From Van Gogh to the Camino de Santiago: Symbolic travel and the modern pilgrim

Pilgrims at Santiago de Compostela making crafts to sell.

Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up! — there’s nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what’s the odds?
We’re bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!
— Baudelaire, “Travel,” Flowers of Evil

O errant traveler, by your spirit of adventure that has caused you from tenderest years to leave behind father and mother…by the dignity man gains through voyages over distant territories and uncharted seas…
— Lautréamont, Maldoror

In late 2015, I was one of 1,900,000 visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, its busiest year yet (2016 will presumably pass the two million mark). I don’t know the attendance figures in the early years after it opened in 1973, but only a trickle of people were evident on my first visit to the museum in 1976. What a change. I recall being a bit embarrassed for the place at the time, such a sad and forlorn little museum, much like the painter himself, forever destined to be misunderstood and ignored. The 2015 museum had undergone extensive remodeling and expansion, and I didn’t recognize it. The first floor, previously displaying Van Gogh’s early “potato eaters” paintings and a series of biographical displays on his life, now served primarily to orient visitors to the two upper floors. I had no recollection of the upper floors on my previous visit. That was due to the many museums around the world I had seen over the decades since, not a few of them with Van Gogh’s paintings of their own (along with several traveling exhibitions of the painter). All his paintings had coalesced in my mind into a montage detached from time and place. I needed factual confirmation from the staff — on the first floor — that it was indeed the same building. Meanwhile, a huge new wing of temporary exhibits pairing Van Gogh and other artists (Edvard Munch on my visit) had risen behind the original building; an airy atrium and elegant cafeteria joined the two buildings.

What’s notable about the museum today is that it’s the most frequented museum in the world devoted to a specific artist. Compared to the Van Gogh Museum’s 1,448,997 visitors in 2013, the Dali Theater and Museum in Figueres, Spain, clocked in at 1,333,430 and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, third at 911,342. For a number of years the Van Gogh museum even surpassed in popularity the nearby Rijksmuseum, Holland’s national museum, until the latter’s big renovation in 2013 (whose visitors have dropped, however, from 2.45 to 2.35 million over 2014-2015, a trend suggesting the Van Gogh Museum could overtake it again a few years down the line). This provides much food for thought, along with some reflection on the remarkable growth in tourism generally in recent decades. Another striking statistic, which I wish to yoke together in the following discussion, is the surge over the past three decades in the number of people undertaking the Camino de Santiago — the Christian pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain — the same period experiencing the onslaught of tourists to the Van Gogh Museum.

What accounts for Van Gogh’s extraordinary popularity? It can’t be his contribution to French Impressionism. He has been called a father or precursor of Modernism. But so have many others. Cezanne and even J. M. W. Turner a generation earlier went much further than Van Gogh in the project of deconstructing physical reality in painting. The amazing thing about the Impressionist School is how many great painters there were; Van Gogh was merely one of them. In terms of another pre-Modernist impulse, the challenging of social and sexual mores, Van Gogh was quite traditional and hidebound, when one thinks of the bold affronts to bourgeois sensibility of a Manet or a Gauguin. Obviously, it has something to do with Van Gogh’s famous anguish and self-torture. Not simply his madness, but the inexorable march toward madness, during which his art grew in intensity and beauty: the horrible paradox that at the same time his art was the only means of assuaging his madness, his madness was the only means of realizing his art.

What interests me is another aspect of Van Gogh’s journey toward madness: the fact that it coincided with an actual journey (Figure 1). Significantly, he never really had any idea where he was going. Prior to Van Gogh, as we shall see below, artists traveled with a specific purpose and destination in mind. They inherited the tradition of the religious pilgrimage heading toward a shrine or mecca. Van Gogh never understood why he wound up in Arles, the south of France, only that instinctively he was drawn southward, as travelers in Europe have been for a millennium: “I will take myself off somewhere down south, to get away from the sight of so many painters that disgust me as men,” he said in a letter to his brother Theo. His motives for travel, it seems, were negative, not toward a specific place but away from the present place. Such a change in geography can in fact do us good, as he describes in another letter after reaching Arles: “My dear brother, you know that I came to the South and threw myself into my work for a thousand reasons. Wishing to see a different light, thinking that to look at nature under a brighter sky might give us a better idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing. Wishing also to see this stronger sun…”

