Stories About Spain
The Pilgrimage to Santiago
Written by: Don Harris
July 25th is one of the most important holidays in the Spanish calendar. It is the day set aside to honor Santiago: St. James, the patron saint of Spain. His remains are believed to rest in the ancient Romanesque cathedral located in Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage city of great significance in the history of Europe.
The saint’s tomb is located in the far northwestern region of Galicia, distant from the commercial hubs of Madrid and Barcelona, Valencia and Sevilla, yet that is no barrier for the pilgrims. They come from all corners of Spain to venerate the man whose mythical presence inspired the Christians in their almost 800 year long struggle against the Moors.
To this day, people from all over Europe stream from France through the mountain passes of the rugged Pyrenees on their quest. At one time Santiago de Compostela was the primary spiritual destination for European pilgrims, when Jerusalem was in the hands of the Muslims and Rome was ravaged by barbarians.
Pilgrims came from all over – Paris, Amsterdam, Scandinavia, Italy (St. Francis traveled the Camino from Assisi). In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer talks of the faithful people heading for this distant city in the farthermost corner of Spain.
The reasons for pilgrimage were many. The most obvious was the renewal of religious faith. For centuries the Catholic Church said that anyone who made the journey would have his or her sins forgiven. Some walked the arduous road because they were ill and looking for healing, others as a journey of celebration when a family member recovered from sickness or misfortune. Some pilgrims were even minor criminals who were sentenced to make the pilgrimage so that they would come back as better people – or perhaps the locals hoped they would never come home at all!
The practical result was the many cultures of Europe and even the Middle East mingled in the most intimate of ways, from a broad array of foods from all corners of the world, to an exceptional melding of various kinds of music - both through the sharing of many new instruments, and most of all because of the wandering minstrels singing about life’s travails along the Camino.
Stonemasons were in great demand to build the monasteries which served as way stations serving the transient pilgrims. I have seen their intricate carvings in dozens of cities and hamlets along the way. There is evidence that some of these artisans came from as far away as Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, Armenia and even Lebanon. At its peak, the largely Benedictine and Cistercian religious communities came from France and erected a chain of establishments to serve the needs of the pilgrims.
The fascinating thing for me to observe is that 700 years later the Camino de Santiago still flourishes. Particularly in the past 20 years there has been an explosion of interest in the Camino. It was not long ago that the pilgrimage route was a historical curiosity. When my wife Ruth and I started exploring Spain, we found the road to Santiago to be an unexplored treasure. I happened to pick up a brochure when visiting Toledo.
The modern surge of interest in the Camino de Santiago has attracted travelers whose motivation is spiritual, but not specifically religious. They find the challenge of the hike of several hundred miles to be cleansing in and of itself, and along the way they are nourished by contact with others on their own individual journeys. But I suspect there have always been mixed motivations in the heart of the pilgrim traveler.
The appeal of making a pilgrimage is not just confined to Europe. Throughout the world, seekers of spiritual wholeness embark on similar journeys. Embarking on a pilgrimage is one of the foundational events in many human cultures, some far removed from Christian Europe.
In India, 20 million people each year seek spiritual cleansing by bathing in the mystical waters of the vast Ganges River. Every year 13 million Muslim faithful make the obligatory haj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia – one of the great goals of their lives. Machu Picchu was the pilgrimage site of the ancient Inca culture in Peru; and along the Silk Road is the Turkish city of Kunya, sacred to the Sufi whirling dervishes. Then there is Jerusalem, sacred to Jew, Christian and Muslim alike. In North America, 10 million people visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico each year.
Each of these pilgrimages is a unique experience that is defined by the culture and geography of each part of the world. But what most defines each pilgrimage, including the Camino de Santiago, are the millions of pilgrims who put their lives on hold to journey to a distant land. Whether they seek religious renewal, personal peace or just a grand adventure, the spirit of each pilgrim in some way contributes to the culture and history of this ancient tradition and beautiful city.
