"We are pilgrims on the earth and strangers; we have come from afar and we are going far."
Vincent van Gogh, the post-Impressionist painter of the nineteenth century, reportedly said, "We are pilgrims on the earth and strangers; we have come from afar and we are going far." Well, if the recent movie 'The Way' has inspired you to make your own pilgrimage, you will not be alone. Every year, thousands of people from all over the world walk the centuries-old trail that leads from the Pyrenees to the city of Santiago de Compostela in the north western province of Galicia in Spain. The movie, which stars Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, was beautifully shot on location along the trail and tells of a father's determination to complete the walk after learning that his son died while attempting it. There are longer and more challenging long-distance paths, but walking the Pilgrims' Way, or Camino as it is also known, is truly one of life's unique and memorable experiences.
According to legend, the cathedral in Santiago is the final resting place of St. Peter, one of Christ's apostles and the person responsible for bringing Christianity to the region. The remains of St. James were supposedly transported by boat from Jerusalem to what is now the city of Santiago. Pilgrims have walked to the site for 2,000 years and, during medieval times, Santiago was as important as Jerusalem or Rome. Pilgrimages declined during the 16th century, partly due to political unrest in Europe and partly due to the Black Death. In recent decades, the route has enjoyed something of a comeback and, in the 1980s, the path to Santiago from the Pyrenees was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a European Cultural Route. In 2011, almost 200,000 people walked the route.
Although there are several different paths which all converge, the traditional starting point for many is the tiny Pyrenees village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The town has a pilgrims' office where walkers are issued with an official 'passport' which is then stamped at various stops along the way. You can also get a scallop emblem to carry with you; the shell symbolizing the apostle is the official symbol of the walk and it can be seen on buildings and signposts along the way. Its origins are unclear, although it may have served a practical purpose as well as a symbolic one, as it is just the right size to scoop up water. The office can advise on accommodation and weather conditions. The town also has several small shops where you can purchase any last minute necessities.
Although you can make the pilgrimage at any time of the year, spring and fall are better as far as the weather is concerned. Walking during the summer can mean dealing with temperatures too hot for walking, while the winters can be wet and cold. Most people can walk the 500-or-so miles from St Jean to Santiago in less than a month. Of course, it is possible to take a lot longer. The trail is well marked and takes you through some of the loveliest and most unspoiled countryside in Spain as well as through several historic cities, including Pamplona and Burgos. There are plenty of places to eat and sleep along the way, and many pilgrims' hostels are free if booked in advance. Not surprisingly, these can book up a long time in advance.
Many people who complete the Pilgrims' Way will tell you that the sight of the twin spires of the cathedral at Santiago appearing on the distant horizon is an unforgettable sight. Once you reach Santiago de Compostela, it is a tradition to attend daily noon mass in the cathedral, during which the names of pilgrims who have completed the walk are announced. The highlight of the service is the ceremonial swinging of the container or Botafumeiro, containing burning incense, which is synchronized with the singing of the Hymn to Santiago.
Whether you walk the Way of St. James for religious reasons, for an adventure, or for your own personal reasons, many will tell you it is a life changing thing to do. If you have the time and the inclination, following in the footsteps of those who have walked to Santiago before you is a once in a lifetime experience.