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Through Spain, frame by frame: Camino de Santiago offers a long-distance walk steeped in history

The more you know about the Camino de Santiago, the harder it is to define. 

The simple explanation is that it’s a walking path that travels through Spain. But in reality that description is a mix of truth and fiction. 

The path is most well established in Spain, sure, but also passes through various other European countries. And to call it “the path,” singular, is just wrong — there are many caminos, many ways, that together make up The Way. 

That’s because the origins of this walking path have remarkably little to do with walking. 

The Spanish “Camino de Santiago” translates to “Way of St. James.” It’s a path — or paths, really, as the people who used it took different routes depending on where they were coming from — that medieval pilgrims once used to journey to Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of St. James, one of the Jesus’ 12 apostles, are said to rest. 

Since the bones were discovered in 813 A.D., Catholic pilgrims have made the arduous journey from France, Germany, England or any of a number of other European countries to Santiago. There, miracles of healing and forgiveness awaited. Years when the Feast of St. James falls on a Sunday are termed holy years, and successful pilgrims during those times can receive a plenary indulgence, blanket forgiveness for any sins committed in the past. Wars, epidemics and natural catastrophes caused the pilgrimage tradition to decay during the 14th century, but in recent history the Camino has seen a resurgence. 

 

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Blue sky and red roofs mark the beginning of the walk from Bustio of Llanes. Holly Kays photo

 

An increasing number of the historical routes have been uncovered, and an increasing number of pilgrims — called peregrinos in Spanish — are walking the Camino. In the year 2000, the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos in Spain issued 55,004 compostelas, which are certificates of completion. By 2005, that number had nearly doubled to 93,924, and in 2013 it doubled yet again to 215,929. Last year, 327,378 people received the compostela at Santiago. By contrast, in 2018 the Appalachian Trail saw 7,600 thru-hikers register at the most popular starting point in Georgia and 1,128 people complete at least 2,000 miles of the trail. 

Americans account for a small but increasing share of Camino walkers. In 2007, only 2 percent of the compostelas awarded that year were given to Americans. By 2018, that share had risen to 5.7 percent. The sharpest spike occurred between 2013 and 2010, when the percentage rose from 1.2 to 4.7 percent, growing modestly every year since then save for 2018, when it dipped by 0.1 percent. 

Those numbers don’t even represent the total number of people experiencing the Camino. To receive a compostela, pilgrims must travel the last 100 kilometers on foot or horseback or do the last 200 kilometers by bicycle. The lengths of the routes vary, but most are much longer than 100 or even 200 kilometers — many pilgrims fall short of the requirements to receive the compostela.

 

Becoming a pilgrim

In June 2019, I was one of those pilgrims. 

I’ve been asked many times how I first heard about the Camino, and it’s a question I have a hard time answering. I started learning Spanish in high school and quickly developed a fascination with both the language and its place of origin. Somewhere along the way somebody told me about the Camino, and the ideas fused. What better way to visit this country I’d always dreamed of visiting than by walking through it, stepping frame by frame through scenes of daily life and natural beauty and cultural peculiarities? And, of course, by eating its famously delicious seafood? 

After years of daydreaming, I found myself this summer in the Madrid airport, shouldering a 35-liter backpack that contained all my possessions for the next two weeks and accompanied by my mom, my co-adventurer for the trip. 

Two weeks is not enough to walk the route we’d chosen, the Camino del Norte — not by a long shot. The Norte, which runs along the northern coast from the French border, is more than 800 kilometers long and takes about six weeks to walk. But neither of us had six weeks to spare, and two seemed long enough to accomplish our goals — see Spain, eat delicious food and, of course, put some miles on our boots. 

Our starting point was Irún, a small city in Spain’s extreme northeast, part of the Basque Country. The train dumped us off in the middle of the town, leaving us to figure out where in this strange city we might find food and lodging. 

Camino pilgrims stay in “albergues de peregrinos” — pilgrim hostels — that offer inexpensive but bare-bones accommodations. Some will house you for a donation. Others charge, usually somewhere between 5 and 15 Euros. Amenities and house rules vary, but nearly all of them are set up dormitory-style, with bunk beds and shared bathrooms. Lights-out usually comes around 10 p.m., with the first pilgrims rising more than an hour before the sun. To stay there, you must have a pilgrim’s credential — a document that states who you are and how far you’re planning to walk, and bears stamps from each albergue you’ve stayed at thus far. 

