How to find the way? Often the route is visible over the hills for miles ahead, and where the path divides, splashes of yellow paint (flecha amarillo) on walls, trees or stones will mark the way. And there is the goodwill of local people, who love to advise on the right road, the best caf or refugio. At midday, its time for a snack at a bar or caf, and some pilgrims take a siesta. At 5pm, after a hard days walk on the rough track, its a relief to reach a refugio and rest, change clothes and take refreshment.
Treasures along the way include wildflowers, animals and birds, ancient country churches, cathedrals and monasteries. But there are highs and lows and the treeless Sahagon plain is often found to be a pilgrims lowest point. To encourage pilgrims, there are the scallop shells, especially near Compostella, on walls, houses, signposts, even litterbins! And pilgrims are treated warmly by local people: one pilgrim relates that as he sat outside a bar one evening, serenaded by a local band, their leader quietly said to him, "Please pray for our violinist; he has leukaemia." And there is a great fellow-feeling with other pilgrims helping out with sticking plasters, offering tips on avoiding blisters, sharing some fruit, exchanging travellers tales.
After 2,000km on foot, to reach Monte Gozo (Mount of Joy) and catch a first glimpse of Compostellas great cathedral spires is a wonderful climax. Pilgrims always stop here to refresh themselves before completing their pilgrimage early the next day. Once at the cathedral, they place their fingers in five holes on a pillar, holes worn by centuries of pilgrims placing their hands on that very spot. Then down to the crypt to pray by St Jamess tomb; and finally to have an interview and blessing from the cleric there.
Why pilgrimage? In the past, it was a penitential exercise. Perhaps it is still so for some people today. Some have an interest in wildlife, history, architecture or the countryside. For others it is a walking retreat, a time to take stock of their lives, to seek God. Whatever the motive, there is no doubt that pilgrimage changes people, giving a new perspective on daily life, a new closeness with God and greater thought for others.
The Confraternity of St James has a highly informative website Tel 020-7928 9988 or contact James Irvine on 01394 383826
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