Pilgrims Inc. Soul Searching and Commerce on the Way of St. James

Not long ago, only a few people would make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Now, over 200,000 people a year spend several grueling weeks along the route. Traditionalists turn up their noses at the crowds, but the rewards are still vast.


By on the Camino de Santiago 

In the Middle Ages, pilgrimages were neither a quest for meaning, nor an opportunity for contemplation, nor an event. People had real worries and pilgrimages were part of a deal. On the one hand was the willingness of the faithful to suffer, on the other was God's capacity for deliverance. The one walks, the other heals -- a transaction based on reciprocity.

Similar to mendicants, pilgrims had no possessions beyond what they carried with them: a walking stick, a small sack of belongings, a gourd full of drinking water and the clothes on their back. They were filled with reverence and, not uncommonly, a thirst for adventure.

The grave of St. James in Santiago de Compostela has been a pilgrimage site for over 1,000 years. When times were quiet, only a dozen people would make the effort. At other times, it would be a couple of thousand.

But the quiet years are over. More than 200,000 people followed the Way of St. James last year. And this year, those who make money from the steady stream of wayfarers are in a particularly celebratory mood. Four million copies of the book "I'm Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago" by German TV celebrity Hape Kerkeling have been sold in Germany, and its impact has been huge: Since its publication in German nine years ago, Germans have made up the largest share of foreigners making the pilgrimage. Last year, according to church statistics, 16,000 of them turned up in Santiago, a new record. And now, German public television station ARD is making the movie.

But will that mean that even more people will come? If so, it raises questions about the meaning of the trek -- and fears that it could become little more than a traveling circus. There is no doubting the potential economic benefits for one of Spain's poorest regions, but there are also 1,000 years of tradition to consider.

This is an attempt to find answers to such questions. A search among soul-searchers.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, 769 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela

Pilgrims should be poor, a requirement that still holds today. They should also clear their minds of worldly concerns. Not all of today's devotees observe the obligations: the Spanish, Americans and French tend not to. But the Germans do. Pilgrims from Germany see their trip as a chance to free themselves of unwanted ballast, spiritual mostly, but also material. They transform themselves into wandering ascetics who view the Camino as a chance to put their humility on display. Many tend to carry no more than seven or eight kilograms in their backpacks and smile condescendingly at those who lug more. They take their drinking water from village fountains, knowing full well that "no potable" means that it is not safe for consumption. They use their smartphones to look on Camino blogs for the cheapest places to buy white bread.

"I have met pilgrims who have good jobs, yet share a single sandwich among four of them," says Wim Koelemeijer, a friendly Dutchman who works in the pilgrimage office in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The town marks the starting point of one of the most common pilgrimage routes, the so-called "camino francés," which begins in France and has a total distance of 769 kilometers.

Koelemeijer's office is in the center of town and is visited by pretty much all pilgrims who come through. It is here where they receive their pilgrim IDs, necessary for stays in the hostels along the route. Koelemeijer has been making the pilgrimage regularly for more than 10 years; he is 74 years old.

"You can save everywhere," Koelemeijer says. "On food, on coffee, on lodging." The price of spending the night in a hostel? "Four euros."

But it isn't stinginess that motivates people to keep their money in their pockets. It's the principle. Poverty is seen as being equivalent to authenticity. Furthermore, many believe there is a "correct" way to make the pilgrimage and an "incorrect" one. Those who do things correctly begin north of the Pyrenees, travel exclusively by foot and make the entire journey at once, rather than breaking it up into stages that are then completed successively over several years. Real pilgrims walk through northern Spain for four weeks and spend less than €1,000.

And then there are the "real pilgrims" who began making the journey before Kerkeling's book appeared. They don't approve of the increase in numbers, saying that back when just a few people were underway, local farmers used to invite travelers in for sausage, wine and a glimpse of a hidden world. They talk of the heart-warming hospitality they experienced along the way and say that the entire trip to Santiago cost almost nothing because the farmers, among the poorest people in Spain, were so generous. Now, they are opening guesthouses with satellite television.

For pre-boom pilgrims, the Camino de Santiago is over. Now, in tiny villages of just 20 residents, there are souvenir shops selling Way of St. James T-shirts, Way of St. James kerchiefs and Way of St. James condoms. Soft drink machines, brightly lit with an image of Santiago's cathedral, have been set up on the roadside. The farmers who used to invite pilgrims in for a meal are now encouraging their grandchildren -- made jobless by Spain's economic crisis -- to open hostels along the way. For many older pilgrims, Kerkeling didn't just trigger a boom, he launched a pandemic.

