Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (St James Way)

cockle In April 2004 we traveled to Spain with a group of Episcopalians from the St Albans Diocese in England on the ancient pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. We were looking for a tour that would involve some walking, but not too much as was the case with the pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Although we are Presbyterians from the U.S., the Bishop of St Albans graciously agreed to include us in this tour. For general information about this ancient pilgrimage see The Confraternity of St James or... Sacred Destinations or... Galicia--La Guia Turistica.

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Tuesday, 27 April

BusesAt London Heathrow airport we joined the group of 80 fellow pilgrims for our flight on Iberia Airlines to Bilbao, Spain. The tour was lead by the Bishop of the St Albans Diocese (Rt. Revd. Christopher Herbert), with over 400 parishes in Bedfordshire, Luton, Hertfordshire and parts of the London Borough of Barnet. Additional group leaders were Rt. Revd. Christopher Foster, Bishop of Hertford, and Canon Patience Purchas; and assistants Mrs. Laura Hart and Capt. Andy Crooks. The tour was arranged by McCabe Pilgrimages, London; as represented on the tour by Andy Webster.

At the airport in Bilbao we assembled and boarded our coaches—red and blue. Pam and I were on the blue coach with driver José Antonio and blue group leader Manuel. Both Manuel and José were born and raised in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. Manuel spoke excellent Castillian and English (and German and French); he did an great job of herding his flock of 40 wandering sheep. We were lodged in the Hotel Barcelo Nervion, centrally located in Bilbao, where we had a good meal and met some of our traveling companions.

Let it be said that we were well sated during our evening meals with all the food and wine we wished. Breakfast buffets were also included in the price of the trip. The Basques (Vascos) and Galicians (Gallegos) were all generous and accommodating hosts. The only food we had to buy was our lunch. We were lodged in very nice three and four star hotels, all centrally located.

Wednesday, 28 April

Our first stop was the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Though not strictly a part of the religious pilgrimage, it would have been a shame to miss seeing the world-renowned Guggenheim while we were there.

We visited the shrine of San Ignacio de Loyola (St Ignatius of Loyola). We worshiped in the basilica with the Bishop of St Albans leading the service. The alter and dome in the basilica are exceptionally elaborate and ornate. We also toured the house where Loyola was born and raised; and saw the rebuilt tower house, one of many which used to define the clans' territories in the middle ages.

We prayed for Glenna Page from our congregation, that she might be relieved from her pain and suffering.



After seeing Loyola we went to Pamploma to stay the 28th and 29th in the Hotel Tres Reyes.


Thursday, 29 April

In the morning we walked around Pamploma and visited the Gothic Pamploma Cathedral which replaced the earlier Romanesque cathedral. The present cathedral was begun in the 15th century and has a neo-classical façade erected in 1783. The kings of Navarre are entombed here.

We looked in some jewelry stores for a nice pin depicting a scallop shell—the symbol of the Santiago pilgrimage, but what we saw was over priced and poorly made. Since Santiago de Compostela is near the coast in northwestern Spain, pilgrims could easily obtain one of the local shells to show that they had accomplished the trip.

Then we drove along the Pyrenees to the mountain village of Ibañeta. The busses took us to a hilltop with an obilisk dedicated to Roland.


Near the Roland monument was a small chapel and a spot where people customarily place small crosses as a remembrance or prayer for someone. See also Song of Roland.


We placed there a small cross for Jack Adamson, who is undergoing chemotherapy, and said a prayer for him and his family.

From there we walked 6km to the village of Roncesvalles (Roncevaux), the legendary setting of the defeat of Charlemagne and Roland by the Basques in 778, changed by legend a couple centuries later to having fought the Moslems (Saracens). Roncesvalles was the gateway to Spain over the Pyrenees from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. In the 11th and 12th centuries the Benedictines in Cluny exerted a tremendous influence through France and Northern Spain on the way to Santiago. They owned many monasteries and churches along the way. The Cistercians were also very influencial. The Moors controlled all except the northwest corner of Spain. This was a call to arms for Christians to repulse the Moslems from the European continent; and they were determined to preserve the shrine of the Apostle James in Santiago.

