Wednesday, July 9, 2014

With the pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela

We arrived in Santiago de Compostela in the late afternoon. Our hotel began its life in the 18th century as a Franciscan monastery. In fact it still is a monastery. The monks decided to make the building into a hotel and use their profits to fund their charitable work with the homeless. As we were taken to our room we bumped into one of the remaining twelve monks in the elevator. In civvies and trainers, he certainly didn't look like my vision of a monk. The monks have their own section of the building that guests are free to visit, quietly. It was a lovely, peaceful building with huge spaces and courtyards.

After unpacking we walked the150 metres to the vast square in front of the giant Santiago de Compostela cathedral, reputed burial site of James, one of the apostles. This is usually the final destination of pilgrims completing the 800-kilometre Camino Real, by foot, bicycle or even by donkey. The traditional route is from France but there are other routes.

In Spain, France, and Portugal, pilgrim's hostels with beds in dormitories dot the common routes, providing overnight accommodation for pilgrims with a credencial. In Spain this type of accommodation is called a refugio or albergue, which usually costs between 6 and 10 euros per night per bed, although a few hostels known as donativos operate on voluntary donations. Pilgrims are usually limited to one night's accommodation and are expected to leave by eight in the morning to continue their pilgrimage. I know why I would never be doing this.

Most pilgrims carry a document called the credencial, purchased for a few euros from a Spanish tourist agency, a church on the route, or from their church back home. The credencial is a pass which gives access to the inexpensive, sometimes free, overnight accommodation. Also known as the "pilgrim's passport", the credencial is stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or refugio at which the pilgrim has stayed. It provides pilgrims with a record of where they ate or slept, but also serves as proof to the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago that the journey was accomplished according to an official route. The stamped credencial is also necessary if the pilgrim wants to obtain a compostela, a certificate of completion of the Way.

To earn the compostela one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km or cycle at least 200 km. Pilgrims arriving in Santiago de Compostela who have walked at least the last 100 km, or cycled 200 km to get there (as indicated on their credencial), and who state that their motivation was at least partially religious are eligible for the compostela from the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago. At the Pilgrim's Office the credencial is examined for stamps and dates, and the pilgrim is asked to state whether the motivation in traveling the Camino was "religious", "religious and other", or "other". In the case of "religious" or "religious and other" a compostela is available; in the case of "other" there is a simpler certificate in Spanish. Back in the early days a scallop shell was awarded instead of a certificate.

It was lovely to watch the pilgrims arriving in front of the church. Some would just collapse and lie there. Others came in groups and you could see everyone's happiness at the accomplishment as they congratulated each other. There certainly was a real buzz about the place. We visited the ornate cathedral, which was packed with pilgrims and visitors queuing up to see the relic of St. James.

As we walked around the narrow pedestrian-only streets, we encountered people from all over the world. There were lots of restaurants and little shops that were all busy. I must say that I have never seen so many people limping around. Many people weren't dressed in usual evening attire but in their walking attire. Hiking boots ruled.

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