In the early autumn I find myself cycling the French (most of it) and the Portuguese Camino routes to Santiago de Compostela. There is a variety of traditional Camino routes, reflecting the wide range of travellers and pilgrims who over the centuries have come from far and wide, heading towards Compostela, which is said to be the burial place of the Apostle James, son of Zebedee, whose remains somehow ended up in Santiago and were discovered by a shepherd guided by a star. Allegedly. Sound familiar ? Well, stranger things have happened, I guess, including Jesus going to the USA after his crucifixion to talk to a long lost tribe of Israelites who had ended up there and leading to the creation of the Mormon religion. I suppose Apostle James ending up in Santiago doesn’t seem any more odd or unlikely ?!
Anyhow, over the centuries Santiago became an important and popular place of pilgrimage, especially during the Middle Ages. People would journey there to pray at the tomb of St James for his intercession in their lives, difficulties, and especially for the all important issue of getting into Heaven. It was big business. People came from all over the known world. The journey was called the Camino / walk / pilgrimage, and It has had a revival in the last few decades. So, every year, tens of thousands of people do a version of the Camino, some from their home countries, some starting in traditional setting off points like St Jean de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, some starting somewhere along the way. Most walk. Some cycle. Like me. Some cheat and take minibuses or taxis and walk a few miles here and there. You can usually tell those ones by their designer walking gear. The hardcore pilgrims do a whole route, mostly the Camino Frances which begins on the other side of the Pyrenees at St Jean de Port. You can tell them because they are usually bedraggled looking after weeks of walking.
Why do people do the Camino ? Well, I guess there is a group of people who are of the mindset of the medieval pilgrims - looking for the help of the saint, looking to better their chances of getting into Heaven. I think these days that will be the motivation of a minority, but many will still have some ‘spiritual’ motive for doing the Camino. It might not have the mechanistic, cause and effect, salvific motivation of the medieval pilgrim, but it will still speak to something deep inside them. The fact is that many people do the Camino, and spend a lot of time, effort, energy, soreness, stiffness and expense in doing it.
I’m not sure why Im doing it. Except that I like to spend my time cycling, and this is a route that is good to cycle. I don’t think I can find it in myself anymore to believe in the conveniently contrived stories and myths behind the Camino. Nice though they are. I’m pretty sure that the bones which are claimed to be those of St James are not his bones. There will be several collections of bones in other places that claim to be him and from which you could make up a dozen St James. Like pieces of the True Cross that would make up a forest. Or the several heads of St John the Baptist that abound in various shrines around the world. And so on. I’m content to be agnostic about the more unbelievable parts of the story. However, there is something going on when so many people make the Camino, for all sorts of different reasons and motivations. Something is going on, even it it isn’t about the bones of St James. I guess it’s got to do with a broader spirituality, of people seeking, testing, discovering, about themselves and about others, trying to make some sense of themselves, others, and the world. Not to mention the question of what happens when we are no longer here, as well as how we live when we are here ! Given the commitment of so many who do the Camino, I am prepared to give a hat tip. More than that I am not prepared to commit. I will go and see St James’ tomb, and I will probably light a candle, and leave an offering, etc. etc. Perhaps more to say thank you for a safe journey and for not falling off my bike ! At the end of the day, perhaps it’s best not to be too forensic about motivations, truth, reality, fact, story or myth. Maybe just go with the flow ?
So, Camino Francese and Camino Portuguese, here I come ! I’ll start in Santander, mainly because I’m able to get a direct flight there from Birmingham and not have to travel too far with my bike box in order to get to an airport. Then I will head south across the Cantabrian mountains/hills and the Picos de Europa to join up with the Camino Francese route near Leon, head westwards to Santiago di Compostela, pause for a day, and then head south on the Camino Portuguese through Vigo, Porto, ending up in Lisbon. And then it will be a quick drive south to Faro for some, hopefully, autumn sun.
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