After the declaration, by the Bishop of Iria Flavia in the late 9th century, that the remains found in a Christian burial site were those of St James the Greater – the first Apostle martyr -, pilgrims have been travelling the Way of St James from far afield, to what is now Santiago De Compostela, in northern Spain, for well over a thousand years.
During this period, Santiago was regarded as the third most prominent pilgrimage destination after Jerusalem and Rome.
Many of these historical pilgrim routes still exist, threading southwards and westwards from all over Europe, but the only major, fully functioning, contemporary pilgrims’ route, which starts in France, is the Chemin de St Jacques – now also the French long-distance walking route, Grande Randonnee 65.
When departing from Le-Puy-en-Velay in the Haute Loire, a hitherto popular pilgrim gathering point, the total distance to Santiago is about 900 miles; or, if you join approximately half way, at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the Spanish border, that last 450 miles through Spain becomes the Camino Frances, known simply as ‘the Camino’.
The GR 65 and the Camino are the last of these long distance routes that are comprehensively geared for today’s foot (and bicycle) pilgrims, with its generally well-marked and safe pathways. It is dotted with frequent and low-cost gites-de-etapes, in France, and refugios or albergues in Spain to accommodate pilgrims, as well as spiritual opportunities with wayside memorials, churches and chapels, not to say the companionship you strike up when joining and walking with your fellow pilgrims – strangers all to start with – but fellow travellers soon.
Along these ancient pilgrim paths, you can truly take time out of time. The walking routes through France pass through peaceful places and magnificent scenery; in Spain it is more functional, but there are some lovely contrasting places, with the wide open spaces and big skies on the plains of the meseta, or the attractive, cosy greenery of Galicia.
The destination is the glorious Romanesque 11th century cathedral where St James’s remains are enshrined. Here you join other arriving pilgrims to celebrate your journey’s end; attend the daily pilgrim Mass, and if lucky, marvel at the spectacle of the massive, silver botafumeiro (thurible) being ceremonially swung right across the width and height of this magnificent church.
However… you may be reflecting that it may not be all about the arrival, but also all those amazing cumulative experiences and memories of the journey, which makes the whole thing so unique.
So, go: take time out of time;
contemplate and discover yourself as you journey;
immerse yourself in God’s creation;
enjoy life ‘in the slow lane’;
benefit from the fellowship and friendship of pilgrims from all over the world;
celebrate and give thanks on arrival at Santiago;
and, when you get home, put into practice all that you discovered and learned.
Buen Camino – may your pilgrimage be very blessed!
Blessed are those who find their strength in you,
Whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.