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The Pilgrim Crush in Spain

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the main route of the Camino de Santiago, the network of pilgrimage paths across Spain, has become so crowded in the summer that peregrinos are being asked to walk lesser-used trails.

The newsletter of the American Pilgrims on the Camino urged in its summer issue that peregrinos not walk the Camino Francés, “where the hysteria over securing a bunk, avoiding bedbugs, and finding relief from crowds reaches a fever pitch.”

It is a curious thing that so many people want to walk long distances--often hundreds of miles--to arrive, sweaty and sore-footed, at what tradition holds to be the tomb of St. James the Apostle (brother of John and son of Zebedee). Of the 215,880 people certified to have arrived last year at the Cathedral of Santiago in northwestern Spain’s city of Santiago de Compostela, some 70 percent traveled the Camino Francés, which runs west across northern Spain from the Pyrenees. To gain a certificate known as a compostela, all of those people walked, rode horseback or took wheelchairs at least the final 100 kilometers, or bicycled at least the last 200 kilometers. Many traveled much further, since the Camino Francés stretches out for about 500 miles.

With my friend Jim Dwyer, I completed one of the alternate routes in July, known as the Camino Inglés. Having walked a section of the Camino Francés some years back, we decided to try the road less traveled this time, starting in the northern coast city of Ferrol, 118 kilometers from Santiago de Compostela (a very short distance for most peregrinos, but a large challenge for me).

Data from the Pilgrims’ Office at the Cathedral of Santiago show that we were among 39,581 peregrinos to receive the compostela last month. Some 3.5 percent started in Ferrol, while 1 in 4 began in Sarria, a town on the Camino Francés that is about 110 kilometers out. 

The Camino Inglés is a route that English and Irish pilgrims walked in medieval times after traveling by boat to Ferrol or nearby La Coruña. It was a delight walking through the Galician countryside, with its aromatic forests of eucalyptus and pine, old stone farmhouses, medieval bridges, churches and crosses. And it was quiet: very quiet. Part of the fun of walking the Camino Francés is that it’s social—a chance to meet fellow pilgrims from many nations during the long hours of walking, and to chat in cafes on the wayside while indulging in syrupy hot chocolate and churros. On the Camino Inglés, we met only a few other peregrinos, but it was peaceful and contemplative.

Why do people still walk the way of a medieval pilgrimage? And why do so many  arrange the route to qualify for the compostela?  It’s a long way to walk for a document, even one written in Latin.

Emilio Estevez’s 2010 film The Way, with Martin Sheen, addresses this “why” question nicely, as does a fine new documentary, Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago, that is currently making its way to theaters across the U.S. 

If you saw The Way, you may recall that at the Pilgrims’ Office, new arrivals are asked their reason for taking the journey: religious, religious-cultural or solely cultural. (Now you just fill out a form.) In July, nearly half said their reasons were religious, while just 7.5 percent picked solely cultural. 

It’s more “religious” than one might expect to find in contemporary western Europe. At the Cathedral of Santiago, a grand edifice that dates to the eleventh century, I sensed a heightened effort to take advantage of this for evangelization purposes. Big groups of Spanish teenagers who walked the Camino on trips organized by Catholic schools brought exuberance to the ancient church. There is a ministry directed at  English-speaking peregrinos, now in its second year, run by volunteer priests and lay people. They offer a daily 10:30 a.m. Mass and evening prayer in English.   At one such Mass, a Dominican priest talked about his own Camino experience to help the congregants sort out theirs.

All of this suggests that many people in highly secular western Europe are looking for something, and they are willing to walk a long way to search for it.

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009).

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All of this suggests that many people in highly secular western Europe are looking for something, and they are willing to walk a long way to search for it.

Paul, It does show that people are looking. Or that the gospel is not being preached. Francis wants  priests to get out of their rectories and visit the people telling them the Good News. Will talk a long time. Too many are used to living aristocratic lives. They are available to dispense the "magic" of the sacrament. Meanwhile they forget to be where the common person is. The same with most of us. As we seek the exotica while not appreciating the richness of our lives in service to others.

215000! That sounds like way too many. If you want to do a pilgrimage that is 100 kilometers long, there are many alternatives. Chartres. Mont Saint Michel. Lourdes. Tours (http://pelerinagesdefrance.fr/Chemin-de-Poitiers-a-Tours). And many others.

Paul, what a wonderful post.  I have long wished to walk the Camino.  If my feet hold out, I may be able to do it someday.

Congratulations on getting your compostella.

Do you know if most of the pilgrims had seen "The Way", and if it influenced their decision to do it? Has the pilgrimage become markedly more popular since the movie came out?

 

Congratulations on completing it! So, you now have two "compostelas"?

Actually the numbers are on the web page:

2013: 214000

2012: 192000

2011: 183000

2010: 272000

2009: 145000

2008: 125000

2007: 114000

2006: 100000

2005: 93000

2004: 179000

 

Coincidently, this was a feature in today's English version of Der Spiegel:

 

Pilgrims Inc.

Soul Searching and Commerce on the Way of St. James

By Juan Moreno on the Camino de Santiago

Some who went on pilgrmimage during the middle ages were relieved of their feudal duties for the period of absence.  This proved to be a great incentive!  Pilgrims came from as far away as Poland and Sweden.

You can experience the pilgrimmage in Burgundy, Midi-Pyrenee, or the Acquitaine, etc -- one of the most beautiful stops is Conques in the Ayeron. My wife, mom and I had a great time with some Dutch "pelgrim" at a hotel-restaurant overlooking the Abbaye-Church of St. Foy.  These pilgrims walk 12 to 20 miles every day, mark their stopping point and get ferried to a place for the evening.  They do this for one week every year!

Claire:  I did the Camino last year with a class from my university, going beyond Santiago to Muxia and Fisterra.  "The Way" put the bug in my head to do it and I found that many people, though not most,  from all over had seen the film, even, and this made me laugh, a brother and sister duo from Lithuania!  So it's gotten around.  

Buen camino!

Mazz

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