While driving through the Pyrénées in the Languedoc region of France recently I came across a section of the Way of Saint James, an ancient and very famous pilgrimage route still in use today.
According to legend, the remains of the apostle James are buried in Santiago de Compostela, now the site of the famous cathedral at the heart of the old area of the Spanish town. It is believed that James (James the Greater) was the first apostle martyred for his faith, having been beheaded in Jerusalem. His remains were brought to the area of Galicia for burial, since he is credited with bringing Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula. His relics were purportedly discovered by a shepherd in 813 with the guidance of a bright star leading him to the place of burial.
An impressive cathedral was built on the location, which became the destination for pilgrims starting from points across Europe, dating from the ninth century. Once the various routes crossed into Spain, the pilgrimage became one major road ending at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Tired from months on the pilgrimage, the weary travelers would reach the cathedral, resting their hand on the first pillar, just inside the doorway. A groove has been worn in the pillar, over time.
The cathedral’s botafumeiro, the incense burner, is the largest censer in the world, weighing over one hundred seventy pounds. When in use, it is attached to a pulley system in the cathedral’s dome, and requires eight men to swing it through the cathedral, filling the air with clouds of incense.
Along with routes to Rome and Jerusalem, the Way of Saint James was a major road for pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims still use the route today, and it has become a favorite trek for bicyclists and hikers, as well.