Pilgrimage routes and walking tours
Several pilgrimage tracks remain intact and active centuries after they were first established. Many Odyssey tours trace their routes, walking in the footsteps of people who sought religious or spiritual awakening. One of the most popular pilgrimages today is the Santiago de Compostela – the route to Saint James. We have designed a walking tour around this pilgrimage especially for senior travellers, who can choose their own pace. See Saint James Way small group tour (The Camino)- Spain for more information. Along the way, we take in the beautiful surrounds of Spain and Portugal. Other tours that trace pilgrimage tracks include the South American small group tour. This takes in the spiritual majesty of Machu Picchu. Read on for more information on the history and significance of pilgrimages, as well as several other celebrated sites throughout the world.
What is a pilgrimage?
A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken for moral or spiritual significance. For some, the desired effect is the rite of passage. Others may seek spiritual or material reward. The destination is often a shrine or temple that has ties to a person’s religious faith. It might be the birthplace or final resting place of a key historical figure. Or a site where miracles were witnessed or performed. Or it could be a spiritual journey for a person seeking to connect with their own inner beliefs. A person who takes this journey is called a pilgrim. The term originates from the Latin word perigrinus, which means a temporary resident or a person on a journey.
Pilgrim or traveller?
Today, there is a crossover between pilgrims and tourists. A holiday might turn into a pilgrimage, or the reverse! The practice of holidaying evolved from the 19th century onward, as people accumulated greater wealth and leisure time. But looking back through the centuries, pilgrimages have always involved both religious and secular motives and experiences. The history of pilgrimages has shaped the landscapes and cultures of the world today, and the practice remains as vital as ever. Pilgrims in the 21st century continue to explore the significance of both the sites and the journey itself – and they come from a variety of formalised faiths, or none at all.
Religious or faith-based pilgrimage
In the Middle Ages, the Church believed that to journey to these holy sites would cleanse the pilgrim of their sins and increase their chance of entry to heaven. Pilgrimage has strong associations with the Christian faith, but it is also practised in Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and more. Mecca is the famous destination for Muslims, and Islam is the only religion for which pilgrimage is a requirement. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, though only the physically able are expected to take it. Jerusalem is also a religiously significant site for many faiths. Shrines and temples across Nepal, Japan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and other countries similarly draw pilgrims from around the world for the purposes of religious travel.
It is not only religious people that take pilgrimages around the world. In fact, many non religious pilgrims take journeys for spiritual reasons. And others find great personal growth from being in the presence of these holy sites. Some pilgrims seek out shamanistic rituals, including the consumption of plant-based medicines like peyote and mescaline in countries like Peru and Mexico. The autobiographical book Eat Pray Love features a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. A film adaptation of this woman’s personal journey stars Julia Roberts.
Other forms of pilgrimage
It is common to hear people speak of taking ‘pilgrimages’ to sports arenas, such as famous baseball grounds. Or to the resting places of celebrities – Graceland hosts countless people who flock to pay respect to Elvis Presley. Places of national significance also attract ‘pilgrims’. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. is one example; another is Gallipoli in Turkey for ANZAC day, or Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track. The word may also describe the return to sites of personal significance: places to celebrate, mourn or remember. This attachment to special places is a very human characteristic, and can be recognised in the history of pilgrimages across the world.
The following is a list of some of the most popular and well known pilgrimages that continue to be taken today. The sites below each feature in various Odyssey Traveller tours, which have been designed specifically for mature travellers seeking guided, small group experiences.
The Way of Saint James/Santiago de Compostela, Spain and France
The Camino de Santiago or “Way of St James” is a trio of pilgrimage routes across Europe that lead to the burial site of Saint James. The story of this pilgrimage is intertwined with the history of Christianity. Several accounts exist. Saint James was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. It is said that he preached the gospel in Iberia as well as in the Holy Land. He is considered the first of the apostles to be martyred. His disciples carried his to Iberia by sea, and his remains interred in a tomb in Santiago de Compostela. James was later named the patron saint of Spaniards.
Relics of saints and religious figures were believed to possess great power. The burial sites of Apostles Peter, Paul and John were known by 800 ca. James was the most senior member of the hierarchy whose relics were yet to be discovered. Finally unearthed at some point between 791-842, this period is identified with the establishment of the pilgrimage route. The number of pilgrims increased steadily, and by the twelfth century, is said to have reached half a million per year.
The legend of the scallop shell
The growing popularity of the Camino de Santiago corresponded with the development of certain legends. These include the scallop shell, which is the popular symbol of the pilgrimage. Legend has it that a knight, while witnessing the passing of the ship of Saint James’s remains, fell from a cliff into the water. He miraculously emerged alive, covered in scallop shells. The prevalence of scallops along the Atlantic Ocean west of Santiago might also explain its symbolism. Alternatively, some read it as a metaphor: the lines of the shell representing the different pilgrim routes from across the world. The scallop shell motif has been incorporated into many buildings and monuments along the route. In addition, medieval pilgrims often wore one attached to their hats or coats.
The pilgrimage today
While always heavily frequented, the route has experienced a resurgence in the last 30 years. The Council of Europe declared the Camino francés to be the first European Cultural Route in October 1987. UNESCO inscribed it as a World Heritage Site in 1993. Pilgrims often take the journey at turning points in their lives. This testifies to the spiritual dimension of the pilgrimage. People travel on foot, by bicycle, or on horseback, and the shared hardship of the trail is said to contribute to its transformative effects.
