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Stories About Spain

Camino de Santiago: The Path to Spain's Soul

Written by: Don Harris

pilgrims walking the Camino de SantiagoEvery year in Galicia, the Celtic province located in the far northwest corner of Spain, thousands of men and women gather to celebrate the Feast of Santiago. Pilgrims and hikers join with local students and townspeople in the town of Santiago de Compostela where, legend has it, the remains of the apostle James were buried. The 25th of July is set aside as a holy day honoring Santiago (Sant Iago=Saint James) as the patron saint of Spain.

Legend has it that in the 1st century, Saint James’ martyred body was placed in the hold of a stone boat and set to sea from Palestine. The craft traversed westward across the Mediterranean Sea, sailed through Gibraltar and the Pillars of Hercules before heading north along the Iberian coast until it came to rest at the village of Padrón on the Atlantic shore of Galicia. Saint James’ remains were laid to rest in a field near what is now the pilgrimage town of Santiago de Compostela.

In the early 9th century, legend has it that a vision of Santiago appeared in the sky before a group of Christian soldiers who were struggling to repel the Islamic armies that had conquered most of Spain. Santiago was mounted on a white steed and urged the outnumbered force on into battle. This extraordinary vision gave them the courage necessary to defeat the enemy at the Battle of Clavijo. This inspiring story became a unifying narrative, and marked the beginning of the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The final victory came almost 800 years later at Granada in 1492, the same year Christopher Columbus set sail. Throughout this time, Spanish warriors galloping to battle followed the rallying cry, “Santiago!”
stone carving of Saint James on the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
A church was built in the late 9th century to house the relics of the saint. In 997 Al-Mansur, the great Moorish general, burnt the church to the ground and transported the bells of the church to the mosque in Cordoba. Amazingly the relics were undisturbed, and some say that Al-Mansur ordered them protected because he was aware of the power of the relics. In the 12th century a sublime Romanesque cathedral was built which has been embellished and enlarged over the centuries.

Over this time, Santiago de Compostela became a major pilgrimage site, and the church even granted full forgiveness of sins to those who walked all the way to Santiago, or died on the way. The pilgrimage route, also known as “El Camino de Santiago” or “The Way of Saint James,” attracted pilgrims from across Europe. Chaucer tells us, in his Canterbury Tales, of English pilgrims joining others on the Camino de Santiago. Those pilgrims walked through France and across the Pyrenees, joining other faithful in following the trail 400 miles across northern Spain.

What at first was just a trickle of pilgrims eventually grew into a stream of men and women from all over Europe and the Middle East. Saint Francis of Assisi and Charlemagne are said to have travelled there. Some communities found the Camino a convenient method of purging their towns of minor criminals, sentencing them to walk to Santiago in penance. No doubt they hoped that these troublemakers would come back transformed by the journey – or that they would never return at all! During the Middle Ages, when Jerusalem was in Muslim hands and Rome was sacked by hostile forces, Santiago became the most important pilgrimage site in Europe.
stone marker on the Santiago pilgrimage route
Throughout the centuries it has been traditional for local people to welcome pilgrim hikers passing through their villages, and housing and feeding the crowds became a prosperous activity. To this day, there are towns within walking distance all along the way, no doubt supported by the pilgrims. The pilgrims were identified by their wooden staffs, often with a gourd filled with water serving as a canteen. Most importantly, the emblem which distinguished them most was the scallop shell of Santiago.

The centuries passed and for many the idea of pilgrimages, visions and relics became a historical oddity. These legends became seen as fairy tales – viewed with skepticism and amusement. Especially during our profoundly materialist age, with the reign of science as the source of verifiable truth, the story of Santiago is fanciful, much like Washington and the cherry tree. As a result, by the 20th century only a small number of pilgrims chose to follow the well-trod paths of the earlier pilgrims. Eventually the paths became overgrown and in many places indistinguishable from the foot paths around them. But then remarkable things began to take hold.

