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The Pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago

by Susan Taylor

When most Americans think of pilgrims, the group of people who landed at Plymouth Rock and celebrated the first Thanksgiving are probably the first ones who come to mind. But pilgrims existed before then, and have for several centuries. They would embark upon pilgrimages, long journeys ending at sacred sites, taken to demonstrate devotion to their beliefs.

The word pilgrimage has its origins in the 13th century English, stemming from the Anglo-Norman word pelerinage (pilgrimage, journey, crusade, exile). Several famous pilgrimages still exist today, like the pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim must take at least once during their lifetime. There's also the pilgrimage to Lourdes, a small town in France famous for reports of apparitions of the Virgin Mary. One pilgrimage route in particular has endured more than a thousand years of wars, urban development, and spiritual change-El Camino de Santiago.

Beginning at several points in France, El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) stretches across northern Spain, ending in Santiago de Compostela, located in the northwestern corner of the country. Alternate routes also begin across Europe, and within Spain itself, but the 780-kilometer (nearly 500-mile) Camino Francés is the most popular.

While camino (path, road) and Santiago (St. James) are easily translated, the origin of Compostela is not quite as clear. Legend has it that it comes from the Latin Campus Stellae, which means "Field of the Star." However, it more likely originated from the Vulgar Latin Composita Tella, meaning "burial ground." This does make more sense as El Camino de Santiago ends at the tomb of St. James.

El Camino was established to honor St. James, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. Legend has it that St. James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula to preach, and upon his death, was entombed in the city of Compostela. In 1884, Pope Leo XIII declared the relics found at Compostela to be those of St. James. The city was renamed Santiago de Compostela, and a shrine to the saint was built in the city's cathedral, which is the end-point of the pilgrimage.

Most pilgrims travel El Camino on foot, but a few choose to use bicycles, while others travel on horseback or even by donkey. For many, walking El Camino is still a religious or spiritual experience. But with every passing year, more pilgrims take on El Camino simply for the physical challenge, as a means of traveling through Europe and Spain, or as a retreat from the fast-paced, technologically dependent lives so many people lead today.

Spanish tourist agencies offer a credencial, or pilgrim passport, for a few euros. Pilgrims who hold these passports can then find overnight accommodations in hostels, also called refugios, along the most common routes in France and Spain. Some of these hostels are set up similarly to youth hostels and cost five to nine euros per night. But many people who live near the route also offer their homes to pilgrims asking only for donations. Some accommodations are available in monasteries along the way. Because El Camino is a pilgrimage and not a vacation, pilgrims are expected to stay only one night before continuing on their way the next morning.

Upon reaching the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims receive the compostela, a certificate of completion. To receive the compostela, which is written entirely in Latin, a pilgrim must walk at least 100 kilometers, or cover at least 200 kilometers with a bicycle. In addition, the credencial must contain certain stamps and dates or the compostela may be refused. It may also be refused if the pilgrim makes no claim of religious purpose for their pilgrimage.

Before attempting El Camino, you should get a clean bill of health from your doctor. Depending on which route you follow, it can take weeks to reach Santiago de Compostela. You must be sure you'll be able to endure weeks of walking. Be sure to wear comfortable, sturdy shoes, and pack light. Backpacks are the item of choice for pilgrims. Don't forget your sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat to protect yourself from the sun's harmful rays.

Finally, take some time to learn Spanish before you go. Audio courses are a great way to learn to speak Spanish quickly. You can even take them with you to listen to along the way. You'll be able to speak with other pilgrims, and with your hosts at the refugios. You'll want to thank them for their hospitality, and hear their stories of the pilgrims who traveled El Camino de Santiago before you.

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