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Pope treads the pilgrim path to Santiago de Compostela

As Pope Benedict XVI visits Santiago de Compostela on Saturday, he joins a long line of pilgrims who make their way to the third most holy place in the Roman Catholic world after Jerusalem and Rome.

A pilgrim arrives at Santiago de Compostela

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims set out on the St James Way each year

There are many ways to Santiago de Compostela. In fact some people say the way begins at your front door. That certainly was the case with the very first pilgrim to set off from the city of Oviedo in the 9th century. Today the road he took is known as the Camino primitivo or the Original Way and is 370 kilometers (230 miles) long. That first pilgrim was King Alfons II of Asturias. He was one of the founders of the first basilica built over the tomb of the apostle.

Other popular roads to Santiago are the Northern Way or Camino del Norte (825 kilometers) that starts in the Basque city of Irun and pretty much follows the coast until Ribadeo when it swings south. The most popular is the French Way or Camino Frances (800 kilometers) from St. Jean- Pied-du-Port in France to Roncesvalles in Spain then through Burgos and Leon. Although today the Northern and French ways are more popular, the Camino primitivo is again attracting pilgrims because it is not as crowded and the hostels rarely full.

Gabriela Broda, from Poland says she chose the Original Way because she wanted to make sure of always finding a bed to sleep in at night. The 31 year old said it was her first pilgrimage. "I want to find peace within myself and make sure that everything goes all right in my life," she said.

For religious pilgrims like Gabriela Broda the way is a spiritual journey but for many modern pilgrims the camino is just another way to prove their fitness. Many now spend as much as six weeks on the road, carrying their backpacks just for the fun of it.

"It's a challenging walk but a thoroughly enjoyable one," said Alistair Templeton from Manchester who came to Santiago along the English Way from Ferrol (110 kilometers).

the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

The cathedral was built on the spot where the remains of the apostle James were said to have been found

Rest for weary travelers

Along the way pilgrims stay at public or private hostels. Cornellana, near Salas is a former monastery that offers very simple accommodations in bunk beds. Pilgrims donate what they can afford to pay, usually three to six euros ($4-8) for a bed without fresh linen, and the use of the showers and a communal kitchen.

One of the best private hostels is run by Donna Herminia. It is about 11 kilometers from Tineo and attracts a lot of international pilgrims.

"I found out about this from another pilgrim who'd done the route before," said Adrian Arm from Thun in Switzerland. Adrian is typical of the young professionals who do the pilgrimage for its physical challenge.

At Donna Herminia's bar and private hostel a bunk bed with clean sheets costs 10 euros and pilgrims can use the washing machine. The shop sells everything from whole Serrano hams to sausages, fresh fruit and washing detergent.

"We are open 25 hours a day," said Donna Herminia, a round lady with boundless energy and a smile for everyone. For another 10 euros pilgrims get the daily menu which includes local sausages and air-dried beef, cheese, a bottle of wine, vegetable soup and the stew-of-the-day plus dessert.

"After a few days on the road, your problems don't seem very important," said Salvador Ferandellaroba from Madrid. "You start out with your head full but after a while all you can think of is putting one foot in front of the other and life becomes just a matter of finding where to sleep and getting enough to eat. Suddenly it's very simple and you don't care anymore about the problems with your boss or the woman waiting for you back home."

Spanish Queen Sofia gives the traditional hug to the image of Apostle Santiago at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Spanish Queen Sofia is another famous visitor to have given the traditional hug to the image of Apostle Santiago

Historic sites

Ceramic signs showing a yellow scallop shell on a blue background mark the way. The road passes through spectacular mountain scenery and towns like A Fonsagrada where pilgrims can sip from the miraculous fountain ( fons sacrata) which gave the town its name. St. James himself was said to have stopped by and repaid an impoverished widow for her hospitality by turning the water in the fountain into milk.

One of the most spectacular cities along the way is Lugo or Lucus Augusti in Roman times. The Camino enters the ancient city through the Gate of Saint Peter through the Roman wall built between the 3rd and 4th centuries. The wall, an Unesco World Heritage Site, has 10 gates and a perimeter of 2,240 meters circling the old town.

All the various ways end in Santiago de Compostela where pilgrims run the gamut of stalls selling scallop shells, wooden staffs and useless plastic souvenirs. It is truly difficult to leave the city without buying something with a scallop on it. The tradition goes back to the middle ages where medieval pilgrims stopped off in the Barrio de los Conchieros to buy a scallop and eat it. Then they'd stick the shell in the brim of their hat as proof that they'd made the journey to Santiago.

Inside the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

Legend has it that St James also preached at Santiago de Compostela

The end of the road

Church officials at the archdioceses of Santiago estimate that more than 200,000 people will make their way – for whatever reason – to Santiago de Compostela this year. In 2004, the last Holy year, some 180,000 pilgrims walked or bicycled to the holy city. Once in Santiago, pilgrims gather in the central square called Praza do Obradoiro.

There, pilgrims mingle and listen to the cocktail of exotic sounds led by the Galician bagpipers who love playing their instruments in the echoing stone archways of the square. Didgeridoo-playing Australians compete with the keening wail and church bells round off the whole in a symphony unique to Santiago.

One of the most striking buildings on the Obradoiro Square is the 15th century hospital built by the Catholic Kings Isabella and Ferdinand in the same year Columbus sailed to the Americas. The platersque pile is now one of Spain's most luxurious hotels.

"We still welcome the first ten pilgrims who come to the hotel and offer them a free breakfast, lunch or dinner," said Alvaro Martìnez Serra, assistant manager of the hotel.

Afterwards pilgrims line up for the rubber stamp proving they've walked the last 100 kilometers or bicycled or rode at least the last 200 kilometers to Santiago de Compostella. The certificate or compostela also carries an indulgence, allowing the forgiveness of sins and shortening the time spent in purgatory.

Author: Marianna Schroeder in Santiago
Editor: Rob Turner

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