The tradition has touched my family’s life in many ways. I have traveled the route by car many times visiting the beautiful towns along the way. These villages prospered in the Middle Ages because they were within one day’s walk of one another, and were good resting stops for pilgrims. My son Jonathan walked the entire Camino from the French Pyrenees Mountains, and a shorter route on his honeymoon. The La Tienda shell is based on the symbol for Santiago, and our house brand is Peregrino, which means pilgrim.
Imagine putting on a pack, walking out the door and heading through the beautiful countryside of Spain with no appointments, deadlines or responsibilities other than reaching the next town for the night. Imagine meeting fellow travelers from all over the world, sharing stories and creating friendships that would be unlikely in normal life. If you ever take that first step down the Camino de Santiago you will find out what a challenging, renewing adventure it can be!
"I agree enthusiastically,Don! I studied at the University of Santiago de Compostela some years ago,in the summer. I spoke with many pilgrims and was entranced by their stories. "
"I walked the "del Norte" along the coast from Irun to Santiago in 2012. My, my...40 days of joy and adventure. My imagination returns to Camino daily even now."
"Dear Peter, Isn't the northern route splendid? Actually, all along Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia is one of the most amazingly beautiful and restorative parts of Spain. "
"Just wanted to let you know that the 25th of July is no longer a national holiday...since quite a few years. Maybe it still is a holiday in Galicia!"
"¡Que lástima! The nation is the less for that omission. "
"I have walked parts of the Camino, in 2011 and 2012. Important things happened for my spiritual growth both years, and I plan to make one more walk soon. Thank you for the history. I didn't know that The Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer, were set on the Camino!"
"In the cast of characters of the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer included many different participants, one of whom was a Compostela pilgrim. Of course, the setting of the Tales was in England. Sorry I did not make it clear!"
"What a nice article. Thank you for posting it. I also did the Camino and it is a place of peace for me and many other people. "
"Thanks for your note, Amy. "A piece of peace" is a great way to encapsulate the experience. Thanks for the comment."
"Your article was very good and I want to thank you for writing it. Maybe someone else will be inspired to make the pilgrimage because of it. I personally made the Camino de Santiago in Oct, 2013. My pilgrimage began in S. France where I crossed the Pyrenees Mts into Roncesvalles, Spain. I trekked over 500 miles to reach the city of Santiago de Compostela. I had read about the Camino in the 1980's and knew that one day I would make the journey. The last Friday in August, 2012 I felt God tell me it was time to make the trip, 30+ years later. The number one question on the Camino by fellow pilgrims was "Why are you making this journey?" I always said "God called me to make it and that I had faith one day he would reveal to me why." Looking back on the trip 9 months later, I believe he is still showing me the wonderful things that I was taught. One day I will write a book about what I now call the Journey of Life. It is arduous, but at the same time revitalizing. My journey required that I trek an average of 17-20 miles per day. That is not required, the amount you travel is left up to each individual pilgrim. You will meet wonderful people from all over the world, and you will see the most beautiful country in its purest form. The people of NW Spain are very kind and generous. They were very helpful when I was uncertain if I was still on the correct path. I have never been the recipient of so many acts of kindness in such a short period of time. There is so much I would like to share with all of you, however I will have to say that I can't even begin to put into words how wonderful the experience was. I wish everyone of us could experience the Camino. There is a saying on the Camino, "that you lose yourself along the Way." It is true. I do not know when, but somewhere along the Way I changed. I am much more relaxed and look at life in a different way. I truly believe that God showed me Heaven on Earth. Buen Camino. Teresa"
"Thank you Teresa for such a heartfelt message. I would like to post it on my blog so that many more can be encouraged by your experience. Is that OK with you?"
"Thanks for taking the time to write a short story about El Camino, it is in my list to do."
"Dear Juan Carlos, Do not hesitate too long - the Camino will be the experience of a lifetime - even if you only can walk part of it."
