The Best Travel Destinations Are a Spiritual Journey
Camino de Santiago de Compostela Spain, The Way of Saint James, The Milky Way, or just the Camino – is not only one of the best travel destinations though it is that – but also a spiritual journey. A journey from a thousand years ago still relevant today.
The journey is typically from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Compostela on the west side of northern Spain. There are other starting points throughout Europe, from as far away as Belgium, but the typical full journey is from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to Compostela. This section is known as the Camino Frances. The trip is a pilgrimage, and it’s route was taken as a penance prescribed by the Catholic Church or chosen by a pilgrim as a penance for life’s sins. To undertake the pilgrimage and be considered a true pilgrim one must walk or ride (horse or donkey) a minimum of 100 km, or ride a bicycle at least 200 km (the full distance is about 800 km). A pilgrim needs a pilgrims passport, which allows the holder to stay for little or no cost along the journey at refugios which have been available to pilgrims since the 8th century. The refugios also validate the journey by stamping the passport. Travelers can declare their purpose as “religioso” or “turista,” the only difference being the certificate they can receive from the Cathedral of St. James in Compostela.
The Way began with the discovery of what is believed to be the burial site of St. James in the 8th century. It is said that his body was lost to the sea just off the coast of Spain, and that St. James miraculously appeared several days later covered in scallops. The body was brought to Compostela and buried in a shrine. The scallop shell serves as the symbol of the pilgrim and the pilgrimage to this day. The scallop is seen as a metaphor, as it’s ridges all converge to a single location — just as the rays of the sun and the roads to Compostela do. It is said that St James appealed to Charlemagne in a dream to come to Compostela and rid Spain of the Saracens — it is this path that the pilgrim’s route follows. The story continues, stating that in 813 a shepherd named Pelayo was drawn to a field, and thus the route, by a ‘bright light’ or star. Thus we have, the field (campos) of the stars (stella) of Saint James (Sant’iago), which gives us _Santiago de Compostela_. The Cathedral at the end of the pilgrimage was built around St. James burial location in 1078.
The pilgrimage for most of its history really _was_ a “bucket list” destination, as many pilgrims died on the journey. Medieval serfs were generally only freed from their master due to old age or enfeeblement, and many newly freed faithful made their pilgrimage to Compostela as a penance for their life’s sins or as a last act of faith before death. Many pilgrims died along the way of sickness, ailments, injuries or murder — failing to reach Compostela. Pilgrims were regularly robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Their horses were killed by locals to get fresh meat and hides, and if no refugio existed, they would drop with exhaustion in the ruts of the road only to be killed by wagon wheels or horse hooves. The pilgrimage today is a pleasant journey compared to the Middle Ages when peril was a constant companion. However, it is no stroll – it’s an ordeal even for the most fit of mind and body.
In the 1980’s some years saw less than a thousand people make the journey, and it is expected that close to a quarter-million will complete the short journey in 2010, but few will make the full and authentic journey averaging 800 kilometers, depending upon the chosen route.
WHY TO GO
To walk with history, to see and experience parts of a living history few will ever encounter. Looking at the Camino as you travel in a motor coach is seeing the Camino — participating is experiencing the Camino.
You may find something in yourself. You must be ready to face being alone with your thoughts, and recognize human fallibility.
If the journey is done for religious reasons, there may be a spiritual revelation. If you just want to be a tourist and experience history, you will remember it the rest of your life. In either case, it is not a casual experience. The role of the Camino throughout history is stunning, and I dare you not to reflect upon it.
Legend has it that Charlemagne was called to Compostela in a dream to rid Spain or Andalusia of the moors. In all likelihood Charlemagne organized an expedition to Compostela in a defensive maneuver to disrupt the relationship between the Sarasin Princes who were in rebellion against the Emir of Cordoba. In either case, this act — as well as the death of the Knight Roland, who defend the rear was caught and killed in a pitched battle against Bosque just as they were crossing the Pyrenees retuning to France — caught the attention of Christian Europe.
HOW TO GET THERE
In making a commitment to this spiritual journey you will need to plan at least twenty days away from home. If you can make this commitment, the process begins. Pick a start date, and apply for your Pilgrims Passport at least four months prior (in the U.S., you can apply here http://www.americanpilgrims.com). You must be able to walk or ride for six to eight hours per day — not necessarily fast, but consistent. You will need to invest in good equipment — not flashy, but good and solid.
You can fly to London, Paris, or Lyon and take a connecting flight to Biarritz – Anglet – Bayonne Airport. From the airport make your way to the train station, and take the train to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. Return flights can be booked in advance if you know your schedule, but as plans will be broken on this pilgrimage, having a full fare return flight and being willing to catch a train to the city of the airport when you can will make the most sense.