The British Confraternity of St James recently took ownership of a parish house in this littlevillage and, with the help of generous donations from members, they have extended, furnished and equipped this new albergue to a very high standard. It stands stretegically to provide the walking pilgrims with another choice of albergue, on a stretch where there is little in the way of basic accommodation.
The reception at Miraz was warm and friendly, from volunteer hospitaleros who come out at their own expense to do a few weeks service on behalf of the pilgrims. On duty were Bob and Barbara, with Ted and Avril there to help with a lot of practical issues, including the assembly of furniture and repairs. Although we were welcomed in to stay, the albergue doesn’t officially open until June 7th, when the Bishop will come to give the house a formal blessing and inaugurate its future role as a pilgrim hostel.
Reaching the goal
The end of a long, arduous journey brings a mixture of conflicting emotions. Any pilgrim will understand this. There is adeep sense of relief that the journey is over, that you have attained your goal, but there is also a “what next….?” feeling that dogs your heels. I have only spent 18 days getting here, but many
walkers take several weeks, if not months to arrive. Although cycling/walking for several hours every day is exhausting, there is something blissfully simple about the process. You have only three basic needs: travelling, eating and sleeping. Life is shredded down to simple fundamentals for a few weeks, and when the journey is over, there is the almost immediate prospect that all those other things that keep us busy from morning till night will reappear in our lives, and we have to acknowledge our responsibilities (family, work, domestic duties etc….).
For me the journey is not quite over. After a day in Santiago, I plan to head out to Finisterra, believed to be the most westerly point of the peninsula and, in pre-Columbian days, it was the end of the world. In medieval times, those pilgrims who could make it (at least another 6-10 days
return) would go out to Finisterra, pick up a new scallop shell, burn the clothes they had travelled in, and bathe in the fresh waters of the Atlantic. Symbolic acts to herald the start of a new life as they headed back for home.
This was also the route taken by the Celts as they sought the land of the setting sun. So in the last stages of my journey, I will be picking up some of the pre-Christian pilgrim traditions and seeking the land of perfection that may lie beyond the horizon.
Santiago de Compostela
Pilgrimage is a major industry here. Groups travel from all over the world to visit the Cathedral and the shrine of St James. Peppered amongst all these groups you will spy the tired dusty walkers and sweating cyclists who will arrive like planes into Heathrow, except they are limping or struggling to pedal up the last steep hills. To cycle into the Plaza do
Obradoiro and stand in front of the great Cathedral is breathtaking. But to my surprise, the square was largely given over to a major protest by young people, protesting about the lack of job opportunities in the current economic crisis. Just like Parliament Square in London, the Plaza is a sea of tents, posters and food kitchens. I believe that in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, they have the protest so organised that they have set up nurseries for children, clinics and other essential services to keep the protest going in the long term.
The big spectacular event in the Cathedral is the pilgrim mass at mid-day, which is packed daily with thousands of people from around the world. The real pilgrims will be carrying backpacks or wearing lycra and will struggle their way through the crowds to line up to “hug” the statue of St James high up behind the main altar, and wait for the amazing feat of the swinging of the huge censor, the botafumeiro, which wafts incense throughout the Cathedral. This is an inheritance from medieval days when the incense was needed to mask the intense smell of unwashed pilgrims, and to kill off the many parasites they would bring with them. I stood right underneath this huge swinging censor (that weighs 95 kilos and needs six men to operate it) as it whizzed only a few feet above me, and inhaled the full strength of the incense as it billowed out from all sides.
Monumental Santiago is a place to spend a few days in. When you collect your pilgrim “Compostela” from the
Cathedral Office (a certificate of completion written in Latin), you can use it to some benefit in museums and claiming your free meals at the 5* Hostal de los Reyes Católicos on Cathedral Square. Dirty pilgrims, however, don’t eat with the five star diners upstairs, but downstairs in the servants’ quarters, and they can only cater for 10 pilgrims per meal. So you have to plan you stategies.