"Thank you for the informative article. I am planning on making this pilgrimage in a couple of years and look forward to every aspect of the journey. I wonder if there are groups that make the pilgrimage together. Either alone or with a group, I think the experience will be very rewarding."
"There are many groups and a very active and enthusiastic association. My dear friend Sandy Lenthall can get you connected (firstname.lastname@example.org)."
"This is a very interesting article: we walked part of this 3 years ago with a tour group from Washington state. There were many people on this walk besides us & it was great seeing them at the finish. It is a beautiful walk, but very tiring by the end. We try to get to Spain every few years as my wife has family in the Basque Pyrenees."
"Dear Ron, I am glad you got to experience the Camino. The Basque Pyrenees are quite an amazing experience, aren't they - and the people are so cordial (as you well know)."
"Santiago de Compostela is one of the most beautiful places in Spain. I have been there several time for long visits and enjoyed the people, the food and the culture and I would go again in a second. Also to Padron, a short trip by bus where the boat carrying the body of Saint James arrived."
"I agree with you, Dani. Each time I return to Santiago de Compostela I feel spiritually renewed. "
"You describe a trip that many would like to take for the experience of being able to relax and enjoy an outing that can be spiritual no matter your beliefs and practicing religion. A trip like this is good for the soul of anyone who has a feeling that there is more to life than just existing from day to day. It can bring relief from physical or mental pain. It is something that should be done by every living person in some manner or other no matter their beliefs and or station in life. It is a cathartic and a release. Many people would say that walking the Appalachian Trail or other outdoor hiking trek would give the same results. This can be true for some individuals but others need the historical and/or religious character that goes with the event. In any case, the trip has to be spiritual and divine to be appreciated, wherever it may be. I would love to do it tomorrow. "
"Dear Bill, I agree with you completely, because the healing which occurs is within you and not tied to specific geography. That being said, I find it very meaningful to trod where so many believers and searchers have chosen as holy. Don"
"As a Gallego from that area of Galicia, and one who knows Santiago well, I congratulate you on your excellent description of what doing the Camino de Santiago means. I would just add that if the pilgrim spends one or two nights at the Parador de Los Reyes Catolicos, it will make his pilgrimage even more memorable. "
"Dear Luis, I agree with you completely. To linger a day or two at the hospital/inn that Queen Isabella designated for the nurture of the pilgrims is an extraordinary experience. It is the most tasteful of paradores that truly captures if spirituality and humanity of this sacred place. It is worth every dime - and if you visit off-season it is no more expensive than a nice motel in the USA - and it will be the experience of a lifetime."
"I lived in Santiago for a year back in 1969. Next year at age 70 I plan to walk all the way from France to Santiago, then give the Saint a hug, and keep walking till my feet hit the waters of the Atlantic. The reason is all the above mentioned. At age 70, its a good time to rethink everything."
"Dear Michael, In your seventies is a great time to re-think your vales and your life. You know by that time that you are not immortal, and that life is short."
