Talking with Sylvia Nilsen About European Pilgrimages and Pilgrims Then to Now

Hello, Sylvia! I am very excited to have you “walk the trail” and end up at Oh, for the Hook of a Book today! For readers that have not been introduced to you, I say this as I read that you are an avid walker, taking many on pilgrimages in Spain throughout the year. I’ve certainly been informed in reading about you about what the world of “Camino” is all about! Fascinating!

Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time

You recently launched a novel, Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time, and are on tour for the book. How is it all going for you? Different that when you published your non-fiction?

Sylvia: Thank you Erin. Researching and writing fiction is very different. The non-fiction was all slog-slog-slog and the fiction has been a work of inspiration!

Erin: Let’s get started with some questions, should we take a small walk and talk, or would you rather put up your feet?

Sylvia: A walk would be great!

Erin: I know you’ve written numerous pieces for travel and walking endeavors, so I can guess somewhat what your answer might be, but what was your inspiration for writing Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time? Did it turn out the way you at first envisioned it?

Sylvia: In 2002 I was planning to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in Spain for the first time. I ordered a guide book from England and a small metal brooch, a replica of a medieval Santiago pewter brooch in the shape of a scallop shell. The original was recovered from the banks of the River Thames during routine dredging in 1989. I wondered how such a precious item, bought in Santiago by a pilgrim from England, landed up in the river. The explanations that pilgrimage artifacts were discarded after the Reformation, or that the pilgrim’s family didn’t value the souvenir and threw it away, didn’t satisfy me. I decided that I could write a much better story about the brooch, the pilgrim who made the long, hazardous pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain, and how the brooch ended up in the river.

Erin: What kind of research did you put into the novel? What was your process for gathering research and then how did you piece it together into your book?

Sylvia: The hey-days of the Santiago pilgrimage were in the 12th century so it was a natural choice to set the story in that period. I had to choose a village in England for the main family and I did this by searching the Doomsday book. Once I’d chosen the village it was easy to name the characters from the church-yard in that village. In 2002 I walked 800 km of the pilgrimage trail from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, but I decided that I would have to walk the ± 1000 km from Paris to Spain as well in order to write about the journey my main protagonists would take. I did this trek in 2004 but before starting at Paris, I visited the Museum of London and saw the original pewter brooch in the medieval gallery. Next to it is a small reliquary in the shape of a cross. It has a small, secret chamber (like a locket) in the centre that contains wax. Embedded in the wax is a tiny fragment of wood. The curator thought it could be a piece of the True Cross but, nobody will ever know for sure. I incorporated the cross into my story.

Because there aren’t many resources in South African libraries on European pilgrimages, I had to buy a lot of books online to research pilgrims’ daily lives, spirituality and religion of that time, and pilgrimages to the great Christian shrines.

Erin: In your book synopsis, it states, “After Richard FitUrse murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, Lord and Lady FitzUrse are instructed by the King to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St James the Greater in Spain in order to restore the family name.” Can you talk a bit for readers about why these pilgrimages were instructed or made my people in history?

Sylvia: In the middle-ages the Catholic Church taught that life on earth was merely a journey to the next life – be it heaven or in hell. Everybody would have to spend some time in purgatory, a kind of half-way house of horrors, paying for one’s sins before moving on. One could earn time off purgatory by visiting the shrines of saints which were scattered all over the Christian world. A short pilgrimage could earn indulgences for a few dozen days off purgatory, and a long journey a few thousand days off purgatory. I know that today this seems ludicrous but the medieval mind was a superstitious one and most of the population was illiterate.

From the 10th to the 15th century, millions of Christians went on pilgrimage all over Europe to earn indulgences for the remission of sins. When the prisons were full, criminals, even petty ones, were sent on penitential journeys to shrines where they had to collect proof that they had arrived there. When they returned to their homes, they were pardoned. In the 11th century the church started selling indulgences to those who could not afford to take time away from their busy lives and so they could buy time off purgatory. A busy or important man could send a proxy pilgrim to do the journey for him.

