High-tech hikers ‘hijack’ Spain’s pilgrim way

It seems like everybody is hiking Spain's famous Santiago de Compostela trail these days but not everyone is excited about the route's new breed of 'always-connected' pilgrims.

High-tech hikers 'hijack' Spain's pilgrim way
A hiker passes by Conques' roman abbey, central southern France in June on the pilgrim route that leads to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Photo: José Torres/AFP

Despite her sore feet, Federica Simonetto smiles for a photo by the last signpost on the Way of Saint James — one of a new wave of young pilgrims bringing fresh life to the medieval trail.

After eight days hiking with a friend, the Italian nurse has reached Santiago de Compostela, the northern Spanish city where the saint's bones are said to lie.

Pilgrims have hiked this route for centuries. 

Pilgrims have hiked this route for centuries. Even Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a native of Santiago, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hiked a stretch together recently.

But the trail has gained fresh life lately as swelling crowds of foreigners flock there — many of them young with smartphones.

"I take one or two photos each day and as soon as I find a wifi spot I post them on all the social networks." said Simonetto, 38.

Her ankles hurt for the last four days but she pushed on.

"I treat myself and keep walking," she said, as dozens of pilgrims hike by with gourds and scallop shells — the symbols of Saint James — hanging from their rucksacks.

Pilgrims' progress

Inma Tamayo who works in the city's Pilgrim Office said she has seen the change over recent years as the long-time German and Italian visitors have been joined by others from farther afield.

"European pilgrims have been coming for centuries, but now we are seeing other nationalities increase greatly, for example Koreans, Japanese and people from the United States."

In 2005 the trail drew just under 94,000 visitors, 44 percent of them foreigners. The figure rose to nearly 216,000 by 2013, according to official figures.

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Visitors from overseas now outnumber Spaniards on the trail, accounting for 55 percent of the pilgrims, said Nava Castro, head of tourism in the Galicia region tourism ministry.

The number of US visitors has doubled since 2010 when Hollywood actor Martin Sheen, whose father was Galician, starred in "The Way", a film about the trail.

"That was a turning point," Castro said.    

The surge also coincided partly with years of recession in Spain and across Europe, as visitors flocked to the free hiking trail with cheap hostels along the way.

At the same time, the Galicia regional government promoted the trail as far afield as Australia, South Korea and Brazil.

"The trail is very famous in Japan," said Ryoichi Fujioka, a 64-year-old retired man. He walked 780 kilometres (485 miles) from southern France to the door of Santiago Cathedral.

The remains of James the Apostle, Spain's patron saint, are said to lie in the cathedral, and pilgrims to this day prostrate themselves there in his honour.

No vacancies

Not all of the hikers come for purely religious reasons, though.

"We did it for the adventure and the accomplishment," said Chris de Jong, a Canadian IT technician of 28.

He waited under the vines outside the Pilgrim Office to receive his Compostela — a certificate in Latin for pilgrims who reach the city.

"I was sick of my job, I was thinking of quitting and I needed to think about myself," said Ashley Heekyung Ha, a 30-year-old woman from South Korea who works in advertising.

"I needed to go to a place where I could explore myself and also explore something I didn't know," she added, after arriving exhausted at the Ribadiso shelter 40 kilometres from Santiago.

Pilgrims leave their boots at the door there after walking 20 or 30 kilometres through woods, fields, hamlets and towns.

The shelter opened in 1993 and has beds for 62 people in an old pilgrims' hospital from the 13th century.

Today it is full and the shelter's manager, Dolores Agra has to stand at the door turning away new arrivals.

In one of the hostel's dormitories, a dozen mobile telephones lie plugged in and charging for the next stage of the hike.

"In the old days the pilgrims slept in hay lofts, churches and doorways and bathed in the river," said Agra.

"Now they come and ask if we have wifi."

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