In the spring of 2001 my wife Judi and I were in Burgos, one of Spain's history-filled cities. While admiring the stained glass windows in the cathedral I noticed a group of backpackers who displayed scallop shells on their packs.
Having once worked for an oil company identified by that symbol, I couldn't resist asking them, "Why the scallop shells?"
I was almost expecting them to be fellow oil people in disguise, which they weren't. They explained that they were pilgrims, passing through Burgos on their way to the western Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, and that the scallop, common along the beaches of Galicia, was the centuries-old symbol of the pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James.
I became interested and decided to find out more about this pilgrimage, which turned out to be a fascinating mixture of history, legend, religion, politics and business acumen.
Fascination led to action, and last May I stood in the French Pyrenees, in the village of St. Jean Pied-de-Port, at the start of my own 500-mile trek across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.
History tells us that the Apostle St. James the Elder was beheaded in Jerusalem in A.D. 44. Legend says that his body was transported in a week-long journey by a rudderless stone ship to the shores of what is now Galicia, in western Spain. There he lay buried and forgotten until 813, when a hermit rediscovered his bones and the local bishop verified that they belonged to St. James. Within a few years, the king of Asturias visited the site, built a chapel and declared James, Santiago in Spanish, the patron saint of Spain. Masterful medieval marketing soon followed and brought an increasing stream of pilgrims to Santiago's shrine. For Christian rulers it was a way to drive out the Moors; for businesses along the trail it meant incoming cash.
Santiago's name became more and more involved in the struggle between Christians and Moors across the Iberian Peninsula, and on occasion troops were said to have seen him descend from heaven on a white charger to help turn the tide of battle.
The number of pilgrims shriveled after the Christian reconquest of Spain was completed in 1492, and from then until late in the 20th century, when it once again became popular, few walked the Camino de Santiago.
In 1987 the European Union declared the Camino Europe's first Cultural Itinerary, and by 1993 the United Nations added it to its World Heritage list. The yearly number of pilgrims has been rising since, and it is estimated that in 2004 an estimated 180,000 walked or biked the Camino.
Physically strenuous as the walk is today, it is a fraction of the effort that was required in the past.
In the Middle Ages walking or riding from somewhere in Europe to Santiago was a risky journey, an undertaking of sometimes years, from which many, for one reason or another, did not return. The driving force for most was religion; for others it was probably the search for adventure. And for some it was punishment, the stark choice between a chance to atone for a crime via the pilgrimage or the gallows.
Nowadays every person seems to have a different reason for doing the Camino, and each does it in his or her own way. Many still are motivated by religion or mysticism. For others it is a long hike or a time to share with friends. Some do it in one go; others do it in shorter segments over a span of years. Most overnight in economical, volunteer-run hostels along the way; others stay in expensive hotels.
Santiago de Compostela is the end point, but the starting points are multiple. Four Dutchmen I met had started in Rotterdam and walked across Belgium and France. Though most pilgrims were European I encountered people from many nations.
(A surprising number were Brazilian, including one group that I had decided in my mind was Japanese -- until I heard them converse in very lively Portuguese!)
Thirty days after leaving St. Jean Pied-de-Port I reached the square in front of the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. As had thousands of pilgrims across centuries, I entered the cathedral, bopped my head against the bust of Maestro Mateo, its 13th century architect, and placed my right hand on the marble column behind the Maestro.
The deeply worn finger grooves in the stone confirmed that I had reached my goal, which had been the journey and not the destination.