Pilgrimage: the road to Santiago – BBC 2


No, this isn’t about religion: it’s about history and culture.  Honestly!!  I’d always wanted to go to Santiago de Compostela, for historians’ reasons, and I finally made it last summer.  Sadly, due to lack of time off work (not to mention being lazy and unfit!), I didn’t get to do the Camino, the pilgrims’ walk to the Shrine of St James, but the BBC have got seven “celebrities” (we’re not talking A-list here, but anyway!) who are doing the full thing.  I don’t normally watch reality TV, but this is something different.  Oh, and do go to Santiago de Compostela.  It’s a lovely place, and not only because of its historical importance.   They have people playing the bagpipes, because Galicia likes to think of itself as being Celtic.  And they have Torta de Santiago, which is a very nice type of almond cake.  They even give out free samples in the street.  You don’t get that at other “holy” places: I’ve never got over the shock of how much a café in Assisi charged me for a tidgy little piece of “the bread of St Francis”.  And, if you don’t want to talk religion, the locals will be only too pleased to talk to you about Celta Vigo or Deportivo La Coruna.  Or maybe that’s only if you say “Soy de Manchester” 🙂 .  “Eu son de Manchester”, even, in Galician rather than Castilian.

So, what’s the story? Well, St James the Great, one of the Apostles, son of Zebedee (I don’t think they have The Magic Roundabout in Spain, though), is supposed to have travelled to North East Spain during his lifetime, and is supposed to have been buried there.  A hermit in the 9th century AD then found his body – and stars shone overhead, showing him the way to the tomb, hence Compostela – campo stella, field of stars.  The scallop shell became the symbol of Santiago de Compostela and of the Camino because some horseman wanted to accompany the body from the Holy Land to Spain but couldn’t fit on the boat, so shells protected them as they swam all the way.  Or another version is that the body was washed overboard by a storm, and protected by shells.  The BBC didn’t mention those bits, actually: they said that the shells were supposed to indicate that people came to the same point from different directions.  You can get some very nice shell-shaped jewellery there, incidentally: I got some earrings.

The alternative version of events? St James never went anywhere near Spain: he actually went to Caesarea, on what’s now the Israeli coastline, but someone managed to get that mixed up with Caesar Augusta, the Roman name for Zaragoza.  A hermit came across a tomb from Roman times, and, there being rather a lot of issues with Pelagian heretics at the time, the religious and temporal authorities in Galicia decided that finding the remains of one of the Apostles in their back yard would be just the thing to get everyone toeing the line.  And the word “Compostela” probably comes from the same root as, er, compost.  Yep.  The field of stars version’s better, isn’t it?!

Pilgrimages were a big thing in medieval times, partly as a way of getting your sins expiated and partly because as a way of satisfying people’s thirst for travel and adventure, or people’s need to try to find something, or try to get away from something. And that’s still true today, with the Camino – which has become very popular in recent years.  It was pretty much dead in the water – or dead in the mountains – by the 1980s, but it’s a really big thing again now.  OK, there are plenty of people who do it for religious reasons, but I think that a lot of people do it as an adventure, or a challenge, or because they’re looking for something – well, aren’t we all?!  The same with, say, the Inca Trail.  To some extent, it’s part of a general shift in the nature of travel and tourism: many people are now looking for something beyond two weeks lying on a sunbed round the pool.  But this is particularly interesting because it’s a return to something which began to lose popularity nearly half a millennium ago.

Just going back to the subject of pilgrimages, obviously don’t have to be to sites associated with Christianity. The biggest pilgrimage site in the world is Mecca, although unfortunately that’s closed to non-Muslims, and people also visit sites associated with Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism and other faiths. And there are plenty of pilgrimage sites.  Lourdes is probably the one that most people would think of, because it’s become seen as a place where sick people can be cured.  And there a lot of others, but they don’t have the international appeal of Santiago de Compostela.  Czestochowa is very Polish, Montserrat is very Catalan, Fatima is very Portuguese … and they don’t have the actual saints’ remains thing going on.  And they’re all, Lourdes included, relatively new, in historical terms.  Canterbury does have both the saint and the longer tradition, but that’s all bound up in English history.  And none of them have anything like the Camino.

