Northern Spain

An excellent guidebook and a good read.


The Pilgrimage to Santiago – an excerpt from Northern Spain

The Official History

No saint on the calendar has as many names as Spain's patron – Iago, Diego, Jaime, Jacques, Jacobus, Santiago or, in English, James the Greater. James the fisherman was one of the first disciples chosen by Jesus, who nicknamed him Boanerges, 'the son of thunder', after his booming voice. After the Crucifixion, he seems to have been a rather ineffectual proselytizer for the faith; in the year 44 Herod Agrippa in Caesarea beheaded him and threw his body to the dogs. But Spain had another task in store for James: nothing less than posthumously leading a 700-year-old crusade against the peninsula's infidels.

In fact, the evidence suggests that it was really the French who put him up to it: the first mention of the Apostle's relics in Spain appear in an 830 annex to the Martirologio de Florus, written in 806 in Lyon; after the fright of 732, when the Moors invaded as far as Poitiers and settled a good portion of France's Mediterranean coast, the French were ready to pull out all the stops to encourage their old Christian neighbours to rally and defeat the heathen. A new history of James emerged, one with links to Spain. First, before his martyrdom, he went to Zaragoza to convert the Spaniards and failed. Second, after his martyrdom, two of his disciples piously gathered his remains and sailed off with them in a stone boat (faith works wonders). The destination was Iria Flavia in remote Galicia, and the disciples buried Boanerges in the nearby cemetery of Compostela. In 814, a shower of shooting stars guided a hermit shepherd named Pelayo to the site of James's tomb; the bones were 'authenticated' by Bishop Theodomir. Another legend identifies Charlemagne (who died in 814) with the discovery of James's relics: in the Emperor's tomb at Aachen you can see the 'Vision of Charlemagne', with a scene of the Milky Way, the Via Lactea, a common name for the pilgrims' road.

In 844, not long after the discovery of the relics, James was called into active duty in the battle of Clavijo, appearing on a white horse to help Ramiro I of Asturias defeat the Moors. This new role as Santiago Matamoros, the Moor-Slayer, was a great morale booster for the forces of the Reconquista, who made 'Santiago!' their battle cry. In the churches along the Camino, James is portrayed either as a humble pilgrim himself or as a mighty warrior trampling the Moors underfoot. Ramiro was so pleased by his divine assistance that he made a pledge, the voto de Santiago, that ordained an annual property tax for St James's church at Compostela.

Never mind that the bones, the battle and the voto were as bogus as each other; the story struck deep spiritual, poetic and political chords that fitted perfectly with the great cultural awakening of the 10th and 11th centuries. The medieval belief that a few holy bones or teeth could serve as a hotline to heaven made the discovery essential. After all, the Moors had some powerful juju of their own: an arm of the Prophet Muhammad in the Great Mosque of Córdoba (possession of it was Abd ar-Rahman's justification for declaring himself Caliph in 929). Another factor in the early 9th century was the Church's need for a focal point to assert its doctrinal control over the newborn kingdoms of Spain, especially over the Celts in Galicia, stubborn followers of the Gnostic Priscillian heresy (see p.296). A third factor must have been the desire to reintegrate Spain into Europe – and what better way to do it than to increase human, commercial and cultural traffic over the Pyrenees? Pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome were already in vogue; after the long centuries of the Dark Ages, the Church was keen on re-establishing contacts across the old Roman empire it had inherited for Christianity.

The French were the great promoters of the Camino de Santiago (the Way to Santiago), so great in fact that the most commonly tramped route became known as the camino francés. The first official pilgrim was Gotescalco, bishop of Le Puy, in 950; others followed, including Mozarab Christians (those living under Moorish rule) from Andalucía, who emigrated north and put themselves under the protection of Santiago, founding some of the first churches and monasteries along the road in the province of León.

In the next century, especially once the frontier with the Moors was firmly pushed back to the south bank of the Duero, the French monks of the reforming abbey of Cluny did more than anyone to popularize the pilgrimage, setting up sister houses and hospitals along the way. Nor were the early Spanish kings slow to pick up on the commercial potential of the road; Sancho the Great of Navarra and Alfonso VI of Castile founded a number of religious houses and institutions along the way and invited down French settlers to help run them. It was at this time too that the French stuck another oar in with their Chanson de Roland, which made Charlemagne something of a proto-pilgrim, although his adventure into Pamplona happened decades before the discovery of James's relics.