Erin: When did, Christians primarily as Muslims still do this, stop making pilgrimages for religious sake? Why are people interested in walking these trails today? (Note: I mean in my part of America I hear no one making pilgrimages for religion at all, and not any Christians…mission trips for sure, but not pilgrimages to save their souls that I know of from America. Maybe some do, but I am basing it on the notion that they aren’t forced to do or feel they must each year. I am uneducated about it the people who do, and so my question….).

Sylvia: I don’t think Christians have stopped making pilgrimages for religious reasons. Hundreds of millions of pilgrims each year visit Rome, Jerusalem and other Holy Land sites, and Santiago de Compostela in is the third most visited pilgrimage site in the world. Lourdes in the south of France, Fatima in Portugal and many of the other pilgrimage destinations in the Christian world attract millions of pilgrims. Our Lady of Guadalupe attracts over 20 million pilgrims every year. Mass pilgrimage in Europe lost popularity after the Reformation in the 16th century. In 1517 Martin Luther, a German priest and monk, challenged the church on the need for pilgrimage. After all, Christ had died for their sins so why did people have to go on long, dangerous journeys to gain remission for sins. He spoke out against the sale of indulgences and other corrupt practices in the Vatican. There were other issues like the interpretation of the Eucharist – the body and blood of Christ. He wanted to reform the church but it ended up in a split which resulted in religious wars, massacres on both the part of Catholics and Protestants and the banning of pilgrimages from the new Protestant countries.

Only a few hardy pilgrims continued walking to Rome or Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela. With the invention of modern travel, the numbers grew steadily and millions of pilgrims have travelled to Italy, Spain or the Holy land by boat, then train, then airplanes. In the early 1980’s there was a revival in walking or cycling the old pilgrimage trails to Santiago de Compostela and the annual numbers started to grow. Pilgrims who walk to Santiago are rewarded with a certificate – a copy of a 14th century document called ‘La Compostela’. In 1986 2491 pilgrims earned the certificate. Last year 215 000 pilgrims earned the certificate.

Why? Some still walk for religious reasons, some for sport, others walk at a cross roads in their lives, or after the death of a loved one. There are as many reasons as there are pilgrims!

Erin: I honestly had no idea, very interesting!

Erin: How would you describe your fiction book for readers? Historical fiction based on true events? Historical Romance? Historical Fantasy? Are most of your characters based on real people?

Sylvia: Well, it’s a bit of all of those. It is based on real events and typical people of the era. The places are real – even those that no longer exist. I used a gazetteer compiled by two historians that listed every church, cathedral, monastery, castle, pilgrim hospice and bridge on the trail between Paris and Santiago. There is romance and adventure, intrigue and sadness, but not fantasy.

Erin: What your process like in writing and publishing this book? What were some of the challenges you faced and also your biggest success to date?

Sylvia: I started writing the book in 2004. Research took up most of that year, walking over 1000 km from Paris to Spain, trawling academic websites for solid papers on the subject of medieval pilgrimage; buying books and CDs on the subject. Proof reading is time consuming and copy editing a laborious task!

When I finished the first draft in 2006 I gave it to a friend who was also a literary agent. She called me back three days later and told me to rewrite it in the third person. I was devastated, but she was not only my creative writing teacher she was also my friend and I trusted her judgment. It took another year to change the 300 page manuscript into the third person. The following year she passed away. No other agent wanted to take it on and I couldn’t find a publisher for it. I could have self-published or published it as a Kindle book. My biggest success was to find a publisher who believed in me, and the book, and agreed to publish it in print form.

Erin: I know you live in South Africa, what draws you to walk, visit, and write about Spain? What is your favorite location there?

Sylvia: I am a long distance walker and a lover of medieval history and since finding the pilgrimage trails in Spain I’ve walked to Santiago eight times. My favorite location is the 800 km Camino Frances trail from the Pyrenees to Santiago. This is the one that was written about in 1137, that was supported by the church through the building of roads, bridges, churches, monasteries and pilgrim shelters. It is an open air museum and Dante is quoted as saying that “Europe was built on the roads to Santiago.” I’ve also walked the Via Francigena pilgrimage from Lake Lausanne to Rome and published a Kindle book on that walk.

