Why make the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

Traditional Santiago de Compostela pilgrim

In my case the answer to the question of "why make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela" is like the answer to the question "why climb Everest", the answer being "because it is there".

Living in Spain for half the year, one comes across mentions of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. And I suppose I started seeking information online as to what it was. The idea of thousands of people journeying across Europe since medieval times in order to reach Santiago de Compostela is an intriguing one.

The custom of a pilgrimage to Santiago apparently grew up from Santiago de Compostela being the 3rd most holy place in the Roman Catholic world (after Jerusalem and Rome). In times gone by, the "average" devout Catholic could not realistically hope to journey on foot to Jerusalem. Indeed the "average" devout Catholic today could not hope to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by plane, given the state of civil disorder in the Middle East.

Rome was a possibility, but a much longer and difficult option for someone from Britain, Spain or France, than walking to Rome. The bones of a complete disciple, James, are believed by the Catholic church, are buried at Santiago de Compostela. So Santiago became a natural favoured pilgrimage route. The custom appears to have waned in the 16th to 19th centuries, but has been revived in modern times.

So having researched the history of the Camino de Santiago, I was quite struck by it. However, the volume of pilgrims on the conventional northern route, the "Camino Frances", prompted me to look at other options. This page gives some background on the Via de la Plata

Pilgrims scallop shell - Camino Santiago

Their conclusion is that the origins of the Via de la Plata date back thousands of years. There is evidence of a Roman road, virtually unchanged at various sections. It was built as a trade route for the exploitation of gold, and is cited by Pliny the Elder who was Procurator in Hispania Tarraconensis in 73 AD. The Via de la Plata ran from Asturica Augusta (Astorga) in Northwestern Spain, to Emerita Augusta (Mérida) in Southwestern Spain. Hannibal's armies are believed to have passed along it. The road stretched around 900 Km (560 miles), passed through Salmantica (Salamanca), Metelinum (Medellín), and Castra Caecilia (Cáceres). It had a branch that went all the way to Hispalis (Seville), where it joined the Via Augusta). Its path is currently followed by the Spanish Highway N-630.

Indeed the N-630 still haunts me today. It has been in many parts superceded by the Auto Via (motorway), but development of motorways in Spain is so rapid that map makers find it difficult to keep up with their construction. And in many parts of the journey there is little choice for the cyclist, or indeed the walker, than to follow the N-630.

In any event the Via de la Plata appealed to me over the Camino Frances, as it attracted fewer pilgrims, passed through a number of interesting towns like Cáceres, Mérida, Zamora, Puebla de Sanabria, as well as starting in Seville and ending in santiago de Compostela. As an additional plus, at the right time of the year (late September, early October for me) the weather would be better for most of the way, than had I opted for the Camino Frances across the north of Spain.

Modern pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela by bicycle

So having decided on the route, it was just a question of researching the places to stop, getting the bike determining my dates and setting off.

In the abstract I really had no idea as to what I was physically capable of and how my aged body would stand up to the rigours of cycling. As a student, 40 years ago, I had with a couple of companions, cycled from Oxford to Switzerland. Then it was a bike, literally cobbled together from abandoned junk found in the college bicycle sheds. It had a 3 speed Strumy Archer gear, and we carried tents and cooking equipment with us, as we couldn't afford anything more luxurious.

This time I could afford good hotels, good restaurants, a state of the art cycle, GPS navigation, but perhaps the body was just starting to fade a bit.

In the event I discovered that I could manage 80 kms a day without effort (well the first few days were a bit grim, ending the day saddle sore and exhausted), and on occasions got up to 100km in a day. Mind you it pales into insignificance when you look at Tour de France stats, where they will do 200 kms in a day at around 3 times the speed I managed.

The aged body did stand up to just under 2 weeks on the road to do the 1000 kms. Strangely one does not have much time to contemplate the world or the hereafter when you are on the road. Going uphill you are concentrating on getting to the top of the hill, or at least to the next corner. And the adrenalin rush you get when careering downhill at 60 kms per hour, means that you are so frightened that all you can think about is avoiding hitting any potholes at that speed.

Via de la Plata to Santiago de Compostela