In retrospect it’s easy to psychologize or pathologize such behavior. “‘Moving on became a way of avoiding conflict,’ a coping mechanism for when the highly idealistic artist was faced with the realities of his then current situation,” as the Wikipedia article on Van Gogh nicely puts it, citing art historian Melissa McQuillan. Yet there is the other side of the coin, and something else was going on. Though offensive to his family and relations, an artist’s desire to travel is nonetheless universally ingrained. Creativity is motion itself; it is thus always on the move. The hearth, which is stationary, is its enemy. It’s why so many artists are bad at raising families. French artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries were notorious for this, idolizing that most undomesticated of women — the prostitute. The closest Van Gogh himself came to starting a family was with the prostitute Sien Hoornik and her daughter he took in while in The Hague in 1883 and with whom he may have fathered a child.

Van Gogh
Figure 1. Vincent Van Gogh’s travels during his artistically productive years.

And so what? We’re grateful for the art, which would never have been produced if they had been good at raising families. Other artists courted and cultivated nude models (who were often prostitutes), pressing them into the maternal role if possible. I’d venture that the main motivation for any male artist’s travels is the endless search for a nude model to call his own, spontaneously met in an unfamiliar location where mutual exotic attraction can easily combust, such as the ubiquitous all-night cafés in France at the time that Van Gogh is known to have frequented when out of rent money. No matter if he couldn’t admit this to himself or others. His travels were overdetermined in any case, stemming from a variety of causes, expressed at times in a metaphysical way: “I always feel I am a traveler, going somewhere and to some destination. If I tell myself that the somewhere and the destination do not exist, that seems to me very reasonable and likely enough.” And elsewhere more lugubriously: “While we are alive we cannot get to a star, any more than when we are dead we can take the train. So it seems possible that cholera, gravel, phthisis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and railways are the terrestrial means.”

The problem of traveling to get away from yourself is that you invariably bring yourself with you. A year later, Van Gogh reflects on the irony of having to view his lush landscape from between the bars of his cell in the mental hospital where he committed himself in nearby Saint-Remy-de-Provence: “Certainly this is the road on which there is something new, the road to the South, but men of the North have difficulty penetrating it. And already I can see myself in the future, when I shall have had some success, regretting my solitude and my wretchedness here, when I saw between the iron bars of the cell the reaper in the field below. Misfortune is good for something.”

Whatever the motives — aimless, frantic, metaphysical, lugubrious — travel is always its own justification. It needs no excuse. This is something conventional society has always found hard to grasp.

Traveling early, long, in no particular direction and with no particular destination: the poet Arthur Rimbaud was more adventurous still, running away from home twice at the age of 16 (though I can boast running away from home twice at 15), heading to Paris like all other artists, and then winding up in England, twice, in 1872 and 1874 (as Van Gogh had, twice, in 1873-75 and 1876). Then Rimbaud is all over the map: Germany, the Dutch East Indies, Cyprus, Yemen, and Ethiopia, before dying in Marseilles in 1891, one year after Van Gogh. The age of adventure travel by individuals and artists had by then expanded well beyond Europe. Decades earlier Flaubert had visited Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Carthage. Nobody at the time matched Paul Gauguin’s life travels: Peru, Denmark, Panama, the French Caribbean, and three separate stays in French Polynesia (Tahiti twice and the Marquesas Islands), where he died in 1903. Unless, of course, you were Sir Richard Burton: India, Egypt, Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia (disguised as a Persian Muslim), Yemen, Ethiopia, Crimea, Zanzibar, Guinea (and much of the African interior), Brazil, Paraguay, and Syria, before living out his remaining years in Trieste, dying in 1890.

But another idea was taking hold in the fin de siècle, a radically different notion of travel, inaugurating an as yet unwritten philosophy of travel, though the notion would not be clearly articulated until the early decades of the next century. All artists gravitated to Paris, where the action was. While some were only passing through, most stayed for as long as money or circumstances allowed. Many kept returning, and many died there who were not native to the city. Increasingly, it was realized, Paris was not just a city to travel to, but with so many artists and galleries to visit and things to do, to travel in.

