A distraught young Italian man bursts into the pilgrim office of Roncesvalles, a small village perched among the verdant mountains of the Pyrenees, just as dawn is breaking. He's had to leave his companion behind on the trail and run for help. "She's collapsed!" he yells, sweat dripping from his forehead. "You'll find her six kilometers from here." A member of the staff calls the Spanish fire and rescue service.
This isn't the first time that pilgrims have run into trouble. Many tenderfoots are no match for even the first grueling stage from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France across the forested frontier mountains. Hikers climb the mountain on a mercilessly steep 26-kilometer gravel road to reach their destination. At times, low-hanging clouds reduce visibility to just a few meters.
And it doesn't get much easier. The Way of St. James is the mother of all holy treks -- and the latest sports craze.
Even in autumn, hundreds of hikers with wide-brimmed hats and walking sticks still gather every day on the pilgrims' square in Roncesvalles. Everything is completely booked out at the old "refugio", a cavernous stone structure with no windows and 90 iron bunk beds. Bicycle pilgrims spend the night in a large military tent. Lights go out at 10:00 p.m. and on again at 6:00 in the morning.
There is no doubt about it: Northern Spain is host to a veritable spiritual stampede. Over 120,000 pilgrims -- a new record -- are expected this year on the Camino de Santiago, as the route is known in Spanish. The route extends over roughly 800 kilometers, past Pamplona, through the Rioja wine-growing region, and across the sweltering heat of the Castilian plateau, with its endless fields of golden wheat.
At the end of each day's stage, monks and nuns stamp the passports of the tired trekkers. Some walk barefoot, others ride on mountain bikes, while others prefer to travel by scooter or on horseback.
The ultimate destination is the region of Cape Finisterre (literally, "land's end"), where high cliffs drop precipitously into the Atlantic. A few kilometers inland lies the holy city of Santiago de Compostela. This is the home of the famous cathedral that houses a silver tomb said to contain the relics of St. James the Greater, one of Christ's first disciples.
During the summer, the hikers sweat three to five liters of water a day. Many of them walk until their toes are covered with bleeding sores and blisters. In the hostels, the air smells rank and resounds at night with a chorus of nerve-wracking snores. Some "peregrinos" camp out in the open and perform their morning ablutions at watering troughs.
Today, the marching mystics hail from countries like Brazil and the Congo. Last year, 504 Asians walked the route. The proportion of women hiking the Camino is 41 percent.
But above all, the pilgrims' path has been submerged by a flood of Germans. It's as if they yearn for the days of yore when they gaily sang romantic hiking songs, when journeymen took to the road, and when hiking clubs in the early 1900s helped millions of young people rediscover the great outdoors.
Clearly, an increasing number of Germans have opted for the Catholic approach to taking a stroll. According to the Saint James Society in Aachen, the number of pilgrim passports ordered has "nearly doubled" this year. Other pilgrimage destinations have also seen a rapid rise in popularity, from Altötting in Bavaria to Fátima in Portugal. A recent survey revealed a "huge untapped potential for pilgrimage tourism." The findings indicate that 20 million Germans are prepared to lace up their boots and march the pious path.
But how should we understand this mobile form of chastisement? Could this be a walking version of the apostolic Counter-Enlightenment? What has sparked this revival of the old Christian pilgrimages in the West?
The full impact of the phenomenon is illustrated in German entertainer Hape Kerkeling's book "Ich bin dann mal weg" ("I'm on My Way Now"). In the wake of a personal crisis involving a temporary loss of hearing and a gall bladder operation, the actor, comedian, author and self-proclaimed couch potato ventures onto the route of the righteous.
After only a few days, he starts to complain. "I'm totally sick and tired of this stupid pilgrimage shit," he writes. Moaning and groaning ("I'm going to start whining now"), he plods along, cracking jokes the whole way. Occasionally, he finds a hostel too "filthy" and at times he eats too many tapas, forcing him to take the bus to reach the end of the next stage. Finally, he joins company with a British female pilgrim who looks unnervingly like the -- not particularly attactive -- deceased German comedian Heinz Ehrhardt.
