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

Pilgrims at Santiago de Compostela

Pilgrims at Santiago de Compostela making crafts to sell.

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

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

In late 2015, I was one of the 1,900,000 visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, its busiest year yet. 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 difference between then and now. I recall being a bit embarrassed for the place at the time, such a sad and forlorn little museum, much like the painter himself, condemned in his lifetime to be misunderstood and ignored. The 2015 museum had undergone extensive expansion and remodeling, and it was no longer recognizable. The first floor, previously displaying Van Gogh’s early “potato eaters” paintings and a series of biographical displays, now served primarily to orient visitors to the two upper floors. I had no recollection of the upper floors on my previous visit. This was due to the many museums around the world I had seen over the decades since, not a few of them with Van Goghs of their own. His paintings were strung along a wall in my mind, detached from time and place. I needed factual confirmation from the staff that it was indeed the very spot in the same building where I had stood forty years ago. Meanwhile, a new wing for temporary exhibits (one pairing Van Gogh and Edvard Munch on my visit) had risen behind the original building; the two structures were joined by an airy atrium and a chic cafeteria.

The Van Gogh museum is the most frequented museum in the world devoted to a specific artist. Compared to its 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 it 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 later.

This provides food for thought, along with some reflections on the remarkable growth in tourism generally in recent decades. Another striking statistic 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, over the very same period the Van Gogh Museum has experienced its onslaught of tourists.

What accounts for Van Gogh’s extraordinary popularity? It can’t just be his contribution to French Impressionism. He has been called a father or precursor of Modernism. But so have many others. Cezanne and J. M. W. Turner a generation earlier went much further 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. Regarding 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 Gauguin. Of course, it has something to do with his famous anguish and self-torture. Not simply his madness, but the inexorable march toward madness, during which his paintings grew in intensity and beauty: the terrible paradox that at the same time his madness was the only means of realizing his art, his art was the only means of assuaging his madness.

There is another aspect of Van Gogh’s journey toward madness that interests me: 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 to 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 across 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 (Letters, Paris, summer 1887). His motives for travel were negative, not toward a specific place but away from the present place. Such a change in geography can in fact do a painter 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…” (Saint-Remy, early September 1889). 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 something else was going on. An artist’s desire to travel, though hurtful to his family and relations, is universally ingrained. Creativity is motion itself; it is necessarily 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 nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were notorious for this, often idolizing instead that most undomesticated of women—the sex worker. The closest Van Gogh himself came to starting a family was with the prostitute Sien Hoornik and her daughter, whom he took in while in The Hague in 1883 and with whom he may have fathered a child.

map of Van Gogh's travels

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 were good at raising families. Other artists courted and cultivated nude models, who again were often prostitutes, pressing them into the maternal role if possible. I’d venture 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 locale where mutual exotic attraction can ignite, such as the ubiquitous all-night cafés in France 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, 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” (Arles, early August 1888). 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” (Arles, mid July 1888).

The problem of traveling to get away from yourself is that invariably you bring yourself with. 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 voluntarily 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” (Saint-Remy, early September 1889).

Whatever the motives—aimless, frantic, metaphysical—travel is 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 or destination: the poet Arthur Rimbaud was more adventurous still, running away from home twice at the age of sixteen (though I myself can boast running away twice at fifteen), 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 literally all over the map: Germany, the Dutch East Indies, Cyprus, Yemen, Ethiopia, before dying in Marseilles in 1891, a year after Van Gogh. The scope 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 loads of artists and galleries to visit and things to do, to travel in.

Let me go about this another way. Travelers traditionally would take the straightest route to get from A to B. Even with no clear destination in mind, they would take 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 likewise followed the straightest path. To have taken, on the other hand, an illogical or laborious route from A to B, would have been unthinkable. But it’s not only thinkable, it’s a great idea.

Would it be any less of an adventure 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. 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 is so focused on his goal of reaching Santiago over 700 kilometers away that he doesn’t notice they keep passing the same landmarks from different directions. The lesson he receives is he needs to pay attention to the journey, not the destination. In other words, the journey may actually be more important than the destination.

Map of the Grand Tour

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

One need not leave one’s locale 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 metropolis, 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—roughly the distance between New York and Santiago, Chile. Why in the world would you want to traverse every street in the same city when you could go to another city or another country? We could turn this around and ask, why 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 record the city at street level and write about it extensively, 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-nineteenth century French poets and novelists. One was sympathetic identification with, and celebration of, the fallen woman: the prostitute as signifier of the urban condition. All the great French Romantic novels featured prostitutes or sexually subversive women as protagonists (Balzac’s The Harlot High and Low, Goncort’s Germini Lacerteux, Zola’s Nana, etc.) or as memorable minor characters.

