Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The story behind the Camino

Before I go into details about the various stages of our hike, I think I should give a brief overview of what the Camino de Santiago actually is. In short, it's a "walk" across northern Spain that nominally starts anywhere and ends in the town of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (the regional language they speak there is called Gallego). There are a number of established routes that people follow: 
As you can see, they are varied from where they start and where they go. But all routes on the Camino lead to Santiago de Compostela. Each route has it's own character, it's own quirks, it's own personality, and of course it's own people. 

Our route

The route that we did was the Camino del Norte and the Camino Primitivo, if you can find those on the map above. (We did not end up doing the entirety of both routes - we went from Irún to Santander on the Norte and then bused to Oviedo to do the entire Primitivo). The route we chose took us about 600 km from start to finish, and we completed it in 24 days of walking (with a rest day or two, making the trip a total of 27 days). 

A bit of history

The "first" "original" Camino was the Camino Francés, that goes through the Spanish meseta, starting in St. Jean Pied-du-Port in France and ending, of course, in Santiago de Compostela. The term "Camino de Santiago" has an interesting translation in English: "The Way of St. James". Camino in Spanish actually means "walk", but using the word "Way" is an interesting interpretation of the roots and purpose of the Camino (I will explain soon). Iago is the Portuguese / Gallego way of saying "James", so the Camino de Santiago is said in English as the Way of St. James.

St. James, as any good Christian (read: not me) knows, is thought to have spent many years preaching in Spain. Some versions of legend tell that his remains were brought back to the Iberian peninsula from Jerusalem after he was martyred there, and that his  remains are now buried underneath the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Of course, there has never been any definitive proof that his remains are actually in the crypt below the cathedral, but that's not very relevant to the fact that St. James's remains remain (zing!) a major Christian pilgrimage sight. 

Legend also says that his remains were brought to their current sight around the year 44 AD, but were lost to the strands of time. At some point in the early 9th century, a Galician shepherd saw shooting stars coming down to the site of St. James's grave, and as a result the precursor to the current Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela was built. This smaller church was destroyed by the Moors in their conquests across Spain, but in 1075 a new, grander cathedral was built, and continues to stand (with some modifications over time) to the present day. 

The presence of the cathedral made the pilgrimage to see the remains of St. James even more important, with the number of pilgrims steadily growing over the course of thousands of years since the 9th century. 

Traditionally, pilgrims traveled the Camino Francés, known in English as The French Way, starting in St. Jean Pied-du-Port, right on the border of France and Spain. Pilgrims in the old days would wait sometimes for months in St. Jean Pied-du-Port to gather a group of pilgrims large enough to travel the Way, since in those days there were many marauding bands, and groups of pilgrims were likely to get attacked. These groups of pilgrims would travel for months, sometimes years, since they were often poor, and had to stop in villages and towns along the Way to work a bit and get money for the next leg of their journey. Often, they would make it to Santiago de Compostela, and having spent their fortunes and a ton of time getting there, just stayed. As a result, there is a large thriving university scene in Santiago de Compostela, and the national composition of Santiago de Compostela has a large percentage of people of French and German descent, as well as traditional Galician. 

Nowadays, travel is of course much easier with the advent of trains and buses and planes, but the entire pilgrimage still takes about 5 weeks to complete along the Camino Francés. 

The other routes (including the Camino del Norte (The Northern Way) and the Camino Primitivo (The Primitive or Original Way)) were established as alternate pilgrimage routes in the early 1200s.

Along all the routes of the way, there are a number of holy sites, relics, churches, monuments, monasteries, and other Christian articles to see. Nowadays, many people do not do the Camino for religious reasons so don't stop to pray at each of the Christian relics, but it is always important to remember the roots of the Camino as a traditional religious pilgrimage. 

The shell

The shell (or the concha in Spanish) has become a symbol of the Way. For pilgrims it was a practical implement - a bowl, a water-scooper, a shovel. But it also is a metaphor for the routes that all lead to Santiago de Compostela, like the lines on the shell itself. Legend has it that St. James's remains, when they were on a boat transiting to the Iberian peninsula, were lost at sea. They then washed up on the shore in Galicia unharmed, covered in shells. Pilgrims also carry the shell so that in case they die on the Camino (which was not all that uncommon with marauders and when hygienic conditions were not so good in the beginning of the millennium), they would be buried with the shell and thus be protected by St. James, finishing their pilgrimage in the other life. Many (myself included) just think that carrying a shell comes from wanting to take back a souvenir from walking so far :-). I did not succumb to getting a shell (though I did get a small shell pin for my mom's pin collection), but Kayla went all-out and carried a shell. 


 The Way is well-marked, seeing as thousands (if not tens of thousands) of pilgrims pass there every month. The trails are marked by shells, in some form or another. Each province in Spain is responsible for maintaining their own section of trail, and the shells are also supplemented by yellow arrows (the fletchas amarillas) along the entire route. This fact was problematic once or twice, but I'm getting ahead of myself. More on those stories later. 

Lodging (albergues) and being "official" (having a credencial)

Because the Camino became such a popular thing to do in the 13th century, a number of establishments (starting with the ones run by the Order of St. James, a society that exists to help pilgrims) sprang up to lodge and feed the pilgrims. About every 10-15km or so on the Camino del Norte and the Camino Primitivo (about every 5km on the Camino Francés) there are hostel-like sleeping quarters known as albergues, which are either super cheap or on a donation-basis that allow official pilgrims to sleep there. The albergues range from a hotel-like atmosphere where you can also get breakfast to essentially a floor where you can set our a sleeping mat and bag to sleep in. In either case, a shower and a roof over your head are often appreciated at the end of a day's walk.

To be an official pilgrim, you have to have a credencial that you get from an official Order of St. James albergue. At each albergue you stay at (and sometimes at various churches or restaurants along the way), you get a stamp that shows you passed through that town. In Santiago, you show your credencial at the pilgrim's office near the cathedral and get a certificate of completion if you've walked more than 100km. 

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