"We walked parts of this a few years ago & it was very impressive. There are still lots of people doing it. "
"Hi Ron, Many people I have talked with from all walks of life find the Camino very healing. Good to hear from you. "
"Thank you for your wonderful article. I was in Spain, walking the Camino when you posted the article... It is everything you said, and more. I found the Camino to be a place of healing (spiritual, emotional, & physical); just what I needed. But it comes with a price... It's not easy. It can be simple; it can be fun; it can have moments of ease. Like the ocean, don't turn your back on it; that's when injuries occur. Many areas are flat and parklike, and there are areas of great difficulty; the Spanish are fond of saying, "Es muy duro." With all that said, it is still very much worth doing. I met many people that had walked the Camino several times; they were people of all ages, all nationalities, all levels of fitness. My advice? If you can imagine yourself walking the Camino, then you can do it. Get started on your plan. They say the Camino is "Walk, Eat, Sleep," and "The Camino Provides." Buen Camino! "
"Hola Jim, Thanks for your message, I think you captured the spirit of the Camino very well. In my experience everyone who has chosen to go on the Camino was delighted. Their walk exceeded their expectations. "
"Dear Don, Thanks for your reflection on the Camino. I walked the Camino Frances this past Sept/Oct 2014. It was a fantastic experience. I found La Tienda when I got home, scouring the internet for anything Spanish, particularly to see if I could get Iberico bellota here (couldn't seem to get it shipped from there, and didn't want to take the chance of stuffing some of it in my mochilla). As soon as I started looking at your website, I knew it was the work of people who not only loved Spain, but were familiar with the Camino. Thanks for make authentic Spanish products available to us peregrinos from America. Peace & Buen Camino, Bob"
"Thanks for the great article about the Camino. Our entire family of five did the Camino Frances in 2017. It was truly an extraordinary event for us. My wife and I started in St Jean Pied de Port; our son Grant (19) and daughter Margo (17) joined us when we reached Leon; our daughter Tess (21) joined us when we reached Sarria. All of us arrived together in Santiago de Compostela on August 21, 2017. It was our first hike as a family (Grant observed at one point that”maybe we should have thought about starting with a long weekend...). All of us fell in love with Spain -- the people, the food, the conservation of energy and resources, the beautiful countryside, the churches and more. We loved it so much that my wife and I returned in 2018 to make the Pilgrimage from Oviedo on the Camino Primitivo. Thank you for all that you and your family are doing to nurture the love of Spain here in Virginia and USA. Now that we have discovered La Tienda, we plan to become regular customers! Buen Camino, Dennis, Diane & Family"
Reflexiones en Español
El 25 de julio marca una de las fiestas más importantes del calendario español. Es el día dedicado a honrar al Apóstol Santiago, Patrón de España. Se cree que sus restos reposan en la antigua catedral románica de la ciudad de Santiago de Compostela, uno de los centros de peregrinación cristiana más importantes en la historia de Europa.
La tumba del santo está situada al noroeste de España, en la región de Galicia, apartada de las grandes zonas comerciales de Madrid y Barcelona, Valencia y Sevilla, sin embargo eso no supone ninguna traba para los peregrinos. Llegan de todos los rincones de España para venerar al hombre cuya presencia mística inspiró a los cristianos en los casi 800 años de lucha contra los musulmanes.
Aún hoy en día, gentes provenientes de todas los rincones de Europa, llegan desde Francia a través de los puertos de montañas de los abruptos Pirineos en su búsqueda personal. Hubo una época en la que Santiago de Compostela fue la destinación espiritual número uno entre los peregrinos europeos, cuando Jerusalén estaba en manos de los musulmanes y Roma estaba siendo arrasada por los bárbaros.
Los peregrinos venían de todos partes: Paris, Ámsterdam, Escandinavia, Italia (San Francisco hizo el camino desde Asís), en los Cuentos de Canterbury, Chaucer hablaba de los fieles que se dirigían a la ciudad lejana del lugar más distante de España.
Los motivos para la peregrinación eran muchos. El más obvio era la renovación de la fe religiosa. Durante siglos, la iglesia católica mantuvo que cualquiera que hiciese el camino obtendría el perdón de sus pecados. Algunos caminaron por las tortuosas sendas porque estaban enfermos e iban en busca de una cura, otros, como viaje de celebración por la recuperación de un familiar tras una enfermedad o una desgracia. Algunos peregrinos eran incluso delincuentes de poca monta a los que se condenaba a hacer la peregrinación para que volviesen transformados en gente de bien, o quizá con la esperanza de que nunca regresasen a sus lugares de origen.
El resultado práctico fue que muchas culturas europeas e incluso de Oriente Medio se mezclaron de la manera más intima: desde un amplio abanico de alimentos de todas partes del mundo a una excepcional mezcla de varios tipos de música, tanto a la hora de compartir nuevos instrumentos como especialmente por los juglares que iban de un lado a otro cantando las dificultades de la vida del camino.