Trek Roncesvalles

Trek RoncesvallesWe visited the sanctuary at Roncesvalles where the Bishop had permission to conduct a Eucharist service. However, the local priest would not allow us to partake of the bread and wine in the sanctuary because we were not Catholic. Our guides explained that the Bishop had prior approval to do this but the priest was intransigent; whereupon, the Bishop conducted a marvelously worded service with the theme of "sight and insight." But the partaking of bread and wine would have to wait for supper. (Part of our tour package was a pamphlet with the order of worship, liturgy and hymns.)

Friday, 30 April

We visited the 12th century funerary church at Santa Maria de Eunate, like a sepulchre in Jerusalem, made in the shape of an octagon, Roman and Moorish in design, standing in the middle of corn and wheat fields.



Then on to Puente la Reina where the different ways to Santiago (from France and Catalunia) converge into one route. We walked through the town, starting at la Iglesia del Crucifijo which had gothic arches with Moorish traces and prominent scallop shells; then past la Iglesia de Santiago with a carving of the apostle dressed as a pilgrim, and across the 12th century bridge built for the convenience of pilgrims. This is one of the few examples of Christ on a "V" shaped cross.

El Crucifigo

El Crucifigo

Puente La Reina

Puente la Reina

Then after a brief visit and snacks in a Rioja winery we went on to visit the monastery at San Millan de la Cogolla—the Yuso Monastery (built when the 6th century Suso Monastery in the foothills of the mountains became too small).

The present Yuso buildings were built in the 15th century and are occupied by the Augustinians.

San Millan

The prayer books below are huge and heavy—about 36 inches high and 10 inches thick. They were in very large lettering so the monks could all see from one book while they were chanting.



Open Book

Yuso Chapel

Then on to Santo Domingo de la Calzada. We visited the cathedral which has a huge alterpiece that had been moved aside to reveal beautiful carved columns with the tree of Jesse, including David and the Virgin Mary; another one starts with the trinity at the top and going down represents the 12 tribes of Israel.

A live cock and hen are kept in a cage in the cathedral in memory of a miracle that happened in the town where a young man was supposed to have been hanged but was alive when his parents returned from Santiago. When the governor was informed he exclaimed that if the young man were alive those two birds on his plate would begin to cackle—and cackle they did. En Santo Domingo de la Calzada cantó la gallina después de asada.

Pam and I had lunch in a small family-run cafe just a block from the church. We must have looked very tired and cold because after lunch, when Ed asked for a coffee and coñac, the owner treated him to a very large glass of Fundador, Ed's favorite.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada

From the Ermita de Valdefuentes we walked 6km to the church of San Juan de Ortega, a hostelry founded in the 12th century by a saintly monk who, like Santo Domingo, built roads and bridges to make the passage to Compostela easier. The trail was muddy and a lot of puddle jumping; then it started sleeting. Fortunately we had warm wool sweaters under our raincoats. Of course, none of the old cathedrals and churches were heated so it was cold inside as well. But the singing and the companionship kept us warm. Then we continued to Burgos for an overnight stay in the Hotel Corona de Castilla.

Valdefuentes San Juan de Ortega

Saturday, 1 May

The featured visit was the Burgos Cathedral with its mighty gothic façade, and the Monastery of Sta. Maria Miraflores where Cartusian monks resided. Construction on the cathedral began in 1221; built in the international gothic style brought south of the Pyrenees by the Cistercians. The picture is a large shopping plaza with the spires of the cathedral in the background.


Then we traveled to Fromista where we had a short service in the old Romanesque church of San Martin de Tours. Notice the way the plane trees are trimmed and the limbs grafted together so they seem to be holding hands. (You might also note that it is the 1st of May and there isn't a sign of leaves.)

We said a prayer for Susan Loughridge that her foot might heal.

Continuing on our way it was only a few degrees above freezing with some wet snow hitting the windshield. After a long day we arrived in Leon for a two night stay in the Hotel Silken Luis de Leon.

San Martin

Sunday, 2 May

Leon CathedralDuring the morning we visited the magnificent Leon Cathedral where the Eucharist was celebrated by the Bishop of Hertford. The cathedral was built in the 13th century and is the best example of Gothic style in Spain. The cathedral windows are huge and beautiful. The gallo (cock) weather vane on top of the cathedral was recently analyzed to determine its origin. By taking biological samples from inside of the sealed tail they determined that it had been made in Persia.