The three big, historical, international Christian pilgrimage sites are Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Jerusalem, tragically, has been fought over for centuries.  Rome’s also seen its share of conflict … and Rome’s too much a seat of temporal power to feel really spiritual anyway.  The Iberian peninsula has obviously seen its share of conflict as well, but Galicia was never actually conquered by the Moors – and St James, “Matamoros” (the Moor-Slayer), is supposed to have appeared at the 9th century Battle of Clavijo and led the Christians to victory.  Not very politically correct, these days.  And the battle never even happened, never mind saints who’d been dead for eight hundred years appearing at it, but St James became a big cult hero.  And, for centuries, people in what’s now Spain were made to pay a tax to support the upkeep of Santiago de Compostela cathedral, because of a medieval document which turned out to be a great big whopping forgery.  Fake news is nothing new!

The BBC did not mention any of the fake news stuff.  Well, to be fair, they did mention the Battle of Clavijo, following it up by pointing out that the Camino is now open to people of any faith or none, but they didn’t emphasise what a big deal it was at the time, and they certainly didn’t mention the tax-dodging or the more likely explanation of the origins of the shrine.  Oh well …

Fake news and rip-off taxes aside, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela really did become a big thing. And the Camino, the walk to Santiago de Compostela … I can’t actually think of any other pilgrimage route which is anything like as well-known.  There used to be more of them – there was some sort of campaign a few years ago to draw attention to traditional pilgrimage routes in England, but it largely got ignored! –  but this is the one that’s lasted.  There are shells all over Galicia, and in other parts of northern Spain, in Portugal and in southern France, pointing the way.  And, obviously, hostels sprang up along the way: it was all big business, even though pilgrims are, even now, supposed to get a discount on accommodation and food.  That’s now happened again: the people featured in the BBC 2 programme visited various hostels and refreshment stops, all aimed at pilgrims, including one run by British people – offering cups of tea and chocolate digestives! – and one run by an Australian lady.  It’s unique.  And it’s a medieval tradition reborn as a modern tradition.

Incidentally, whilst the route across the Pyrenees from southern France is the best-known one, there are others. There’s one route which comes from Portugal.  And there’s the route known as “the English route” – which is actually the shortest, yay 🙂 , because, it being rather a long way from our sceptred isle to the Pyrenees, you went by ship to A Coruna (lovely, lovely city, even if people are still harping on about Deportivo beating United in 2001), and walked from there.  Only about 45 miles!   There are various others too – including routes from different parts of Spain, obviously.  However, the route from France is the big one.  It’s also known as the Milky Way, in French, because the stars are supposed to light the way; but that sounds like a chocolate bar.

And you’re actually supposed to go on beyond Santiago de Compostela, to Cab Fisterra, one of the most westerly points of mainland Europe (not quite the most westerly point, although it was once thought to be).  There’s a nice little marker there, and you get your photo taken by it.  Er, even if you’ve come by coach, like I did.  You are not supposed to take photos of yourself with the statue of St James in Santiago de Compostela – as well, as the actual tomb, there’s a statue, which you hug.  Trying to show respect, I dutifully refrained from taking any statue-hugging selfies, and was not very impressed to see that a lot of people, mostly younger people, were taking photos anyway.  Oh well.  You can but try to do the right thing!

The other big thing at the cathedral is the Botafumeiro. Not, not Botafogo: that’s a Brazilian football team.  The Botafumeiro is a giant swinging thurible (incense holder).  Unfortunately, it doesn’t swing often.  It famously flew out of the window when Catherine of Aragon visited Santiago de Compostela before setting sail for England.  A very bad omen.  It obviously knew something!!  There’ve been a few of them, over time.  The current one’s only about 200 years old.  Napoleon’s troops stole the previous one.  Typical!

Well, who have we got in this? “The lovely” Debbie McGee, who used to be seen as a bit of a joke but has now become something of a spokesperson for people who’ve been widowed and are trying to rebuild their lives.  Heather Small from M People, who’s said that she struggles with organised religion because it lacks inclusivity and has been used to oppress black people.  Neil Morrissey, of Men Behaving Badly fame.  Humanist and comedian Ed Byrne.  And three people I’d honestly never heard of before – Sheffield vicar Kate Bottley, Invictus Games medallist, TV presenter and former soldier J J Chalmers, who was injured in Afghanistan and lost close friends there, and journalist Raphael Rowe, who was horrifically jailed for life for a murder he didn’t commit and served twelve years before being acquitted and freed.

