The City: Santiago De Compostela

Article excerpt

Paulo Coelho undertakes a pilgrimage to a sacred, starlit Spanish site.

Yes, today we have many wondrous means of transportation. Airplane tickets are cheaper than ever, while driving Europe's new highways can be a delight. But of all the cities in the world I know, Santiago de Compostela is the only one where the most agreeable way to arrive is--on foot.

Just as each Muslim is required, at least once in his life, to retrace the Prophet Muhammad's footsteps from Mecca to Medina, first-millennium Christians knew that blessings and indulgences awaited those who made at least one of the three sacred pilgrimages of the faith. The first led to Saint Peter's grave in Rome, by which travelers--or Romeros--bore the symbol of the cross. On the second route, worshipers took palm fronds to Christ's tomb in Jerusalem, just as the ancients did nearly two millennia ago to greet Jesus as he arrived in the holy city. Finally, there was the road to the grave of Saint Tiago--known in English as Saint James--whose mortal remains were said to be buried in the Iberian Peninsula on the night that a shepherd envisioned a field under brilliant starlight.

Not just Tiago but also the Virgin Mary were believed to have gone to the site shortly after the death of Christ to spread the Gospel and convert souls to Christianity. The place was called Compostela--the starlit field--and soon a city was born there. It became a magnet for worshipers from all over Christendom; known as pilgrims, their symbol was a conch shell. In its heyday in the 16th century, the road to Santiago de Compostela drew more than a million pilgrims a year, from all over Europe, who guided themselves by the light of the Milky Way. On their heels came believers humble and exalted, including Charles the Great, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Isabel de Castilla.

When I set out for Santiago nearly 30 years ago, starlight was the last thing on my mind. But one afternoon, there I was, in a cafe in Leon, surrounded by chattering travelers alight with stories about their trek. The town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was miles behind me, and I was already better than halfway to Santiago. In a matter of days, I would turn 39, and though I had no idea at the time, from that moment on nothing in my life would be the same. But here, on the road, the landscape ahead looked monotonous and flat. …