“The best Thou givest, giving this
Sufficient thing – to travel still
Over the plain, beyond the hill.
Unhesitating through the shade,
Amid the silence unafraid,
Till, at some sudden turn one sees
Against the black and muttering trees
Thine altar, wonderfully white,
Among the Forests of the Night.”
The Song of the Pilgrims – Rupert Brooke, 1907
I walked up Monte de Gozo in a steady Galician rain hoping, like all who come here, for a transcendent view of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This hilltop named Mount Joy is where pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago (“St. James Way”) first set tearful eyes on their long-awaited goal; the supposed resting place of the bones of the fourth apostle of Jesus. It has been this way since the Middle Ages when both the devout and derelict (seeking indulgences to shorten their stay in purgatory) walked here from Paris, the Pyrenees, Bilbao, Pamplona, Astorga, Seville or any of a thousand other starting points. The roads were many, but the goal was one – to reach this remote locus sanctus – this holy place built of stone and mythic aspiration.
Unlike my previous visit, I crested Mount Joy alone and found the summit encased in winter fog. All I saw was a stone monument built to honor Pope John Paul II, a grotesque refugio of barracks that could sleep 800, and statues of pilgrims with walking sticks lifted in ecstasy as they gazed at the cathedral spires in the distance (Figure 1). I gazed at clouds. January is avoided by most pilgrims for a reason. Previously that morning I dutifully prepared for this day's walk by visiting Lavacola, the last village before Santiago. In the past, pilgrims stopped here to clean up before reaching Monte de Gozo and completing their journey at the immense cathedral in town (Figure 2). The name of the place, lava (to wash), cola (scrotum), is a fine reminder of the earthy joys of toponomy.
The rest of my walk back to Santiago was a slog. I had already been to the cathedral several times and was staying near the Plaza Obradoiro in a small hotel. My pilgrimage in 2010 consisted of nine day hikes over two weeks. I was a sad member of the lowest caste on the Camino; a “tourist.” As I walked past new apartment buildings and dashed across busy four-lane highways I felt none of the intense emotions I imagine actual peregrinos (pilgrims) experience at the prospect of reaching their goal after months on the trail. Santiago de Compostela began as sacred ground and is now real estate. On this rain-soaked day at least, I wasn't questing for God; I was longing for dry clothes and a meal of pork chops and beer at a family restaurant named Casa Manolo.
Santiago de Compostela
The story of St. James in Spain is curious and, to the non-believer, lavishly confabulated. The versions are diverse, changing with the times and human need. The basic tale is this: James the Elder, or the Greater, (St. James) was a fisherman and the brother of the Apostle John back in those turbulent days in Palestine. Much is known of John from his Gospel but the words of James did not make the final cut of the Bible canon. Legend has it that James went to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the Word of God. He was not a spellbinding preacher. By the time James reached Galicia (in northwest Spain) he had attracted only seven disciples. Discouraged, James began the long journey back to the Holy Land. In Zaragoza (then a Roman city named Caesar Augustus), he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, her only such appearance while still alive. She told him to erect a church on that spot and handed him the pillar that Jesus was lashed to during his torture. An iteration of that church still exists: Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar.
St. James' return to the Holy Land did not go nearly as well. Herod Agrippa beheaded him in 44 AD as part of that brutal pogrom against followers of Jesus. The Biblical account is stunningly matter of fact about it. Acts 12:2 states that “And he killed James the brother of John with a sword.” That's it.
Following his death, supporters are said to have sneaked his corpse out of Jerusalem, placed it in a boat with no crew, oars, or sails and shoved it seaward. Miraculously, the boat drifted across the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and, bucking the Portugal Current, landed on the west coast of Galicia. Hemingway's Santiago, the Old Man, was ignored at his homecoming but St. James was big news upon his deathly return to shore. His disciples found the boat, secreted his body away, and placed it on a large rock that instantly morphed into a container for the decomposing holy relic. Lacking a suitable burial site, they consulted a local queen named Lupa. Many details emerge from here: a set of challenges, yoking wild oxen on a mountain, the oxen being tamed by the presence of St. James' body, and finally a decent burial on royal land. St. James then disappears from history for 750 years except for the name of a then- small village – Santiago de Compostela – St. James of the Starry Field.
