By Andrea Bundon

If you are going to Muxia, it’s four kilometres shorter by the road,” says the truck driver as I prepare to cross the paved way and enter a winding dirt trail on the other side. “That’ll save you nearly an hour of walking.”

I thank him, smile and, when he drives away, continue down the path. I don’t know how to explain to him that it has taken me 33 days to walk this far. By train, plane, car or bus, the 880km journey could be covered in less than 12 hours but sometimes you just feel like walking.

Santiago, or Saint James, was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus. When the disciples were assigned the task of spreading the news of Christ’s resurrection to the four corners of the world, James was sent to Galicia, the northwestern region of Spain. Despite his noted skill as a preacher (he and his brother John were often called the Sons of Thunder), he met with little success and soon returned to Jerusalem.

In 42 ad, James was executed by Herod Agrippa and his disciples stole the body and fled into the night. They loaded the body on a boat with neither sail nor rudder and left it up to God to find an appropriate burial location. Obviously James’ work was not yet done because the boat sailed directly back to Galicia. Although they originally met with opposition from the local rulers, several miraculous escapades convinced the inhabitants of Galicia to convert to Christianity. The body of Saint James was laid to rest in a field and eventually forgotten-except in legend.

In the ninth century, a local hermit had a vision urging him to find the tomb and he was led to the place by way of a bright star. Local officials sent news of the discovery to Rome and the Vatican authenticated the find. A church was built on the location and a city sprang up around it. The site was named Santiago de Compostela, Saint James of the Starry Field, and it is currently the capital of Galicia.

Although the popularity of the site has waxed and waned, the tomb of the Apostle immediately started to draw pilgrims from all over, with early medieval voyagers braving wolves, robbers and bad weather along the way.

Since 1989, when Pope John Paul ii visited Compostela as part of the World Youth Day celebrations, the numbers flocking the city have soared. In 2002, the latest statistics available, over 68,000 received the Compostela, a document certifying they have walked or rode on horseback at least 100km or cycled at least 200km to reach the cathedral. In 2004, the first Jubilee Year of the new millennium, this number is expected to triple.

Even more fascinating are the reasons people are motivated to embark on this long and rather rigorous journey. In medieval times, pilgrimages were exclusively religious in nature but nowadays those arriving in the city cite cultural, spiritual, even sporting reasons.

Although many roads to Santiago exist, the most common route is the Camino Frances. It starts on the French side of the Pyrenee Mountains in the small town of Saint Jean Pied de Port. It crosses into Spain on the first day and travels 791km to Compostela.

Before arriving at their final destination, pilgrims will have crossed two mountain ranges, prairies, eucalyptus forests, vineyards and lush valleys. The path can be anything from dirt to highway to gravel to pavement to ancient Roman road and is marked with yellow arrows. Although every village has its charm, main attractions include the gothic cathedral of Burgos, the Palace of Gaudi in Astorga, the Templar castle of Ponferrada and the 200m medieval bridge of Hospital de Orbigo.

Unlike other pilgrimage routes, the ‘strange road to Santiago’ has been built expressly for pilgrims. The roads to Rome were in existence long before the Vatican was built and Jerusalem has been an important city for over 3,000 years but Santiago de Compostela would never have existed if it hadn’t been for the discovery of the Apostle’s tomb.

As a result, the entire way is littered with references to the pilgrimage. Monasteries, bridges, castles, even bars are named after the Camino and scallop shells, the symbol of Saint James, adorn even the most modest garden gate. An entire infrastructure has sprung up along the way and nowadays a tired pilgrim has no problem finding a hot meal and a warm bed in the albergues or pilgrims hostels either privately owned or maintained by the municipality. In fact, many of the hostels are situated in historical monuments such as the one in Nàjera built in the 12th century monastery of Santa María la Real or Ribadiso de Baixo where travelers sleep in an ancient hospital surrounded by sheep.

They come from all over the world and each one has a story to tell. When my traveling partner Anna and I ventured onto the Camino this February we made some great friends and met some real characters. Among our favourites were two Belgians who had started walking in Paris. One of them was in his late 40s and the other only 17. Their reason for walking the way? The young one had a criminal record and the Belgian government offered him the option of walking the Camino or doing time in a juvenile correctional centre. That’s right, just 1,600km and all your sins are forgiven.

Upon arriving at the cathedral, the first prayers of this weary pilgrim were for the hospitaleros along the way. They have the often thankless task of caring for the hostels and most of them are volunteers. Janine, la Maman de Pèlerins, offers critical advice to those just starting out in Saint Jean Pied de Port. José in Nàjera in an expert at caring for blisters. Alfredo in Molinaseca greets every pilgrim with a glass of red wine and Tomás, the last of the Templar Knights, is always waiting in Manjarín for those lost in an unexpected snowstorm.

Robert Frost has always advocated the road less traveled but after walking the Camino de Santiago I beg to differ. There is a certain tranquillity of mind that accompanies a well-trodden route. The road is always waiting for those willing to shoulder their packs and sound the ancient pilgrim’s cry ‘Ultreia’ and ‘Suseia’ or further and higher we will go!

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