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.