Spain: Pilgrim's progress

By Peter Calder

The cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. Photo / Supplied
The cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. Photo / Supplied

At the opposite end of Spain from the heavily touristed horrors of the Costa del Sol, Galicia does not loom large on the standard itinerary.

But it's well-known to the tens of thousands who arrive on foot each year at the end of the pilgrimage known as The Way of St James (in Spanish: El Camino de Santiago).

Their goal is the cathedral in the small city of Santiago de Compostela, which is believed by some to contain the remains of the saint who was one of Christ's apostles, and is considered the third most important centre of Christian pilgrimage - after Rome and Jerusalem.

Records of pilgrimage to the site date back to the 8th century and believers were flocking there by the early 12th century. But in the past 25 years, since the old city was designated a Unesco world heritage site, the numbers have exploded: the trickle of 690 in 1985 had become more than 145,000 by last year.

This year they're anticipating the 200,000 barrier to be broken because it's a so-called Xacobeo or Holy Year - one in which St James' Day, July 25, fell on a Sunday.

This last happened in 2004 and won't happen again until 2021.

Expatriate Norwegian Ivar Rekve, who consults to the Pilgrimage Office in the city, says that the vast majority of pilgrims cite spiritual motivations for doing the walk, even if they are not specifically Christian.

"Some people say that they have found themselves at a crossroads in their life and are wondering where to go next," he says.

"Others may have lost a spouse or a loved one or recovered from life-threatening illness. Very few people take it on just as a hike."

A visitor to Santiago de Compostela can scarcely avoid seeing the pilgrims: they arrive, often limping on blistered feet, at the rate of about one a minute (on the day of writing, 852 had completed their walks) and they gather around dusk in the huge square in front of the cathedral for an official welcome. More than a few tears are shed - though whether they are tears of pious joy or gratitude that the long slog is over is not always easy to tell.

In fact, there are more than 100 pilgrimage routes. The most popular by far, the Camino Frances, or French Way, starts on the French side of the Pyrenees and, from the Spanish border, runs about 750km - a stiff 30-day walk - to Santiago. But others snake through central Spain, or up the Portuguese coast: all roads lead to the cathedral.

Along the way, you get stamps in a credencial or passport to prove you passed that way. And at the end, provided you have walked a minimum 100km, you get the certificate of achievement known as the compostela.

Walkers don't need to book - although getting a bunk in one of the €5 ($9) albergues along the route can be tricky in high season. But increasing numbers of New Zealanders are taking an interest: Rekve reports that 138 Kiwis made the walk in 2006 and 200 last year.

Useful sites:

- NZ Herald

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