We also saw the royal crypt of St. Isidoro and its beautiful library—the ceiling paintings were exceptional. Then we walked along the River Bernesga to the plaza to see the Hostal of San Marcos in Renaissance style. It is now a National Parador (Inn). The VII Roman Legion founded a settlement in what is now Leon in 68AD.

Rio Bernesga

In the cathedral we said prayers for John McLellan—that the infection in his leg be completely healed.

Monday, 3 May

On to Astorga to the Bishop's Palace, now pilgrim museum, designed by Gaudi and built in 1889. It is beautiful architecture but very restrained for a Gaudi building.

Bishop's Palace

Iron CrossWe stopped at the deserted town of Foncebadon for hike up to the Cruz de Hierro (Iron Cross) which is the highest spot on the Camino—about 1500 meters. As is the custom, we left our stones at the foot of the cross as something from home to represent our sins and ask for protection on the journey. Pilgrims have been following this tradition since the middle ages. We enjoyed the beautiful vista with snow-capped mountains in the distance.

After celebrating the Eucharist in a small Celtic town in the mountains we had a delicious lunch at a local establishment. With snow-capped mountains in the distance, caldo gallego, good Rioja wine and pleasant company—what else could a person ask for?

Inn at O Cebreiro

And on the right is Jose and Manuel facing stiff competition from Andy, Chris and Laura.

Manuel and Jose

Andy, Chris and Laura

VistaThen we descended a serpentine mountain road and went through the tiny village of Acebo with the street so narrow that the cantilever houses on each side were only about two inches from the busses mirrors. The driver had to literally stop the side-to-side rocking of the bus so we wouldn't damage a mirror.

We passed through a Templar fortress at Ponferrada; and through Villafranca de Bierzo, a 16th century castle. Papal Bulls were granted to those pilgrims who could not continue. We went over the mountain pass of Porta de Cebreira at 1047 meters and at 1800 hours arrived at the Hotel Alfonso IX in Sarria for a one-night stay.

Tuesday, 4 May


We crossed the Mino river and visited the church of San Nicolas in Portomarin which was the home of Templar St James and St John orders. Notice the stork's nest on top left. We saw quite a few nesting storks on the way. The whole town was reconstructed on a hill due to the flooding of its original location for a reservoir. But before the dam was completed in 1966, the façades of the major buildings around the plaza were saved and transported to the present locale. Even more amazing, the entire church was disassembled, stone by stone, and reconstructed at one corner of the plaza. For lunch some of our group tried the local meal of a whole octupus. Then we walked six km from Melide to Boente in the cold rain, but well fortified with Rioja wine.

The group stopped at Monte de Gozo to see the large statues of two pilgrims pointing the way, and to commiserate with the thousands of pilgrims who stood on this very hill. It is called Monte de Gozo (Mount of Joy) because from there (on a clear day) you can see the spires of the Santiago de Compostela cathedral.

Then on to the Peregrino Hotel in Santiago for two nights.

Monte de Gozo

Wednesday, 5 May — We visited the shrine of St James (Santiago de Compostela) to celebrate the Eucharist in the cathedral. Our guides took us all around the cathedral to explain its history and architecture. You can see a spire of the cathedral in the background through this narrow street replete with good restaurants. The cathedral has a baroque façade hiding the much earlier romanesque building set on the site where in the 8th century the bones of St James were discovered.

Santiago Street

Every afternoon they celebrate a mass in the cathedral with the swinging of a huge botafumeiro (censer) on a long rope over the heads of the congregation in the nave.

Santiago Cathedral

In the evening we gathered in a local restaurant for a traditional Queimada farewell dinner. A grand time was had by all as the wine flowed freely and the food kept coming.

See the next page for pictures of the Queimada.

Thursday, 6 May — We had a free morning to explore some more of Santiago de Compostela, then on to the airport for a 1535 hours flight back to Heathrow Airport.

In August, 2000 Pam and I walked another pilgrimage route — Saint Cuthbert's Way — through the English borders region from Melrose, Scotland to Lindisfarne (Holy Island) south of Berwick, England. Our home church is Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia, USA.

Updated: 27 Feb 2011 Ed
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