Report of a walk in Spain

This may be the first draft of my cover picture story for Astronomical Calendar 2016, for which it may have to be shortened. I haven’t yet done the picture, which should be as described in the first paragraphs.

These pilgrims have walked the Way of Saint James, an ancient route that leads to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. After reaching the holy place and resting for a day or two, they learned that they could extend their pilgrimage by walking on just three days more, to the end of the world.

They arrive at it: the westernmost point of all lands. And out over the ocean they behold an ultimate path, the Milky Way, reaching to Heaven.

The Camino de Santiago is the Christian world’s most famous route of pilgrimage. It is a trail along the mountain spine of northern Spain, all the way from the Pyrenees to the country’s northwestern corner. Or so I had pictured it. Since there is a ferry from Plymouth in southwest England to Santander on that Spanish coast, we thought of going over there and walking some of the Way. Only then did I learn that the Camino is not just a footpath snaking through mountains, something like the Appalachian Trail or the Inca road which I had walked from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. Indeed it is not one path but a network of varied ways by which people walked, and still walk, to Santiago.

The classic route is the Camino Francés or French Way, which starts from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in French Navarre and crosses the Pyrenees through the pass of Roncesvalles or Roncevaux – immortalized by a skirmish that happened there in 778 AD. (Charlemagne invaded Muslim Spain; as his army returned through this forested ravine its rearguard was ambushed by local Basques, and an otherwise unknown officer named Hruodlandus was among those slain; this became the source of the innumerable legends of Roland and his horn called Olifant and his friend Oliver and his last stand against multitudes of “Paynims.”) Then the route goes west, five hundred miles, by way of the cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga.

But there are also the Northern Way closer to the coast, originally used to dodge the Muslims; the Portuguese Way, from the south; Ways radiating in from several parts of Spain. The English Way was used by pilgrims arriving ship-borne from northern Europe; a branch starts from the port of Ferrol, an even shorter from Coruña, and they unite and go inland and south to Santiago. In a broader sense any route by which pilgrims come, starting from their hometowns in France or even farther off, is part of the Camino.

Medieval Christendom had three main pilgrim destinations: Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago. The pious trudged to Rome, struggled or fought their way to Jerusalem, but there is something different about Santiago: the Way itself seems more essential than the destination; and – why Saint James?

There is a choice of more or less absurd legends about how the body or James the Greater, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, having been beheaded at Jerusalem in 44 AD, came to be buried on a hillside two and a half thousand miles away in the remotest corner of an outlying province of the Roman empire. But one morning in 813 a shepherd came running into a village, woke the bishop, and persuaded him to come and see some bones he had found.  “Ah,” said the shrewd bishop, “a star led you to them, yes? These bones are the bones of – of – let me see – the Apostle James.” That is my take on the story. The hillside where sheep had wandered became a magnet for what we would now call the tourist industry.

And a political asset. It brought support to a piece of Christian Europe that was trying to rise from the dead. The Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal), once occupied by Celts and conquered by the Romans, was from about 500 AD the kingdom of the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that – after so long a history of wandering that they compared themselves to the Children of Israel in the wilderness – had settled here, Christian and Latin-speaking. Suddenly in 711 the Moors – Arabs and Berbers from Morocco, then part of a Muslim empire that extended from central Asia to the Atlantic – came across the Strait of Gibraltar and by 718 rolled up the whole land; but not quite. They scarcely cared about some embers of resistance that survived along the north coast. The great Muslim civilization of Spain, with its several dynasties and its high art and science, lasted until 1492, so it seems amazing that the gradual reconquista began so early. It was back in 718 that one of the embers of resistance flared into a little state, Asturias, led by a Visigoth named Pelagius; it spread southward to give birth to Castile, and he, like a sort of chrysalis, became Pelayo, forerunner of the Spanish kings.