The route goes through some interesting places. The first episode showed us Roncesvalles, as featured in The Song of Roland – which I was forced to read in my first year at university.  It was supposed to get people into medieval history.  It really didn’t.  They’d have been better with Jean Plaidy books (Elizabeth Chadwick was only just getting going then).  But, still, I’d love to see Roncesvalles, and even more so Burgos.  I was hoping that the BBC’d show Burgos, and Leon, but, rather annoyingly, none of the big places have featured.

We’ve seen plenty of smaller stops, though. They’re not actually walking the whole way: they’ve got the bus for parts of it!   Even horses, at one point!  But that’s OK – it’s only the last 100 kilometres that you actually “have” to walk in order to be classed as a bona fide pilgrim.  Complete with a passport with stamps on it.  The programme mentioned that 40% of pilgrims just do the last 100km, but I bet that’s as much to do with lack of time off work as to do with just not wanting to walk the full route.  Having said which, doing the whole lot must be very hard going.  Neil Morrissey and Kate Bottley have done an awful lot of moaning about how physically exacting it is, although Heather Small and Ed Byrne seem to be thoroughly enjoying it, even on days when it’s either been wet or very hot.

So, what have we seen? Pilgrim hostels with dormitories, and people doing the “My name’s X and I’m …” thing over the dining room tables.  And some small churches, and places with other Camino connections, including the highest point of the Camino, where people traditionally leave stones from home.  Kate Bottley said that she was really into doing whatever “the thing” to do at a particular place was, and that’s me as well.  Oh dear, what horrible grammar!!  But, yes – leaving a stone from home at a particular place, or walking barefoot round a particular church, to give two examples from this programme, and knowing that millions of people have done so before you and millions of people will do so after you: I really like that.  And they even got given free wine at one place!  This is what we like.  Free wine.  Free cake.  Maybe not some of those dormitories, though.

I’m not sure exactly what the BBC are getting at with this, though. Sometimes it does seem like a religious programme.  They certainly haven’t shied away from controversy, though: we’ve heard some members of the group talking about how they were put off formal religion by child abuse scandals, racism, feeling that they were brainwashed as children or the arrogance of people who claim that being Christians (and the same could be said of people belonging to any other religion) makes them better than anyone else.  Sometimes it feels a bit Big Brother-ish – no silly “challenges”, but we’ve heard people baring their souls about some very personal experiences.  And I really am quite disappointed that we haven’t seen the big cities and their historical sights: that was my main reason for watching, not to see people washing their pants or putting plasters on their blisters.

The nearest there seems to be to any sort of general theme is whether or not the Camino is still relevant in modern times. That probably depends on what you think the Camino’s about.  Presumably most people are past the idea of thinking that going on a “pilgrimage” means that all your sins will be given.  I’m trying to remember the Jane Eyre quote about that.  I don’t mean that Jane Eyre went on the Camino 🙂 , but Mr Rochester says something about maybe bringing up Adele Varens will expiate all his sins. I don’t think he means it seriously, though!  And going on a long walk is hardly to be compared with taking in a child who would otherwise have been destitute.

But there are other aspects of it too, and they do work from both a medieval viewpoint and a modern viewpoint.  Adventure!  Camaraderie with the other people on the walk, both those in your party and those you meet along the way.  And just that feeling of time out, away from the daily grind.  Neil Morrissey and J J Chalmers both said that they were happy in their own skins and with their own lives, and that’s great, but is that how most people feel?  It’s hard to make sense of anything much when the leader of the Opposition can’t deal with prejudice within his own party, people are being poisoned by nerve agents in Salisbury, the President of the United States seems to have no morals at all and the captain of the Australian cricket team thinks it’s OK to cheat!   A lot of people are looking for something that’s a break from it all, and maybe a chance to think – and how fascinating that a tradition which goes back over a thousand years, and had been in decline for nearly five hundred years, has been revived as a way of trying to find that.

And you get cake …




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