancy had run its course, and with his death in 1975 a new democratic politics was in rapid gestation. Progressive Spanish Catholics were looking for new ways to re-legitimise their church, to restore its standing and connections with younger, democratically minded Spaniards. In this context, the pilgrimage to Santiago was something fresh, holy and untarnished by past church mistakes and misdeeds. Local voluntary 'Friends of the Camino'  societies sprung up across Spain and Portugal to survey, waymark and restore the old pilgrimage right-of-way -routes that had in many areas became no more than vague local memories. Soon there were local alternative waymarked routes to Santiago being re-established: not only through the Pyrenees, but also from Valencia, Alicante,Toledo, Granada, Seville, Cadiz, Lisbon. All the ancient caminos of Spain were being re-located and re-signed with the famous yellow arrows'

By 1987 the Camino de Santiago was declared a  World Heritage site. And in 2010 I decided to walk the route in 2012.

There you have it!

After reading a myriad sites and summarising it for myself, based on the information that I saw repeated on these various sites, I understand the origin of the pilgrimage somewhat better now. One is overcome by information and I'm sure mis-information at times as well, but generally, I'm satisfied that this is a pretty accurate story. I'm sure that certain details have given rise to many a question and probably inspired many a book, but as far as I'm concerned, this is how I'm going to accept the camino.

I'm not Catholic, nor am I Spanish, so I'm pretty much an outside observer but I do know why I'll be walking the route and I do know that when I'm in a church along the way, it's not going to matter what my denomination is. I'll be in the house of the Lord. And I can't wait to pack my bag!

As for the blog-hopping experiment of yesterday.

Quite honestly, I've decided to stick to my camino-hopping! I've gained one lovely new friend, discovered some great blogs and received a talking-to by the owner of the 'hop' for not sticking to the rules. I really thought I did everything I was supposed to, but clearly I am indeed as challenged as I confessed to be when I posted yesterday!

Anyway, nothing ventured - nothing gained, I say!


  1. "I can't just start walking because it feels right" - well, maybe you can!!!!! I think for many of us who walk the Camino, we have a 'feeling' that it is the right thing for us to do. I knew, as soon as I had walked up the first hill out of Le Puy, that it was indeed the right thing for me to do- but largely I started merely because of an inkling, a whisper. Those whispers can be powerful things!

  2. Well I can tell you that for me the whisper is more like a shout already! I have to wait until July 2012 though, so unfortunately I can't follow my whisper yet!!

    At the same time, I am indeed under the camino spell - who knows, I've been known to change my plans before....

  3. I have to say I am completely envious of you! I'm not the "out-doorsy" type, but what an adventure! My illness holds me back from even attempting things like this. I'm so excited for you, and will be checking back frequently for updates!!

  4. Welcome Kerri - glad to have you! :)

  5. Daar's iets oor die Camino op iol vandag: http://www.ioltravel.co.za/article/view/5747357

  6. Dankie Andre! Julle is al halfpad daar - julle moet dalk oorweeg om dit ook aan te pak erens in die toekoms...


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