Let me go about this another way. Traditional travelers always took the straightest route to get from A to B. Even with no clear destination in mind, they took the most economical route to get to wherever it was that turned out to be their destination. And then if they headed off somewhere else, they took the most direct route there as well, from B to C. If they broke up the journey with side trips, the smaller trips were rationally undertaken likewise by means of the straightest path. To have taken, on the other hand, a circuitous route from A to B, would have been unthinkable. And that is exactly the new insight. Would the journey be any less worthwhile if one covered a substantial distance by a chaotic route to nowhere and wound up where one began? This is just what happens at the amusing start of Paulo Coelho’s journey on foot to Santiago de Compostela in The Pilgrimage (to be returned to below). His spiritual guide, Petrus, intentionally leads him circuitously around the same few roads in the Pyrenees for six days, a distance they could have covered in one day by a direct route. Coelho was so focused on the distant goal of reaching Santiago, over 700 kilometers away, that he didn’t notice they kept passing the same landmarks from different directions. The lesson was he needed to pay attention to the journey, not the destination. In other words, the journey is not simply as important as the destination — obviously it is. Rather, it’s more important.

Grand Tour
Figure 2. The Grand Tour of the 18th-19th centuries.

In fact, there is no reason to leave the city at all. Let’s rein in the squiggly route that takes us back to our starting point, the very same city, mash it up and create a spaghetti-like labyrinth within the city itself. Any large city provides enough routes to keep one traveling for days, months, or years. Englishwoman Noelle Poulson recently walked every street in central London, covering 400 miles. In the 1930s Phyllis Pearsall spent several years doing the same over the entirety of London, some 3,000 miles along 23,000 streets. American Matt Green is currently attempting to walk every street of New York City’s five boroughs, an estimated 8,000 miles. That’s roughly the distance between New York and Santiago, Chile. Why would anyone want to traverse every street of the same city when one could go to another city or another country? We could turn this around and ask, why would one want to leave one’s city at all when it potentially affords as much of interest as any other city?

How well do you know your own city? To find out, you need to slow down. You need to learn to walk on roads you’re accustomed to speeding along by public transportation or car. By walking, by moving in slow motion, the city pops up in extraordinary detail. Things that were mundane and pedestrian now take on mass and beauty; things that were ugly emerge in rococo splendor. Charles Baudelaire was one of the first to take an interest in the city at street level, wandering aimlessly along familiar and unfamiliar streets of Paris, drunk or high on hash or laudanum, streetwalkers marking the coordinates of his haphazard itineraries. There were several trends converging here among mid-19th century French poets and novelists. One was sympathetic identification with, and celebration of, the fallen woman: the prostitute as signifier for the entire urban condition. All the great French Romantic novels featured prostitutes or sexually outrageous women either as protagonists (Balzac’s The Harlot High and Low, Goncort’s Germini Lacerteux, Zola’s Nana, etc.) or as necessary minor characters. Prostitutes were also signifiers of their habitat, the street, into which tortured artists and writers hurled themselves when in despair over artistic or romantic rejection or financial penury.

A related trend was a newfound fascination for the street itself, the very texture of the street and its infinite portals. This was inevitable, as it’s the only way in which the city is experienced in the concrete, in detail. At a certain point the street opens up for the most minute inspection, as in Balzac’s 1,500-word description in Lost Illusions of the restaurant Flicoteaux in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Elsewhere the street takes on important characterization in its own right. It becomes a key character in the novel, with an often highly fraught, emotional relationship to the protagonist. The street personified is a source of alienation and despair, and at the same time solace. It’s a symbolic stand-in for the absent female, not to mention that it’s dark, wet, and chock-full with openings and apertures.

Flaubert’s 1869 novel Sentimental Education spins dark, spectral, almost mystical paeans to the street, occasioned by the hero Frédéric’s tortured divagations attendant upon his fruitless obsession with the married woman Mme Arnoux: “He had no consciousness of his surroundings, of space, of anything, and striking the ground with his heel, rapping with his walking-stick on the shutters of the shops, he kept walking on continually at random, in a state of excitement, carried away by his emotions.” And: “After he had passed through dark alleys, from which his nostrils were greeted by fresh moist odors, he reached vast, desolate, open spaces, dazzling with light, in which monuments cast at the side of the pavement notches of black shadow. But once more the wagons and the shops appeared, and the crowd had the effect of stunning him.”

