“Joder…necesito una cerveza, y un cigarillo.” That’s what my art professor said to me as we hiked up the hill towards Santiago de Compostela, site of the tomb of Saint James the Elder. In English, his words translate to a four letter word, followed by an expressed desire for beer and cigarettes. Vulgar as it was, I thought it was funny. In centuries past, the trip to see an Apostle’s Bones might have commanded more reverence from pilgrims. But for a man who had done this multiple times, this was just another morning hike. For the rest of us on the trip, it meant something more. We were American undergrads, enjoying a week off from classes in which we could hike through the green hills of Galicia to make the pilgrimage. As a reward, we would have our very own document in Latin- the Compostelana, proving that we had made the trek.
The story goes that Saint James was beheaded by King Herod in the year 44 A.D. His remains were brought by faithful followers to the coast of Northern Spain where he had previously visited as a missionary. Oral traditions recounted his burial deep in the Galician forest, though the exact location would remain unknown until centuries later when witnesses described a series of fantastic lights and miracles coming from the forest in Galicia, and a bishop from a nearby town was able to unearth three bodies- those of Saint James and his disciples.
Santiago (Saint James in Spanish) became a sort of talisman for Christian Spaniards from then on, and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela a necessary stop for monks and knights before they embarked on la reconquista. In the centuries since then, the road to Santiago de Compostela has evolved into the third most important pilgrimage in the Christian faith, behind only Jerusalem and Rome. It is also now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every year, thousands of travelers from all over the world make the journey to Santiago, whether by foot or bicycle, or occasionally following the medieval tradition- by horseback.
We did not encounter any medieval characters, but we did meet Australians, Germans, Chinese, Poles, Brazilians, Americans, Japanese, French, and especially Spaniards making the trek to see their patron saint. It is no longer a purely a religious experience either, though many still list it as their primary incentive (including a Pope or two). Quite a lot of pilgrims do it for the sheer challenge while others simply wish to experience the beauty of Northern Spain, or in our case, as a means of escape from the “real world”.
Red crosses, golden conch shells, and yellow arrows mark the path from hundreds of miles around. Moreover, the road to Santiago can stretch from as far as Paris and come through Poitiers and Bordeaux. It can wind its way through Roncesvalles and Pamplona. Further on pilgrims may visit the medieval cities of Burgos and Leon, before eventually entering the green hills of Galicia. But no matter what, one will encounter encouraging locals along the road, as well as hostels (“albergues”) to stay in over night. It is customary to carry a pilgrim’s passport, in which stamps are collected from different stops along the way, before finally showing it as proof of the pilgrimage in Santiago. In return you will receive the Compostelana, an official document declaring your success. It is a great bonding experience, a perfect way for you to immerse yourself in an ancient cultural tradition, and most importantly, something you will always remember.