Hiking the Pilgrims’ Footsteps at El Camino de Santiago

Hiking the Pilgrims’ Footsteps at El Camino de Santiago

By Tiziana Sforza*

There are many routes around the world: historical, cultural or religious itineraries to be tackled on foot. They are growing popular and conquering the hearts of tourists, hikers and pilgrims.

photo by Tiziana Sforza

The Camino de Santiago is one of the most popular walking paths. The popularity of this route increased in the 80’s: in 1987 the Council of Europe declared the route to Santiago de Compostela “European Cultural Route“. Today most villages offer hostels specifically for pilgrims, costing no more than a few euros.

According to the information provided by the official website, in 2015 about 265,516 people have walked the Camino. People who have walked 100 km to the Santiago de Compostela are awarded a certificate, validating their status as official pilgrims.

Much of the Camino’s recent growth has come from abroad. In terms of participation, Italian nationals come second after the Spanish with 22,151 pilgrims in 2015.

Germans come third (18,873 in 2015) while US citizens are fourth (13,658).

Along the way, one comes across lots of Brazilians, most of whom have discovered it after reading “The Road to Santiago” by Paulo Coelho, who gives free rein to his esoteric vein also in this book.

In Asia, Korea has the record with about 4,000 pilgrims per year, and even China is well represented. Chen Ken, who repeatedly did the Camino from Roncesvalles, is very active on the Internet in Taiwan to spread the virtues of this experience and gathers hundreds of people ready to become “pilgrims” every year.

From 2011 to 2015 the number of pilgrims has grown in popularity by 10.3%. That’s why – especially along the French part of the route, the most appreciated with its 172,207 pilgrims in 2015 – there is a higher number of hostels, facilities and refreshment. There are even “ghost” villages, made up of a couple of houses along a bumpy road, which base their economy almost exclusively on the presence of pilgrims which, in fact, lets them do business for four to five months a year.

photo by Tiziana Sforza

Pilgrims describe their experience as unforgettable. The Camino is a fantastic antidote to our stressful lives and you will probably find the answers you’re looking for. It is a journey of self-discovery.

The walk can be challenging. It starts from St. Jean Pied de Port, stretches for 780 kilometers and takes on average a month to hike. A shorter version is available starting from Sarrià – 100 kilometers from Santiago, this part of the route is not only the busiest, but also the richest of “attractions” such as gift shops, massage centers, pubs and restaurants.

People often bring home the shell (“concha”), that has long been a symbol of the pilgrimage.

Romanesque and Gothic: styles-cult of the way

Along the Camino de Santiago you can visit as many as nine World Heritage Sites. A pilgrim likes to rest in a cool and austere environment of a Romanesque cathedral, to give relief to his sore feet in the cool waters of streams topped by Roman bridges, to meditate or to pray in small cemeteries in the courtyards of countryside churches.

I crossed the Castilla y Leon and Galicia regions, where Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles are the most widespread. I was visited the most beautiful cathedrals in Spain: the Cathedral of Astorga and the Santiago Cathedral.

The magnificent Cathedral of Santiago is a place of “catharsis”. This is one of the greatest Catholic sanctuaries in the world and it includes the relics of the apostle Santiago or Maior / el Mayor (St James the Greater), the patron of Spain. But what gives the strongest emotion is “botafomeiro”, the biggest censer in the world (1.60 meters tall and 50 kilograms) swung by “tiraboleiros”, perfuming everything with incense.

photo by Tiziana Sforza

The hours or the days of a visit to Santiago can be spent wandering through the ancient ruas, porticoes and arcades, churches and terraces, squares and well finished gardens, markets, fish restaurants and souvenir shops.

Both St. James and St. Nicholas are popular in Spain. As Gerardo Cioffari reported on the site www.centrostudinicolaiani.it, St. Nicholas strongly defended the pilgrims, especially against the Saracens, and the Muslims.

Churches dedicated to S. Nicholas are located in Larrasoaña, in San Nicolas de Puente Fitera, in San Nicolas del Real Camino, in Villafranca del Bierzo, in Molinaseca and in Portomarin as well.

Camino’s keywords

Once the motto of the piligrim was: “Ultreya! Suseya!” (“Further and Higher”). “Buen camino”, is the mantra that currently accompanies the pilgrims. Fot them the Camino is an incredible and intimate way to experience a discovery of self.

*Tiziana Sforza is a professional journalist based in Rome, Italy. She has spent most of her life travelling across the world.








Share this post: