Surely no other city can claim to have so many backpacks and walking sticks on its narrow cobbled streets. In Spain’s Santiago de Compostela it always looks like there is a giant hiking convention going on. These aren’t your average ramblers, though. They are pilgrims, as the city marks the end of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.
The Camino, or the Way of St James, is most associated with the 500-mile route from the base of the French Pyrenees westward though Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. More accurately, the Camino is the collective name for the multitude of pilgrimage routes laid across Europe that, like a river’s tributaries, finally converge at Santiago de Compostela’s magnificent baroque cathedral, in whose basement it is believed the remains of St James the apostle lie.
Last week the city’s streets were even more rammed with backpacks and walking sticks than usual, as 25 July marked the feast day of St James that all Spain still celebrates. Felipe VI, the king of Spain, was in town to attend mass and watch the mighty Botafumeiro in action. Suspended from the cathedral’s ceiling, the world’s largest thurible swings through the cavernous interior spewing clouds of incense over the awestruck congregation.
I was there, too, after attempting to put my previous Camino experiences (not to mention a year of officer training at the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst) to good use and guide a group of ten patient pilgrims on an inaugural week-long mini-Camino organised by the Catholic Herald magazine. Every day my estimate of our hike’s length seemed a few kilometres short of the final toll: expectation management is crucial, I learned, if you want to keep your pilgrims happy. I was consoled by our accompanying priest – unexpectedly ex-military too (though a lovely man, there is nothing worse when you are trying to leverage your ex-military credentials than to have someone else there with far superior ex-military credentials) – that it was all part of the pilgrim’s penitential experience and would do their souls good.
With that and some serious theological discussions, my brain was in meltdown as we hiked into the city and waded through throngs of other pilgrims clogging the narrow streets before converging in the grand Plaza del Obradoiro in front of the cathedral. It was described by the writer Jan Morris in her book Spain as one of the most beguiling in the world.
There is a strange but uplifting Groundhog Day rhythm to the city’s life due to its pilgrimage destination status. In the early hours, the narrow granite streets around the cathedral are deserted aside from vans making deliveries. Crates of Estrella Galicia beer are deposited along with trays of fish and bags of oyster shells; sweating men wheel great stacks of loo roll, bottled water and soft drinks to the restaurants, hotels and hostels catering to the pilgrims yet to arrive.
As the morning proceeds, the rucksacks and walking sticks enter the picture as the pilgrims emerge. By around 11 a.m. there are hordes of them filling the plaza, having entered the city at its outskirts. Groups are splayed out on the ground using their rucksacks as head rests from which to gaze up at the cathedral’s stunning facade and their final destination (with hiking boots off, there are some stunning tan lines above the ankles). Those who set off from the French interior will have walked more than a thousand miles. A lovely dreadlocked Swiss couple I encountered started in Geneva.
The day we arrived, there seemed to be endless packs of French boy scouts being marshalled with military precision by their leaders. In the plaza I was asked to take a photo of what I assumed was a Spanish school group and their teachers in front of the cathedral. It turned out to be two brothers with their offspring – together with a total of 42 cousins. One of the cousins carried a Spanish flag with the Sacred Heart of Jesus emblazoned in the centre.
The Spanish take the Camino and St James very seriously (the constant supply of hungry and thirsty pilgrims who need a bed for the night is an economic lifeline for villages and towns along the routes). Legend has it that in the 8th century the body of St James was brought to the remote region of Galicia, which remains a bit of a Spanish hidden gem. The word Compostela is derived from the Latin Campus Stellae, which means ‘field of the star’ – the light of which is meant to have guided a shepherd watching his flock at night to where the saint was buried. The shepherd’s lucky find was embraced by the Catholic faithful to fuel support for northern Spain as a Christian stronghold during the crusades against the Moors to the south, and the growth and development of the city duly followed.
After heading into the cathedral’s basement to pay their respects to St James in a silver treasure-chest-like urn (suitably resplendent and mysterious, it looks straight out of an Indiana Jones film), pilgrims embrace the Spanish mantra of ‘From temple to tavern’. Everyone piles into the bars and restaurants serving the Galician speciality of pulpo – octopus – and other gifts of its coastline: scallops, oysters and calamari, along with all manner of colourful tapas. It’s washed down with copious cañas of beer, the local Albariño white wine – renowned for its strong floral and citrus undertones – and fantastic Rioja and Ribera del Duero reds.
After celebrating into the early hours (our night finished with watching a bunch of cape-wearing, guitar-strumming troubadours in the street being cheered to the rafters by a particularly boisterous group of Spanish teenage girls), many a pilgrim wakes up with a sore head and a backpack that feels much heavier. Some set off for the airport. Others keep on walking to Finisterre on Galicia’s western coast, once visited by pagan pilgrims as the end of the known world. The departures make way for the latest batch of pilgrims arriving after the next round of deliveries to restore weary bodies and fuel the quotidian celebrations.