Erin: What are the top places you think any traveler to Spain should visit (with the understanding they are interested in the historical aspect of it)?

Sylvia: There are numerous well preserved Roman aqueducts and Roman Roads across Spain. Just outside Ponferrada is the World Heritage site of Las Medulas, once the most important gold mining area in the Roman Empire. Templar castles dot the landscape and the south contains Moorish influences in the great Alhambra at Granada or the Mezquita (mosque) at Cordoba. People interested in architecture would enjoy the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s famous cathedral in Barcelona, or the smaller Gaudi Palace in Astorga in the north. On the north-west coast is a small village called ‘Finsiterre’ (finish earth) which was thought to be the end of the world in the middle-ages. There are many Celtic ruins in the area.

Erin: Do you have thoughts for other fiction novels that you’d like to share? Where is your writing headed next?

Sylvia: If anyone is interested in the pilgrimage roads, or in the Celtic cathedral builders, The Prophet of Compostela by Henri Vincenot, and The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet are great reads.

I am halfway through a sequel to Pilgrim Footprints. It is set in the 20th and 21st century and is once again linked to the pilgrimage road to Santiago.

Erin: Where can readers and writers connect with you?

Sylvia: My website is I have a Camino blog at or they can contact me through

Erin: Where can they purchase your books?

Sylvia: All seven books are available from the online bookstores like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Waterstones – or directly from the publishers,

Erin: I appreciate you joining us today, Sylvia! It was a pleasure to meet you and learn about you! I’d be thrilled to learn more about the walks you take to support such important causes. Thank you so much for joining us here!

 Sylvia: Thank you for hosting me Erin.

Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of TimePilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time, Synopsis~

Publication Date: December 2, 2013
LightEye Editions
Paperback; 396p
ISBN-10: 2917183349

A few months after Richard FitzUrse and his fellow knights murder Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, Lord Robert and Lady FitzUrse are instructed by King Henry to make a penitential pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James the Greater in Spain in order to earn redemption for his disgraced family.

William Beaumont has made a promise to his dead mother and younger sister to go on a pilgrimage to save their souls. William is secretly in love with Alicia Bearham, niece of Lord Robert. He is overjoyed when he is asked to accompany the family and their servants on their three-month pilgrimage.

They face many adversities, dangers, and an attempted murder on the long and hazardous journey across England, France and Spain. Who is trying to kill Sir Robert and Alicia? What does the gypsy woman they meet in Paris mean when she predicts that Alicia and William are destined to be soul mates, but only when the eleventh flaming star returns to the skies and the water carrier rises over the horizon? One fateful night, a shocking event changes their lives forever.

Buy the Book

Amazon UK
Amazon US (eBook)
Amazon US (Paperback)
Book Depository

Author Sylvia Nilsen, Biography~

Sylvia Nilsen AuthorSylvia Nilsen, well known in the Camino world for her ‘amaWalker blog’ is a South African freelance writer who has been published in numerous local and international publications.

She has worked as a research agent and editor for a UK-based travel guide publisher and produced several African city and country guides.

Sylvia has walked over 5,000 km of pilgrimage trails in Europe including Paris to Spain, the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles to Santiago, from Lourdes to Pamplona, el Ferrol to Santiago, Santiago to Finisterre and from Switzerland to Rome on the Via Francigena. She also walked from Durban to Cape Town as part of the ‘Breaking Free’ team in aid of abused women and children. Sylvia has served as a volunteer hospitalero in Spain and is a Spanish accredited hospitalero trainer having trained over 40 people to serve as volunteers in Spain. She was the Regional Co-ordinator for the Confraternity of St James in South Africa from 2003 to 2010.

In 2009 she started amaWalkers Camino (Pty) Ltd and takes small groups of pilgrims on three weeks walks of the Camino Frances in Spain.

For more information on Sylvia Nilsen please visit her website.  You can also find her on Facebook.

Link to Tour Page:
Tour Hashtag: #PilgrimFootprintsVirtualTour

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