The veneration of holy relics, such as pieces of the cross where Jesus was crucified and the bones of saints, has a long spiritual and mercantile history. Ordinary places are transformed into sacred destinations because of the alleged presence of sacred objects. This in turn attracts pilgrims with money. While striving to expand their business reach, the leaders of Venice claimed to have to bones of St. Mark. The pilgrims came and spent. Rome's Cappucin Crypt added an incentive for pilgrims to journey to that ancient city and spend freely to attain religious benefit. Évora, Sicily has been a pilgrimage site for centuries because of its display of the bones of thousands of monks. More recently, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church claimed to have pieces of the jaw and arm bones of John the Baptist. It is perhaps no coincidence that these relics were found in a tourist area on the Black Sea in need of promotion. Osteo-commerce is by no means unique to Santiago de Compostela.
The Pilgrimage Begins
Spain is as much a crossroads as a core. Over the centuries the place has been the contested terrain of Celt-Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vikings, Vandals, Visigoths, Franks, Gypsies, Jews, and Moors – both Arab and Berber. The Moorish invasion of Iberia in 711 AD pushed into France before losing traction and giving ground. The Reconquista (the Reconquest) began in Spain when small pockets of Christians in places like Galicia encountered the Moors in myriad ways: fighting, evading, resisting, making peace, marrying, and trading. This dazzlingly complex process continued until 1568 when the last Moriscos (“Little Moors – mistrusted Arab converts to Catholicism) were pushed out of the Las Alpujarras region of the Sierra Nevada near Grenada.
The legend of St. James empowered centuries of war. Early on in the Reconquista (813 AD), a Galician hermit named Pelayo supposedly heard lovely music and saw a bright light coming up out of the ground. He dug at the spot and unearthed several sets of human bones. The local Bishop declared they were the remains of St. James and two of his disciples. Christians realized that these bones could be used as powerful talismans to combat the Muslims who, it was rumored, carried relics of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Such a claim is suspect given that any image or likeness of the Prophet is not allowed within Islam. No matter. Christian forces now had a spiritual weapon of mass destruction; the magisterial power of the only apostle said to have been buried in Europe.
Stories spread of St. James appearing on a white horse, leading Christians to bloody victories against the Moors. He was no longer just the Apostle of Spain. He was Santiago Peregrino, the sacred wanderer who attracted growing number of pilgrims to Galicia. He also took on a more aggressive incarnation - Santiago Matamoros – “St. James the Moor-Slayer”. His tomb attracted donations from Christian kings, merchants, and peasants, convinced that their offerings would insure protection against the infidels. In the cathedral to this day there is a statue of St. James atop a white horse, sword raised, slaying Moors. Flowers and greenery try to hide the trampled, slashed, and beheaded bodies lying below him.
The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela peaked in the 11th and 12th centuries. This was the zenith of the Medieval veneration of holy relics and of fighting between Christians and Moors, be they Crusaders in Jerusalem and Aleppo or Christian warriors in the battlegrounds just south of the Camino de Santiago. The pilgrimage process was generally driven by faith, fear, and land acquisition. But pilgrims walked for countless reasons: to seek God, find forgiveness, be made well, fulfill a promesa (promise to God), serve out a jail sentence, find adventure, make it rain, end a plague, or to escape a troubled life. Guidebooks flourished and the number of roads grew. The Spanish Military Order of Santiago was formed to fight Moors and protect pilgrims along the road, much like the Knights Templar.
The Reformation weakened the flow of pilgrims to Santiago and the Enlightenment nearly ended it. But people kept trickling in to pay homage to St. James. The Spanish government, in its various forms, kept paying annual ofrenda (tribute) to the cathedral. In years when Saint's Day (July 25th) fell on a Sunday, officials, kings, and dictators would travel to Santiago and declare their voto de Santiago (a pledge to honor and financially support the cathedral which safeguards the bony relics). Generalissimo Francisco Franco was raised in Galicia and he took special care during his brutal regime (1939-1975) to maintain good relations with the Catholic Church in that region. To Franco, St. James was a Spanish Nationalist and for decades Spanish school children were taught that divine providence had also sent Franco, like St. James, to rescue the country from invasion, poverty, and want. Coins were stamped with the image of the Generalissimo and the words: “Francisco Franco, Leader of Spain, by the grace of God.”
