Saint James Way: The Coastal Route
This pilgrim’s trail forms part of the collection of itineraries to Saint James tomb and is known by the name of the northern route, of which the route between Oviedo and Santiago de Compostela also form part, as does the detour from León to Oviedo, a branch that links up the coastal route with the “French route” that traverses the Castilian plateau.
These routes were travelled by pilgrims of medieval and modern times. They wished to prostrate themselves before the tomb of the apostle and venerate in Oviedo, the holy city on the northern route, the image of the Saviour (13th century) and the Ark or relics deposited in the Cámara Santa (Holy Chamber) in the basilica built by Alfonso II the Chaste (791-842) in this same city. At the end of the 11th century, the exceptional riches of the reliquary and oral propagation of the miracles and legends of the Saviour brought to Asturias one of the routes to Santiago de Compostela, giving rise to well-known late-medieval popular verse that went “Quien va a Santiago y no a San Salvador, visita al criado y deja al Señor” (Whoever goes to Santiago and not to San Salvador, visits the servant but not the Lord).
The coastal route starts out in Irún (Guipúzcoa), traverses the coastal region of the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias, crossing the dividing line with Galicia of the Eo Estuary to then enter Mondoñedo in the quest for Compostela. This northern front, under the threat or pirate Muslim and Norman raiders for centuries, started to become established as a pilgrims’ route during the 12th-13th centuries under the aegis of the new townships founded by the Castilian monarchs and thanks to the proliferation of pilgrims who made their way here by sea and of coastal navigation. In its Asturian stretch, its visits monumental towns such as Llanes, Ribadesella, Villaviciosa, Gijón, Avilés, Luarca or Castropol; it goes by medieval monasteries such as those of San Salvador de Celorio and San Antolín de Bedón, in Llanes, and San Salvador de Valdediós, in Villaviciosa, Romanesque churches (San Juan de Amandi, in Villaviciosa, and San Nicolás de Bari or Santo Tomás de Canterbury, in Aviles) and Pre-Romanesque temples such as that of Valdediós; it also unhearths remains of the roman past of the civitas of Gijón. In the borough of Villaviciosa, a fork in the route leads to Oviedo.
All along the Asturian coastal route, the pilgrims to Santiago left a wealth of archaeological and documental evidence, as well as eloquent place names that make reference to the coastal “French route”. From the 14th century onward, hospital institutions proliferated which were to provide assistance to poor pilgrims right up until the 19th century, a fine example of which is the hospital of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios in Gijón, which operated in the 15th century.
Other reports give a name to the pilgrims who passed through Asturias and confirm that the coastal route was highly transited during the Modern Age, despite the fact that the way was neither, easy or comfortable. Pilgrims had to cross wide estuaries and river courses (Deva, Sella, Nalón, Navia and Eo) in boats. As did a tailor from Picardy, Guillermo Manier, who describes the boat crossing of the Eo Estuary in 1726 as “one of the most dangerous and fearful place in all of Spain”, to which he adds, “you see the sea waves shoot up into the air against one another (…) which makes you frightfully afraid, that you believe yourself to have perished at all times”.
The northern route, far from the overcrowding that the French route currently suffers, continues to be an experience in solitude and in union with a rugged fecund nature of colourful scenery: the green, the ochre and the chestnut-coloured forest in which pilgrims immerse themselves, the indigo of the rough Cantabrian Sea, and the gold of its sandy beaches. Above the pilgrims’ heads, a sky of a thousand and one hues, from stormy grey to luminous blue; before their eyes, horizons of mountains tops and peaks.
ANA BELÉN DE LOSTOYOS DECASTRO (Historian)