Prostitutes were also signifiers of their habitat, the street, down which tortured artists and writers hurled themselves in despair over artistic or romantic rejection or financial penury. A related trend was a newfound fascination for the street itself, its very texture, 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 to minute inspection, as in Balzac’s 1,500-word description in Lost Illusions of the restaurant Flicoteaux in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Elsewhere it’s absorbed into the novel in its own right as a key character in the narrative, 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 elusive female, not to mention its qualities as dark, wet, and chock-full of openings and apertures.

Flaubert’s 1869 novel Sentimental Education spins 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.”

Quite a bit of madness is associated with the fin de siècle, and not just the aforementioned travails of Van Gogh—and 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. 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 this tradition by visiting one movie theater to the next for a few minutes of random viewing, dressed in various roles (doctor, aviator, etc.). Lore has it that purely for the sake of an artistic statement Vaché staged his own death by opium overdose at the age of twenty-four, 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 strong impression on was the young poet André Breton, who may have gotten his ideas on surrealism from him, if not from the poets Guillaume Apollinaire or Philippe Soupault. Breton went about Paris 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,” that headed Walter Benjamin’s 1929 essay, “Marseilles.” In this and another essay written at the time, “Hashish in Marseilles,” Benjamin set out to examine this city at random (though he didn’t make it very far, high on hash and immobilized in a restaurant). Why, after all, must one confine oneself to Paris? The uglier and more faceless a city, absent the usual array of clichéd famous monuments, the better. Marseilles is rendered into a paragon of intriguing squalor, as in this description of the port which begins 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.”

Map of 15-17th c. 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, the automobile being their particular pet peeve, the situationists reaffirmed the importance of the street and its textures: “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). They went about it with if anything greater anarchism and fervor than the surrealists. 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 reimagined 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). Yet more irreverently, 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. erstwhile Living Theater, 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 traditional carnival celebrations (Venice, Rio, Berlin, New Orleans), 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 continues, if under the radar. British novelist Will Self has described his epic walks among some of the bleakest urban landscapes imaginable (e.g. the twenty miles from JFK Airport to Manhattan) in two recent books, Psychogeography and Psychogeography Too (both published in 2003), 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 society). We’ve covered those who travel for no particular reason other than the sheer pleasure of walking and discovering something new and unexpected, whether this be to other cities or strictly within one’s own city. 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 that we are prioritizing. I refer to Routes 66 and 61 in the USA. Originally, the endpoints of these highways (Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans) were the sole purpose in riding them. Now it’s the “experience” of riding them, their symbolism, rather than their starting or ending points, which attracts people. All of these esoteric forms of travel fall under the rubric of what I call symbolic travel, “symbolic” here referring to traveling primarily for a purpose other than reaching a destination.

In contrast to this is travel in the conventional sense, pragmatic travel, traveling for the purpose of reaching a destination. This of course doesn’t rule out enjoyment and discovery along the journey itself; the two are not mutually exclusive. Pragmatic travel takes two main forms: travel undertaken out of necessity (business, education, etc.), and tourism. Tourism can be undertaken individually or with friends or 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 you’ve already arrived at your destination upon boarding the ship; there is no route (except perhaps the exploration of the ship’s interior).

Map of main pilgrimage routes

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 seventeenth century, with the popularization of the Grand Tour (Figure 2). This luxury tour package, which evolved over time and reached its heyday in the eighteenth century, took shape out of well-trodden routes to Italy undertaken by artists and musicians from Europe’s northern climes. Italy had reigned supreme as Europe’s cultural mecca since the early fifteenth century (and Burgundy and Saxony before that). As museums had yet to exist and travel was the only way to view the art being produced elsewhere, artists had to go to the source. 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 readymade fame to take up lucrative positions in northern courts. Generally, though, most of the movement was toward Italy. Figure 3 gives an indication of some of the key artists who traveled (the actual numbers 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 took off that not just princes and the gentry deserved to see the world but any literate person could—and should—benefit from travel. “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 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 for years, with extended stays in certain cities for study or leisure.

Travel routes on the north-south axis and to and from Spain and eastern Europe had long been in place since the Middle Ages, ultimately going back to the Roman roads of antiquity. Figure 4 shows 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 roads 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 a major historical 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, and captures this turning point 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” (The Age of Cathedrals).

