Santiago de Compostela
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El Camino and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

"When I rest my feet, my mind also ceases to function," JG Hamann, philosopher and contemporary of Kant.

Seated at the western end of the Cordillera Cantabrica is the walled city of Santiago de Compostela; the most becoming of the European Union's nine cities of culture, the capital of Galicia and Spain's holiest city. All roads in Santiago(St James, in Spanish) lead to its centrepiece: the Romanesque cathedral in Plaza de Obradoiro. Legend has it that the cathedral lies on top of the tomb of Saint James the Greater, brother of John, who together were known as The Sons of Thunder. In the past 1,200 years, the tomb has passed through many a capricious ordeal. It was mislaid after its arrival in Spain, until a hermit stumbled across it in the ninth century. The monks at the church of St Saturnin(in Toulouse) then divided and distributed the body in a fit of Christian magnanimity - or so it is claimed.

However, the most unexpected recent phenomenon in this sacred spot has been the resurrection of El Camino (literally 'the way'), the term given to the pilgrimage route. By 2005 El Camino saw more than 2000,000 pilgrims trekking the requisite 100km on foot or horseback, or covering 200km by bicycle. Pilgrims travelling on the Camino will wind their way through the mountainous Basque country, across plains and humid upland meadows(summer pasture for livestock), past resplendent Templar castles and brañas (ancient shepherd villages), disappearing deep into the jade forests.

To look the part you'll need a broad hat for the sun, a cloak to guard against the rain and cold, a satchel, gourd, staff and scallop shell - the pilgrims' badge. You'll also need a credencial, a pilgrim's passport. The passport is used to gain access to refugios (rest houses) to acquire free meals and collect signatures en route to prove one's status as a bona fide pilgrim. A completed passport can then be exchanged in Santiago 's cathedral for a compostela (a certificate of pilgrimage). For the sacred traveller, the aim of trying to dig their way out of spiritual debt is liable to incur some discomfort. According to a twelfth-century manuscript, the Liber Sancti Jacobi: "It takes one away from succulent foods, makes voracious obesity disappear, restrains voluptuousness, contains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul."

The pilgrims' goal is to arrive in Santiago to coincide with St James' feast day, 24 and 25 July. On the eve of the feast the skies are ablaze with the spectacular Los Fuegos del Apóstol as carnival groups, itinerant musicians and artists(who are carrying all shapes and sizes of papier-maché cabezudos) parade down the streets. In the cathedral itself, eight priests set to work on swinging the world's biggest censer across the transept, on a specially-designed pulley system, letting loose thick clouds of musky incense. This year's feast day sees a re-enactment of a 12-century liturgy, the Codex Calixtinus, accompanied by the soaring medieval chants of scholas (Galician choirs). In the following days, pilgrims and Galicians swarm the streets and plazas, as the city erupts into a week-long fiesta.

The Feast of St James takes place on the 24/25 July in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.


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