There was quite a bit of madness during the fin de siècle, and not just the aforementioned travails of Van Gogh — and his friend Gauguin, whom Vincent threatened with a razor before turning it on himself, or Rimbaud and his poet-lover Paul Verlaine, who in a rage wounded Rimbaud with a pistol. Alfred Jarry’s Pere Ubu plays, first performed in 1896, scandalized audiences with their brutal irreverence and obscenity. Jarry himself adopted his protagonist’s persona, going about on a bicycle dressed as a clown, or in a woman’s blouse and tiara and armed with guns. He lived in a filthy room with a ceiling he intentionally lowered to five feet, and kept pet owls. He fished for his meals in the Seine. The craziness continued into the first decades of the next century. Highly enamored of Jarry, Pablo Picasso acquired one of his revolvers after his death and wore it on his nocturnal wanderings around Paris. And there was the poet Jacques Vaché, who carried on the tradition of inhabiting the streets as well, visiting every movie theater in town for a few minutes of random viewing, dressed in various roles (doctor, aviator, etc.). It seems that purely for the sake of an artistic statement Vaché staged his own death by opium overdose at the age of 24, after laying himself out on his bed naked with his clothes folded tidily over him, ready for processing by the undertaker.

One friend Vaché left a mark on was the young poet André Breton, who may have gotten his ideas for the surrealist movement from him, if not from the poets Guillaume Apollinaire or Philippe Soupault. Breton went about Paris streets dressed as a sandwich. The surrealists took naturally to the city. It wasn’t just their technique of automatic writing they borrowed from the “free association” of psychoanalysis. Automatic walking — allowing the unconscious to guide one’s route — was surrealism in action. “They took delirious walks across the city — splendidly evoked in Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris of 1926 — in quest of the golden fleece of everyday magic,” Franklin Rosemont writes. “Few groups in history can have walked as much as the first surrealists. Wandering through Paris was an art that appealed to them far more than art did” (cited in Breton).

It was Breton’s motto, “The street…the only valid field of experience,” which found its way to the top of Walter Benjamin’s 1929 essay, “Marseilles.” In this and another essay written around the same time, “Hashish in Marseilles,” he set out to examine the city at random (though he didn’t make it very far high on hash, mostly immobilized as he was in restaurants). Why, after all, must one confine oneself to Paris? The uglier and more faceless a city, absent of the usual array of famous monuments and other clichés, the better. Marseilles is rendered into a paragon of fascinating squalor, as in this description of the port which opens the essay: “…the yellow-studded maw of a seal with salt water running out between the teeth. When this gullet opens to catch the black and brown proletarian bodies thrown to it by ship’s companies…it exhales a stink of oil, urine, and printer’s ink.”

15-17th artists' travels
Figure 3. Artists’ travels in the 15th-17th centuries. 1) Roger Van de Weyden (Brussels to Ferrara, Milan, 1449). 2) Petrus Christus (Bruges to Venice, 1453). 3) Albrecht Duerer (Nuremburg to Venice, 1494). 4) Leonardo da Vinci (Florence to Amboise, 1516). 5) Titian (Venice to Augsburg, 1548). 6) Alfonso Ferrabosco (Bologna to London, 1560). 7) John Dowland (London to Rome, Florence). 8) Peter Paul Rubens (Antwerp to Mantua, 1600). 9) Caravaggio (Naples to Malta, 1607). 10) Heinrich Schuetz (Dresden to Venice, 1609). 11) Anthony van Dyck (Antwerp to Rome, 1621). 12) Nicholas Poussin (Paris to Rome, 1624). 13) Peter Paul Rubens (Antwerp to Madrid, 1628). 14) Diego Velazquez (Madrid to Genoa, Naples, 1629). 15) Artemisia Gentileschi (Naples to London, 1638). 16) Charles Lebrun (Paris to Rome, 1642). 17) Gianlorenzo Bernini (Rome to Paris, 1665).

