This time next week I’ll be in the Galician town of Sarria, preparing for the first of six days’ walking along the Camino de Santiago. Santiago, of course, is Saint James, after whom I’m named – though it was a close thing, apparently, since my birthday is actually Michaelmas Day, September 29, and I was nearly christened Michael. But even though I’m not in any way religious, and we’re walking the pilgrimage route for whatever experience it brings us, I enjoy the thought that our destination will be Santiago de Compostela, the last resting place of the man who would have been my name saint, were I to have one. It lends extra meaning to the journey.
Sarria is 115 kilometres from Santiago and our journey involves the slightly back-to-front process of flying to Santiago, spending our first night there, then taking a bus up country to Sarria, whence we walk back again to Santiago along the pilgrimage route. The travel company simply moves our luggage each day from one hotel to the next, an average of 20 kms per day.
A few weeks ago our travel documents arrived in an oddly bulky envelope which, along with the brochure and reservations, included two scallop shells. My first thought was that they must be drinking scoops for use at springs along the way. I wasn’t wrong, but there are many other interpretations too. The scallop is closely associated with the mythology of Saint James and the washing ashore of his shipwrecked body. It’s also a metaphor for the pilgrim, the shell washed up on the shores of Galicia as the pilgrim is guided there by the hand of God. And finally its converging grooves represent the many different routes that converge on Santiago from all over Europe.
But it’s also simply a badge of pilgrimage. And I very much like the idea of being a pilgrim, of making a journey that has no secular purpose. We’re not walking to bring news to someone, we’re not walking to attend a feast, we’re not walking to market, and yet the journey has a very distinct destination – the cathedral of Santiago and the relics that lie therein. Having said that, a pilgrimage is also a case par excellence where it’s the journey that matters almost more than the destination; the calming, meditative value of simply walking, and the slow, gentle connection with one’s natural surroundings that it brings.
Then there’s the company of other pilgrims – and the Canterbury Tales immediately spring to mind. Who will we fall in with along the way (in 1985, 690 people made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela; last year it was more than a quarter of a million)? What stories will we hear – either from recreational pilgrims like us or, maybe more interestingly, from those with a real religious motive? I haven’t made much use of the small black Moleskine recently, but this is one holiday when I will definitely be taking one with me. I see this as a pilgrimage to some inner place of peaceful reflection (and perhaps that’s what God is), but it’s the thought of what lies en route that really excites me.
You’ll forgive me if I don’t post for the next couple of weeks.