The scallop shell is the traditional badge of the Santiago pilgrim (hence 'Coquilles St Jacques') for reasons lost in obscurity. Probably it was just a brilliant piece of medieval marketing: scallops were plentiful on the shores of Galicia, where Santiago is situated, and selling the shells to pilgrims as souvenirs was a lucrative trade (the Archbishop of Santiago was empowered by the Pope to excommunicate anyone who sold them outside the diocese). The pilgrims of old wore the shells on their return journeys. Today's pilgrims (who are more likely to fly than walk home) wear them on their way to the shrine. I bought mine from a rosy-cheeked lady in a fish shop in the market square of Le Puy, in central France, one of the traditional starting-points for the Santiago pilgrimage, and put it on the dashboard of the Renault 19 cabriolet that the BBC had kindly supplied me with - for I had come to make a film about the way of St James, and was obliged to cheat a bit in the way I covered it.
The extraordinary popularity of the pilgrimage to Santiago in the Middle Ages (it is estimated that up to half a million people a year made the trip) and its revival in our own sceptical age (tens of thousands hit the Camino de Santiago every summer, and there has been a spate of books on the subject recently) are puzzling on first consideration. The place's historical claims to veneration are pretty thin. There is no evidence whatsoever that St James was buried there. The tradition that he preached in Spain, returned to Jerusalem to be martyred, and that his body was conveyed in a boat to the coast of Galicia by two disciples, is no older than the seventh century.
A couple of hundred years later, a Galician hermit discovered the putative tomb of the Apostle, claiming to have been guided by a light twinkling like a star above the hillock where the relics were dug up. The name Compostela is sometimes said to mean 'field of the star', though a more reliable derivation is from the Latin word for graveyard. King Alfonso II of Asturia and Galicia quickly spotted the potential significance of the find and ordered a church to be erected on the site, where the majestic cathedral of Santiago now stands.
It's hard today, even for Christians, to understand the importance the medieval believer attached to relics and holy places, as tokens, or totems, of salvation. The shrine of St James was developed in part as a rival to Islamic Cordoba, which boasted an arm of the Prophet, and 'Santiago' became a battle-cry for the Christian campaign to drive the Moors out of the Iberian peninsula. Statues of St James all along the Camino depict him not only as a pilgrim, but also as Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moorslayer, with his slaughtered victims trampled under the hoofs of his steed: an icon that could become an embarrassment if political correctness should ever reach Spain.
In short, the cult of Santiago developed when it did because Christendom in general and Spain in particular needed a new, prestigious shrine to focus religious and patriotic sentiment. The pilgrimage route, though arduous, crossing two mountain ranges, was safer than the routes to Rome or Jerusalem, and was particularly accessible to pilgrims from France and Northern Europe, including Britain. The French were largely responsible for encouraging the development of the pilgrimage and for founding the abbeys, churches and hostels along the Camino which provide such rich pickings for modern historians of art and architecture. The four traditional starting points are all in France: Paris, Vezelay, Le Puy and Arles. Three of these routes converge at St Jean- Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, and the fourth joins them on the Spanish side, after which there is only one Camino.
In my novel Paradise News, there is an anthropologist who has a theory that tourism is a modern substitute for religion ('The sightseeing tour as pilgrimage. Accumulation of grace by visiting shrines of high culture. Souvenirs as relics. Guidebooks as devotional aids. You get the picture.') But the analogy works both ways. The medieval pilgrimage in many ways anticipated the modern package tour. 'When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root,' Chaucer begins the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, 'then folk long to go on pilgrimages'; just as modern folk, come spring, reach for the holiday brochures. The Wife of Bath had been to 'Galice' (Galicia) as well as to Rome and Jerusalem.
Medieval pilgrims, like modern tourists, tended to travel in groups for safety and company, though the more devout or penitential ones went solo. They typically travelled on foot - barefoot, if they were particularly penitent or devout - and were entitled to free refreshment and shelter, often of a rudimentary kind, in the hospitals or hostels, today called refugios, that were set up all along the Camino, usually by monastic orders or guilds. The better-off pilgrims travelled on horseback, and put up at inns. There is no doubt that for some the pilgrimage was a life-changing experience; but for many it was an excuse to see the world and have a good time. The same might be said of the modern pilgrims.
When the pilgrims of old reached Santiago, they obtained a certificate of completion called a 'Compostela'. Today you can get a special passport from the Confraternity of St James and have it stamped at various stages along the route, and finally at the cathedral. You only have to cover 100km on foot, bicycle or horseback to qualify. Relatively few travel the entire length of one of the traditional routes. To walk such a distance (the Spanish Camino alone is 800km), with all your possessions on your back, takes months, not weeks, and is a gruelling physical and psychological challenge. For those who undertake it, the pilgrimage is hallowed by its human history - the thought of the millions who have made the same journey, and passed through the same landscapes, and visited the same churches before them - rather than by the shrine at its terminus.
No one I met, including practising Catholics, was much concerned about whether St James is really buried in Santiago, and many of the most serious pilgrims were not believers at all. For them it was a kind of retreat: an opportunity to take time out from the modern world with its practical problems and material concerns. Several were at some kind of watershed in their lives: at the end of a course of study, between jobs or out of work, approaching middle age, or recently retired. Nico, an artist, whom I met climbing over the pass to Roncesvalles, had walked all the way from the Netherlands, and planned to get to Santiago for his 40th birthday. Like many of the walkers, he had explored the Camino originally by car on
vacation, and had been drawn to return and do it properly. Clare, a young woman from England, had started out from Le Puy in a fairly casual spirit, primarily motivated by an academic interest in Romanesque architecture, but found herself becoming completely obsessed by the experience of walking and the need to complete the pilgrimage, despite an injured leg which she was resting outside one of the honey-coloured churches of the Meseta when I met her.
Many modern pilgrims begin their journey at the Pyrenees, either at St Jean-Pied-de-Port or at the Augustinian monastery of Roncesvalles, which has been offering hospitality to 10 pilgrims for centuries. More start at points further along the route: for instance, Pamplona (the Camino actually intersects with the street where they run the bulls in the fiesta of San Fermin), Burgos (with its richly endowed abbey of Las Huelgas), Leon (famous for its Gothic cathedral and the magnificent pilgrim hostel that now houses a five-star hotel), and Cebrero, a little village in the Mountains of Leon that was a miraculous shrine in its own right, and whose inhabitants still live in circular stone cottages of ancient design. The Camino is the ultimate heritage trail.
It was the parish priest of Cebrero who was chiefly responsible for the modern revival of the pilgrimage in the 1970s, reopening the chain of refugios. This has proved an irresistible attraction to backpacking international youth, and to young Spaniards seeking an impeccable excuse to get out of the parental home and away from parental supervision for a while. The closer you get to Santiago, the more pilgrims of all kinds there are, and the nature of the pilgrimage begins to change in a way that those who set out to do it the hard way can find disconcerting: what had been a lonely and introspective rite of passage turns into a rather hearty social experience. Nico, who had been on a kind of Wordsworthian high in the Pyrenees, was rather fed up with his fellow pilgrims when I caught up with him in Santiago.
Even pilgrims who described their motives to me as as mainly cultural and recreational obviously felt they were doing something much more rewarding than taking an ordinary vacation. Many said they were looking for an alternative to package tours and beach holidays. The danger is that the growing popularity of the Camino may change its character and make it more and more a stereotyped mass experience. If you want to do the pilgrimage in your own way, it's probably advisable to travel out of season, and certainly to avoid the fiesta of St James at the end of July.
On the eve of his feast day, thousands gather around the Cathedral of St James to place their fingers in the fingerholds worn in the central column of the magnificently carved Portal del Gloria, or to embrace the statue of the saint above the high altar. The cathedral is a focus of real religious feeling; but it is a distinctly old-fashioned, atavistic, almost primitive kind of religiosity that seems untouched by modern scepticism and angst.
The statue of St James, swathed in silver and gold plate, encrusted with jewels, presides over the high altar like a pagan idol, quite overshadowing the tiny crucifix below. It is entirely in character that the high point of the Santiago liturgy is the swinging of a giant censer, the botafumeiro, by six men operating an elaborate tackle of ropes and pulleys, a spectacle that has more than a touch of the circus about it.
Inevitably, the constraints and conventions of film-making obliged me to simulate rather than perform my pilgrimage. I did walk over the Pyrenees, and a memorable experience it was, but I was accompanied by a film crew lugging apparatus considerably heavier than my rucksack. To try to get at least a fleeting idea of the real thing, I walked the last stage, from Labacolla to Santiago, on my own. It was not a profound spiritual experience, nor did I expect it to be. The distance was comfortably short, and the terrain mainly suburban. I was chiefly struck by the ironies and contrasts generated by the revival of a medieval pilgrimage in the modern Spain of motorways and mini-
skirts, Seats and satellite dishes. How different the Camino must have been in the 11th and 12th centuries, even when it was thronged with pilgrims: no metalled roads, no electricity, no internal combustion engines - no noise, virtually. I think that is what would strike us most if we were magically transported back to the Middle Ages: the silence. It is still possible to recover some sense of that ancient peace and quiet on those parts of the Camino that are footpaths, traversing often sublimely beautiful landscape, but inevitably a good deal of the route, including the final stage, runs alongside busy trunk roads where the pilgrim is buffeted and deafened by the passage of speeding cars and thundering lorries.
Nevertheless I'm glad that I walked that last stage. It is still a thrill to behold Santiago for the first time, and to approach it slowly on foot enhances the excitement of discovering the old city hidden behind the modern architecture of the suburbs. One's first glimpse of the twin towers of the cathedral at the end of a crooked street lifts the spirit, and no one ever forgets their first sight of its majestic baroque facade towering above the huge, harmonious space of the Plaza del Obradiero.
David Lodge's film, 'The Way of St James', is shown tonight on BBC1 at 10.30pm in the Everyman series 'Legendary Trails'.
GETTING THERE: Iberia International Airlines (071-830 0011) does return flights to Santiago from Heathrow from pounds 216 (14 Dec to end of year). You can pick up local tours in Santiago that cover part of the pilgrimage route, or you can set off independently.
PACKAGE TOURS: The Alternative Travel Group (0865 310399) offers a 17-day pilgrimage tour to Santiago four times a year for around pounds 2,000 (excluding air travel), which covers the most interesting parts on foot and the rest by car or bus. Inter-Church Travel (0800 300444) does a 10-night tour once a year on 18 July, flying from Heathrow to Bilbao and returning from Oporto, for pounds 799.
OTHER INFORMATION: Spanish Tourist Office, 57-58 St James Street, London SW1A 1LD, tel: 071-499 0901. The Confraternity of St James, 45 Dolben Street, London SE1 0UQ, will supply 'passports', information and advice about the pilgrimage to Santiago.Reuse content