Thousands of pilgrims brave wind and rain on the Camino de Santiago

by Lorraine Williamson

As is customary every year, the high season for the Camino de Santiago begins during Holy Week. Thousands of pilgrims, laden with large backpacks, have embarked this week on the well-trodden route to Santiago de Compostela. Similar to last year, the season starts amidst strong winds and rain.

Once again, the weather heralds the beginning of the tourist season on the Camino de Santiago. The long-distance trail is traditionally inundated with pilgrims eager to visit the tomb of the apostle James. Others simply wish to enjoy the stunning scenery or explore the monumental sites along the Jacobean route.

Crowds at the pilgrim office

Despite the rain, wind, and cold in Galicia, the pilgrim office in Santiago is bustling. Here, all walkers are welcomed, and pilgrims are presented with the so-called ‘Compostela’. Every walker who has covered at least 100 kilometres on foot along one of the pilgrim routes leading to the Galician capital is eligible for the document.

Nearly two thousand people entered the office for accreditation on the Thursday before Easter. On the morning of Good Friday, over two hundred more walkers passed through. Dressed in brightly coloured raincoats, they sighed, “Will it ever stop raining here?” Drenched and sometimes on the brink of despair, the answer would have mattered little. Yes, the rain will eventually stop. But not this week.

Famous hospital transformed into one of Spain’s finest state hotels

Seventy years ago, the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, located on the central square in Santiago de Compostela, was converted into a luxury hotel. Prior to that, it had served for centuries as a hospital for weary travellers arriving battered at the apostle’s tomb. Today, there are dozens of private and public accommodations available for pilgrims arriving in Santiago. Along the route, numerous health centres can also be found where walkers can seek treatment for blisters, illness, or other medical issues.

However, it was not always this way. For centuries, the historic building served as a hospital, providing medical care to the masses of believers who came to Santiago in the footsteps of the apostle. In 1954, the Hospital de los Reyes Católicos was transformed into a luxury accommodation under the auspices of the National Tourism Enterprise (Entursa). Later, it became one of the flagships of Spain’s network of Paradores, the renowned state hotels.

Cogesa Expats

Catholic monarchs shocked by conditions in cathedral

According to tradition, the Catholic Monarchs visited Santiago de Compostela in 1486. They sought the Apostle’s help for the successful reconquest of the Spanish mainland from the Moors.

Legend has it they were shocked to see the appalling hygiene and conditions faced by pilgrims arriving in the city. A fire had occurred in the hospital, and since then, hundreds of followers of the ‘Son of Thunder’ wandered the streets daily. They sought shelter, among other places, in a cathedral that was always open.

Eventually, the sanctuary turned into a kind of permanent guesthouse where pilgrims sought refuge from cold and rain. Moreover, they could recuperate before embarking on the journey home. The cathedral became so crowded with people that the stench became unbearable. Even the Botafumeiro, the gigantic censer used at the time to purify the space, did not help against the pungent smell of countless dirty and sick travelers.

New hospital for pilgrims

Upon witnessing this, the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando promised to build a new hospital. A hospital “that would respectfully serve all believers, sick and healthy, who would come to the city.” In 1501, construction began on the impressive complex, which would also serve as a guesthouse. It was located a stone’s throw from the cathedral, in the square now known as Plaza de Obradoiro.

The enormous building served as a hospital for more than five centuries. When a modern hospital was built outside the historic centre of Santiago de Compostela in 1953, the building was transformed into a five-star hotel. On July 25, 1954, the then head of state, Francisco Franco, attended the opening of the new Entursa complex. The opening took place on this date for a reason; it is the day of Santiago, the patron saint of Spain. The complex has undergone several renovations and expansions over the centuries.

Hospital was refuge for pilgrims on Camino de Santiago for centuries

The Galician capital, which marks the endpoint of the Camino de Santiago, was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The long history, architectural beauty, and exceptional location of the old hospital, near the cathedral and other monuments, have brought international fame to a luxurious inn. A refuge that for centuries welcomed thousands of humble, battered, sick, and sometimes dying pilgrims.

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