Beginning in the 1970’s there was a groundswell of interest in the Camino de Santiago – the pilgrimage route. Scholars and hikers discovered the profound meaning that a contemplative journey can have – a truth that millions of ancient pilgrims experienced in the past. The motivation of the modern travelers came from a broader perspective. I have heard from many of our La Tienda community that they were choosing to walk the Camino as a reflective break from the lives they were living. Some told me they just wanted to hike in nature, and the 400 miles from France to Santiago was an exciting challenge.
walking through a village on the camino pilgrimage route
One of these pilgrims lives in my hometown. She was an active woman in her sixties who saw the Camino as both a spiritual and physical challenge. I was humbled by her preparation and dedication. Sure enough, when she felt she was properly prepared she headed off to northern Spain and walked the Camino de Santiago by herself. But she soon discovered she was never alone, as she would bond with fellow travelers along the way.

She told me that she was able to completely detach. For her the trip to Spain was not a vacation, it was a spiritual journey in which she was completely out of her element. It was an extraordinary experience where she was on her own, traveling in a foreign land lacking the familiar props of books or maps or even a common language. She even had the experience of being lost, but soon would find fellow pilgrims along the way to help her – many of whom were from far off countries, and hardly spoke her language. But the common language was “caring.”

She told me the greatest insight she achieved traveling along the way was the compassion and caring she received from strangers. In those early days she was touched by the townspeople who would anticipate her need for protection at night. One night a villager asked if she would mind if he locked the door of the small bunkhouse so that my friend would be safe!

She has returned to the Camino several times over the following years, each time experiencing a new sense of renewal. Of course many changes have occurred as more and more people have decided to walk the Camino. What was merely a trickle of hikers is now more than one hundred thousand a year. My friend said that she missed the intimacy and solitude of her first journeys but she is thankful that others are now able to share the experience. The movie entitled The Way has been an inspiration to many, a labor of love by the actor Martin Sheen that has reached millions.

One of those was another friend I met through La Tienda. He and his wife joined Ruth and me in Williamsburg and together we shared their enthusiasm about the Spanish people and their view of life. Not long after, he went on the Camino for the first time. Then he returned bringing a dozen or so friends from his church, dedicating his walk the Camino to his nephew who had sustained a crippling injury.

El Camino de Santiago is more than a hike through beautiful Spain. Whether you are religious or not, walking for weeks on end in the footsteps of the millions of pilgrims who travelled before you can be a deeply profound personal journey. It is not only a chance to challenge yourself and separate from the daily demands of modern living, but also a time to find a deeper understanding of yourself and your fellow humans who travel with you down the path of life.

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"A trip and a walk to do!!!"
June 2016

"Dear Lauramar, I hope you can plan a trip to Spain and the Camino. If you can go in the fall or early spring it is especially beautiful. Tu amigo, Don"

"I thoroughly enjoy all of your articles, but as a Spanish professor who has walked the Camino twice with students, this one is especially poignant. Your friend's insights are the same that struck me both times: people who live along the Camino as well as fellow pilgrims show such tremendous caring, such kindness, provide support in ways both big and small, that you can't help but feel a profound love and appreciation for how beautiful we all can be toward one another. I speak to groups all the time about the Camino. Audiences tell me they are inspired! They want to see, learn, eat, experience --breathe!-- the Camino for themselves. Thank you for this article! Cariños de Valerie"
June 2016

"Dear Valerie, Thank you for your reflections about the potential goodness which is within each of us --nowadays through the news and our leaders we are saturated with distrust and anger. It need not be that way,as you know as you are accompanying our students. Abrazos, Don"

"A beautiful narrative that sets the history and tradition of Santiago de Compostela. The cry of the soldiers when they went into battle was "Santigo y Cierra Espana!".Thank you so much!"
June 2016

"Dear Agnes, I see that you are a history enthusiast too! Knowing the setting adds so much to understanding. There is a wonderful new book named Spain:Centre of the World which I heartily recommend to you. The chapters about Sevilla at its peak are particularly entertaining. Abrazos,Don"

"I liked the Article. 7 years ago mu wife and some fiends made the Pilgrimage and was Magical"
June 2016

"Dear Edwin, Aren't you glad you made the decision to go. Now you have great memories to carry with you always. Tu amigo, Don"

"The Camino means something different to everyone who walks it, but is always be a profound & richly rewarding experience. Well told as usual, Don, muchas gracias."
June 2016

