the far north of The Netherlands to the extreme west of Spain is a long way,
but every year an increasing number of people cycle or even walk the more than
three thousand kilometer long Saint Jacob’s pilgrim-path: from St Jabik to
Santiago de Compostela (both of which mean Jacob in the local languages). Some
enthusiasts cycle the entire route in six weeks, covering a hundred kilometers
a day, six days a week for six weeks. And that’s just getting there: most have
to cycle back as well. Walking at a fair clip you’d cover about thirty five
kilometers day, which means that it would take at least a hundred days to make
it. In any case, whether you walk or cycle, it’s a bloody long way. For the
less devout, there is, of course, another approach. Fundamentally it is a game
of collecting stamps from checkpoints in a number of participating towns and
cities along the route. Unless you are trying to achieve redemption, there
is no reason to complete the entire course in one go. Many tourists now undertake sections at a time, coming back year after year to complete another
section, gradually working their way south or north.
The path starts in St Jabik (called Sint Jacobiparochie
in Dutch), a small village in the far north in the semi-autonomous area called
Fryslân. I know the area very well because it is where I spent the summers of my childhood.
It is an idyllic place, perfect for children; consisting of stunningly beautiful
little villages, an icy cold sea and magnificent open farm lands. But these
days appearances can be deceptive: in reality the charming cottages and the
smaller farms have nearly all been bought by Dutch and German retirees who
have done wonders in restoring the buildings but have also in many cases unwittingly
killed off village life. The Dutch writer Geert Mak summed up the shift by
declaring that God had abandoned the villages. The claim gives a good indication
of not only the changing demographic but also of the importance of religion
to the Frisians.
Every village, no matter how small, has a church. But churches can’t operate
when the largest part of their congregations only visits for three weeks in
the summer. Preachers often now come once a month, rather than twice a week.
The church seems to be as much a victim of Economic Rationalism as the small
farmers forced off the land have been. Despite all that, a clear sunny day
lends credibility to the Frisians’ unshakeable belief that theirs is the best
country on Earth.
The Frisian people have lived in the area since time immemorial and show
no signs of leaving. They have their own language, their own culture and most
of all their own unique way of seeing the world, particularly in religious
terms. In fact they were the last of the mainland Europeans to withstand the
Christian Evangelists: St Boniface was unceremoniously slain in Dokkum on the
fifth of June, 754, when he tried to bring the new religion from England to
the fiercely independent heathens who had contemptuously withstood all attempts
at religious subjugation. At that time the Frisian people put their faith in
the more earthy deities like Woden, Frig and Eostre: after all, this was (and
continues to be) a land of farmers and fishermen who need the Earth and the
Sea to be, if not always bountiful, at least not actively antagonistic. Even
today the only things the world seems to know about Fryslận are its black and
white cattle and the beautiful jet black horses that the Duke of Edinburgh uses to compete with in Olympic Games.
But the juggernaut of Christianity could not be resisted forever and eventually
the Frisians succumbed. These days only remnants of the old religion remain.
The God Woden continues to be remembered through Wednesday and the Goddess
Eostre through Easter, her festival that was taken over by the Christians and
recast as the time when Jesus was crucified. Wherever they went, the Christians
were good at taken over existing festivals and attaching Episcopalian significance.
But occasionally on a mid-summer’s night, when a full moon hangs heavy in the
vast sky, some folk swear they can feel the spirits of their ancestors whispering
to them in the old language.
Frisians tend not to do things by halves and when they were eventually
converted they took to the new religion with the same fierce single-mindedness
with which they had defended the old. Bear in mind that the Frisians have a
well-deserved reputation for maintaining their independence. The Romans gave
up trying to conquer them, and later even the all-conquering Charlemagne allowed
them to remain their own masters. So, when the new religion took hold, they
embraced it without reservation but with plenty of criticism. Unhappy with
the pomp and ceremony (and corruption) that was increasingly evident in the
Papish version, they adopted the pragmatism and egalitarianism of the Calvinists.
Religion for those whose welfare depends upon good fortune is a serious business.
As an indication of their approach, Menno Simmons, founder of the Mennonites
who continue to maintain their old fashioned ways even today, was a Frisian.
So it should come as no surprise that these fiercely independent and pragmatic people should take a special interest in Jacob, a dour and serious Apostle
who also happened to be a fisherman. He at least would understand the weather
and the seasons.
