The Pilgrimage to Santiago

Don Harris | July 2014

July 25th is one of the most important holidays in the Spanish calendar. It is the day set aside to honor Santiago: St. James, the patron saint of Spain. His remains are believed to rest in the ancient Romanesque cathedral located in Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage city of great significance in the history of Europe. 

The saint’s tomb is located in the far northwestern region of Galicia, distant from the commercial hubs of Madrid and Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla, yet that is no barrier for the pilgrims. They come from all corners of Spain to venerate the man whose mythical presence inspired the Christians in their almost 800 year long struggle against the Moors. 

To this day, people from all over Europe stream from France through the mountain passes of the rugged Pyrenees on their quest. At one time Santiago de Compostela was the primary spiritual destination for European pilgrims, when Jerusalem was in the hands of the Muslims and Rome was ravaged by barbarians. 

Pilgrims came from all over – Paris, Amsterdam, Scandinavia, Italy (St. Francis traveled the Camino from Assisi). In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer talks of the faithful people heading for this distant city in the farthermost corner of Spain. 

The reasons for pilgrimage were many. The most obvious was the renewal of religious faith. For centuries the Catholic Church said that anyone who made the journey would have his or her sins forgiven. Some walked the arduous road because they were ill and looking for healing, others as a journey of celebration when a family member recovered from sickness or misfortune. Some pilgrims were even minor criminals who were sentenced to make the pilgrimage so that they would come back as better people – or perhaps the locals hoped they would never come home at all!

The practical result was the many cultures of Europe and even the Middle East mingled in the most intimate of ways, from a broad array of foods from all corners of the world, to an exceptional melding of various kinds of music - both through the sharing of many new instruments, and most of all because of the wandering minstrels singing about life’s travails along the Camino. 

Stonemasons were in great demand to build the monasteries which served as way stations serving the transient pilgrims. I have seen their intricate carvings in dozens of cities and hamlets along the way. There is evidence that some of these artisans came from as far away as Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, Armenia and even Lebanon. At its peak, the largely Benedictine and Cistercian religious communities came from France and erected a chain of establishments to serve the needs of the pilgrims.

The fascinating thing for me to observe is that 700 years later the Camino de Santiago still flourishes. Particularly in the past 20 years there has been an explosion of interest in the Camino. It was not long ago that the pilgrimage route was a historical curiosity. When my wife Ruth and I started exploring Spain, we found the road to Santiago to be an unexplored treasure. I happened to pick up a brochure when visiting Toledo.

The modern surge of interest in the Camino de Santiago has attracted travelers whose motivation is spiritual, but not specifically religious. They find the challenge of the hike of several hundred miles to be cleansing in and of itself, and along the way they are nourished by contact with others on their own individual journeys. But I suspect there have always been mixed motivations in the heart of the pilgrim traveler.

The appeal of making a pilgrimage is not just confined to Europe. Throughout the world, seekers of spiritual wholeness embark on similar journeys. Embarking on a pilgrimage is one of the foundational events in many human cultures, some far removed from Christian Europe. 

In India, 20 million people each year seek spiritual cleansing by bathing in the mystical waters of the vast Ganges River. Every year 13 million Muslim faithful make the obligatory haj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia – one of the great goals of their lives. Machu Picchu was the pilgrimage site of the ancient Inca culture in Peru; and along the Silk Road is the Turkish city of Kunya, sacred to the Sufi whirling dervishes. Then there is Jerusalem, sacred to Jew, Christian and Muslim alike. In North America, 10 million people visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico each year.

Each of these pilgrimages is a unique experience that is defined by the culture and geography of each part of the world. But what most defines each pilgrimage, including the Camino de Santiago, are the millions of pilgrims who put their lives on hold to journey to a distant land. Whether they seek religious renewal, personal peace or just a grand adventure, the spirit of each pilgrim in some way contributes to the culture and history of this ancient tradition and beautiful city.

The tradition has touched my family’s life in many ways. I have traveled the route by car many times visiting the beautiful towns along the way. These villages prospered in the Middle Ages because they were within one day’s walk of one another, and were good resting stops for pilgrims. My son Jonathan walked the entire Camino from the French Pyrenees Mountains, and a shorter route on his honeymoon. The La Tienda shell is based on the symbol for Santiago, and our house brand is Peregrino, which means pilgrim.

Imagine putting on a pack, walking out the door and heading through the beautiful countryside of Spain with no appointments, deadlines or responsibilities other than reaching the next town for the night. Imagine meeting fellow travelers from all over the world, sharing stories and creating friendships that would be unlikely in normal life. If you ever take that first step down the Camino de Santiago you will find out what a challenging, renewing adventure it can be!