Accoglienza Pellegrina
history of hospitality

history of hospitality


Since ancient times, hospitality has been the direct response to pilgrimages.

A pilgrimage is the voluntary act by which a man abandons his customary places, his habits and his emotional environment to go, in piety of spirit, to a sacred place that he has freely chosen, or that has been imposed upon him as penance, expiation of some fault, or as thanksgiving for some supernatural gift received. The journey to the sacred place is conducted with a special mystical spirit and the pilgrim is strengthened in penance and hardship: the arrival at the destination should allow the attainment of that state of grace of one who sees his or her goal realised.

All religions have inherent the practice of pilgrimage, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist  and Christian, to name but a few, have their own customs that sometimes rise to the level of obligation (e.g. going to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, etc.). But when did this practice begin? It is lost in the mists of time, and would naturally also involve the various forms of paganism that had their good holy places and their good pilgrims.

In Latin, the term peregrinus meant a stranger, a traveller, a person without civil or political rights, with only divine protection, exposed to the dangers of bad encounters and bad weather.

The ancient Greeks thought that a divinity was hidden behind the guise of a pilgrim; let us not forget that one of the names of Jupiter was xenios (host). Hence xenodochi, which in the Middle Ages denoted hospitable structures for travellers. The host also had a sacred character for the Jewish people. Pilgrims were offered shelter, a meal and foot-washing to refresh them after a long journey. With the advent of Christianity, hospitality became a tangible expression of charity, understood as human brotherhood. Every good Christian had the duty to welcome the stranger as a brother. The duty of hospitality is extolled in the Rule of St Benedict; Chapter 53 of the Rule requires the brothers to welcome the guest with charity and humility, breaking their fast and washing their hands and feet in his honour.

The Codex Calixtinus already spoke of hospitality, stressing that: “Pilgrims, whether rich or poor, have the right to be welcomed and treated with respect”.

In the 16th century, the Catholic Monarchs had the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos built. Pilgrims who arrived in Santiago could stay there for three days free of charge if they had the Letter of Probation, a document certifying that they had completed their journey.

The hospitality of yesterday lives on today through the numerous examples of pilgrim welcome that have appeared along the Jacobean Route since the late 1960s, despite the economic stagnation of the Franco dictatorship. Examples of ordinary citizens, inspired parish priests – in the first place, Elias Valiña, followed by José Ignacio Díaz – who opened the doors of their humble homes and rectories to revive the tradition of hospitality. Like Ignacio Landaluce, who for many years welcomed pilgrims into his bodega every day, offering them bread, some wine and chorizo, as well as a few mattresses on the floor to sleep on, since there was no special facility in the village.

The gratuitous nature of a heartfelt welcome has not disappeared, despite the great economic interests and the massification of the Pilgrim’s Way. These hospitaleros are the link to the tradition of the past.

The group of Hospitaleros Voluntarios has been working for thirty years to keep this ancient history alive by reviving it in the present. They were inspired by Lourdes Lluch, a Spanish pilgrim who, in the summer of 1990, rented a house in Hornillos del Camino (Burgos) to welcome pilgrims free of charge. The initiative was supported by the Federación Española de Asociaciones de Amigos del Camino de Santiago (Spanish Federation of Friends of the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago) and coincided with the revitalisation of the Pilgrim’s Way and the increase in the number of accommodation facilities for pilgrims. Through the local associations, buildings are being renovated for use as pilgrim hostels and all those who wish to contribute on a voluntary basis are being called upon.

The main characteristic of these pilgrim hostels is a humble hospitality, i.e. welcoming pilgrims without charging them, but leaving them the choice of contributing to the maintenance of the hostel with a free offering. Free and open is the gaze of the pilgrim passing by. Free and open is the host’s hospitality.

Free and open is the work of the Hospitaleros Voluntarios. This group is made up of people of different ages, nationalities and beliefs, united by the desire to be of service to others in a context that is certainly unusual and rich in spirituality. And as such, it can only continue to exist by following the rules it has set itself, which free it from any economic or political conditioning.

The message that the group wants to convey is based on the awareness of one’s role, which allows each person to have an attitude and a personal freedom that is reflected in human relationships. Choosing to dedicate oneself enthusiastically to others, welcoming all pilgrims, from the nicest to the most boring and demanding, with courtesy and gratitude, because it is they who give meaning to the hospitalero‘s work, is a perhaps a simplistic but honest way of opposing the clichés of today’s society, where people are seen only as consumers. To present oneself with humility and to rediscover the meaning of a smile received in gratitude for a service rendered not only makes the effort worthwhile, but also makes one realise that this may be the right way to achieve peaceful and respectful coexistence between people.

The other principle on which Hospitaleros Voluntarios is based is that of gratuitousness. In return for their commitment, those who provide this service are not only not paid, but also bear the cost of the journey to their destination and the cost of their stay during the chosen period. Giving hospitality is risky, as it is not known in advance whether pilgrims will leave a gift, but it is a risk that is worth taking. In a world where everything has a price, coming in contact with this reality is a good lesson for both pilgrims and hosts. From this point of view, gratuitousness is not simply not asking for money, but rather the willingness to give and to give generously without asking for anything in return; a luxury that few can afford.