Most English speaking people know him as Saint James because in the New
Testament that is what he is called. In the Old Testament however, he is called
Jacob, and the Frisians prefer the fire and brimstone certainty of the original
to the pumped-up pageantry and subject-to-interpretation parables of the new,
so here he is known as Sint Jabik. Linguistically, the Frisian didn’t think
much of the language shifts of the seventeenth century either, so the b and
the k sounds stayed where they originally were, unlike in that new-fangled
English, Dutch and German.
At the other end of the Path, he is known as Sant Iago, a fact which for
people raised on Shakespeare, often causes a quizzically raised eyebrow. Curiously,
Saint Jacob is known in Spain as the Moor-slayer, and in the play it was Iago
who plotted the Moor of Venice’s tragic downfall. But whilst Sant Iago is generally
considered a good guy (and his Moor-slaying is played down these days), Iago
was the bad guy in the play and, technically, Othello killed his wife and himself
as a result of his jealousy. But it does make you wonder.
Along with his brother John, Jacob was one of Jesus’ favoured apostles.
It was widely believed that after Jesus’ death, Jacob was sent to Finisterre
(literally “the Ends of the Earth”) to spread the gospel. Heading west from
Galilee, he walked until he came to Galicia, the area of Spain on the Atlantic
Ocean, just above present-day Portugal. That was as far as he could go without
falling off the edge of the world. Perhaps he should have tried because a few
years later back in Jerusalem, he was beheaded by King Herod. His bones were
spirited back to Galicia, and in the eleventh century a magnificent cathedral
was built over his grave in Santiago de la Compostela, which still stands and
now serves as the end point for pilgrims on the Path. As the country’s patron
saint, Jacob is generally revered throughout Spain, but nowhere more than in
the medieval context, pilgr../travels/images were common-place all over the world. Europe
was no exception: long before Jacob’s bones were buried in Santiago, many cities
and towns had “pilgrim routes” leading to holy places. The idea was that the
physical journey mirrored the spiritual one that the soul would take to get
to Heaven. Some of the routes were quite short, such as to the shrine of Beckett
in Canterbury (where Chaucer’s pilgrims were off to in his Canterbury Tales) and others were very long such as the trip to Jerusalem. Some were to graves,
such as the Vatican City where late in the twentieth century Pope Paul VI accepted
the bones unearthed from under the Basilica of Saint Peter as those of the
venerable apostle, and others were to places were miracles had occurred, such
as Lourdes where Saint Bernadette saw visions of Mary. In most cases, the reason
for the trip was to ask either for forgiveness or favour from God.
Most cities have their own favourite or patron saint, but Jacob continues
to hold a special place in all of Western and Northern Europe—and there are signs of the reverence for him throughout the area. All cities
have at least one street named after him, and Ljouwert, Fryslân’s charming capital city, is no exception. It is very pleasant to wander around
this beautiful little city; looking at the many small reliefs that adorn the
older houses that are now being restored. Particular to this story, you can
find one that shows a young Jacob on his way. We know it is him because it
says so in Dutch and because the four traditional symbols of the pilgrim are
clearly evident: the staff, the Bible, the shell above his head and the tunic
(which would later become the cloak or mantle).
Elsewhere, high on the walls of the city’s Catholic Church, built in 1254,
one of the murals shows a somewhat older Jacob on his way through Europe spreading the gospel.
The image is fading, but it is still very evident as to who it is. The fact
that Jacob looks more like a Teutonic gentleman striding to a business meeting
than a Middle Eastern mystic determined to spread the gospel to the pagans
indicates that the mural was painted in the seventeenth century, when the city
was an important part of the Hanseatic League. For many centuries the Frisian
language was the lingua franca of business and economics for most of Northern
Europe. It was the successful business men who sponsored the building and decorating
of the churches and cathedrals, and they wanted to be able to see themselves
in the holy men painted on the walls.
Although the style of the mural is very different to the relief, the pilgrim’s
accoutrements are still in evidence—at least in part. The staff has been replaced by a sword (this was the times
when Christians were encouraged to consider their struggle against the heathens
in more military terms) and the tunic is well on the way to becoming a cloak.
On his back he carries a bag, presumably holding his bible. The shell has disappeared,
probably somewhere in the faded sections that now seem to swathe Jabik in atmospheric
With so many signs and portents, it seemed churlish for me not to make a start.