The 12th century witnessed a veritable boom along the camino francés: the arrival of new monastic and military orders, including the Templars, the Hospitallers, and the Knights of Santiago, which all vowed to defend the pilgrim from dangers en route. In 1130, the Abbey of Cluny commissioned Aymery Picaud, a priest from Poitou, to write the Codex Calixtinus, the world's first travel guide, chock-full of prejudices and practical advice for pilgrims: he describes the four main roads through France and gives tips on where not to drink the water, where to find the best lodging, where to be on guard against 'false pilgrims' who came not to atone for crimes but to commit them. The final bonus for Santiago de Compostela came in 1189, when Pope Alexander III declared it a Holy City on equal footing with Jerusalem and Rome, offering a plenary indulgence – a full remission from Purgatory – to pilgrims on Holy Years (if you're planning a trip the next will be 2010; other years you'll only get half time off). The favourite song they would sing along the way was the Ultreya:

Dum Pater familias, rex universorum
donaret provincias ius apostolorum
Jacobus Hispanias lux ilustrat morum
Primus ex apostolis, martyr Jerosolimis
Jacobus egregio, sacre et martyrio.
Herru Sanctiagu, grot Santiagu
e ultreia e suseia, Deus adiuva nos

Our father, King of the Universe
Concede the land to apostolic right
Santiago of Spain is the light illuminating tradition
First among the Apostles, martyr of Jerusalem
Distinguished Santiago, holy and martyred
Lord Santiago, Great Santiago!
And Forward! and Onward! God help us!

The Tour de Saint-Jacques in Paris was a traditional rallying point for groups of pilgrims (there was more safety in numbers); from there the return journey was 1,280km (800 miles) and took a minimum of four months on foot. It was not something to go into lightly, but for many it was more than an act of faith, a chance to get out and see the world. By the time of Aymery Picaud the French had been joined by pilgrims from across Europe. Many were ill (hence the large number of hospitals), hoping to complete the pilgrimage before they died. Not a few were thieves, murderers and delinquents condemned by the judge to make the journey for penance. Sometimes dangerous cons had to do it in chains. To keep them from cheating or stealing someone else's indulgence (the Compostellana certificate), pilgrims had to have their documents stamped by the clergy at various points along the route, just as they do today (as a nice touch, the old stamps and seals have recently been revived).

An estimated half a million people a year made the trek in the Middle Ages (out of a European population of about 60 million) and, even in the 18th century, the so-called century of Enlightenment, the pass at Roncesvalles still counted 30,000 pilgrims a year. But in the 19th century numbers fell dramatically; most of the monasteries and churches were closed for ever with the confiscation of church lands in 1837; many were converted into stables or simply pillaged for their building stone. In the 1970s, just when it seemed as defunct as a dodo, the pilgrimage made a remarkable revival, due to a number of factors – the modern world's disillusionment with conventional religion; the search for something beyond what overorganized day-to-day life and church attendance can offer and, more prosaically, the growth of ecological and alternative tourism. In 1982 John Paul II became the first Pope ever to visit Santiago; in 1985, UNESCO declared it the 'Foremost Cultural Route in Europe', helping to fund the restoration of some of the Romanesque churches that punctuate the trail. Although modern roads have changed the face of the pilgrimage for ever, efforts have been made to create alternative paths for pedestrians, marked every 500m with a stylized scallop shell; new inexpensive hostales have sprouted along the way for walkers or cyclists. The pilgrims' quest is back in business.

A Field of Stars

In the Middle Ages it took real courage to leave home and make such an arduous, perilous journey west to Finisterre; back then, as today, there was more to it than just picking up an indulgence to deposit as credit in the Bank of Grace. The pilgrimage was one of the few opportunities for the average Middle Ager to attain a consciousness and understanding beyond the strict limits of Church dogma. All the humbuggery over the 'discovery' of the Apostle's relics in the far northwest corner of Spain would never have caught the popular imagination so powerfully had it not been for the deep mythopoeic resonances already present; especially for the Celts, the far west was the abode of souls that pass on. It was an ancient Indo-European belief that a star appears in the Milky Way whenever a mortal is born, and shoots towards the west when they die, towards the realm of the dead in, as for example the Celts conceived it, the Castle of the Goddess Arianhrod (the constellation Corona Borealis). Similarly, in Plato, the dead go to the celestial west, to the spot where the Milky Way meets the circle of the Zodiac – towards the real 'Compostela' (campus stellae in finis terrae), the field of stars at the world's end. To make the journey to the end of the world while still alive was to come to terms with our ultimate destiny, to vanquish and harrow hell, to understand the mystery in a unique way with both the body and mind. There were certainly plenty of miracles and mysteries for the pilgrims to ponder as they followed the setting sun, both in legends and in the subject matter chosen by the sculptors who decorated the portals and capitals of the churches along the way. Much of their symbolism is enigmatic in the extreme. With the destruction, deterioration and ham-handed restoration of so many pilgrim churches and hospitals, many important clues left by the itinerant guilds of builders were lost, but the remains include Celtic and other pagan symbols, man-eating lions, eagles and snakes, two-headed monsters, jovial eroticism, labyrinths, figures from the zodiac or from the 'labours of the months', and much more, along with a wide range of orthodox and unorthodox depictions of scenes from scripture.

