The remains of St James the Great, one of Christ’s twelve apostles, were discovered at the beginning of the 9th century in the north west of Spain. For more than twelve centuries millions of pilgrims have walked along a route to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where St. James’ remains were believed to have been buried after his martyrdom.
In May/June of this year, a group of 10 friends from Simons Town, Noordhoek and Johannesburg set out to walk part of this pilgrimage. Our starting point was Sarrio, intending to walk 113 kms over a period of 5 days to reach our final destination of Santiago. We stayed in private albergues and casas rurales which we had booked in advance and, on average, tried to walk 20/25 kms a day.
We endeavored to keep up a similar routine each day – starting out at about 08h00 in the morning having had toast and coffee at our accommodation, walking until about 10h00 when we would stop for delicious coffee wherever we found ourselves, then ambling along (there was no rush!) soaking up the scenery, visiting churches decorated with frescoes, checking out the local markets, strolling along lanes frequented by cows and other animals, admiring the wild flowers and well-kept vegetable gardens, bird spotting, conversing as best we could with other pilgrims who came from all corners of the world, pausing to take photographs, finally hoping to arrive by 14h00 for lunch at a suitable tavern which had been recced by the front pack of the group.
Lunch was a very casual affair and known to include a few beers and a carafe of Vino Tinto! Here, or at the coffee stops, we would get our “credencial” (issued in the form of a mini passport) stamped. We generally arrived at our planned village by 16h00 where we would rest our weary bodies and sore feet, freshen up & then follow with dinner at a local restaurant to eventually retire for an early night. We were guided on the pilgrimage by ever present yellow arrows pointing us in the right direction. Each day saw different members of our group walking in varied formations – usually the majority of the men up at the front discussing business and women at the back chatting and taking the photographs! However, we very rarely lost sight of each other and invariably one of our gentleman pilgrims would quietly appear at the back to assist the slower walkers.
Language was not a barrier as most of the other pilgrims and locals could speak some Spanish but if we encountered any problems one of our ladies in the group could speak a smattering of Spanish – this caused much hilarity in our translations. We passed through many villages too many to mention but the main ones were Portomarin, Palais de Rei, Melide and Arzua.
On arrival in Santiago we were presented with our “compostela” (certificate of completing the camino) on production of our stamped credencial. We were awestruck by the magnificence of the cathedral and spent the rest of the day exploring its massive interior containing many Christian symbols, admiring the amazing architecture , and especially, seeing the jeweled statue of St. James as well as entering the crypt where the casket that is said to contain his bones and those of two of his disciples is kept. From the outside high above on the parapets we were met with an amazing view of Santiago and the Plaza de Obradoiro stood grandly before us.
Our final day was a Sunday and we were privileged to attend a pilgrims’ Mass at noon in the Cathedral which culminated in the swinging of the “botafumeiro” – a massive silver incense burner – led by a team of eight men who tied the knots to get it swinging across the cathedral. Quite fantastic!
Apart from enjoying each other’s company very much, this wonderful journey proved to be hard exercise for some and a “walk in the park” for others, a cementing of already good friendships, a meeting of other pilgrims of many nationalities, enjoying the hospitality of the locals, time to reflect on the past and to look to the future surrounded by a peaceful and beautiful ambience and, most notably, a spiritual wakening for some. The only injuries suffered were a few blisters!