SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — A pilgrim heading to Santiago de Compostela in ancient times could expect a warm meal and a bed after a long day’s walk. Today you can expect a bar serving hamburgers, free Wi-Fi, and a decision about whether a reiki or watsu treatment would better relieve your foot pain.
The pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago, Spanish for the Way of St. James, has existed for more than 1,000 years.
The most traveled among several ancient routes leading to Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, is the Camino Frances, nearly 500 miles (800 kilometers) long. It starts from the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains and leads to the town of Santiago, home to an ornate cathedral and a tomb where the apostle’s remains are believed to be interred.
In a visit to the cathedral Nov. 6, Pope Benedict XVI said he had come to Spain as a pilgrim, just like the millions of others who have made their way here. He held an open-air Mass at the cathedral attended by thousands of the faithful, and he prayed at St. James’ tomb.
Walking the full trail can take anywhere from six to eight weeks. The Catholic church traditionally considered it one of three pilgrimages — alongside Rome and Jerusalem — that awarded forgiveness of all of one’s sins.
The trip was popular during medieval times, but the number of pilgrims declined over the years because of European wars and political changes. The tradition was revived in the 1980s, when the route adapted itself to an age of mass tourism yet managed to remain modest in nature and resist over-development.
Thousands now walk the trail every year. Modern pilgrims do not have to worry about gangs of bandits or the plague. But they still face some travails — blisters, bed bugs and heavy backpacks — along with concerns about how far to walk, what to eat and where to spend the night.
The pace of backpacking along the Camino is so slow that the meditative aspects of walking through lush green forests, endless cornfields and vineyards, passing wind turbines erected over hilltops, become inevitable even for travelers who did not come looking for salvation.
Irasema Laverde, a Christian pilgrim from England, said she walks all day thinking about her loved ones and prays ill relatives will speedily recover. "The roads are so safe I feel I can walk with my eyes closed and connect with myself and nature with its sounds of trickling rivers and birds singing," she said.
The Christian infrastructure of the trail brings together backpackers, cyclists and devout pilgrims who come with little trekking experience but with the belief that the journey will bring them closer to God. Few admit they chose the trail purely as a way to spend their vacation and enjoy the relatively easy logistics provided by hundreds of years of Christian hospitality.
Kevin Wiggen returned to Spain from San Francisco to complete the journey after an injury prevented him from finishing an earlier attempt. Wiggen said hikers here reminded him of backpackers on other international trails, but said there were "religious undertones to the trail which make everyone nicer."
There are other noticeable differences between the Camino and other trails. Pilgrims, many of them in the sixth or seventh decade of their lives, are not typical backpackers. The trail’s scallop-shaped markers and simple yellow arrows make it easy to follow, while the hundreds of thousands who have walked these paths before have leveled the roads, leaving them smooth and easy on the feet.
Some long hiking trails avoid civilization to intensify the feeling of nature, but this one makes a point of entering every town, as modest as it may be, as a link to ancient traditions. Dimly lit, smoke-filled bars cater to pilgrims as well as to the often tiny local population. In addition to typical Spanish meals, bars have TVs showing local news, soccer matches and reruns of soccer matches.
The traditional route reaches its climax with the pilgrims’ Mass at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, with its ornate baroque facade.
But for many modern travelers, the adventure reaches its peak after four additional days of walking, at Finisterre — literally "the end of the earth" — on the Atlantic Ocean.
Looking out at the sea from this village at the end of a long journey, one does not need religious beliefs to feel the powerful meeting of nature and spirituality.