‘The pilgrim route is a very good thing, but it is narrow. For the road which leads us to life is narrow; on the other hand, the road which leads to death is broad and spacious. The pilgrim route is for those who are good: it is the lack of vices, the thwarting of the body, the increase of virtues, pardon for sins, sorrow for the penitent, the road of the righteous, love of the saints, faith in the resurrection and the reward of the blessed, a separation from hell, the protection of the heavens. It takes us away from luscious foods, it makes gluttonous fatness vanish, it restrains voluptuousness, constrains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul, cleanses the spirit, leads us to contemplation, humbles the haughty, raises up the lowly, loves poverty. It hates the reproach of those fuelled by greed. It loves, on the other hand, the person who gives to the poor. It rewards those who live simply and do good works; And, on the other hand, it does not pluck those who are stingy and wicked from the claws of sin.’

Codex Calixtinus

A small group of youngsters gather outside a low building on the outskirts of Leuven, Belgium. Next to them, a signpost. ‘Santiago de Compostela – 2496km’. They’ve spent the previous evening with their families, each member writing down what they hope will result from what the youngsters are about to do.  One by one, in trembling voices, they had read them out, wishing them true.

The youngsters, accompanied by a youth worker, set off at a reasonable pace towards the main road. They attract stares from drivers, for their huge backpacks aren’t a daily sight in suburban Leuven. The packs, though massive and heavy, don’t contain mobile phones; nor do the pockets of their hiking trousers contain earphones.

One foot in front of the other, heads bowed, the youngsters traverse the first few hundred metres. Their route will take them across fields, over hills and through mountain ranges, along an ancient path which snakes through three countries and two thousand years, having been laid with the help of millions upon millions of aching feet.

Pilgrims’ ways criss-cross all of old Christendom, often following even older trading routes used by the Romans. The Via Augusta is the longest such route built by the Romans in Spain and runs through where I live in Valencia. When you stand in the nearby town of Sagunto, with its old fortress, Roman amphitheatre, cobbled streets and olive trees, and look at the signs pointing to Rome – next to a section of the ancient road itself – you could almost be a silk merchant two thousand years ago on his way from Morocco to Rome, where there is good money to be made. Roman and Christian relics saturate the place. Every big player in Medieval European history seems to have passed through. Moors, Romans, Visigoths, even Hannibal himself.

Another trading route cut across the Iberian Peninsula to Cape Finisterre. The final part passed through the area where Santiago de Compostela now stands; at the time a Roman burial ground. It was there that St James, son of Zebedee was buried after suffering martyrdom in Jerusalem. Religious legend has it that a boat piloted by an angel brought his body to the Iberian Peninsula, where he had spent time preaching.

Sometime in the 9th century, a bishop called Theodemar of Iria found what he claimed to be the remains of St James. A shrine was built. From then onwards, it became more and more popular for pilgrims to visit, returning home with a scallop shell from the shores of Galicia as proof of their success. The settlement got the first part of its name, Santiago, from the Vulgar Latin ‘Sanctus Iacobus’, meaning ‘Saint James’.

The first pilgrims from beyond the Pyrenees appeared in the 11th century. By the 12th century, it was a well-organised affair, with thousands completing the pilgrimage each year.

The Milky Way, visible on a cloudless night during the pilgrimage, has earned the nickname El Camino de Santiagoin Spain. This is because of the popular story that the stars above the path were created by the dust kicked up by travelling pilgrims.

The growing popularity of the route yielded a book, considered by many as the first tourist guide. Attributed to Pope Callixtus II, a great advocate of the walk, but actually written by a Frenchman named Aymeric Picaud, Codex Calixtinus includes sermons, liturgical texts, reports of miracles, musical pieces, and practical advice on what pilgrims should see and avoid, making it the medieval equivalent of a Lonely Planet.

The author warns pilgrims against fraternising with the local Basque people, who he describes as ‘full of evil, dark in complexion, of aberrant appearance, wicked, treacherous, disloyal and false.’ He complains about the food, encouraging pilgrims against eating the Catfish, which he claims will make pilgrims sick.

Codex Calixtinus. Image: Wiki Commons

A good walk can work as a medicine. For over a thousand years, pilgrims have been walking the Camino de Santiago, pushing themselves beyond what they thought was possible. In medieval times, many pilgrims would struggle to make it all the way to Santiago de Compostela and its shrine to St James. While most took the route voluntarily, some were obligated by a court to walk the path as a form of penance.

Those who got to Santiago de Compostela would touch their hand to an area inside the door of the cathedral in a tradition that continues today, resulting in a visible wearing-away of the stone. Pilgrims return to their homes with a feeling of revived strength, a sturdier perspective on life and, for some, a renewed connection to God and atonement for their sins.

For the youngsters walking from Flanders, this medicine is necessary. They’ve spent their short lives in and out of young offenders’ institutions, stealing from people, and sleeping on the streets. The organisation by whom their youth worker is employed has given them a novel chance at redemption: If they can reach Santiago de Compostela, they will be released from the care of the state and charities and given a stipend on which to begin building a new life.

Each day they will walk 25km, each night they will sleep outside, cooking their own food. Occasionally, they will be offered a bed to sleep in by a kind person who lives along the route. It’s in situations like this that they experience, for the first time, a different role in life from that to which they are accustomed. In Leuven and Brussels, they have spent their lives as criminals and delinquents. On the ancient path to Galicia, they are pilgrims, and treated with respect, almost with reverence. The kind residents of the houses don’t know their story. The youngsters will revel in the realisation of just how good people can be.

Walking through the Pyrenees, a good two thirds down the route, they face their biggest test: climbing a mountain with that heavy backpack dragging them in the opposite direction. But by their own will, they’ll make it to the top. They will learn that even the most extreme difficulties can be overcome. And on the other side of the mountain, the path winds on. They will continue to walk it as thousands have done before, one foot in front of the other, slowly, deliberately, over and over again.

Emperor Charlemagne and his knights on their way to Santiago de Compostela in the 9th century, from Codex Calixtinus. Image: Wiki Commons