Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
July 16, 2001
Walking 'the long road to heaven'
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, SPAIN — The Camino de Santiago, also known as "the Long Road to Heaven" is the annual pilgrimage to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela that has been taking place for over 1,000 years, making its destination the third largest Christian pilgrimage destination after Jerusalem and Rome.
Located in the northwestern part of Spain, Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia, lies about 35 km from the Atlantic Ocean. The pilgrims' road runs from east to west, paralleling the northern shore of Spain. One main route traverses the Pyrenees and goes through Pamplona, Burgos and Leon but there are a network of paths, lined with statues and other symbols that lead to Santiago.
Taken from the Spanish interpretation meaning "Way of James" the Camino de Santiago is, and has been since the Middle Ages, one of the major European pilgrimage routes to venerate the tomb in which, according to tradition, the remains of St. James the Great, the cousin of Jesus, have been laid to rest.
For after preaching the Gospel in Spain, James returned to Palestine, where he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44AD. His followers stole his body and moved it to an undisclosed location, but in 813, a man by the name of Pelayo followed a shower of stars to the hidden location where James' body had lay undetected for some time.
A church was built on the site between 1060 and 1211 (now the magnificent cathedral) and the town of Santiago de Compostela rose around it.
Legend has it that in 844, at the Battle of Clavijo, St. James was resurrected as the infamous slayer of the Moors where he led the Christian armies to victory and became "Santiago Matamoros" - St. James the Moor Slayer, patron saint of Spain.
The centuries old pilgrimage along the Road to Santiago created since the very beginning an extraordinary spiritual, cultural and economical vitality; it bred literature, music, art and history. On its account, cities and villages were born, hospitals and lodgings were built, commercial ways and new markets appeared new roads and bridges were planned.
At the height of its popularity in the 11th and 12th centuries over a half a million people a year are said to have made the pilgrimage from different parts of Europe, the majority of them from France.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, with the discovery of new lands beyond the Atlantic, the number of pilgrimages decreased. However, the 800-km pilgrimage route to the tomb of St. James the Apostle, was declared, in its entirety, an historic-artistic monument in 1962. In 1985 the Santiago de Compostela was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. This signalled the rebirth of pilgrimages to Santiago, which has its entrance doors in Navarra for all the European pilgrims who travel the route for whatever reason - religious or cultural.
More currently, several thousand people walk the Way every year, whether from the Pyrenees, from different parts of France of from even further. It is not uncommon to meet Swiss, German, Belgian, Irish, Dutch and North American travellers. Not surprisingly, The Camino has had many famous people to traverse across her. One of the best known was St. Francis of Assisi, a man not unacquainted with walking.
Today, however, the vast majority of those who walk The Way are not experienced walkers. In fact, many have never done any serious walking and many will never do anything like it again.
Interestingly enough, most long-distance footpaths avoid not only large towns but even small villages as well whereas the Way of St. James, on the other hand, because of its historic origins and the need for shelter, deliberately seeks them out. People continue to travel the pilgrims' road, some walking, others cycling or driving. There are still hostels along the way where serious pilgrims can find hospitality.
The route has its dangers still and some people go in groups, for safety and companionship, but just as many travel alone. For identification purposes, many pilgrims choose to dress distinctively, wearing a broad brimmed hat, carrying a staff and a scallop shell, the emblem of St. James and the symbol of the pilgrim.
The walk itself takes about a month. Many people time their pilgrimage in order to arrive in Santiago shortly before July 25, when for several days the city celebrates the feast of St. James, the traditional Spanish holiday month. At this time, it is fairly hot, busy and crowded on the Camino. A cooler, quieter time to travel would be from April to mid-June or mid-September through November.
However, above and beyond all of this, the most important thing here is the Goal, not the Way. Pilgrims do not go on pilgrimage for the sake of the Way. Or do they? A strange and wonderful transformation happens along this ancient, wondrous road, a spiritual shift in which the Way becomes the Goal.
For The Camino itself soon turns into an opportunity to truly see and know oneself, and to meet beloved brethren all in search of the same things; the fundamental desire for truth and guidance. It is a place of love and solidarity between pilgrims and the inhabitants of the villages they go through.
And what can be better than that?
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