Sunday 17 May 2009

I Was a Pilgrim; Yes, I Was!

Always looking for the unusual, in the summer of my nineteenth birthday I walked with a group of friends on the Camino de Santiago - the Road of Saint James - to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain . This is an ancient pilgrimage route, one of the three most favoured in the Middle Ages, the other two being Rome and Jerusalem. But of the three Santiago was by far the most popular, attracting millions of people over the centuries, for the simple reason that there were dangers attendant on the other two, bandits in Northern Italy and Muslims in the Holy Land.

The cathedral at Santiago is supposedly the place where the remains of St James the Greater, the son of Zebedee, were laid to rest in the early Middle Ages. The story, true or not, served the interests of the Christian kingdoms of Spain in their ongoing struggle against the Moors, bringing much needed money and manpower. St James thus appeared in two forms: the apostle and in his new guise of Santiago Matamoros, the slayer of the Moors, a symbol and a presence, yes, a real presence, heading Christian armies in the Reconquista.

OK, let's be honest: when I say I walked I mean I walked in part! The full route, traditionally taken on foot, horseback and cycle would take weeks; we only had three. So, we hired a mini-van, taking turns to drive, and focusing only on the more interesting parts of the route, one of us going on to pre-arranged rendezvous.

The actual walking began from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Basque Country at the foot of the Pyrenees . It was really incredible. In parts we were completely shrouded in the mountain mists, so thick that one could only see a few yards ahead. But on we went, through the Pass of Roncesvalles , where Roland fought to the death in the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army. To be on that spot, to stand on that spot, remembering the Song of Roland, the greatest of the chason de geste, was incredibly moving.

So, on we went, through the ancient towns and cities of northern Spain ; through places like Pamplona , Burgos and Leon and on to Santiago . I should say I went for entirely profane reasons; I have not been a Christian since my mid-teens. But, even so, we met all sorts of remarkable people, from all over Europe and the rest of the world, some travelling like us, others on a genuine religious quest, carrying the Pilgrim’s Passport. The comradeship was the most memorable part.

We arrived towards the middle of the third week. I queued with the others and, in the spirit of the thing, I embraced the image of Saint James. And if you want to know, yes, I did have a scallop shell on my backpack!

GIVE me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope's true gage;
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage.
Blood must be my body's balmer;
No other balm will there be given:
Whilst my soul, like quiet palmer,
Travelleth towards the land of heaven;
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains;
There will I kiss
The bowl of bliss;
And drink mine everlasting fill
Upon every milken hill.
My soul will be a-dry before;
But, after, it will thirst no more.


  1. Wow, the photos are beautiful and the article was really interesting. Sounds like an amazing trip/pilgrimage to make.
    ...maybe my next trip should be to Spain, I've always wanted to go!

  2. Thanks, HL. Yes, it was amazing. I hope you make it to Spain. :-)

  3. That is so cool! I read about this pilgrimage in a book by Paulo Cohelo, a Brazilian writer. Spain is most definitely in my bucket list of places to visit, I'm most definitely jealous!

  4. Welcome to my blog, Deray, and thanks for the comment. It was such a great experience; I met so many lovely people.

  5. Ana, I must say, you have such good taste in your choices of where to travel . . . it's one of your most likeable qualities

  6. I'm all sweetness and light, Chris. :-)

  7. . . . yes, and with lashings of grace . . . all the while remaining, as are the rest of us, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (perhaps the last time you'll read me quote Nietzsche)

    I have three separate sets of friends who have made the pilgrimage. As it happens they are American, Australian and English. As a matter of fact, my English friend and his brother may have scored the Trifecta of Impish Approval: (1) they are fellow pilgrims, (2) nephews of Richard Ingrams of Private Eye, and (3) my friend's older brother is a C of E Vicar . . . if there is an Empyrean in your Impish metaphysics they must surely be well along the royal road to it . . . a great ancillary benefit for a lucky pilgrim.

    I haven't made the pilgrimage but I have been to Pamplona, and here I'll veer into a more serious topic, your moving tribute to the Persian Neda Soltan, who was killed in June 2009. I went to Pamplona in 1978, inevitably for the running of the bulls, which wasn't yet such a cliche, but in that year, not long after the death of Franco, and with ETA becoming active, the Basques rioted on the first day of the Fiesta of San Fermin and a guy named German Rodriguez was killed when a rubber bullet struck him in the forehead. As a result I was accidentally entangled in two days of riots between Basques and the Guardia Civil, and got some up-close and personal experience with rubber bullets and tear gas. Having viewed the YouTube videos of the minutes before and after Neda Soltan's death in June 2009, I have tremendous respect for her physical courage--and that of those who ran to her after she was shot, and both tried to help and recorded her death with the mobile phone. Everyone of those people, beginning with Neda herself, were extraordinarily brave--the flight impulse in a situation like that is almost physically overpowering. But looking at the videos, I saw numerous fires in the streets and it looked far from being a non-violent demonstration. I have no way of knowing what the wrongs and the rights may have been on that day, but it looks like a case of poorly trained government troops, predisposed of course to brutality, using excessive force in a very intimidating and chaotic situation, inappropriately of course, but not necessarily in a deliberate attempt to massacre the demonstrators. I could be wrong, of course. And I don't know if my comments make you feel any better, although that was my intent.

    Regarding Franco himself, your post on that subject was very interesting. I was in Sevilla for a good part of the summer of 1977, and I remember well the general relief at the accession of King Juan Carlos, as well as the hidden resistence, evident in fresh pro-Franco graffiti that kept popping up on walls, mostly from an organisation styling itself the "Fuerza Nacional", which fortunately it was not.

    I've always borne a grudge against Franco's forces for killing the poet Garcia Lorca, but broadly you're probably right about Franco. I am a supporter of Pinochet, and Pinochet may have learned from Franco that it is better to go early--or at least better for the country. Pinochet's subsequent troubles may have given him cause to regret that he didn't hang on like Franco, which is a pity.

    Generally, we tend to think we can understand the bee without understanding the flower the bee has evolved to harvest and simultaneously fertilise--one of the most important lessons of evolution. So those bees Franco and Pinochet are summarily called wasps and condemned as such, because we forget to widen our analysis to include a factual assessment of the meadow in which they buzzed about--something which you have courageously done in your post on Franco.

  8. Neda Soltan moved me so much. Thanks, Chris.