The Unexpected Real: Negotiating Fantasy and Reality on the Road to Santiago

Alex Norman

Abstract


As modern phenomena, pilgrimages present unique entry points to the study of expressions of meaning and identity. The pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, a Catholic shrine in north-western Spain, have seen the passing of millions of pilgrims over the last thousand years. Throughout the twentieth century the routes, particularly the Camino Francés in northern Spain, have seen a revival of interest. Accurate statistics have only been kept since 1987, when 2,905 people completed the pilgrimage, yet in 2007 some 114,026 people completed it (up 14,000 from 2006). Part of the reason for this increase is undoubtedly the profusion of literature on the pilgrimage in popular culture, mostly in the form of travel books. Of pilgrims recently interviewed while making the pilgrimage two titles stood out – Coelho’s The Pilgrimage and MacLaine’s The Camino – not only for being far more widely read than others and being seen as inspiration to do the journey, but as an unreal depiction of life on the route itself. This is often a cause for a brief sense of disappointment that, as we shall see, emerges from the fact that many pilgrims embark upon the Camino in order to have precisely the types of experiences read about.

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