Camino de Santiago
The “St. James Way” or simply “the Way” is a “reanimated” pilgrimage track across northern Spain (Frey, 1998). Beginning in the 1960s, the number of pilgrims grew. Today, an eclectic array of people walk, pedal bicycles or ride horses along the various ways to Santiago (Figure 3). In 1993, 100,000 pilgrims walked all 500 miles of the main route – the Camino Francés – and received their Compostela certificate, a simple diploma with their name written in Latin. This was a Compostellan Holy Year, when Saints Day (July 25th) fell of a Sunday. No reliable figures exist on how many people walk or visit the Camino these days. But it has become so well-known that Martin Sheen starred in a 2012 movie called “The Way.” This film gives a surprisingly tender portrayal of why so many people are drawn to redefine and expand a Medieval religious rite.
The most travelled pilgrimage road – the Camino Francés – is an east-west route covering 500 miles from St. Jean Pied-au-Port in France to Santiago (Figure 4). It traverses northern Spain through the Basque country and Pamplona, the arid meseta region, and the green Celtic hills of Galicia. This main camino is a geopolitical transect through the cultural landscapes of Basques, Castilians (Spaniards), and Galicians. It is a unifying traverse linking Heaven and Earth, and perhaps, maintaining peace between separatist nations and the State.
But many sacred caminos exist, several originating in France. Inside Spain, the Camino del Norte is a coastal route covering 500 miles that passes through Bilbao and Santander before joining the Camino Francés. The Camino Inglés is a 200 mile cut-off from the Atlantic coast to Santiago. The longest route in Spain is Via de la Plata (the Silver Way) that covers 620 miles from Seville to the same holy destination. Portugal has a 250 mile way called, appropriately, the Camino Portugués. There are many roads but all lead to Santiago de Compostela.
Pilgrimage may be a ritual as old as human existence. For some it is “an ancient instinct – it reminds us of our sacred purpose – to grow closer to God” (George, 2006: 15). Scripture gives reference to it in Mark 6:31: “come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” But that is more about the destination than the journey. In Hebrews 11:10 the quest is for a city “whose architect and builder is God.” But pilgrimage long predates Christianity. The Greek word for it is proskynesis which means “prostration or veneration.” In Latin it is peregrinatio which roots in per ager – “through the fields”. It seems to have emerged as a way to revere God, land, life, and afterlife.
Pilgrimage is a kind of “sacred choreography” (Westwood, 2003) in search of a place of exile or rescue or rebirth; it is a way to transform a far margin into a sacred center. Pilgrimage is a passage and an arrival, a line and a node, vector and raster. It warns us that we are going to die and reminds us of the somatic joy of living. It teaches us that time is short and eternity is timeless. Ultimately pilgrimage is about place, geographicus sanctus, holy ground. Each pilgrim helps wear a trace of shared reverence into the landscape. The route emerges from the negotiation of sacredness which etches a line of demarcation in the dirt of the country or rests hidden beneath the pavement of town. In this way, a remote trail becomes a prime meridian. The pilgrim learns the holy tale and becomes part of it with each footfall. Faith begets faith. Pilgrimage is about myth, not as something false, but as a process beyond proof. It is an unfalsifiable kinetic act built of legend and bone, superstition and soil. Kris Kristopherson might call pilgrimage “a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”
I seem to be attracted to places like this. Strange for someone with no particular faith. I was baptized as a Christian in New England but had no say in the matter and can best be called a “recovering Pilgrim.” Despite that, previously in this journal I have shared my pilgrimage experiences walking to the Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico and a climbing a mountain called Sri Pada in Sri Lanka. I have visited countless pilgrimage sites around the world such as the River Jordan, Stonehenge, Rome, Hagia Sophia, Delphi, Yunnan summits, Bodnath stupa, and the Kingdom of Lo Manthang along Nepal's Tibetan border. I have backpacked a thousand miles of the Appalachian Trail (“the AT”) and strolled with sadhus at Pashupatinath as bodies gently burned on the ghats. Another songwriter, Bono, might conclude “but I still haven't found what I'm looking for.”