Galicia, where the shepherd found the bones, is the land west of Asturias. I had supposed that the “Gal” in its name is the same element as in those of other Celtic lands and peoples – Galatia, Gaul (Gallia), Wales (“Pays de Galles” in French), the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland. Actually it was from a Celtic tribe called Gallaeci. (Another Galicia appears on old maps of Europe, along the southern edge of Poland, but this name was merely an invention based on a town called Halych.) Like Asturias and the other districts along the north – Cantabria, Navarre, Aragón, and Catalonia – Galicia pushed southward against the Muslims; its southern extension became Portugal. The history of all these units is complicated (Galicia was at times a kingdom, and it was an independent republic for a few hours of 27 June 1931) and so is the politics of its language, Galego. Officially it is a separate language; opponents say it is a dialect of Portuguese, and I suspect they’re right. Learning some of it easy, because many public signs are given in Galego, English, and Castilian (Spanish). For el, la, de los, de las you see o, a, dos, das; for puerta, porta; for ocho, oito; for iglesia, igreixa.

We decided to get along the coast by bus, pausing in the old Asturian capital Oviedo (whose cathedral claims to be the original beginning of the Camino), and take the English Way. We started from the port called Corunna in English accounts of naval battles – properly A Coruña, “The Coruña,” though nobody knows what that means; an old guess was that it meant “The Groyne” or breakwater. The city is on a rambling peninsula, and for the first five hours out of it we had to guess our direction along diverging highways and overpasses, with none of the cockleshell signs that were supposed to mark the route, until at last we turned out of roaring traffic down a white shingly path to a bridge over a stream. That’s how the Camino is. It is a linkage of ordinary roads, and country lanes, and logging roads and bridleways, and paths that slip off through woods and up hills and sometimes narrow to slits between banks of fern, bramble, broom, and foxglove.

Some places have made charming use of the Way: a bench for weary walkers, a stretch converted to friendly paving-stones beside a country chapel; as the Way comes into Sigüeiro (after the most boring stretch through industrial estates) it winds across woodland bridges and through a children’s playground. In Pontevedra (out along the southern route), bronze letters inlaid in the surface say vindo:de:portugal:ian:a:santiago; and there is an excavated Roman fort beside an earlier road, and a convent founded by no less a pilgrim than St. Francis of Assisi. In a curve of sidewalk just before you cross the street that rings central Santiago, these mottoes are engraved about a yard apart (you step over first the German, then Italian, French, English, Spanish, Galician):

Europa fíxose peregrinando a Compostela

Europa se hizo peregrinando a Compostela

L’Europe s’est faite grâce au pèlerinage à Compostelle

Europe was made on the pilgrim road to Compostela

L’Europa e nata in pellegrinaggio a Compostela

Europa ist auf der Pilgerschaft geboren

The yellow cockleshell waymarks, also yellow arrows painted on the road or on posts, trees, or walls, often come when they are needed but often not – once we were a few miles off course until helped back by a friendly driver. Pilgrims sewed cockleshells to their cloaks. Why is this mollusc the symbol of Saint James? There are stories, one of which is that the shell’s radiating grooves are like a map of the Camino.

[picture of cockleshell]

The English Way takes only three days, so we didn’t make the hundred kilometers to qualify for a certificate. (In earlier centuries the reward was an Indulgence from sins.) Santiago turned out to be another dismayingly huge city, though with a dense old core, all of stone and paved with stone. I walked a last bit barefoot in memory of the times when my soles were tougher and I walked like that the length of South Carolina. The route slips in through the side of a plaza with a statue of Cervantes (which became our reference point in the mazy city) to the north door of the cathedral.

Around the cathedral are several plazas, where jubilant groups of pilgrims or schoolchildren chant or dance. Among those we met were a gentleman from Chicago who had walked the whole Camino Francés, 49 days, and Catalan cyclists who had done the same in eight days. The cathedral is confusing because it is encrusted around by other buildings, and can be entered from several directions but not the usual west. The interior is cruciform, as in most large churches of this religion with its fixation on a ghastly execution. The two arms of the cross, the transepts, are huge, the size of churches themselves, and this enables a wild spectacle at the weekly Mass for pilgrims.

The seats in the transepts are reserved for those who have earned their certificates; the rest of the cathedral is packed, many having to stand. At the end of the service a censer, hanging on a rope in the crossing, is released and swings in terrifying arcs from one transept to the other. This ponderous bucket, emitting a smoke of incense, hovers near the ceiling, sixty feet up, its rope momentarily slack, then thunders down over the heads of the worshippers – it looks as if, with a slight error, it would mow their heads off. And again and again, until it slows enough for a team of four men to control it with other ropes and hoist it back to its place. And the origin of this custom (if it isn’t another joke become rumor become legend become history): pilgrims were so sweaty when they reached Santiago that they were censed to suppress their smell.