Aymery Picaud's Codex Calixtinus divided the camino francés into 13 days or stages. Some are rather long hauls, possible only with a fresh horse, others are short and walkable; some of the stages are to famous towns like León and Burgos, others to dusty one-horse nowheres, apparently chosen arbitrarily, which existed on their reputation only as long as the Codex Calixtinus was consulted. The number 13 has its own deep resonance, going back to the proto-pilgrimages of ancient Egypt, when a journey down the Nile was a living re-enactment of the journey made by an Egyptian after death. Egypt itself was a metaphor for the heavens, while the Nile was divided into 12 parts representing the Zodiac, as a lunar year is 12 or 13 months. As if to prove such ideas reached Spain, a curious 9th-century bc Egyptian alabaster burial urn, found at Almuñécar and displayed in the Casa Castril in Granada, has hieroglyphs that suggest such a pilgrimage: I have arrived from my foreign land. I have passed through countries and have heard about your being, you of the primordial state of the two lands, you who has engendered what exists. In you your two eyes shine. Your Word is the way of life that gives breath to all throats. Now I am in the horizon, flooded by the happiness of the harija oases and I speak to it like a friend. In me there is a source of health, of life, beyond your shores.

The Wild Goose Chase

One theory has it that the Goose Game, a favourite children's pastime in Spain and most continental countries, is a playful memory of the pilgrimage, the medieval path of initiation. The Goose Game first became popular at the time of Philip II, the age when anything faintly outside church dogma was likely to lead to an auto-da-fé. In the Goose Game, the board has a path of 63 squares set in a spiral, leading inwards to the goal, with a picture of a goose in the centre, a total of 64. Twelve of the 63 squares also have pictures of geese, which are invariably good to land on; another nine have obstacles (the bridge, the inn, the dice, the well, the labyrinth, the prison, death, and the gateway to the goal). Players roll dice to move their markers around the board. A number of writers on Compostela, beginning with Louis Charpentier who wrote The Mystery of Compostela (1973), have remarked on the persistency of the word 'goose' in the place names along the Camino de Santiago. Oca is Spanish for goose, Ganso is the Visigothic German, Anser the Latin, and a look at the map reveals that northwest Spain has far more than its share of goosey names: El Ganso, the Montes de Oca, Rio Oja, Puerto de la Oca, the river Anso.

Goosiness permeates the other side of the Pyrenees too. In France, dévider les jars, 'to spin the ganders', meant to speak in argot, the secret language of the builders' confraternities. The mysterious, now vanished agotes (or cagots in French), an outcast race who lived on either side of the Navarrese Pyrenees, were often forced to wear a goose foot around their necks. Basques had a race of lovely but goose-footed fairies, the laminak, and Toulouse was the home of the famous Visigothic queen Ranachile, wife of Theodoric II. Better known as La reine pédauque, the 'goose foot', her story inspired the legend of goose-footed Berthe, Charlemagne's mum, a rather domestic queen who told children stories by her spinning wheel (French fairy tales customarily begin with 'In the time when good Queen Berthe spun'). Andrew Lang found the first reference to Mother Goose, La Mere d'Oye, in 1650.

So why choose, of all God's creatures, a goose as the key? One guess is that the goose is only a European adaptation of the Egyptian ibis, the bird sacred to Isis that destroyed the eggs of the Nile crocodile and annually battled winged serpents from Arabia (geese are pretty handy with serpents too, as every farmer knows). The figure of Isis distantly haunts the whole camino, which is littered with miraculous, usually dark-faced statues of the Virgin, her Christian equivalent. The Universal Way to Compostela, the Milky Way, the Starry Stairway to heaven, was a path of initiation into the mysteries of life and death and unity of all things. A wild goose chase, for those who understood the cosmic joke. Why else would the figures Master Mateo carved on the cathedral of Santiago laugh so merrily?

To the insufficiently pious, the real revelation of the pilgrimage to Santiago is that when you get to the end, there's simply nothing there – just a corpse that could be a mythical character's or anybody's. In the Goose Game, the square just before the goal is the Tomb, and if you land here you're dead and have to start again from the beginning. To those who see the pilgrimage as containing a secret teaching for a few, that's just the point. Once you have made it to Santiago de Compostela, it would hardly make sense not to go all the way to land's end. It isn't far, and the trail meets the sea at Noia, a place that intriguingly enough was a holy site long before Compostela, with Neolithic dolmens, and a churchyard full of mysterious tombstones from the Middle Ages, carved with signs and motifs that no one has ever explained.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls

Letters from Readers

I am writing to you concerning the Cadogan guide to Northern Spain. I have just returned from a three week holiday in this area and found the guide invaluable, indeed I believe it is the best book I have used so far in the Cadogan series.

Camilla N, London

I have nothing but compliments for your guide to Northern Spain. Three German women friends and I have just completed a three week 4200km car trip around Northern Spain and at every turn your guide provided us with practical information that was useful, and valuable, but even more, with delightful idiosyncratic comments on history, people, places. Your guide was for superior to those brought along by may German friends, who early abandoned them in favour of my 'readings' from Cadogan.