Eclipsed by political chaos and war, the surrealist project reemerged in the 1950s in new guise, that of the French situationists. Despising capitalism’s regimentation of modern life, with the automobile their particular pet peeve, the situationists reaffirmed the importance of the street and its texture: “That which changes our way of seeing the streets is more important than what changes our way of seeing painting,” as Guy Debord put it in his “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography” (cited in Knabb). But they went about it with greater anarchism and fervor. The city was not something to be faithfully explored — that accorded it too much respect — but transcended, even disregarded, for instance by “slipping by night into houses undergoing demolition, hitchhiking nonstop and without destination through Paris during a transportation strike in the name of adding to the confusion, wandering in subterranean catacombs forbidden to the public.” Ivan Chtcheglov imagined the city reconfigured along the human emotions, with a “Bizarre Quarter — Happy Quarter (specially reserved for habitation) — Noble and Tragic Quarter (for good children) — Historical Quarter (museums, schools) — Useful Quarter (hospital, tool shops) — Sinister Quarter,” and a “Death Quarter, not for dying in but so as to have somewhere to live in peace” (Knabb). Along similarly capricious lines, Debord recounted an acquaintance who made his way around the Harz region of Germany using a map of London (op cit).

Urban anarchism has burgeoned since the 1960s up through the present day in many forms of countercultural protest and celebration, from the Yippies and the Diggers to political street theater (e.g. the Bread and Puppet Theater). Outdoor Woodstock-style rock festivals, Rainbow Gatherings of the Tribes, the Burning Man festival in Nevada (which constructs its own “city” anew each year), LGBT parades, and cities with large carnival celebrations (Rio, Berlin, New Orleans, etc.), all bring these impulses to the fore. At the discrete, street-side level, on the other hand, the walking tradition begun by the French symbolists and surrealists still continues, if less visibly so. Novelist Will Self has described his epic walks among some of the bleakest urban landscapes imaginable (e.g. 20 miles from JFK Airport to Manhattan) in two recent books, Psychogeography and Psychogeography Too (both published in 2013), appropriating for his title a term coined by the situationists.

We’ve discussed travel to a vaguely longed-for destination (Van Gogh’s journeying to the south of France) and to remote regions around the globe (Gauguin’s escape from European bourgeois origins). We’ve covered a variety of motives for sticking to travel within one’s own city, and alternatively for traveling to other cities, for no particular reason other than the sheer pleasure of walking and discovering something new and unexpected. Along with random travel, we’ve discussed the importance of the journey itself over the destination. We might add as well another example of this to show that it’s not just walking we are prioritizing here, and that is Routes 66 and 61 in the USA. Originally the endpoints of these highways, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, were the sole purpose riding them. Now it’s the “experience” of driving along them, their symbolism, rather than the starting or ending points, that attracts people. All of these esoteric forms of travel fall under the rubric of symbolic travel, “symbolic” here referring to travel primarily or solely for a purpose other than reaching a destination (though a fixed endpoint may still be in view).

In contrast to symbolic travel is pragmatic travel: travel for the purpose of reaching a destination. This of course doesn’t rule out enjoyment and discovery along the journey itself; pragmatic and symbolic travel are not mutually exclusive. Pragmatic travel takes two main forms: travel undertaken out of necessity (family affairs, business, education, etc.), and tourism. Tourism can be undertaken individually or with friends and intimates, or in package tours. The package tour is notable for its symbolic aspects: the “experience” of visiting famous places, though again it’s the destination that is primary, even when the routes are carefully managed for their scenic quality. One might ask why ocean cruises can’t be considered a form of symbolic travel, since it’s the experience along the route rather than the destination that seems to be the point. But in a cruise tour you’ve already arrived at your destination upon boarding the ship; there is no route (except perhaps the symbolic exploration of the ship’s labyrinthine interior).

Figure 4. The great pilgrimage routes: Via Francigena and Camino de Santiago (c. 1100-1500).

Tourism has a long history, going back at least to the 17th century through the popularization of the Grand Tour (Figure 2). This luxury tour package, which evolved over time and reached its heyday in the 18th century, took shape from the frequent travels to Italy by artists and musicians from Europe’s northern climes. Italy had reigned supreme as Europe’s cultural mecca since the early 15th century (before that it was Burgundy and Saxony). As museums had yet to exist and travel was the only way to view the art being produced elsewhere, artists had to go where the action was. Artists were also expected to travel extensively in their apprenticeship years to open their eyes. Literature and music were art forms which could themselves expeditiously travel (via the printed medium), yet composers went south as well, to hear the music being performed at its source, and like artists to study under the masters. Artistic travel went in the other direction too, as Italian artists and musicians capitalized on their automatic fame and took up lucrative positions in northern courts. Generally, however, most of the movement was toward Italy. Figure 3 gives an indication of some of the key artists who traveled (the total number were far greater and would crowd out the map).

