Going to Pamplona this week, I was surprised to see large numbers of people boarding the plane in full hiking gear. It was only when I arrived in the town itself, sitting inside the lush green hills of northern Spain, that I discovered Pamplona is one of the first main stopping points on the Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago).
The Way of St. James is a five-hundred-mile walk through part of France and across northern Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It’s a long, demanding trek for those who seek to reach the purported tomb of the apostle.
The pilgrimage itself was not always so popular, but in recent years it has seen an explosion in interest among people of all ages. It’s been a huge boon to Pamplona, which has a wide range of shops catering to these visitors. In one, I saw scallop shells hung in the window.
In fact, the whole route is marked by signs representing the scallop, which is the traditional symbol of St. James. It is worth remembering that he and his brother were both fisherman before they received their higher calling.
Medieval pilgrims would carry such a shell to show that they were on pilgrimage, and they would also use it as a cup or plate along the way. In France, where the route begins, scallops are actually known as coquilles St Jacques, using the local name of the saint.
The scallop is actually one of many symbols which have been used by pilgrims throughout history. Another was the palm, brought back by Europeans after visiting the sites of the Holy Land. These people would then be known as palmers.
Not all visitors to Bethlehem and Jerusalem had peaceful intent. The events known today as the Crusades were never known thus in the Middle Ages. The term ‘crusade’ was coined much later. Contemporaries called the Crusades ‘an armed pilgrimage’, but the knights on these campaigns did not wear the shell. Rather, the crusaders were marked out by a cross on their clothing, from which later historians gave them the name we use today.
It’s all a far cry from the peaceful peregrinations of the modern pilgrims on the Way of St. James. Nevertheless, the route is not untouched by opposition. I felt rather sad to see an inverted cross scrawled in graffiti next to the France Gate in Pamplona (see the sign on the left of this picture):
To me, that was an unnecessarily spiteful act, especially as this is the main entry point for the pilgrims as they arrive in the city. The pilgrims aren’t hurting anybody, and they don’t deserve to be threatened like that, especially at the very beginnings of their long journey.