Despite the moaning, the book became a runaway success and has spent the last year and a half on the SPIEGEL bestseller list. Over 2.2 million copies have been sold, setting a new record for a German non-fiction book.
Not surprisingly, copycats have flooded the market with their own confessions. Bookshops have been inundated with a new brand of literature on spiritual awakening. One man wrote about how he travelled the entire Way of St. James in a wheelchair, while another author offered culinary tips.
Now German TV networks want to get in on the action. In October, the private station ProSieben began broadcasting "The Big Celebrity Pilgrimage" as the ultimate showcase of the footsore. Four third-rate celebrities amble along on a painful self-absorbed trip, including television presenter Charlotte Engelhardt ("I can feel 7,000 muscles") and pop singer Oli.P, who will have plenty of time for self-reflection.
'I'm Here For the Sex'
During the summer, hikers have to hit the road by 8:00 a.m. or risk falling behind. Those who take an extra-long siesta or overindulge at lunch will rapidly lose their edge. Over 85 percent of pilgrims drop out before they reach Santiago de Compostela.
"Brother, thou shalt not stand still / Thou hast 100 miles before thee and many a hill" -- even as early as the Middle Ages, aspiring poets endeavored to spur their colleagues forward. Watery soup and dishonest innkeepers spoiled the mood for many pilgrims. The only real highlight of the trip was an occasional fling with one of the harlots that lined the route.
And some things, apparently, never change. "I'm here for the sex," a young pilgrim from Saxony admits openly. In the evenings, after a hard day of trekking, the "peregrinos" like to socialize in the bodegas. They whip out their iodine and salves and bemoan their sore feet. Then they retreat to their unisex dormitories, where the forces of attraction sometimes prove stronger than the appeal of atonement.
"The Way of St. James offers a religiousness that is totally unsupervised, and that's what makes it so popular among young people," says the German historian Klaus Herbers, who led a "week of reflection" in late August at Château d'Orion in the Pyrenees. For seven days, an illustrious group of prominent cultural figures relaxed on lawn chairs and sipped red wine as they discussed "the great mystery of the Way of St. James."
Nowadays, instead of scratchy hair-shirt cloaks, today's soul searchers are clad in the latest trekking gear. They have long since exchanged their floppy hats for baseball caps.
Yet the question remains: How should the phenomenon described by the left-leaning German newspaper Die Tageszeitung as "the new spiritual trend" be interpreted? It's evidently not about taking the time to smell the roses. "People talk about getting away from the rat race and then they walk 38 kilometers in one go," complains a volunteer assistant from the German town of Paderborn.
Perhaps God the Almighty intercedes as well. Cancer patients, individuals looking for their inner selves, and people who face major life decisions all walk the Camino. Most pilgrims use the long and winding road to gaze within and reflect on the meaning of life. Brazilian New Age author Paul Coelho called it "an objective form of enlightenment."
In any case, the first pilgrims back in the 9th century shuffled along with "hot tears in their eyes," and a gourd hanging from their belt. To embark on a pilgrimage was to come one step closer to heaven -- "to pray with your feet." It was an allegory of life itself. With little more than the clothes on their backs, pilgrims marched in agony under the firmament toward their salvation. Today, the transcendental meaning has faded.
It was only by resorting to an elaborate medieval hoax -- complete with forged accounts -- that the clergy in the Middle Ages managed to lure millions of people to undertake the long march across northern Spain. However, the actual destination at the end of the journey -- the grave of the apostle -- loses much of its allure when the true story emerges.
In the year 44 AD, Saint James the Greater was executed in Jerusalem "with the sword," as it is written in the Bible. There can be no doubt that he was buried in the Promised Land.