As travel routes became established and well-worn, a tiered economy of inns and provisions congealed into an industry, with a vested interest in drawing tourists in ever greater numbers. Meanwhile the concept that not just princes and the gentry deserved to see the world but any literate person could — and should — benefit from travel, took off. “He that travelleth into a country, before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel,” wrote Sir Francis Bacon in 1625 (“Of Travel”). The Grand Tour was the logical outcome of this, set up for wealthier Englishmen as part of their requisite cultural education. There was no fixed itinerary, but Paris was the first major stop. After an extended stay in Rome, Naples was the typical endpoint (being the second largest city in Europe at the time and a center for the Baroque arts), and the route back would wind through present-day Austria and Germany. One saw as many places as one had time and money to spare, and for the most privileged the tour could last indefinitely, with longer stays in certain cities for study or leisure.

Travel routes on the north-south axis and to and from Spain and eastern Europe as well had in fact long been in place since the Middle Ages, ultimately going back to the Roman roads of antiquity. Figure 4 highlights the main arteries of the hugely popular pilgrimage routes to Rome (Via Francigena) and Santiago de Compostela in Spain (Camino de Santiago). In reality, a continent-wide spiderweb of hundreds of routes served the pilgrims, not to mention the many uses for the routes by the burgeoning European economy since the turn of the millennium (e.g. the gem, metal, marble and spice trades). During the Carolingian era before that, when the term “Dark Ages” truly applied, the population was much too poor to travel, for the sake of traveling in any case. People were on the move, but they mostly consisted of war parties, marauders, and the starving in search of food. Georges Duby identifies as a turning point the shift from far-flung nominal rulers (kings) to local rulers interested in protecting their fiefdoms and the peasantry that sustained them, as well as the growth of monasteries with a similar interest in what we now call the public welfare, in one memorable image: “After the year 980…whenever flames were visible near the woods on the horizon, they indicated a fire set by some peasant to clear the land, and not by ransacking raiders.”

Pilgrims had previously made the trip to Rome and Santiago, but nothing on the scale of the first military pilgrimages, that is, the crusades. Two things are noteworthy about the First Crusade of 1096-99 (Figure 5). First, it was preceded by several months by the People’s Crusade, a fanatical and foolhardy mobilization that seemed to represent an outpouring of centuries of pent-up desire among the lowly to travel, rather than any serious religious endeavor, such as securing the pilgrimage route to the Holy Land which was the ostensible rationale of the crusades. Barely having crossed France, they began a pogrom against the Jews living in cities along the Rhine, massacring some 10,000 (possibly in the belief that every city they encountered was Jerusalem). The pilgrims eventually made it as far as Nicaea, where they were wiped out in turn by the Turks.

Second, the First Crusade and those that followed were, again, only religious in name. Nothing could have been more impractical or absurd than for motley pilgrims to have to wend their way on foot some 4,000-5,000 kilometers to Jerusalem from their home in Europe and back again, even if some of the journey could be accomplished by boat (for prohibitive fees). Even today, though the route has been walked in modern times, to get there anyone attempting it would have to go through dangerous regions hostile to Westerners, such as Syria (it’s interesting that the current wave of refugees from that country follows the same general route in reverse). The real motive at the time, by the prime movers at least, was economic and imperialist: securing new land for agriculture and trade. Many among the female population took advantage of the employment opportunities as well, with prostitution an established feature of both the crusade and pilgrimage routes. The crusades and the great pilgrimages opened up space for the entire cross-section of society to move into and occupy, unless beaten back by enemy forces.

