In May, Spain's Oficina de Peregrinos issued approximately 1000 compostelas – permits for pilgrims walking in the footsteps of St James – every day. That's a far cry from 35 years ago when 690 pilgrims were recorded for the entire year.
Pilgrim numbers have been increasing since 1993, when the Galicia regional government began promoting the Way of St James of Campostela as a tourist attraction. 2010's Holy Year has put further pressure on pilgrim numbers, which are proving to be the largest yet.
Such popularity brings with it concerns that the numbers are detracting from the pilgrimage as the race for a bed each night increases and much of the way becomes relentlessly busy with pilgrims. In the northern spring of this year, I walked the last stage on the ancient Way of St James pilgrimage with them.
The routes on the Way of St James criss cross Spain but the Camino Frances is by far the most popular. The final 100km is particularly popular, as it takes about a week. Go the full distance and that means starting across the border in France; that pilgrimage takes at least four weeks.
I walked an unusually slow camino, around 5–11 km a day, compared with most pilgrims who scampered over distances of between 20–30 km each day. It turned out that my more relaxed program of slower walking and more frequent stops were a blessing in disguise. I stayed in less frequented places and stopped early in the afternoon when most pilgrims were still walking on to the next place. I had time to appreciate and reflect on the beautiful landscape I was passing through as well as time to meet many locals and fellow pilgrims encountered along the way.
It's become hard to travel on the Camino Frances alone. The hardships medieval pilgrims faced – lack of food, lack of accommodation – are not those of the modern pilgrim. There is no shortage of places to buy food and other commodities, large televisions appear in most bars while mobiles and computers are never far. Other concessions to modernity include self serve pilgrim credencial sellos (stamps), drinks vending machines and self serve 'pop-up' bars.
But the challenges of the modern camino are, in many ways, about the sheer abundance that the pilgrim can be tempted by, including expensive, organised tour groups and taxi services to carry baggage to each night's resting place.
Consideration and patience become the greater tests when there are so many others also in need of a shower/toilet/bed/water. In the refugios, some people arise and start rustling from as early as 4.30am to try to get a headstart. Queues at the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago waiting to be issued their compostelas can also be an exercise in patience.
However, there is also a wellspring of camaraderie and conviviality – a certain 'pilgrim lingua' develops among so many people from so many places. The combination is a wonderful shorthand everyone understands: starting with 'Buen camino' and 'refugio'; continuing past 'gracias' to 'Que tal?' 'God mord,' 'Bonjour,' 'Hallo' and 'Hola!'
This amazing quality of the camino to accommodate so many people's personal caminos was a great source of wonder to me as was the privilege of being able to connect to such an ancient ritual and tradition.
My camino included blessings from nuns, welcomes from priests at their church doors and even a spontaneous medieval canto performance by two Italians minstrels. Unofrgettable!
The Oficina de Peregrinos gives these reasons for undertaking the pilgrimage:
1. To get involved in their faith in a more coherent way.
2. To show their belief in St. James' heritage, which is the fulfilment of the work of Jesus of Nazareth: to announce to the world that man can already be happy.
3. To turn their own values derived from pride and selfishness into love and to invite the others to do so.
To me, irrespective of crowds and numbers all three were still very much in evidence all along the Way.
Tyrell Heathcote is a Melbourne freelance editor and writer.
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