In the winter of 2010, I found myself walking the Camino de Santiago in the rain alone. It was decidedly not the optimum season for this but it proved to be an excellent way to experience the Camino's pleasures minus the crowds. But as I walked into Santiago de Compostela from Monte de Gozo I felt like a cheater. I had not trekked hundreds of miles and suffered the discomforts or enjoyed the serendipity of a long trip with new friends. On the AT they call those kinds of joyous surprises, “trail magic.” So far I had only walked sections of the Camino near León and Astorga, and the last few miles before town.
Standing in the Obradoiro Plaza I was awed by the main façade of the cathedral. My sense of cheating fell away. I travelled thousands of miles to get here and that would suffice for now. A true pilgrim carrying a pack and holding her walking stick stood staring at the spectacle (Figure 5). She was crying. We did not speak.
The Obradoiro façade is Baroque monumentalism in its truest form (Figure 6). This is architecture designed to instill humility, reverence, and dread. A façade is a bold face or a false front depending on your temperament. I found this one beautiful. The two immense Baroque bell towers were built atop Romanesque roots. The intricately carved stone has weathered to gray and carries a patina of orange and yellow lichens in shady recesses. The iconography of the cathedral façade is both exuberant and figurative with a statue of St. James rising from the center spire holding a pilgrim's staff.
Two 17th century stairways zig-zag up from the plaza to massive front doors cleaved by a massive cross (Figure 7). Inside the Portico de la Gloria (Glory Doorway) are statues of St. James and his two disciples, Anastasius and Theodore. The column holding St. James has been touched by so many pilgrims that a hand-sized impression has been worn into the stone. A Romanesque tympanum (Medieval semi-circular decorative wall) has representations of the Church, Heaven, Hell, Limbo, the Apocalypse, the Final Judgment, and tableaus of ancient Christians. There is a stone column “tree” crowned with a capstone showing the Holy Trinity with a statue of St. James atop it. A corbel rises above him covered with carved illustrations of the temptations of Jesus. The iconography is dizzying in complexity. The central tympanum is presided over by a large statue of Jesus flanked by “the just” saints—Mathew, John, and Luke. Above them are images of twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse playing medieval musical instruments including a hurdy-gurdy. Some of the musicians do not seem concerned with the end of the Earth. There is relaxed pleasure in their faces; perhaps revealing the certainty of those believing in the Paradise to come.
For pilgrims the statue of St. James in the main chapel marks the end of their journey (Figure 8). Tradition has it that pilgrims should embrace him from behind. Medieval practice called for placing your hat atop the saint and swapping it, briefly, for his crown. I suspect this is no longer allowed. In the past the frenzy to reach the statue created quite a scene. Jack Hitt describes it: “For as many as five centuries it would have been impossible to get near the Portico without a fight. And there usually were. Hundreds of people camped out beneath the statue of St. James. Women gave birth there. Pilgrims cooked meals in steaming vats. Fires blazed. Every night was an orgy of quarrels and fights.” (Hitt, 2005: 237). On my visit a group of pilgrims seemed so enraptured that I turned away to avoid intruding. But soon I heard laughter and saw the flash of digital cameras.
The air was filled with the piquant aroma of incense. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is famous for its botafumeiro, the 140-pound incense ball that is swung dangerously back and forth above pilgrims during Mass. This sacred act also serves as a powerful air freshener to mask the funky aromas rising from the crowd. The crypt of St. James and his two disciples is located beneath the main altar. The remains are held in a large silvery box; a metallic urn decorated with slender statues (Figure 9). A large star rises above the box. All is overseen by a stone representation of the scallop shell worn by pilgrims to this tiny mausoleum. I stood alone for five minutes reflecting on the millions who have stood here over the centuries. John Donne wrote, in the Holy Sonnets, that “this is my play's last scene, here heavens appoint, my pilgrimage's last mile.”