This explains the appeal of the Via Francigena and the Camino de Santiago; they were the only feasible long-distance pilgrimages. After the eleventh century, the Santiago route surpassed the Rome route in popularity. This was not just because the Pyrenees were easier to cross than the Alps. Its success was the result of a brilliant win-win propaganda coup between the Cluny monastery in France and local authorities in Santiago. Cluny was among the best organized of the great monasteries, setting up branches throughout France as recruitment centers. In the twelfth century Cluniac priories multiplied along the pilgrimage routes into Spain, extending their influence all the way to Santiago, while providing beds and provisions for pilgrims. Santiago happily cooperated with the monastery, as this mutual venture likewise advertised the reputation of the Camino. Spain drew increasing numbers of travelers from as far as England and Eastern Europe, all of whom had to pass through France and back. The two-way traffic brought trade and wealth to both countries (Haskins, Melczer).

At its peak in the 13th-15th centuries, the road to Santiago drew hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Rudolph claims at least half a million, Coelho a million, though their figures are largely speculation. The Reformation in the early 16th century and subsequent political chaos and warfare greatly disrupted the Camino, and the numbers dropped off precipitously. Also since the Renaissance, as we have seen, the concept of travel by and for the individual took hold. Art became the new religion. Budding artists travelled to the new meccas — Florence, Rome, Venice, etc. — where they could worship at the feet of their personal masters. The Christian pilgrimage faded as quickly as the medieval era itself. It’s not known how many went on pilgrimages in the subsequent centuries; few cared about such a quaint practice except religious eccentrics. By the twentieth century, hardly anyone trudged their way to Santiago anymore.

First Crusade
Figure 5. The routes to Jerusalem of the First Crusade (1096-99).

And then something happened. I assume the regional Galician Government had a eureka moment when they launched a tourism campaign to bring pilgrims to Santiago. 1985 was the first year they kept a record of travelers receiving the compostela (the certificate of pilgrimage); 690 completed it that year, and the number rose steadily thereafter. At any rate the focus was for the next Jubilee or Holy Year (whenever St. James Day falls on a Sunday), 1993. That year the number of pilgrims jumped tenfold from 9,764 the previous year to 99,436. The Holy Year of 2010 almost doubled the number of pilgrims from the year previous to 272,703. 2015, not a Holy Year, saw 262,458 pilgrims. At this rate, the next Holy Year in 2021 will likely see half a million or more, rivaling the numbers of the medieval-era Camino (“Camino de Santiago,” Wikipedia). By contrast, only 1,200 pilgrims made the pilgrimage to Rome in 2012.

Contemporary accounts on the web by Santiago travelers as well as happy restaurateurs along the route have frequently referred to a single book being at least in part responsible for the late 20th-century upsurge in pilgrims, a book which, bizarrely, is not even primarily about the Camino: Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage, originally published in 1987 in Portuguese and first translated into English in 1992 — the same time frame during which the pilgrimage numbers took off. The book has had a weird and extraordinary appeal. It’s been translated into 48 languages and is surpassed in sales only by Coelho’s 1988 novel The Alchemist. The Korean edition was particularly popular, spurring a whole industry of Camino books in that country and drawing thousands of Korean travelers to Santiago each year.

The Pilgrimage is an autobiographical tale of the author’s involvement with an El/Yahweh-worshipping Knights Templar-style Masonic Order in his native Brazil and his Grail-like search for a sword. His Master directs him to find the sword somewhere along the passage to Santiago. Yet particulars along the route are only sparingly referred to, and the Camino turns out to serve as no more than an allegory and exotic backdrop for the author’s inner spiritual quest. It’s ironic and a bit perplexing that after his exhausting walk across northern Spain, he finds the sword in a small mountain town 150 kilometers short of Santiago de Compostela and thereupon, without explanation, hops on a bus for the remainder of the journey; a journey during the course of which he had to undergo brutal trials of endurance such as climbing a waterfall and struggling with a vicious dog possessed by the devil. In this respect Coelho’s pilgrimage is an extreme example of symbolic travel, in which the process so predominates over the result that the latter is practically abandoned. The hazy half-focus in which the actual Camino is kept in view and the paucity of the usual historical reference points along the way have led some to question whether Coelho ever went on the route at all.