In order to somehow beam the bones of the saint to Europe, the church cooked up a wild tale. According to old documents, the body was secretly taken to a boat, which made its way to the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Oxen then pulled the body inland. In the year 813, a hermit saw a "divine sign" that led him to the tomb.
None of this is true. Even Martin Luther suspected that nobody could know "if it's Saint James or a dead dog" that's buried in Santiago de Compostela. He recommended: "Let anyone travel who so desires, but you should stay at home."
There is another disturbing aspect. Saint James' name is drenched in blood. He acted as the official guiding saint of the "Reconquista." In the year 711, Muslims from North Africa began their conquest of Spain. City after city fell into the hands of the conquerors. Later, so the story goes, Saint James personally intervened with fire and sword.
This did not prevent the Muslim general al-Mansur from taking Santiago in 997 -- and relieving himself on the apostolic altar. Nevertheless, legend has it that Saint James rose up to become the victorious "Slayer of Moors." Even today, on the night of his day of remembrance, an Arab-style cardboard house of worship is ritually burned. In the town there is also a statue of Saint James on a horse, and under the steed's hooves lie the mutilated corpses of men wearing turbans.
Is this politically correct? Such a performance went over well in the brutal Middle Ages. During the heyday of the pilgrimages, up to 20,000 penitents arrived by ship every year from England. Those who endured the hardships of the pilgrimage could hope for indulgence of their sins.
These days the faithful are joined by more and more romantically confused and assorted wannabes. There are believers in the esoteric, mantra mumblers and shamans from Peru. Many of them claim to meet God along the way -- but they are probably referring to the effect of increased endorphins released by the body in response to the torturous long march.
In the mid-1990s, American actress Shirley Maclaine sank so deeply into a series of confusing and painful daydreams during her arduous journey of atonement toward Santiago that she saw pyramids, Buddhas sitting in the lotus position and even black holes alongside the trail.
And yet the old mystical magnetism has somehow retained its appeal -- even for down-to-earth types. Travelers are embraced by a 1,000-year-old infrastructure of hostels, monasteries and Gothic cathedrals. Kind-hearted souls and volunteers work along the route. A bed in a refugio costs a mere €5 ($7). It's as if you were hiking back into a long lost world.
Since everyone on the Way of St. James is a stranger without a home, the pilgrims constitute a community of wayfarers whose home is the road. What's more, hikers find themselves surrounding by spectacular landscapes. Virtually in slow motion, they traverse a countryside of golden fields of wheat, pine forests and fjords teeming with oysters. They inhale the fragrance of thyme and lavender. In the mountains of Galicia, the morning fog resembles sparkling balls of cotton.
It's a humbling experience. Some hikers talk to themselves in time with the monotonous steady steps of their feet, others sing children's songs.
Memories resurface. Wanderers are weighed down with heavy thoughts: Who am I? Where am I going? And some even ask the question: Where in the world are all these people going? By the end of the journey, they say that everyone has cried at least once.
Most of the new spiritual nomads arrive at the final pass that leads up to Monte do Gozo, the Mountain of Joy, in a morally enhanced state. From the crest, they can see the baroque towers of Santiago looming in the distance. And then comes the final stage, where they stroll down a gentle slope to the holy city.
In the old days, the pilgrims would silently enter the cathedral. They used to say the rosary and sleep in this tranquil house of God, close to the earthly remains of St. James, in order to heal in his aura.
These days, it's a noisier affair. During the high season, as many as 40,000 visitors throng through the city. Even the archbishop, who wears a golden mitre on his head, can barely make his way past the multitude of souvenir stands.
This development is cause for concern among friends of the Way of St. James around the world. Ever since its rescue from oblivion in 1987, when the Council of Europe declared the Way the first "European Cultural Route" on the continent, the Camino has become a little too crowded and loud. Hundreds of army tents were pitched this year to accommodate the flood of pilgrims and Cistercian monasteries have been converted into hotels.
Will the old Way be smothered by its own success? The German historian Herbers puts it this way: "If even more pilgrims come, we may lose the magic."