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To Be a Pilgrim

To Be a Pilgrim

Jan 2017

Words Matthew Holt, Pics Matthew Holt, Fiona McIntosh

Some hikes reward you with fine views, lungfuls of fresh air and camaraderie around the campfire. The benefit of walking the Camino de Santiago is much more tangible: you’ll receive forgiveness for all your sins.

Since the ninth century, the Catholic church has offered ‘indulgences’ - or pardons - to pilgrims visiting the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, which houses the relics of Spain’s patron saint, James. Drawn by this offer, in medieval times, half a million pilgrims were flocking to Santiago each year, and there was even a guide book advising where to stay, which wells to drink from and where bandits lurked.

Santiago this way.

Following some rather lean centuries, there’s been a resurgence of interest in travelling the Camino, with 265,000 pilgrims arriving in Santiago last year. Given modern transport has potentially reduced the challenge and duration of the journey, in order to qualify for an indulgence, you must now travel the final 100km by foot or horseback (or 200km by bicycle). To have any credibility with fellow pilgrims, however, you must start outside Spain. 

Fiona and I completed a pilgrimage to Santiago several years ago, but we decided another wouldn’t go amiss. On the previous occasion we’d taken the French Camino, the most popular of the five major routes. This time we chose the less-frequented Portuguese Camino, starting at Porto, some 240km south of Santiago.

Day 2 Through quiet rural villages.

At Porto’s austere cathedral, we picked up ‘credencials’, the documents enabling us to stay in pilgrim hostels along the way and acting as proof of our journey when claiming pardons. On the cathedral’s second floor stood the statue of a 16th century pilgrim, with a heavy cape, wooden staff and large Bible. As a sign of the times, we sported polypropylene hiking gear and lightweight packs, which didn’t contain Bibles. 

Leaving the cathedral, we followed steep, narrow lanes down to the Rio Douro, where old port houses lined the river bank. It took over two hours to clear the city suburbs and, quite frankly, the initial kilometres were uninspiring. Porto appeared down at heel, with boarded-up shops, graffiti-covered walls, and tramps rummaging through bins and sleeping in doorways. A grey sky complemented the downbeat mood.

Day 2 Welcome footbath.

On reaching the village of Mosteiró, after 18km, we discovered most sensible pilgrims take the metro out to here - and things perked up. Encouragingly, there were also now more indications we were actually on a pilgrimage, with route markers, tall stone crosses, drinking fountains, foot baths and other pilgrims.

From here on, the landscape was a bucolic collage of vineyards, maize fields, pine and eucalyptus woods, burbling streams crossed by old stone bridges and sleepy villages with cobbled lanes – that were quaint, if hard on the knees. 

Day 3 Looking out for ambushes at Cruz dos Mortos.

Averaging 40km each day, we overnighted in pilgrim hostels, where the hospitality of eccentric characters compensated for shortfalls in service. There was a Portuguese couple in Lugar do Corgo who provided bed, breakfast and a generous three-course dinner in return for voluntary donations; a Canadian ex-war correspondent who owned a hostel at Paços that resembled a front-line military outpost; and the manager of the albergue in Portela who'd completed both the French and Portuguese Caminos in his wheelchair. 

On our fourth day, we crossed the bridge between Valença and Tui, where the Rio Minho became Rio Miño, ‘obrigado’ became ‘gracias’ and the clocks went forward one hour. Now within Spain, the trail became far busier, with parties up to 20 strong, singing and chanting. These so-called ‘express pilgrims’ – hiking the final 100km stretch – were instantly recognisable by their fresh clothes, jaunty stride and cheery demeanours. With our grating hips, bandaged toes and hobbling gaits, it was hard not to feel superior.

Day 4 Medieval walls at the Portuguese border town Valenca.

The final stretch into Santiago took us over rolling hills and along meandering river valleys, via woodland tracks and quiet country lanes. Over-abundant way markers showed the remaining distance to Santiago down to the last metre, till we were only a few kilometres out, from whereon all the numbers were gouged out, presumably because the distances were wrong.

Some 25km south of Santiago, we reached Padrón, on the Rio Sar, where the history of the Camino began. This is where James – son of Zebedee and one of original twelve apostles - supposedly landed when he came to Iberia to preach the word, shortly after Christ’s crucifixion. He wasn’t a resounding success, amassing only seven followers before returning to Jerusalem, where he was beheaded.

Day 5 taking a free shower in Pontevedra.

We climbed the stone steps from Padrón up to Monte Santiaguiño, where James is said to have preached. A few boulders stood in a small clearing which would have comfortably accommodated his followers. It was also at Padrón that James’s disciples landed a few years later, in a rudderless, stone boat bearing his decapitated body, which they carried inland and buried. When some bones were discovered seven centuries later, a bishop authenticated them as belonging to Saint James and Santiago Cathedral was built on the spot. 

We overnighted at Casalonga, 10km short of Santiago, planning to enter the historic city early the following morning, when the streets would be empty of tourists. As it was, we got hopelessly lost re-joining the trail and only just made it there for the pilgrim mass at noon.

Day 6 Monte Santiaguino Where James preached to his faithful few.

The ancient cathedral wasn’t looking at its best, with its west face covered in scaffolding and its main entrance locked for refurbishment. Fortunately, pilgrims from Portugal traditionally enter via the south-facing Praza das Praterías door, which was open.

Forcing our way through the gauntlet of beggars manning the entrance, we joined the pews of odorous pilgrims. It was all quite officious inside, with security guards, cordoned-off zones and messages relayed in three languages prohibiting photography. Needless to say, within minutes of the service starting, a woman in gaudy Lycra shorts had vaulted from her pew to take a selfie in front of the altar. 

Day 7 Santiago Praza das Praterias.

Afterwards, we went to the Pilgrims’ Office to collect our ‘compostelas’, the all-important document certifying we’d completed our pilgrimage. Since the office had recently relocated, the signposts pointed in the wrong direction and, when we eventually found it, the queue stretched out of the door. Still, the path to Heaven isn’t meant to be easy.

Compostelas finally in hand, we joined the throngs of tourists milling in the streets, wondering what to do next. So, we did what pilgrims have done since the ninth century and continued on to Cape Finisterre, 90km due west.

Day 8 Huffing uphill.

As we approached the Atlantic coast, the terrain became wilder and the weather got moodier, with dark scudding clouds, cold gusting winds and heavy splashes of rain. After three days we reached Finisterre and joined the steady procession heading out to the lighthouse on the promontory, where we took our turn posing for photos by a bronze boot and way-marker indicating 0.00km to go. Defying the breeze, some pilgrims were burning their hiking boots, either as a symbolic gesture or an act of revenge. Then, we watched the sun slip into the cloudbank lining the horizon. To medieval pilgrims, Cape Finisterre represented the end of the known earth; to us, it marked the end of our journey. 

It was only on returning home I discovered that, in order to receive an indulgence, you must complete your Camino in a Holy Year, when St James’s Day falls on a Sunday  - the last one occurred in 2010 and the next isn’t due till 2021. I should have racked up some more sins by then.

Day 10 The End of the Earth Cape Finisterre.

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