To mark the end of journey, before having the obligatory photo taken in front of the Cathedral, I rummaged about in the depths of my saddlebag to find the small bottle of Iona Whiskey given to me by John Rawlinson (who had led the blessing at St Andrew’s in Kimbolton), to mark the meeting of two great places of pilgrimage. It was appropriate that it was from Iona, a place where Celtic christianity was diffused throughout our land, because I had been following a Celtic route through France and Spain to get to Santiago. As I raised the bottle and took a wee dram, I not only toasted St James, but also the Celts that had preceded him who had laid the foundation of this great journey through Europe.
After completing the Via Fancigena (Canterbury to Rome) last September, I am about to revisit a journey that I last completed in 1993, but this time taking a different route. This sequel will be another ancient route of pilgrimage, established in medieval times on the belief that the body of the Apostle James the Greater was transported there after his execution, and buried at the spot where the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago now stands.
In medieval times, without the benefit of modern means of transport, pilgrims gathered at a local spot in their community, received a blessing for their journey, and then began the long dangerous walk that would take up to 6 months (not counting the return journey!). Although I will have the benefit of a pair of wheels, my plan is to depart from my home in west Cambridgeshire after receiving a blessing at my local church.
My route will take me down to Portsmouth, where I will catch the ferry to St Malo and, from there, will head towards the Atlantic coast, and follow the coastline to pick up the Voie Littorale at the mouth of the Gironde, and from there head down to the Spanish border. There I will pick up the most ancient of routes to Santiago, called the Camino del Norte (North coast route), used by pilgrims till the end of the 15th century when Spain had been occupied by the Moors, and all forms of Christian pilgrimage had been suppressed. The North Coast Route will link with the Camino francés (the French route) that will take me into Santiago de Compostela, a total distance of over 1200 miles. There I will present my “credential” (a passport that has been stamped along the way) at the Cathedral Office, they will ‘interrogate’ me to check that I have arrived under my own steam, and they will then (I hope) present me with the “Compostela”, a document written in Latin declaring that I was a bona fide pilgrim and successfully arrived in Santiago de Compostela.
If time permits, I will then cycle the 88 kms (54 miles) to Finisterre, one of the most westerly points of mainland Europe (so-called because, before Columbus discovered the Americas, it was thought to be the very end of the world) and I will pick up a scallop shell from the beach, the symbolic emblem of pilgrims across the world.
Why a Celtic route? My own family background is deeply rooted in the ancient Celtic traditions of Ireland. My father’s ancestors were driven out of Ireland in 1840 by the famine, and came to Britain seeking work in the iron ore mines of Cumbria. My mother, on the other hand, was first generation Irish, born in the village of Cappamore in Co. Limerick. In planning this journey, I wanted to make connections with some of the pre-Roman Celtic places which lie along the western sea-board of the Continent. The region of Galicia itself, in NW Spain, has a history deeply rooted in the Celtic traditions (with clear evidence of this in their music, dance, use of bagpipes and outfits not dissimilar to what you see in Ireland). The name “Galicia” probably derives from “Gaul” (Roman name for Celts), the Gauls being gradually driven westwards by the invading Romans until they occupied all the most westerly points of continental Europe and the British Isles. Many historians also support the thesis that there was a major migration of British Celts across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia in the 4th-5th centuries, and they were given land in the area now known as Britonia, close to the north coast.
My route to Santiago will pass through Celtic Europe and, as I draw near to Santiago, I will visit some of the places that not only have evident remains of a Celtic past, but even now still celebrate ancient rites like the harvest festival of Lughnasadh on August 1st. It is also well documented that the cult of St James and the Camino de Santiago were developed on an already pre-existing route used by the ancient, pre-Christian Celts, called the Via Lactea (Milky Way) which led them to Cape Finisterre, the end of the known world. The ancient Celts dreamed of the mysterious beauty that must lie across the sea to the west, and their journeys along the Via Lactea were a quest to draw near to this land of perfection.