So with a guidebook (rather than a Bible) in hand, wearing a windcheater (rather
than a cloak), but with a shell (from South Melbourne Beach) in my pocket,
I left the town of St Jabik to set foot on the path to Heavenly redemption.
Although I had neither favour nor forgiveness to ask, it seemed as good a way
as any to take a closer look at the changeable landscape of my childhood. If
nothing else, it was an excuse to get some fresh air and to think about a few
things. And to prove I had done so, along the way I would collect stamps in
the back of my guidebook.
my left, under the main sign, is a smaller one showing two bearded men. They
are carrying the traditional pilgrim symbols: the staff, the Bible and the
mantle. Above, splitting the two characters is a shell. Rather than a conch,
it is a scallop shell. In Frisian the word for shell is “skulp”, pronounced
much like the English word “scallop”, which in turn is called “St Jacques’
coquille” in French. Not very surprising really, seeing Frisian and English
were the same language nine centuries ago.
But translating between the two can create problems. The northern most
point of the Path is just outside the town of St Jabik, in the tiny village
called Zwarte Haan in Dutch, which translates to English as Black Rooster.
However in Frisian it is Zwarte Hoane, which translates into English as Black
Hook. The latter makes much more sense because it is a hook of black, peaty
clay, and there no black roosters to be seen anywhere. But despite the name
of the place having nothing to do with poultry, the stamp you collect at the
restaurant is of a black rooster.
of the most interesting of the tales that are attached to St Jacob’s Path is
the possibility that the first person to walk the route was a clay-worker from
this area. The story goes that the chap managed to get himself into a fair
bit of strife with one of the local women, without the sanctity of marriage.
The local priest was called in to hand out an appropriate punishment. The problem
was that the fellow’s family owned much of the land, so the sentence couldn’t
be too severe. The priest opted to send the young man on a pilgrimage to Santiago
de la Compostela, a task that would keep him out of sight for a while and might
just settle him down If nothing else, he’d be tired when he came back. He was
allowed to take no food or money or water, and had to collect a signed letter
of arrival from the Spanish church. He was allowed, however, to take his girlfriend—which makes sense because you can ask for food, water and a place to sleep along
the way but asking for someone to sleep with is slightly more problematic.
As legend would have it, the young man died just before arriving in Galicia,
leaving his girlfriend to collect the letter and walk back. There’s a moral
in there somewhere.
the southern end of the path has its famous cathedral, the northern end has
vast empty spaces, especially above you. When you are walking in the meadows,
the sky stretches over you like an enormous snow-cone and every now and then
a celestial hand gives it a shake. Driven by the winds from the Arctic north,
black rain-clouds roll down, stealing the light and occasionally dumping fat
showers exclusively where you happen to be. What ever the season, take a raincoat:
a sleeveless windcheater over a t-shirt just doesn’t cut it. Trust me on that.
On the other hand, showers do pass quickly and if you keep walking you dry
Following the old church paths that still give the pedestrian the right
of way, the Path bumps against little waterways where small sailing boats nestle
under willow trees, over paddocks where the Frisian cows graze contentedly
on the lush green grass and through old villages with two names: first in the
local language, then in Dutch. Often it is in the churches or the nearby community
centres that you collect your stamps, and stop for a chat. Nearly every one
speaks English, and if you come from Australia, New Zealand or Canada, they
will enquire if you know any of the various members of their family who migrated
there in the last fifty years. Like Ireland, there are now more Frisians living abroad than in Fryslân.
The last place on the Path before you get back to Ljouwert is a beautiful
little village called Stiens. Its centre piece (literally and figuratively)
is one of the most beautiful sixteenth century churches still operating. Surrounded
by a ring of verdant trees that from a distance look like a green ruff, it
remains the social and spiritual centre of village, and anyone who was anyone
is buried either inside or in the graveyard. So beautiful and so close to the
city, the little houses were bought and restored by the commuters rather than
the original villagers.
Back in Ljouwert, after a final stamp, it’s time for a well-deserved beer
in a café in St Jacob Street. From here it’s not so far to Spain, and should
you wish to continue, simply look at the seven man-hole covers in the middle
of the cobble-stoned street. Each has stamped on it a variation of the shell
theme and bears the Latin words campus stellae, the field of stars. Line all
up all seven and they will point the way Santiago de la Compostela. But be
careful of the traffic—it’s getting crowded on Sint Jabikspaad