Pilgrims can join the route from many locations, but the traditional asssembly points are in France. Starting in Paris, le Puy-en-Velay, Vézelay, or Arles, pilgrims follow one of the old routes to the Pyrenees and the beginning of the Camino francés in Spain.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is often referred to as the City of Light or Lost City of the Incas (though this second title has been disputed). It was built in c 1450. In 1572, the Incas abandoned the site for reasons unknown to us. So, it stood in secret from the rest of the world until its discovery by an American in 1911. Its origins remain a mystery to this day, though many have speculated on the subject. It is believed the Incas worshipped the Sun as their ancestor, and this marvel of architecture is designed around its light. Others, by contrast, argue it was a royal estate.
One scholar has observed that the route through Machu Picchu was far less accessible than nearby throughways, and speculates that recovered obsidian stones at the entrance were ritual offerings. The beauty and design of the site may have attracted pilgrims from the outset, which potentially undermines the royal associations – though it could also have been both.
Controversy about the care of Machu Picchu artefacts
A dispute between Yale University and Peru over artefacts from Machu Picchu raises the issue of custodianship and care of these significant sites. Between 1912 and 1915, Yale removed artefacts to the university for study, where they remained for a hundred years. Peru made several requests for their return. As a result, some were released back to the care of Peru in 2006. Finally, Yale delivered the remaining artefacts in 2012.
Described as transcendentally beautiful, it is a popular spiritual pilgrimage for 21st century travellers.
Varanasi, or Benares as it also known, is the holiest of India’s seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism. It is also a significant site in the development of Buddhism. Buddha delivered his first sermon in nearby Sarnath in 528. In the 8th century, it was established as the city of Hindu god Shiva. It is the foremost among the 12 places where the god burrowed and then burst into the sky in a fiery pillar of light (Jyotirlinga).
Sanctified by Shiva’s all-pervading presence and the sacred Ganges, the 90 or so ghats (or steps) along the river define the city of Varanasi. Lined with temples and shrines, the ghats reverberate with the endless cycle of Hindu religious practice, from daily rituals to profound rites of passage.
Varanasi attracts pilgrims of varied religions, as well as spiritual and secular pilgrims who wish to attain personal growth from witnessing the beautiful practices here.
Canterbury Cathedral, Britain
The most religiously significant pilgrimage in Britain is to Canterbury Cathedral. The city was once a stopping point on the journey from Rome to Lyons. The arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury in 597 CE is considered evidence of the Roman influence to the Anglo-Saxon and Viking population here. After his death, pilgrims would venerate him at the Great Abbey. The number of pilgrims would greatly increase by the twelfth century, though.
The Canterbury Cathedral hosts the shrine of Thomas Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury until his murder in 1170. He conflicted with Henry II over the rights and privileges of the church. It is said that Henry II dismissed the priest as a meddler, and the King’s frustration was interpreted as a royal command to have him killed. The act was carried out by the King’s followers in Canterbury Cathedral. Soon after his death, Pope Alexander canonised Becket, elevating him to sainthood. Throughout history, pilgrims have journeyed along “Pilgrims Way” which begins at Winchester. Click here for more information on the journey, which is now set up to accommodate travellers from across the world.
Odyssey tours along pilgrimage tracks
Many of Odyssey Traveller’s educational, small group tours include visits to religious and cultural sites. The Saint James Way small group tour (The Camino)- Spain takes place along one of the world’s most famous pilgrimages. And the Secret France small group tour places of cultural interest for seniors also picks up the pilgrim track. We visit the only medieval shrine that still survives intact on the pilgrimage route across the Pyrénées to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
And for those drawn to India’s Varanasi, we set foot along the banks of the Ganges where impressive rituals take place. See our India small group short tour for details of our next departure date. Our Walking Rural Britain, small group history tours for mature travellers offers incredible rewards for your physical labour, including Canterbury Cathedral, Britain’s most popular pilgrimage destination. For an adventure that combines history with the potential for personal growth, let Odyssey Traveller guide you along some of the most impressive pilgrimage routes in the world.
About Odyssey traveller; small group educational tours for seniors & mature travellers.
Odyssey Traveller is a not-for-profit organisation offering Australia and New Zealand’s most comprehensive educational tour programs. We provide worldwide experiences for mature travellers who are keen to blend a love of travel with a thirst for knowledge.
Odyssey Traveller is famous for our small groups, and we average eight participants per tour. Our maximum group size is eighteen people, which ensures quality, flexibility and care that is tailored to our clients. We specialise in small group tours for the senior traveller who is seeking adventure or is curious about the world we live in. Typically, our clients begin travelling with us from their mid 50’s onward. Both couples and singles are welcome.
Odyssey Traveller is committed to charitable activities that support the environment and cultural development of Australian and New Zealand communities. Accordingly, we are pleased to announce that since 2012, Odyssey has been awarding $10,000 Equity & Merit Cash Scholarships each year. We award the scholarships based on academic performance and demonstrated financial need, and at least one scholarship is awarded per year. We are supported through our educational travel programs, and your support helps Odyssey achieve its goals.