I love to walk – in meditation, in prayer, to be alone and to reconnect. I walk to celebrate life and to enjoy the beauty of our blessed Jamaica. So when I turned 40, I decided to mark the occasion by going for a special walk, an extra long walk…a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The Way of St James (also known as “El Camino”), is an ancient pilgrimage across northern Spain, to the tomb of Christ’s Apostle, St James (‘Santiago’ to the Spanish).
And so I joined a community of pilgrims whose membership goes back many centuries, consisting of Christians, agnostics, atheists, the spiritually motivated, saints, sinners, generals, misfits, kings and queens. Pilgrims such as St. Francis of Assisi, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Ferdinand and Isabella, Dante and Chaucer have walked the 500–600-mile stretch across mountains, valleys, villages and vineyards. Following the Emblem of the Pilgrim – the scallop shell, small yellow arrows, worn tracks, and helpful advice, I trekked for 42 days over misty mountain passes, through Spain’s famous wine country, across the dreaded hot and dry flatlands of the Meseta, and up through soggy Galicia, with its tiny farms and one-house hamlets dotted alongside rain- drenched fields and rivers, past ancient Roman remains, Romanesque and Templar churches, architecture ranging from Visigothic to Gaudi, and not to be outdone, the gypsy settlements. Each day I aimed to reach the next small village so that I could overnight in the monasteries and convents outfitted to house the pilgrims. A favourite memory is waking one morning in a
small monastery and instead of the traditional chants being played, a young Monk – excited by the fact a Jamaican was in house, had decided to play Bob Marley’s music! Finally, after many a missed route, being lost in the woods, following sheep across pasturelands with hope they were headed home to a farm (and civilisation) I reached Santiago de Compostela, and the famous Romanesque Cathedral which houses the remains of St. James in a silver casket. A feeling I simply can’t describe!
Relics of the saints were believed to possess great power and those of the Apostles were especially venerated. During the 9th century, Christian authorities used the pilgrimage to Santiago as a way to drive out Muslim invaders from Spain and attract more Christians to the area. Over the years the number of pilgrims grew and peaked in the 11th and 12th centuries. For Christians, the Santiago pilgrimage became even more important than that of Jerusalem and Rome. With time, though, the Camino all but disappeared for a few centuries, making a recent comeback through visits by Pope John Paul II, the European Union declaring the Camino “Europe’s First Cultural Itinerary” and in 1993 UNESCO announcing Santiago de Compostela the “cultural capital” of Europe.