Another reason for the growing popularity of today’s Camino is that it’s one of the few historically layered, long-route walking journeys available for those looking for a more symbolic or spiritual sort of traveling adventure. But as opposed to more rugged undertakings like the classic wilderness trails in the US and elsewhere, the relative ease of the Camino frees up the modern pilgrim from daily stresses and dangers to enjoy pure contemplation of the road. The Camino is now so easy it’s a parody of the original. You can choose where to begin the route; a mere 100 km walk or 200 km bike ride from Santiago qualifies one to receive the compostela. If you cover the 700 km across northern Spain or further afield from traditional starting points such as Paris or Arles, there is no need to walk the route back home; a plane will do. The route is now so well-marked it’s impossible to get lost on. Much of it proceeds alongside highways (where vehicles can aid in medical emergencies). Hostels and amenities are plentiful. If you’re tired from too much walking for the day, you can stop off for some Spanish wine and cuisine in countless establishments along the way, while keeping friends instantly updated as to your whereabouts by cellphone or iPad.

The medieval pilgrim, by contrast, had to start from his village in France, England or Germany and do the entire round trip on foot, or for the better off, horse or mule. The majority of pilgrims were middle-aged or elderly males finally freed in their remaining years from labor on the fields or in the mills to do the pilgrimage, because they were no longer fit to work. Although the ostensible purpose of the Camino was symbolic, it was only the Christian trappings that were so; the journey itself was undertaken for eminently practical reasons, with precise goals or objects in mind. The motives epitomized pragmatic travel as much as the modern tourist sets out to visit Notre Dame or the Louvre in Paris or the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, just the medieval versions: for the ill or lame, to seek a cure by physical contact with a divine relic, and for the penitent, to obtain remission of sin (which could annul a conviction for a crime). It was an extremely hazardous venture. Pilgrims sought safety in groups and armed themselves as best they could against brigands. Hostels and churches provided food and refuge, but there might be long stretches where there was nothing. Many had no money and had to beg for much of their food. Many lost their way on the route, and many were too sick to complete the pilgrimage and died on the way or on the way back.

There was another reason for going on the Camino back then, one with more symbolic import and not fully appreciated until the pilgrim experienced it. It’s a reason that would turn out to be more important than any other and one that is no longer quite possible for us in modern times to relive or recreate, as we are already saturated from an early age through education and the media with an awareness of the complexity of the world outside our home and neighborhood. The medieval pilgrim who ventured beyond his village as far as other lands could experience all at once a bit of what we undergo as a matter of course through modern socialization. The experience of the pilgrimage must have been so startling, we might liken it to a months-long acid trip. The strange people never seen before, the jongleurs, hucksters, prostitutes, vagrants, the vast number and bizarre dress of wanderers on the margin, their incomprehensible tongues, the effort of trying to communicate for the first time in a different tongue, the moving panoply of unimagined architecture, food and rituals, all this must have shocked the medieval mind and opened it up. William Melczer’s characterization of this powerful encounter for the medieval pilgrim applies to travel universally:

“For the majority of the eleventh-and twelfth-century pilgrims to Santiago, those six to nine months spent on the road in strange lands and among strange people meant the only occasion to cast a glimpse upon broader existence, to measure for once the world and its wonders, to see, once in their lives, the mountains and the sea. All of them, from saint to sinner, felt the invigorating air of a new world gradually unfolding before their incredulous and astonished eyes in all its unpredictable complexity and savagery, but also in its surprising beauty and magnificence. This was a lesson that none of them would henceforth forget.”

Pilgrims receiving the certificate of completion at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela.

Works cited:

Benjamin, Walter. Reflections: Essays, Aphorism, Autobiographical Writings (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978).

Breton, André. What is Surrealism? Selected Writings. Ed. Franklin Rosemont (Monad, 1978).

Coelho, Paulo. The Pilgrimage (orig. pub. 1987; English translation by Alan R. Clarke, 1992; HarperCollins, 1995).

Duby, Georges. The Age of the Cathedrals: Art and Society, 980 – 1420 (U of Chicago, 1981).

Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Harvard UP, 1955).

Knabb, Ken, ed. Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981).

McQuillan, Melissa. Van Gogh (Thames & Hudson, 1989).

Melczer, William. The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela (Italica, 1993).

Rudolph, Conrad. Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela (U of Chicago, 2004).

Steer, John, and Antony White. Atlas of Western Art History: Artists, Sites and Movements from Ancient Greece to the Modern Age (Parchment Books, 1994).

Van Gogh, Vincent. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Ed. Mark Roskill (Atheneum, 1984).

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