The names of James:

The Semitic root `qb has a general meaning of following, pursuing, being at an end; Hebrew `aqeb meant “heel.” When the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca were born, the one who came out second was grabbing the heel of the first, so he was named Ya`aqob, “he heels.” This was the first of three tricks by which Jacob (who later changed his name to Israel) cheated his slightly elder brother out of the birthright, so that he became patriarch of the land while Esau’s descendants were the Edomites of the desert to the south. The Greek form was Iakobos, the Latin Iacobus, but sometimes Iacomus. So we get modern Hebrew Yaakov; Arabic Ya`qûb; Yiddish Koppel; Russian Yakov; Finnish Jaako; German Jakob; Dutch Jacob, Jaap, Cobus; French Jacques, Jacqueline; Italian Giacobbe, Giacopo, Giacomo; Spanish Iago, Jaime; Catalan Jaume; Galician Xaime; Irish Séamus, Shamus; Scottish Seumas, Hamish; Cornish Jago; English Jacob, Jacquetta etc., James, Jamie, Jim… James the Greater, son of Zebedee, was one of at least two disciples of the name. There was also James the Less, son of Cleopas; who may have been the same as James son of Alphaeus; and there was James the Just, brother (half-brother, surely) of Jesus.

And what does “Compostela” mean? No one knows, but a suggestion is Campus Stellae, “field of the star.”


Three days’ walk to the west of Santiago de Compostela is the cape that the Romans called Finis Terrae, end of the land, or of the world. Terra, like earth, can mean the soil, or the solid land, or the planet, and unlike the English word it can also mean “a land,” a country. Until 1492, no one knew that there was any land west of here.

As usual, there is complication. Though the westernmost point of Spain is here, we now know it is not quite the westernmost of mainland Europe: Cabo da Roca, 284 miles south in Portugal, projects ten miles farther.

And there is also Finistère, the westernmost part of Brittany. One of the blocks into which the sea is divided for radio shipping forecasts (“Fair Isle: winds northeast veering to east, Gale 8, visibility Poor”) was named “Finisterre” but, to avoid confusion, renamed “Fitzroy” in 2002 for the admiral who started the service after a storm disaster.

And when I looked at a map, I wondered which spot is actually supposed to be Finis Terrae. A wide estuary of a river comes out but curls southward. The peninsula thus left on the west ends in a steep narrow point, with a lighthouse. This, it turns out, is the end of the pilgrim route, because it looks dramatic. But it points south, not west, and is not the westernmost bit. That is a neglected headland a little to the north. The town, whose name has become Fisterra, is on the curve of the estuary, facing east. We stayed at a place on the ridge above it, with a view down to a beach and the western headland.


So, I decided to make a composite picture. The pilgrims are going down by night to the point to which they do go. But I’ve twisted it to face west, toward the Milky Way standing from the ocean horizon.

The Atlantic waves, into which I plunged, are magnificent and, according to a warning notice, peligrosas, and I did feel a tow to the north. (By contrast on the sheltered estuary side foam lies in curiously unchanging long rafts and rectangles.) The sea off this coast is called Mar da Morte, because of shipwrecks or because souls depart toward the sunset. It is also called Mar da Ardora, sea of phosphorescence. I haven’t actually seen this bioluminescence in the water since that in Mexico shown on the cover of Astronomical Calendar 1975.

The day happens to be St. James’s Day, July 25, in the year 1000, which is about the time of the earliest records of this pilgrimage. The pilgrims have arrived an hour before dawn, because they have been told that, at this season, they must be out at least this early if they are to see the milky Road to Heaven. It towers from the Atlantic in front of them. What we call the Summer Triangle – the major stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair – now tilts over to the right, because it is on the way to setting. What we call the constellation Cygnus, the Swan, is formed by a line of stars along the middle of the Milky Way, from Deneb, the tail, to Albireo, the outstretched head (in the middle of the Triangle), and a cross line of stars for the wings. Clearly this shape can also be seen as a Cross. Now this gigantic diagram, to the pious awe of the pilgrims, stands upright in the west.