But I had miles to go before I slept. The word compostella has another Latin meaning – compostellum – “the well composed one”, or more accurately in this case, “the well decomposed one.” I felt reverence standing at the crypt, not so much for the supposed remains of the saint, but for the pain, strength, and frailty of those desperate and searching souls who have walked here for a thousand years. Life humbles us all. I had just turned 60 years old with many more dreams left than years. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I felt little of what the architecture and guidebooks said I was supposed to feel. I stood at the end of a spiritual interstate with long on-ramps leading from Paris, Seville, even Rome. So far, the camino experience for me was mostly commercialized, commodified, and sanitized for our protection. I had spent enough time exploring the route to grow tired of pilgrim's log books, ego trips, sleeve patches, scallop shells, tacky souvenirs, and the crude mercantile grasp of secular and religious politicians.
This is nothing new. In 1884, Pope Leo XIII issued a Papal Bull declaring the remains of St. James to be authentic and officially sacred. Today the Vatican is hedging its bet. They are not saying yes, they are not saying no. Pilgrimage is good for economic and ecumenical business. I thought about Jim Parsons, my deceased Ph.D. advisor in Geography at UC-Berkeley. He adored Spain for its cultural complexity and beauty, as do I. But Jim taught me to look past monumental shrines to the vernacular landscapes around us. Only then, can we sense the actual pulse of a place and its true heart.
I left the cathedral and sat down in the Plaza de Platerías to collect my thoughts (Figure 10). St. James sat atop a fountain made of horse's heads. His walking stick was ready beside him. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. I decided to keep walking along the Camino de Finisterre – “the Road to the End of the Earth.” It extends west from the concrete scallop shell in Plaza de Obradoiro to an isolated rocky cape jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. While only 54 miles long, just ten percent of pilgrims walk this final leg. For most, the church is far enough (Figure 11). I choose to move past it.
The next day I gathered a day pack with water, a half-pound of jamon serrano, olives, bread, and three Snicker's bars (Figure 12). I hiked out of town early and found myself alone passing through peaceful Spanish countryside. It was hilly, pastoral, and quiet; shaded by eucalyptus groves and pine plantations. This camino is agricultural terrain where you walk on narrow lanes and trails, dodge tractors, and hear the gaita (bagpipes) or rock and roll wafting on the breeze. In the past the Catholic Church discouraged pilgrims from coming this way. They said this landscape was a place of sun worshippers, secret Celtic rites, and pre-Christian temptations. That is no longer true and those walking to the sea now receive a Fisterranana; a certificate of completion by the local alcalde (mayor). The Galician Xunta (government) helps fund the operation of this Camino as part of a regional economic development scheme. All pilgrimage roads tend to end up as merchandise.
I kept my focus on the land, rarely checking the concrete milestones. My hiking mantra is simple: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” I walked steadily for two days past bare corn fields and horreos (raised stone granaries topped with crosses), pazos (large Galician homes), modest stone dwellings, new apartment buildings, ancient fern gullies, and the winter remains of yarrow, thistle, foxglove, and daisies (Figure 13). This is a place of green grass and thick furry horses. The walk sights blurred together but a few stood out: arching Medieval stone bridges, gallery cemeteries with stacks of crypts and bright plastic flowers, and the ruins of castros, fortified pre-Roman settlements that somehow reminded me of the kivas of Chaco Canyon. Each day I walked and each night I was picked up by a cab driver from Santiago de Compostela at a pre-arranged spot. Once again, I was a cheater. Given the cold weather and rain, I felt no guilt.
The last day's walk was the shortest by far, beginning at a coastal fishing village named Cée. The tide was out and the bay was a muddy mess with small dories anchored in the shallows. I had covered 44 miles in the previous two days and felt tired. Despite the gray day, the expansive views to the sea lifted my spirits. Fishing boats motored out to the deep Atlantic; radios carefully tuned for news of bad weather and rumors of rogue waves. I caught my first glimpse of Cabo Finisterre (“the Cape at the End of the Earth”) (Figure 14). The route was now solely along paved roads. I passed through the village of Finisterre without stopping. No trinkets needed. The last steep climb up to the lighthouse brought only one surprise – ice plant – a mat-forming, succulent coastal species I had befriended in California.