Los picapedreros estaban muy demandados para la construcción de monasterios que servían de estaciones intermedias en las que se atendían a los peregrinos. He visto sus intricados tallados en docenas de ciudades y aldeas a lo largo del camino. Hay evidencias sobradas de que algunos de estos artesanos venían de lugares tan alejados como Asia Menor, la Turquía actual, Armenia e incluso de Líbano. En su punto más álgido, las grandes ordenes religiosas de los Benedictinos y de los Cistercienses llegaron de Francia y erigieron una serie de centros en los que se atendían las necesidades de los peregrinos.
Para mi lo más fascinante que he podido observar es que 700 años después, el Camino de Santiago sigue prosperando. Especialmente en los últimos 20 años ha habido un creciente interés por el Camino. No hace mucho que esta ruta de peregrinación era una curiosidad histórica. Cuando mi esposa Ruth y yo empezamos a explorar España, vimos que el camino de Santiago era un tesoro inexplorado. Cogí un folleto por casualidad cuando visitaba Toledo.
Este nuevo auge del interés por el Camino de Santiago ha atraído a visitantes cuya motivación es espiritual pero no específicamente religiosa. Encuentran que el reto de recorrer varios cientos de millas es purificador en varios aspectos y a lo largo del camino se nutren del contacto con otros que hacen su propio recorrido. Pero sospecho que siempre ha habido más de una motivación en el corazón de los peregrinos.
El atractivo de hacer una peregrinación no esta sólo limitado a Europa. A lo largo del mundo buscadores de plenitud espiritual se embarcan en viajes similares. Emprender una peregrinación es uno de los acontecimientos claves de las culturas humanas de todo el mundo, muchas de ellas en lugares muy alejados de la Europa cristiana.
En la India, cada año, 20 millones de personas buscan la purificación espiritual bañándose en las místicas aguas del vasto rio Ganges. Cada año, 13 millones de musulmanes realizan la peregrinación obligatoria a la Meca en Arabia Saudí, lo que representa uno de los grandes objetivos de sus vidas. El Machu Picchu era el lugar de peregrinación de la antigua cultura Inca en Perú. A lo largo de la Ruta de la Seda, se encuentra la ciudad turca de Konya, ciudad sagrada para los derviches giradores discípulos de Sufí. Luego está Jerusalén, sagrada para los judíos, cristianos y musulmanes por igual. En América del Norte, 10 millones de personas visitan el santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe en Méjico cada año.
Cada una de estas peregrinaciones es una experiencia única que viene definida por la cultura y la geografía de una parte del mundo. Pero lo que más define cada peregrinación, incluyendo al Camino de Santiago, son los millones de peregrinos que aparcan su vida por un tiempo para viajar a una tierra lejana. Ya sea buscando la renovación religiosa, la paz personal o simplemente una gran aventura, el espíritu del peregrino contribuye en cierta manera a la cultura y a la historia de esa antigua tradición y de ese bello lugar de peregrinación.
La tradición ha marcado mi vida familiar en muchas maneras. He hecho la ruta en coche muchas veces visitando los hermosos pueblos que jalonan el camino. Estos pueblos eran prósperos en la Edad Media porque estaban a un día de camino los unos de los otros y representaban un buen lugar de descanso para los peregrinos. Mi hijo Jonathan recorrió todo el camino desde Francia y, más tarde, una ruta más corta en su luna de miel. La concha en el logo de La Tienda está basada en el símbolo de Santiago y la marca de nuestra casa es Peregrino.
Imagínense preparando una mochila, saliendo por la puerta y dirigiéndose hacia la campiña española sin citas ni fechas y sin más responsabilidad que la de llegar al próximo pueblo para pasar la noche. Imagínense conocer a compañeros de viaje que vienen de todo el mundo, compartir historias y entablar amistades que sería muy poco probable que surgiesen en el día a día. Si alguna vez deciden dar el primer paso al Camino de Santiago, descubrirán la aventura tan desafiante y renovadora que puede llegar a ser.