It's now okay for real pilgrims to own Kevlar hiking socks worth €190, an ultra-light sleeping bag for €500, Gore-Tex shoes worth €250 or a geo-caching GPS device for €400. But they often refuse to buy a "café con leche" if it costs the exorbitant sum of €2.20. Pilgrims love yakking about rip-offs along the Way.

In 2013, the average pilgrim on the Way of St. James spent €30 per day with total revenues of businesses along the route adding up to €200 million. That is equivalent to the amount of money spent by tourists in Berlin in a single week. But revenues along the Camino de Santiago are growing, and that is because of the "phony" pilgrims.

Phony pilgrims sleep in guesthouses or hotels and avoid the three-course "pilgrim menu" on offer along the entire journey for €9 to €12, including wine. False pilgrims steer clear of the hostels with their giant sleeping-bag halls housing up to 100 people. They hire taxis to drive their luggage ahead, stage-by-stage, all the way to Santiago. Most aggravating of all for real pilgrims is the fact that a 100 kilometer stroll is the minimum distance necessary to receive a certificate -- the same document received by those who walk the hundreds of kilometers from Saint-Jean or even from Munich or Berlin.

Those living along the route, of course, wonder why the real pilgrims even care how the others get their luggage from point A to point B. And ask: Doesn't God prefer to help unemployed taxi drivers?

Pamplona, 700.5 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela

Six cyclists in brightly colored stretch pants, aged between 50 and 60, are pulling jerseys over their bellies at a traffic circle. They're Italian, from Rome, and they have a white panel van with them to carry their supplies. And they too are heading for Santiago. Cycling is also considered a legitimate form of making the pilgrimage, with a minimum distance of 200 kilometers necessary to qualify. When asked about the group's motivation for making the trip, Pietro, the group's leader, gives a response that almost seems rehearsed. As if for effect, an Italian flag begins flapping in a sudden gust of wind. They are really sad, he says, to only have a week available for the trip to St. James' grave. And then, as though it was a spontaneous thought, he says that will change in the future. It's good to slow down, he says, to have time for reflection. Piano, pianino.

"Next time, we are going to start in Rome," he says.

For the trip to Santiago?

"No, to Auschwitz," Pietro counters.

People who are actually active in the church are in the minority on the Way of St. James. People like Pietro certainly aren't. These days, you meet all sorts along the Camino de Santiago: Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, athletes, young people, old people, fat people and freaks. There are single parents with children, babies in strollers and Bible groups on rented mules. There are people who make the journey barefoot, people who are barefoot and walk backwards and people who set off in wheelchairs with respirators. There are also a surprising number who know that they will die along the way. The route is lined with crosses.

Last year, 215,000 people picked up their certificate of completion, known as the "compostela" and issued by the church in Santiago. There were likely more -- not everybody has the patience to wait in the long line in front of the pilgrimage office near the cathedral. But the official total was nevertheless a record for a non-holy year. If July 25, St. James' name day, falls on a Sunday, a holy year at Santiago de Compostela is declared. The last time that happened was in 2010 and 270,000 pilgrims turned up. The next holy year will be in 2021 and Spanish politicians have already asked if perhaps an extra holy year could be declared before then.

By contrast, only 13 pilgrims made the journey in 1978.

Everyone who comes is looking for solace, quiet, freedom and time. After just a couple of days on the Way of St. James, it seems that most of humanity see their everyday lives as a theft of their personal time.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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turnipseed 08/07/2014
1. pilgrimage to nowhere
We all know about Wandervoegel and Wanderlust. I prefer to remain home comfortable, air-conditioned, with cognac and white wine. There is nothing spiritual about this pilgrimage fad I am sure.
westdude666 08/08/2014
2. Pilgrimage
Religion is distroying the world... but ancient superstition is still strong!
Oliver Hamburg 08/09/2014
3. Donkeys on the Way
Today i think, the ascetic torture is more a kind of selfpunishment for whatever. German Angst, the desire for absolution and to find similar souls make this phenomenon work. I´ve read Hapes Book too and had decided to go the Way of St.James, too - but than i read another, younger book of Tom Moore, a british journalist: "Two Donkeys on the Way of St.James", written with humor and with more distance and already aware of the Hype, that was kicked-off earlier than Hapes Bestseller by Shirley MacLaine. Reading Tim Moore too, i ´ve not decided against this adventure. But i would do it with humor.
JonW 08/10/2014
4. Soul Searching and Commerce on the Way of St. James
Fantastic article, something I would like to do now myself
pafdez37 08/14/2014
5. Way of St James
Welcome to globalization. It happened the day the Berlin wall fell. As years go by anything that before was a tourist attraction for the few it will be available for the whole planet. The streets of any major European city in the summer prove me right. And lets wait until millions and millions of Chinese tourist discover the wonders of the world. Cheers, Pedro
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