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Pilgrim Route to Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela has been an important pilgrim route for centuries. Its magnetic pull continues today as thousands of people walk, cycle or ride horses through France and Spain to reach this northern tip of Galicia. There are four main routes through France, and one begins at Vézelay, via Lemovicensis to the Camino Francés. All along the route there are refuges for the pilgrims, and well documented information on the religious points of interest - Romanesque cathedrals, chapels, crosses, stained glass, statues, extraordinary bridges on the way.
Before setting out, a pilgrim needs to obtain his ‘Credencial’. This ‘passport’ is necessary for the lodging at the pilgrims’ halts which are generally free-of-charge or for the price of a small donation. This booklet is stamped as you pass along the route as proof of passage and of one’s bona fides as a pilgrim. There is space for 40 stamps which come in all shapes and colours, making a veritable mosaic on the pages. A pilgrim must travel a minimum of 100 km without the aid of a vehicle to qualify but it is not unusual to meet someone who has been on the road for four or five months.
It was near Iria Flavia, now Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, northern Spain, that the body of St. James was discovered in the 9th C. So how did the apostle arrive in Spain? The word goes that after his martyrdom, seven disciples placed his body in a boat which reached Iria Flavia, now El Padron, and they then buried St. James inland. At the time, there were many scallop shells on the beach, and these became a symbol of the pilgrimage. (Today gold shells mark the route through the Vézelay streets and the symbol continues all along the way.)
Pilgrims started to flock to Santiago de Compostela, first from Spain and then from the rest of Europe. To honour the tomb, a small sanctuary was built, and then in the 10th C Alphonse III had a basilica built. When that was too small, a larger one followed. The route became one of the three most important pilgrimages for Christians, along with Rome and Jerusalem.
Around 1130, a monk from Poitiers, Aimery Picaud wrote his ‘Guide for the Pilgrims’ outlining the main routes with fixed stopping places and information about the holy remains which should be honoured. The routes remains today, although of course highways and development have altered some aspects of the original.
Basilique Ste-Madeleine, Vézelay
Coming from Eastern Europe, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, even Russia, pilgrims visit the Basilique Ste-Madeleine at the top of the hill before setting out. It is about 900 km from Vézelay to St-Jean-de-Port just before the Spanish border. From there, it is a further 800 km on to Santiago. This can be divided into 36 stages of generally between 20 and 30 km a day.
There are two branches to the route: one goes through la Charité-sur-Loire and Bourges, the other through Nevers, and St-Amand-Montrond. The branches then join and the route continues across the foothills of the Limousin, Périgueux and the vineyards of Bergerac. The very fine bridge at Orthez in Béarn makes it possible to approach the Pyrenees through Hôpital-d’Orion, an ancient command post founded by the Knights of Malta.
A Pilgrim Takes Up the Story
‘It is the bonhomie of the travellers which keeps you going. All have a common purpose with no barriers of any description. I had now reached Spain. At the old Benedictine Monastery in Samos, pilgrims can sleep in the old Granary. I had heard from Dieter, who had walked all the way from Vienna, that one could attend Vespers celebrated in Gregorian Chant and I was drawn by the serenity and simplicity of the service and its Plain Chant.
During supper in the small restaurant across the road from the monastery, I sensed that my companions could ‘smell’ Santiago, some 113 km away. Roberto from Brazil was doing the Camino for the thirteenth time. Like horses smelling water from afar, they felt themselves almost arrived and were anxious to quicken their paces over the following days. With the now familiar farewell, we wished each other ‘Buen Camino’.
So, what is the motivation behind such a trip? There is beautiful countryside all along the way with engaging and supportive travelling and overnight companions but I never once heard anybody talk about why they were doing it. Was it an endurance test, a challenge, a vow, religious devotion to St. James? For my part, all I can say is that I found it rewarding and uplifting in so many different ways. I became so quickly immersed in the tranquil passage through such lovely countryside and yet buoyed by the ancient and enveloping sense of purpose that one encounters everywhere; in the polished stones of the trail, the chapels, monuments and refuges and in one’s fellow pilgrims. The Dutch poet and author Cees Nooteboom describes in his ‘Roads to Santiago’ how impressed the priest was who maintained the ledger of successful pilgrims in Santiago, with the entry of a Dutch chemistry teacher. He gave the motive for his walk: ‘thinking’. What started as a walk had become a contemplative, reflective but otherwise uncluttered pilgrimage.’
On a Practical Note
Take minimum kit - I started with a tent, four changes of clothes… forget it! It is good to be able to communicate with fellow travellers en route but this is only possible if you can keep up the pace. Some people send their rucksack ahead by taxi.
Parts of the journey are on tarmac roads which are very hard on the feet and you feel as if they are on fire. Prime them before setting out.
A recently updated guide (2003) to the Vézelay route Itinéraire du pèlerin de Saint Jacques sur la voie historique de Vézelay - 121 loose leaves plus 115 maps in a folder with a waterproof map case is available through www.csj.org.uk.