Pilgrims had previously made the trip to Rome and Santiago, but nothing on the scale of the first military pilgrimages, namely the crusades. Two things are noteworthy about the First Crusade of 1096-99 (Figure 5). First, it was preceded by the People’s Crusade, a fanatical and foolhardy undertaking sprung from centuries of pent-up desire among the lowly to travel, rather than from any momentous religious endeavor, such as securing the pilgrimage route to the Holy Land, the ostensible rationale of the crusades proper. 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 in rags to wend their way on foot some 4,000-5,000 kilometers to Jerusalem from their home in Europe and back again, even if part of the journey was manageable 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. 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 perennially unemployed female population took advantage of it as well, with the sex trade an established feature of both the crusade and the pilgrimage routes. The crusades and the great pilgrimages both opened up space for an entire cross section of society to move into and occupy, when not 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 that could be undertaken by individuals. 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 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 afield 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 thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, the road to Santiago drew hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Rudolph claims at least half a million, Coelho a million, though firm estimates are largely speculation. The Reformation in the early sixteenth 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, for purposes other than religion, took hold. Art became the new religion. Budding artists travelled to new meccas—Florence, Rome, Venice, etc.—where they could worship at the feet of their masters, their personal gods. Meanwhile, 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 anymore except religious eccentrics. By the twentieth century, hardly anyone trudged their way to Santiago.

map of the First Crusade

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

And then something happened. The regional Galician Government had a eureka moment when it 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. Attention was primarily directed to the next Jubilee or Holy Year (whenever St. James Day falls on a Sunday), i.e., the year 1993. That year the number of pilgrims jumped tenfold from 9,764 the previous year to 99,436. The subsequent Holy Year, 2010, almost doubled the number of pilgrims from the year previous to 272,703. The year 2015, not a Holy Year, saw 262,458 pilgrims (“Camino de Santiago,” Wikipedia). 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. By contrast, in 2012, only 1,200 pilgrims made the pilgrimage to Rome along the old Via Francigena.

Contemporary accounts on the World Wide Web by Santiago travelers as well as happy restaurateurs along the way regularly refer to a single book being at least in part responsible for the recent decades’ upsurge in pilgrims, a book which, bizarrely, is not even primarily about the Camino: Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage (cited above in regard to symbolic travel), originally published in 1987 in Portuguese and first translated into English in 1992—the same time frame over which the pilgrimage numbers took off. The book has had a weird and extraordinary appeal. It’s been translated into forty-eight languages and is surpassed in Coelho sales only by his 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 a purported memoir of the author’s involvement in 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 on the passage to Santiago. Yet the actual particulars and storied sights along the route are only sparingly referred to, and the Camino turns out to serve no more than as an allegory and exotic backdrop for the author’s quixotic 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 undergone brutal trials of endurance like struggling to the death with a vicious dog possessed by the devil and climbing a waterfall. In this respect Coelho’s pilgrimage is an extreme example of symbolic travel, where the process so predominates over the result that the latter is practically forgotten. The hazy half-focus in which the physical surroundings are kept in view, and the paucity of the usual historical reference points along the way, have led some to question whether Coelho undertook the real Camino at all.

Another reason for the growing popularity of today’s Camino is that it’s one of the few historically layered, long-established walking journeys available for those looking for a more spiritual, or symbolic, sort of traveling adventure. But as opposed to more rugged endeavors like the classic wilderness trails in the US, the relative ease of the Camino frees up the modern pilgrim from daily stresses and dangers to enjoy the pure contemplation of the road. The Camino is now so easy it’s not even a parody of the original. You can choose where to begin the route; a mere 100km walk or 200km bike ride from Santiago qualifies one to receive the compostela. If you cover the 700km across northern Spain or further afield from traditional starting points such as Paris or Arles, there is no need to walk all the way 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 few who were better off, horse or mule. The majority of pilgrims were middle-aged or elderly males finally freed in their remaining years from labor in the fields or 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 attempted for eminently practical reasons and with precise goals in mind. The motives epitomized pragmatic travel as much as the modern tourist’s itinerary of Notre Dame or the Louvre in Paris or the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, just the medieval versions. For the ill or lame, it was to seek a cure by physical contact with a divine relic, and for the penitent, to obtain remission of sin in order to 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 and many were too sick to complete the pilgrimage and died en route.

There was another motive for doing 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 would have been so startling, so overwhelming, we might liken it to a months-long psychedelic drugs extravaganza. The strange people never seen before, the jongleurs, hucksters, prostitutes, vagrants, the vast number and bizarre dress of all these wanderers on the margin and their incomprehensible tongues, the effort of trying to communicate for the first time in a different tongue, the moving panorama 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 Compostela

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

Further reading:

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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Like this post? Buy the book (see contents)americanrococo:

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2 replies »

  1. Very impressive post. Would you like to publish the article in HK? Luna will love the post, Van Gogh and travel. Both are her favorite.

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