The Faro de Finisterre (Lighthouse at the End of the Earth) was the conclusion of my walk (Figure 15). Some pilgrims soldier on to other towns as further evidence of their faith. The lighthouse was plain and its beacon was large and utilitarian. I noticed a milestone with the now familiar yellow scallop shell on a blue background. It read: “0.00 K.M.” (Figure 16). The last marker. Beyond lay only water. I felt a natural letdown and turned to see a square white post with inscriptions painted on all sides: Que a Paz Prevalenza na Terra – “May Peace Prevail on Earth.” It seemed a true enough intention. One worthy of a walk of any length.
Back to Santiago
I returned to the city for a hearty meal and muchas cañas (many beers). Fellow tourists ate pasta and shared photos on their iPads. A few wore hiking boots. None were actual pilgrims. I felt perfectly at home.
I've come to envision the Camino de Santiago as a moving intentional community. For some it is a somber exercise of faith; for others a cultural backpack trip. But the Camino is so many things it defies typology. Is walking it a spiritual vacation or a physical prayer, an escape or a homecoming, ecstasy or sweat? Essayist Nancy Frey has wise words on the matter:
“Although the Santiago pilgrimage has a religious foundation based on Catholic doctrine regarding sin, its remission and salvation, in its contemporary permutation these religious elements endure, but they share the same stage with transcendent spirituality, tourism, physical adventure, nostalgia, a place to grieve, and esoteric initiation” (Frey, 1998: 4).
The meaning of pilgrimage to geographers is equally complex. The production and veneration of monumental sacred trails and sites is a process of central interest to cultural geographers studying how internal values are expressed in the landscape. This is by no means as simple as the “sacred and profane” (Eliade 1987). Landscapes are not simply partitioned; sacredness or esteem is produced through time as a narrative is created and more and more people accept it. In time, emotional claims of superiority gain dominance over facts and reason. This finds harsh expression in the generation of geopolitical conflict. Yet, this tendency to value some places more than others also has profound conservation implications. The UNESCO World Heritage Sites list embraces an array of places based on historic, archeological, biological, geological, scenic, and religious meaning (whc.unesco.org/en/list/). While teams of “academic experts” generate this listing, the cultural valuation of places is negotiated in a similar way to the creation of sacred sites. Therefore, understanding the morphology and meaning of cultural landscapes (be it the trace of the Hajj or the Camino de Santiago – both are UNESCO sites) is a central concern of geographers seeking to understand the processes that transform abstract spaces into contextualized places. The study of pilgrimage has intellectual merit beyond religion because it is a dramatic, widespread example of how ordinary people perceive, order, and engage with the geography around them.
The Camino de Santiago evokes other pilgrimage rituals but remains singular. Unlike Sri Pada there is no climb to a solitary height. Unlike Lourdes, there is no holy water, or holy dirt similar to the Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico. There is no Kaaba, no Western wall, no sacred river, no tree sprouted from an ancient banyan trunk, no circumambulation, no handcart legends, no archetypal volcano or plain of aspiration. For most, the culmination of the walk is the statue and bones of a saint who may or may not have even visited Spain. No one even agrees on the beginning or end of the journey. Perhaps that's the point.
“Buen Camino” people say to you as you walk. I carried no scallop shell and fell short of the required 100 kilometers of walking required to receive my Compostela certificate. I did not go on from Finisterre to the town where you receive a Fisterranana. I was an official failure as a peregrino. No matter. I stood at end of the Earth and listened to the begging of the sea. I felt an emptiness that opened into a fullness I had not expected. I turned homeward, sure that in our perilously short time here each of us pilgrims must walk our own way with as much grace as we can summon.
No cathedral, even one as achingly beautiful as Santiago's, can teach us more than that. No camino arrives in a more promised land.