For over a thousand years, the cathedral towering over the main square of Santiago de Compostela in the far northwest corner of Spain has been the ritualistic last stop for pilgrims who’ve hiked here from churches in Paris and all over Europe. And for a thousand years, pilgrims—standing before this towering cathedral—have been overcome with joy and jubilation.
Walking the Way of St. James has changed little over the centuries. The gear still includes a cloak, a floppy hat, a walking stick, a gourd (for drinking from wells), and a scallop shell (symbolizing where you’re going).
In recent years, the route has enjoyed a huge renaissance of interest, attracting more than 300,000 pilgrims annually. These days, most take a month to walk the 450 miles from the French border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The walk itself is a kind of hut-hopping. At regular intervals along the route, humble government-subsidized hostels called albergues provide pilgrims a place to rest for the night (bunks are generally free, though a small donation is requested).
In the midst of the Camino, out on a dusty trail pilgrims have trod for a thousand years, I meet pilgrims of all types. Prepackaged groups have clean, matching T-shirts. Each hiker is issued a mass-produced walking stick with a decorative gourd tied to the top and the requisite dangling scallop shell with a brightly painted cross of St. James.
Other pilgrims are part of humbler, ragtag church groups from distant Catholic lands. Resting on a bluff, I’m passed by an otherworldly group that has shuffled all the way from Lithuania to the rhythm of its raspy, amplified chant-leader. Along with their rucksacks, the group carries an old boom box, various statues, and a 10-foot-tall cross. With their intentionally monotonous chant, they trudge slowly out of sight and then out of earshot.
Later, I stop in a medieval village—like so many ghostly quiet villages pilgrims pass all along the route. Its only “shop” is a vending machine cut into a stone wall. An old woman scrubs her laundry, bent over a convenient creek-side spot as her ancestors have for centuries. She ignores a shepherd herding his gangly flock over a narrow bridge.
In this idyllic corner, pilgrims are eager to share their experiences. I met a bouncy flower child from Berlin—a 20-year-old woman hiking alone, singing to herself, and radiant with appreciation for this personal journey. She speaks to me as if she were a real saint come to Earth. Talking with her, I feel I’ve entered a Botticelli painting (and don’t want to leave).
An Englishman I meet is doing the trail in three successive years because he can’t get enough time away from his 9-to-5 job to do it in one 30-day stretch. While he walks, he reflects on simplicity. Nearly everyone I meet is having a richly rewarding time. I keep thinking how a standard RV vacation—with its clever abundance of comforts—couldn’t be more different than this chance to be away from the modern world with all that it entails.
Because the last overnight stop on the Camino is just two miles away from the city of Santiago, most pilgrims arrive at the cathedral late in the morning, in time for the midday Mass.
Like a kid follows a parade, I follow the pilgrims as they approach the cathedral. I try to imagine the mindset of a medieval pilgrim, so exhausted yet so triumphant. You’ve just walked from Paris—about a thousand miles—to reach this holy spot. Your goal: to request the help of St. James in recovering from an illness. Or maybe you’ve come to honor the wish of a dying relative…or to be forgiven for your sins. Whatever the reason, you know the pope promised that any person who walked to Santiago in a Holy Year, confessed their sins, and took communion here would be forgiven.
After weeks of hiking, the spires of the cathedral come into view and jubilation quickens your tired pace. Finally, you stand upon that shell in the pavement to gaze up at the awe-inspiring cathedral. Stepping inside, you squint down the nave and see the statue of St. James that marks his tomb.
Kneeling at the silver tomb, you pray and make your request. Then you climb the stairs behind the altar up to the saint’s much-venerated statue—gilded and caked with precious gems. Embracing him from behind while gazing thankfully out over the cathedral, you have completed the Camino de Santiago.
Whether you hike the entire route or just the last stretch, it’s an experience that will stay with you forever. And, if you need an excuse to be thankful, consider that—unlike your medieval counterpart—you don’t need to hike back to Paris.
This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.