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The Pilgrim's Way to Santiago



In the early days, the pilgrims used to wear similar clothes to all other travellers. Their clothing gradually took the form of a short overcoat that did not interfere with leg movements, a leather esclavina or pelerina (short cape) that gives protection against the cold and the rain, a round hat with a wide rim and a bordón (staff) above head height with an iron tip. A pumpkin that also serves as a water bottle hangs from the staff. On returning home, the pilgrims kept their clothes, hats and staffs as a pious souvenir and an example for their descendants, or they gave them to a church as a votive offering and sign of gratitude for having been able to return unharmed from the hazards of the journey.

Nowadays travellers have changed the bag for a backpack and the brown tones of the clothing for multi-coloured combinations of T-shirts and raincoats, comfortable shorts and sports shoes or mountain walking boots. They also like to carry, however, a pilgrim's shell, either sown onto their belongings or hanging on a chain around the neck.

The esportilla and the bordón

These were the two characteristic attributes of the pilgrims, as were the pumpkin and the bag. The esportilla is a narrow bag of animal skin with the top always open and not tied with laces. Deer skin is the most valued material for making it. The bordón is a round pole or staff of variable length, usually ending in a knob and equipped with a sharp iron tip that was used in self-defence against wolves and dogs and also as support in tricky stretches of the route. The pumpkin was usually hung from the staff or from the traveller's belt.

The shell

This is not any old shell but the so-called pecten jacobeus in Latin. It is commonly found in the seas of Galicia, and was fastened to the clothing to verify the pilgrim's stay in Santiago de Compostela for the way home; it soon became the main insignia of the pilgrims. It is possible that the custom of sowing the shells onto capes, hats and pouches has a remote and pagan origin in superstition. In the Calixtine Code (the earliest 'travel document' in history) a miracle is told to explain the origin of the association of the shell with the Pilgrim's Way. It is said that a prince, thrown into the sea by his runaway horse, was miraculously rescued by St James and emerged from the water covered in shells. In the 12th century, in the square of the Paraíso de Santiago (now called Azabachería), there was a prosperous business selling shells made from lead, tin and jet as souvenirs for visitors.



Los pícaros (the cheats): the pilgrim's attire was also used to hide more than one layabout or professional slacker. This explains the measures applied to ensure the authenticity of the pious aim of the journey. To thwart the crafty types that infested the Way, Felipe II prohibited Spanish people from wearing this garment. From 1590 it was only allowed to people arriving from the north of the Pyrenees. The pilgrims, on open land that they were not familiar with, were usually easy victims for swindlers and rogues. Among the worst were some innkeepers, who added water to the wine, charged more than they should, gave false coins as change or served stale fish and meat, and ferrymen, who demanded scandalous fares from the defenceless travellers. In 1133 the authorities of Compostela issued a warning to traders after discovering that they were charging pilgrims more than the local residents.

Safety: like all travellers, the pilgrims who had to cross unfamiliar country controlled by different lords tried to get a supply of letters of recommendation that would give them safe conduct. This meant that they avoided problems and got exemption for their luggage and horses from the frequent tolls and other taxes that the travellers had to pay. On many occasions, however, the exemption that pilgrims were entitled to was not respected.


Care for the pilgrims

"The door is open to all, the sick and the healthy. To Catholics, pagans, Jews, heretics, idlers and the vain". This is how 13th-century hospitality was expressed on a sign in Roncesvalles. Travellers could expect a bed and food for three days, just enough time to get one's strength back after an exhausting journey. The hospice had different rooms for men and women and offered foot washing, haircuts and beard trimming, new shoes for those who needed them, and even a bath if requested. Roncesvalles was the paradigm for the best attention to travellers.

Monasteries were initially the main providers of hospitality, for example Leire and Iratxe and Pamplona Cathedral. Other, more humble, hospitals were the Trinidad de Arre, the Church of the Crucifix in Puente la Reina and that of Larrasoaña. The food offered usually consisted of soup or broth, a piece of bread and wine plus a portion of vegetables, pulses, meat or fish. They also provided a good bed, a fire and spiritual care. The inns along the Way have inherited that spirit of hospitality and give shelter to pilgrims on their journey which, although less dangerous now, is still hard.


Types of pilgrimage

Pilgrimage by proxy: a strange and relatively unknown version, but no less important, is that 'pilgrimage by proxy' (delegation) also existed. A document from 1312 tells of how the Frenchman Yves Lebreton fulfilled the requirements of the pilgrimage in the name of the Countess of Artois.

Caballeresca pilgrimage: a new form of pilgrimage started in the 15th century: caballeresca (knightly) An example was the knight Hainault de Werchin, who announced that he would challenge any other knight who was not further than twenty leagues from him along the route to Santiago.


El año santo (Holy year)

The years in which the Apostle's Day (25th July) coincides with a Sunday are declared Año Santo Jacobeo (Holy Year of St James). It is a year in which the Church grants special grace to the faithful. The year (also known as Año Jubilar - Jubilee Year) starts with the opening of the Puerta Santa (Holy Door) of Santiago Cathedral on December 31st of the preceding year. The Archbishop of Santiago knocks down a wall that covers the Puerta Santa after knocking on it three times. This entrance remains open until the next December 31st, when it is walled up again.


The end of pilgrimage

The Pilgrim's Way ends once the tomb of the Apostle St James (Santiago) is reached. It is located inside the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.