Portrait of Apostle Santiago de Compostela painted by Rubens.
Apostle Santiago is the patron saint of Spain. According to a medieval tradition, after Pentecost (about 33 d. C.), when the apostles were sent to preach the Gospel and convert the faithful to christianity, Santiago crossed the mediteranian sea and landed in Hispania (Spain & Portugal).. According to some accounts, his preaching would have begun in Galicia, There are many versions of his landing on various points in Spain. After converting some people, he returned to Jerusalem where after persecution by the king Herod Agrippa, he was beheaded on the orders of the king. His body was hidden by his desciples and secretly taken to Spain in a mythical stone boat. Thus the legend began.
Throughout history, kings and knights, saints and sinners, defenders of the faith, countless illustrious pilgrims from all over Europe have taken the journey. It is an ancient and spiritual pilgrimage, which comprises of a nearly 800 kilometer trek across fields, mountains and valleys, towns and cities. People do the Camino for many reasons and books have been written by those who have travelled the whole way, revealing the results of their quest.
It was our plan to start our journey from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz in France, then Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga to Santiago. This is the Camino Francés, the original and most popular route. In the early times when the pilgrimage started, this route to Santiago de Compostela was safer because of the protection provided by the kings of France, where the majority of pilgrims started their journey and they did not have to traverse the country ruled by muslim kings in Spain. In the end we decided to start our journey from Barcelona to Pamplona and then continue on the same route (Camino Francés), as we were told, the route was mountainous and rough and without any practice of walking long distances, we may find it difficult to continue.
We had obtained our Credencial del Peregrino from a church in Barcelona which entitled us to stay overnight at the albergues, hostels, hospices and churches.The Credencial is a booklet, which is stamped at each halt on the way, and on reaching Santiago de Compostela, it is finally stamped by the Cathedral authorities, as having completed the pilgrimage by the officially authorised route and the certificate Compostela, is given. To earn this certificate, a pilgrim must complete at least 100 kilometers on foot or 200 kms. on bicycle.
Pilgrimage may be made by foot, on bicycle, on horse back or donkey but those travelling on motor bikes or by buses are not considered authentic pilgrims and are not entitled to stay at alberges. The charges for staying the night at places run by the local municipalities (ayuntamentos) are about 6 euros, private places between 10-15 euros, and individual rooms which cost upto 40 euros. There are some places where you may be asked to leave a donation and only at León the accomodation was free and we paid 4 euros for breakfast. Albergues have bunk beds, capacity from 18 to 60 persons in one room or a hall.
In ancient times, the pilgrimage took months, the ways were rough and many pilgrims old and infirm, and in order to tend to their injuries and sicknesses, hospitals were erected on the route to Santiago. Many pilgrims died on the way and it was considered a privilage to die on the pilgrimage of one of the most holy cities in christiandom.
The scallop shell has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meanings. In the ancient times wearing a scallop shell not only gave the pilgrims the privilage of free lodging and food, it also warded off thieves and bandits who infested the country, but who dared not attack the pilgrims, as they were under the protection of kings.So we also bought two scallop shells and wore them around our necks, as a sign to any one on the road that we too were pilgrims, although our purpose to walk the Camino de Santiago was not religious.
Although the Camino had been popular in early times, its importance had vained and it was not until Shirley MacLaine, the American actress who did the Camino and wrote about it in her best seller book "The Camino: A Pilgrimage of Courage" did the trend suddenly increased and now thousands of people from all parts of europe and other countries do the Camino.