Sunday, 7 February 2010

Santiago Diary - En el piel de los caminantes

My Ryan air flight back to London left 5 minutes early ending a short break in Santiago. Always reluctant to leave I was already thinking about the next visit in April. The sun broke through the rain clouds as we took off and as I leafed through the Ryanair magazine I found an article on the patois of my home town of Glasgow in Scotland. One of the phrases which was translated is "stoatin' aff the grun" or in English, "raining so heavily the rain is bouncing off the ground". And that's been the story of Santiago this week.

The old town seemed abandoned. The students are in class and there are few pilgrims around. I visited the Pilgrims' Office and the staff were bored. There had been a rush of pilgrims in January at the beginning of the Holy Year when 1200 were registered. This compares to 150 in the same month last year and 600 in the last Holy Year in 2004. A sign of the deluge of pilgrims to come later in the year.

In anticipation under the umbrellas Santiago is quietly gearing up for the 10 million visitors some are predicting this year. The hostals and hotels are busy taking bookings and the Pilgrims’ Office has already sent out half of the 100,000 pilgrim passports they had printed in December. These will be distributed through Amigos groups all over the world. Don Jenaro, the Canon in charge confidently predicts that over 250,000 pilgrims will walk to Santiago this year. "We will welcome all of them with 'brazos abiertos' (open arms)" he says with a grin while the staff discuss how best to manage the inevitable queues. More people have been taken on and they are currently undergoing training with a combination of lectures on the nature and history of the pilgrimage and visits to the Cathedral archives to see the Codex Calixtinus, said to be the first guide book to the route. They also plan to go on a short pilgrimage themselves perhaps from Ferrol on the Camino Inglés or Tui on the Camino Portugués.

In the Cathedral the organists are getting into their routine for the year. They will play at the four masses a day which have been laid on to cope with the enormous numbers of pilgrims. New cantors are being trained and in the summer months the Botafumeiro will fly everyday at the noon mass. At other times groups still have to pay for the Botafumeiro and in this Holy Year the price has gone up from 240 euros to 300 euros. No one can explain why and shoulders are shrugged at my question.
Many restaurants are still closed and decorators seem busy everywhere. The other day I went to book a room for a pilgrim arriving in April and the Hostal was closed for cleaning and renovation. Because this is a quiet period the Executive Committee of the Asociación de Empresarios de Hostelería de Santiago (above) decided that having served pilgrims for many years they should walk a route themselves. When I spoke to their President, José Antonio Liñares Bar, he explained that in the beginning their purpose was purely commercial. " We decided to walk from Sarria to get as much publicity as possible about the Holy Year and to show our neighbours in towns along the route what they could also do to promote it."

I've known José Antonio since I stayed in one of his hotels, the Costa Vela, some years ago after my first pilgrimage. He is a stylish, almost regal, Spanish caballero. Always polite and always reserved. But talking to him the other day was like speaking to a different person. Gone was the reserve. He was obviously proud to be a fully fledged pilgrim. We chatted about all the things pilgrims do. José Antonio said that he has been an hotelier in Santiago for 15 years and although during that time he had served thousands of pilgrims he had never before truly understood what their journey had entailed. "What surprised you?" I asked, "was it sleeping in albergues or eating Menus del Peregrino?" He laughed, "no, I did a year of national service in the army when Spain still had that for everyone so communal sleeping was not new. The greatest surprise was the energy it took to walk all day, every day, for five days. I thought it would be easy but we would see a hill in the distance and I would think that I would need to take a taxi to reach it. But poco a poco, step by step I reached that hill only to find another hill in the distance we had to reach." José Antonio found the Camino Frances beautiful. "Did you experience any problems?" I asked. "Oh yes," he positively enthused, "every evening my feet and knees were aching more than I ever thought possible and every day we had to fight our way through the cold and the rain." His pride at his achievement was palpable. "So, peregrino," I said, "have your opinions of the pilgrimage and pilgrims changed?" "Totally" he replied. "Now I understand many of the reasons why pilgrims do this. It is undoubtedly spiritual. Even for people who have no faith it is contact with nature and with other pilgrims." Then wistfully he said, " what began for me as a publicity strategy became a matter of the heart and soul. I would do it again in an instant."
The hoteliers got their publicity with a headline in the newspaper: En el piel de los caminantes - literally: in the skin of the walkers the Spanish equivalent of the English phrase walking in the shoes of the pilgrims. They may have set out that way but they arrived as pilgrims in their own right.

José Antonio has made the discovery which most of us make. This year many more will have that experience as they make their pilgrimages long or short. Santiago is waiting for all of us.


  1. That is why the Spanish Federation require that hospitleros voluntarios to walk a camino before they do a training course, so that they know what the pilgrims are going through.

  2. I can totally understand the Spanish Fed. asking their folks to do an actual camino before they serve pilgrims. There are some areas where you can simply "empathize" with someone and it is enough...but I think this is one where lived experience is the only way to go! It's like trying to understand a marathon w/o doing one. Impossible! Johnny as always thank you for you wonderful blog. I look forward to each and every post...and learn so much from yours. Karin

  3. Thank you , Johnnie, for your omnipresence in the blog world. So many people, I think, find inspiration with you! I wonder if you have ever gone on pilgrimage in Scotland. I am going on pilgrimage for the first time to Santiago on the Camino Frances this year, but I already have plans to walk the Way of St. Cuthbert next year. (A mere 63 miles or so, I know)I lived in Scotland for several years in my youth and have a soft spot for Glaswegians. (And Hogmanay, for that matter!) Thanks again for your wonderful writing!

  4. Hola

    The St Cuthbert's Way

    Is still on my list. When I was younger I was regularly out in the Scottish hills then in more recent years my pilgrimage destination has been the island of Iona. Nowadays the warmer climes of Espana have won my heart.

    Best wishes