"Almost as cool as at Ballermann": Way of St. James degenerates into a party mile

Hape Kerkeling's book "I'll be gone then" makes the Way of St.

"Almost as cool as at Ballermann": Way of St. James degenerates into a party mile

Hape Kerkeling's book "I'll be gone then" makes the Way of St. James popular in Germany as well. Since then, more and more Germans have made the pilgrimage to Santiago. The number of visitors is now breaking a record. Because devotion and religiosity are no longer the focus, there is trouble.

Five young pilgrims on wheels rattle down the steps to Obradoiro Square in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela at high speed - and give two slowly strolling clergymen a huge fright. Just a few meters away, two dozen Mexicans celebrate their arrival with little dances and songs. "Llegamos, llegamos!" - "We're here, we're here!" they shout. At the end of the Way of St. James there is a boom this year - even now in autumn.

More than 430,000 pilgrims received the certificate of arrival in 2022, according to the pilgrimage authority Oficina del Peregrino. That is a good 20 percent more than in the entire previous record year 2019. Many do not even pick up the certificate - and are not counted. In the place of pilgrimage in northwestern Spain, which became popular in Germany thanks to Hape Kerkeling's book "I'll be gone," the tills are ringing louder than ever. The operators of the now very expensive hotels, private accommodation, souvenir shops and restaurants are rubbing their hands.

But not everyone is happy. Because unlike in Lourdes or Fátima, religiosity and devotion are no longer the focus of the stream of visitors. Litter, noise and vandalism are increasing. Many residents of the UNESCO-protected old town are angry or desperate, as one hears again and again when the topic is even remotely brought up in the center of Santiago. "It's a trend that started a few years ago, but this year it was particularly bad, in the summer it was simply unbearable at times," says resident Beatriz.

She had great difficulty concentrating in the home office because of the noise from outside. "When you come to the city at seven in the morning with 40 pilgrims, you have to understand that people live, work, study and sleep there. You can't bawl out loud. It's about respect," she says. In the center of the capital of Galicia, it is very noisy during the day. Then a lot more in the evening. Especially on Rua de Franco. The bars and restaurants along the 400-meter-long party mile not far from the cathedral are all full at midnight on this autumn evening.

Sometimes there are very long queues in front of the bars. "Another bottle, folks?" calls an Italian at a long table, and the group replies in unison: "Siiii, un'altra bottigliaaaa!" You can often spot locals by wrinkling their noses, rolling their eyes, or quickening their pace. Completely different Henry. "It's almost as cool here as at Ballermann!" exclaims the 21-year-old from Hamburg. "Only the beach and the sea are missing." He has to repeat it three times at close range, almost screaming, it's that loud. The lanky young man initially reluctantly accompanied his parents on the 500 kilometers between Miranda de Ebro and Santiago - but is now "totally surprised and happy".

Santiago de Compostela is not just a jewel of religious architecture and a popular place of pilgrimage because tradition has it that the cathedral was built over the tomb of Saint James. It is also an old university town that has always hosted young people from home and abroad. But the majority of the students, some of whom are known to be not averse to partying, scold when asked about the behavior of many pilgrims - like Beatrice's daughter Clara. "I wasn't there in the summer, but friends sent me videos of the huge and noisy crowds of pilgrims. It was scary, we've never had anything like it here before." "There's more and more rubbish on the streets, more and more shoplifting," she says.

Like so many here, Clara demands "more respect". Some even speak of "war": Pilgrims often come with megaphones, drums or trumpets - and buckets of water are poured on them from balconies. The police meanwhile say that crime has increased by around 30 percent in the entire region of Galicia and also in Santiago in 2022 compared to the same period last year. Whether this has something to do with the increasing number of pilgrims cannot or cannot be said. The criticism is drastic in various media and social networks. The well-known daily newspaper "El Mundo" reported in a report on hordes of visitors who let out "obscene screams" and "piss everywhere".

Mass tourism "like in Venice or Mallorca" is bringing the small community with 96,000 inhabitants and limited infrastructure "to the brink of collapse". In fact, the buses are often overcrowded, traditional trade is pushed aside by souvenir shops, hip bars and chains. Because of the Airbnb boom, there is a dramatic housing shortage. "We are being driven out of our city," said an outraged "Compostelano" of the digital newspaper "Galiciapress". In the social networks, the visitors are compared to "marauding Huns" and "British football hooligans". No exaggeration, says Monse Vilar, president of the "A Xuntanza" citizens' association.

She posts videos on Facebook showing huge groups of arriving pilgrims storming the roadway and bringing traffic to a standstill. Vilar: "These are uncivilized and irresponsible behaviors that go far beyond noise. This is not an amusement park, but an inhabited space." Regional media warn that the Way of St. James could "perish from its own success". In the 1970s, hardly anyone set out to walk the "Camino". It was only a few dozen a year back then. Even with the visits of the popular Pope John Paul II, this number climbed to around 2,000 (1982) and 5,000 (1989) respectively for the year as a whole.

The boom came with the spiritual books of the Brazilian bestselling author Paulo Coelho. In 1993, the 100,000 visitor mark was broken for the first time, followed by 150,000 in 1999. According to the Kerkeling book, the Germans became one of the largest groups behind the Spanish. According to official information, in 2022 there were almost 25,000. Those affected relied on the insight of the pilgrims and stuck notes on posts and walls in the summer with "rules of conduct for the end of the Way of St. James". However, most visitors ignored the information. So the next thing to do was complain to the authorities. In vain: When we met Mayor Xosé Sánchez Bugallo, "he asked us to please make a little effort," said Vilar.

Several regional media also reported on this statement by the mayor at the meeting with the neighboring representatives. The city, on the other hand, is considering introducing an overnight tax in order to benefit even more from the boom in visitors. Santiago's Archbishop Julián Barrio called for more understanding for the pilgrims and their joy upon arrival: "Do we want to ask seawater not to be salty?" Even if tourism in Santiago, like elsewhere, is no longer limited to the summer months, the "Compostelanos" can hope for quieter times slowly and probably until mid-March.

"But we're all trembling, especially before next summer. It's going to be hell," says architect Juan Carlos. "My parents are retired and have money, fortunately they can go. They want to relax in Ibiza. It's said to be quieter there in the summer than here."

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