Magazine article Geographical

The Road to Santiago: Ted Lamb Follows a Centuries-Old Path through the Pyrenees on a Pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela in Northwestern Spain

Magazine article Geographical

The Road to Santiago: Ted Lamb Follows a Centuries-Old Path through the Pyrenees on a Pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela in Northwestern Spain

Article excerpt

The Santiago pilgrimage has undergone an enormous revival in the past couple of decades, partly thanks to some high-profile publicists, including the actress Shirley MacLaine. Her book retracing the mediaeval hike across northwestern Spain, released in 2000, put her on the US bestseller list. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why this long and fascinating walk has become so popular, but its promise of spiritual detachment in an increasingly careworn and confusing world, married to the physical challenge, is appealing to many across all age groups, nationalities and religious beliefs.

The pilgrimage is in honour of Saint Iago--aka St James the Great, son of Zebedee, brother of John the Evangelist and one of the 12 apostles--who wandered Iberia after the death of Jesus, spreading the word before returning to Palestine, where he was executed by Herod Agrippa. The story goes that his friends put his body in a marble boat and pushed it out into the sea. The boat floated along the Mediterranean, through the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar) and into the Atlantic, turning north and making landfall on the coast of what is now Galicia, not far from present-day Santiago.

Local fishermen found the beached boat and gave the remains a decent burial, after which the grave was all but forgotten. It was rediscovered by a vision-inspired hermit around 800 years later, when Spain desperately needed all the help it could get to drive out the Moors. St Iago is said to have reappeared in corporeal form at key battles riding a great white charger.

His recovered remains led to the establishment of the great cathedral city that bears his name and a remarkable mediaeval pilgrimage. This had (and still has) many popular starting points throughout France and Spain, most of them converging at the foot of the western end of the Pyrenees before heading across northern Spain.

St James is the patron saint of Spain, and the route's generic name is the Camino de Santiago--the Way of St James--which is also the name the Spanish give the Milky Way constellation. Today, the stretch known as the Camino Frances between the French foothill town of St Jean Pied de Port and Santiago de Compostela in Galicia is the most popular for pilgrims who don't start within Spain itself. A little more than 770 kilometres in length, the path is steeped in history, winding through hamlets and cities as well as deep countryside. There are startling reminders everywhere of the influences of the Romans and the Moors and even older times, let alone the Middle Ages and the more recent troubled periods in Spain's complicated history.

For the keen walker, this trail to Santiago is a visual delight on several levels. There are many examples of the varied architecture of succeeding empires and the countryside is full of contrasts--even the flat, desolate meseta. The plant--and birdlife is also diverse and abundant. I was lucky enough to be travelling the route at the start of the southern migration for Europe's birds. At the great Galician monastery of Samos, the whole of the deep valley was suddenly filled with a snowstorm of black-and-white martins that had moved on by the time I'd finished my coffee.

Given reasonable weather, the route poses no real technical difficulties in the mountaineering sense, but it's certainly no doddle. The first day starts with a steep climb to 1,440 metres and an equally steep descent to Roncesvalles, where the ambushed Roland perished after his abortive hornblast to bring Charlemagne to his aid.

The main danger in the 30 or so days it takes to finish the walk--allowing for a rest day or two--is the punishment inflicted on the feet. Most of the way is over flinty track and bare rock, and there are stretches on surfaced roads. Blisters are a constant threat and some sufferers I met were out of action for days; a few gave up altogether.

Such ills aside, there is little to detract from one's enjoyment. …

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