"Yes, it certainly is true that each person takes away their own unique memories--the spiritual dimension of the walk. Tu amigo, Don"

"Loved this article. "
June 2016

"Thank you, Joann, Have you had a chance to travel to Santiago? Tu amigo, Don"

"In 2002, my husband and I went to Spain and spent 3 weeks in southern Spain and much to my surprise I fell in love with the country. After we got back to the states , I found out about the Camino de Santiago, before that I knew nothing about it. From that moment on my greatest wish was to walk the El Camino but I guess it was not meant to be. I am 6 months shy of my 78th birthday and I have finally accepted that my wish will never be fulfilled."
June 2016

"Dear Judy, Thank you for you personal thoughts. Yes, I am 80 and it true that some doors are closing as far as travel. But I strongly recommend tat you fly to Santiago de Compostela (via Madrid) and spend a few days just drinking in the ambiance. It truly is worth the effort. Tu amigo, Don "

"I have walked the Camino de Santiago twice, This peregrina walked the Camino de Santiago twice - in Spring of 2009 & Autumn of 2014 at the age of 65 & 70 yrs. It is the experience of a lifetime! The Spanish people are warm, caring & tolerant. Their food is amazing; delicious and sustaining in it's simplicity using fresh, seasonal ingredients! My only regret is that I was not born a Spaniard! Buen Camino"
June 2016

"Ah, but is seems as if you have a Spanish soul, already. And thank you for your encouraging words to potential older peregrinas. For several people whm I have known it has been the highlight of their lives --and they started down the camino when they were in their seventies. Tu amigo, Don"

"The Camino will live with me forever. I biked from Pamplona to Santiago with my son immediately after I retired in 2000. Realizing that the trip was much too fast, 11 days, I returned in 2003 to walk with my daughter, 300 miles. She called me in 2008 and wanted to walk the first 100 miles, St Jean Pied de Port, France to Logrono, Spain. One of the Priests in my parish joined us. Unforgettable journeys with my children. Buen Camino Jim Allen,Seminole,Fl. "
June 2016

"Dear Jim, What a meaningful note you have sent along. It is a blessing to walk along with your children --and a good insight that haste can diminish the experience. (We Americans can learn from our medieval inspired neighbors)! Tu amigo, Don"

"Thank you from Malta. A friend from Australia and who recently completed Camino will love to read this digest on the walk. Wonderful. We are great fans of Tienda.com. Please keep going and we wish you every success."
June 2016

"Thank you for your comments. I am curious --what are you doing in Malta? One of my favorite spots in the Mediterranean -- of course its history is intricately intertwined with Spain and thew struggles against the Ottomans! Abrazos, Don"

"I have always wanted to do the Camino. My cousin did it last year.Another cousin and a friend are wanting to do this, too. One of these days I am going to do it and I will let you know.Thank you for this article."
June 2016

"Dear Lucille, I can understand your ambivalence! But pending upon your physical well being, I would urge you to join your friends and walk the Camino. I have not heard of anyone who regretted making the commitment! Tu amigo, Don"

"I was 74 when I did it and can not replace my experience walking the Camino with anything else, its beyond my expectation, and I can do it again, God willing."
June 2016

"Dear Carmen, Good for you! I have great respect for your fortitude and willingness to undertake a new adventure. It seems that was certainly the right decision to make. Abrazos Don "

"Dear Friends, I am an expat spending about half the year in Spain, and the other half in California, for the past 25 years. I have walked the last portion of the Camino twice. Your article is excellent. There is another superb film: Walking the Camino, 6 Ways to Santiago, a semi-documentary. I recommend it highly. Please view it. Gracias y saludos, Martha Days"
June 2016

"It is so. Your description of the personal experiences of the pilgrims was, from my perspective, on the mark. A friend asked "what is the difference between a vacation and a pilgrimage?" My response was that you make the vacation and the pilgrimage makes you.One other thought about the value of pilgrimage experiences as your life goes on. Things happen, some very difficult. But you have learned that it is to take one step at a time...that's how we got to Santiago!"
June 2016

"Thank you my dearfriend Sandy for that wise, affirming reflection."

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