7 thoughts on “Report of a walk in Spain”

  1. Regarding light pollution and the description of the constellation Cygnus; Cygnus is one of those whose depictions are often so simplified to show only the few brightest stars, but when seen under much darker skies, the rest of the stars appear, showing Algol and ??, the other bright star, can’t find its name as I type this comment, opposite Sadr, the center of the ‘cross’… as only the elbows of wings outstretched much further, and legs trailing behind Deneb, away from the extended head star, Albireo. It’s truly a beautiful sight to see, especially in the autumn, when it seems as if it’s flying south for the winter

    1. Yes, there are several other stars along the lines of the swan’s body, and more along the two lines of the wings, though I’m not sure that any besides Deneb, Sadr, and Albireo have names. There are also stars to form curvy lines for the rear edges of the wings. All shown in the left-hand all-sky chart in Astronomical Calendar. Perhaps by the legs trailing behind Deneb you mean Pi and Rho Cygni.

  2. Very nice choice for the cover story of the next Astronomical Calendar. I also like to see my hometown mentioned (Pamplona, Navarre)!

    I don’t think that you elaborate much on the astronomical use of ‘Camino de Santiago’ (= ‘Milky Way’). I find it very interesting and beautiful that in Spanish we use both, although the relationship between the terrestrial way and the heavenly one is difficult to justify except for some times of the year and hours of the night. The required east to west direction (such as the main French Way goes) might work more or less for the pre-dawn sky in the summer months when pilgrims were supposed to get up and begin their daily journey to avoid the hottest hours of midday? (with best match around St. James’s Day, July 25?).

    Today it is no longer that easy to spot because of the light pollution near those very cities that you mention. We at the Spanish dark-sky organizations intend to one day get back the magnificient sight of the Milky Way. For example, regulations are already in place to avoid light emission over the horizontal in Puente la Reina, Navarre, the small town where the two main ways coming from the Pyrenees meet. On the other end, the Galician Night Sky Brightness Monitoring Network is the largest Government-owned network of its kind in the world ( You may find also interesting that this year’s Spanish light pollution conference will take place in the University of Santiago de Compostela next September.

    I hope that these efforts will enhance the cultural heritage of the Way.

    1. Carlos, those are extemely interesting and useful points. I shall be able to think about them before turning my draft into the final essay for the Astronomical Calendar.
      Do you mean that the term “Camino de Santiago” is actually applied to the Milky Way? I had met some statements that seemed to suggest that, but I thought they were only loosely referring to the sight of the Milky Way at the end of the earthly Camino.
      The Milky Way arches from east to west around sidereal time 0 (what I called the Andromeda Hour in Ast. Cal. 1976 and 2012), which happens at different clock times depending on the time of year, so one could perhaps choose other times for the pilgrims to be seeing it vertical in the west.
      Pamplona was where I once came near to death from dysentery! – not caught there but in Morocco from which I was hitchhiking back.

      1. Yes, indeed. The term “Camino de Santiago” is actually applied to the Milky Way in the sky, and this might in fact be the term first used by someone without astronomical knowledge.

        1. Yes, now I’ve found it in R.H. Allen, Star Names (1963 Dover reprint of the 1899 book), page 480, section on “The Galaxy”, i.e. the Milky Way (scanned and OCRed by me, ignoring italics and boldface):
          In England, for centuries, the Galaxy has been the Way of Saint James, sometimes the Way to Saint James, and thus figuratively the Via regia; in Italy, the Via lattea; in France, the Voie lactée. But with the French peasantry it always has been the Road of Saint Jacques of Compostella, this last itself a stellar word from the Campus Stellae of Theodomir, bishop of Idria, who was guided by a star in 835 to the bones of Saint James in a field. The same title obtains in Spain, but there it is popularly known as El Camino de Santiago, the patron saint in battle of that country, Longfellow writing of this in his Galaxy:
          “The Spaniard sees in thee the pathway, where
          His patron saint descended in the sheen
          Of his celestial armor, on serene
          And quiet nights when all the heavens were fair.”
          In the Basque tongue it is Ceruco Esnibidia.

    2. The May 2015 Sky and Telescope magazine featured a story about light pollution by Jan Hattenbach, including a very interesting map of light pollution trends in Europe. Ireland, Portugal, and northern Italy got considerably brighter from 1995 to 2010. Spain also grew brighter, and already had the most brightly illuminated streets in Europe. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Belgium grew darker, probably mostly because of better-shielded lighting fixtures. Countries in eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and Slovakia, also grew darker simply because their economies shrank and they used less electricity overall.

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