It was a lot to bumble through, but the camaraderie for which the trail is famous caught us up right away. While we waited to receive our credentials from the friendly older couple running the hostel, we chatted with a multi-national knot of fellow travelers, including a ponytailed Californian man who was a Camino veteran and a young Australian guy who was keenly interested in any help he could get with his non-existent Spanish skills. 

I knew Spain would be beautiful — Google exists, after all; I’d seen plenty of pictures — but I didn’t understand how beautiful until the sun rose and we began to walk. The Camino quickly pulled us up and out of Irún to walk along dirt roads passing fields of goats and cattle, offering views of Irún’s horseshoe beach and red-roofed buildings in the valley. We ended the day at Pasajes de San Juan, a picturesque town split by a harbor — for 400 years it hosted the Spanish naval fleet — and boasting a tiny but adorable albergue situated on the backside of a hilltop church. After a solid sleep — when you’re tired enough, it’s possible to get a good night’s sleep even when crammed in a room with 15 other people, some of whom snore quite loudly — we were up again and on our way to San Sebastián, a famously beautiful beach city. The walk up the seemingly endless stone steps that ascended the other side of the harbor took our breath away, but we regained it as we reached the top, walking a mostly flat and rocky trail just out of sight of the coastal cliffs.

As we drew closer to San Sebastián, however, we had a problem. Apparently a large group of pilgrims had reached the town ahead of us and booked up all the rooms at the albergue where we would have stayed. But as luck would have it, there was still one room available at Albergue Juvenil Ulia, a nearby youth hostel that offered clean and cheap accommodations to go with its million-dollar view of San Sebastián below. We liked it so much, we decided to take a day off the trail and stay an extra night. 

 

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A cow takes in the view from a pasture alongside the Camino coming out of Irún in the Basque Country.

 

Cantabrian countryside

Up through now, I’d been treating the Camino more like a vacation or series of day hikes than like a pilgrimage, whatever that word even means in the modern context. My faith is important to me, but I’m not Catholic, and my reasons for doing the Camino had always had a lot more to do with exploration than with religion. 

But our third day of walking, which began after a four-hour bus ride that left us more than 100 miles away in Santillana del Mar, represented a turn of the tide. Santillana, located in Cantabria, is a well-preserved relic of medieval times, famous for its stone buildings and streets. Look down the road, mentally erase the modern clothes of the people walking it, and you can relive the past. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the clatter of hooves and wagon wheels on the rocks, to smell the stink of livestock waste and unwashed bodies, to replace modern visitors’ jeans and T-shirts with drab medieval garb. 

“I thought the Camino would be a good idea to clear my mind and see what comes into it while I’m walking. And it did help me a lot,” Mark Lacorte, a 58-year-old Brit who lives in Malta, said as he walked with us through the rolling, pastured countryside past Santillana. “I learned, number one, that you really don’t need much to be happy.”

This was not Lacorte’s first Camino — in fact, it was his third. Having retired at age 50, Lacorte has found himself with plenty of time in recent years to explore, and to reflect. 

“My mother died of cancer when she was 53, and I realized that you just don’t know how much you’ve got left,” he said of his decision to retire early. “The lifestyle I was living was the typical business lifestyle where you work, work, work, trying to accumulate things and money. You get to a point where you think, ‘Do I have enough to be content, or do I really need to keep amassing more?’”

We parted ways with Lecorte at the Ermita de San Pedro, an impressive stone church perched on a green hill with a view of the snow-capped Picos de Europa and the Bay of Biscay. Our itinerary for the day was on the shorter side, while he had a longer distance to cover. So we wandered inside this hermitage of St. Peter where we met a man named Gunther Oliveira who served us sweet hot tea, fresh pears and the grand tour. The building used to serve as an albergue, though not any more, he said. As we paused on one of the landings en route to top of the bell tower, he pointed out a sketch leaned up against the wall depicting pilgrims climbing a mountain, the face of St. James hovering to the side. 

“One of these pilgrims drew this picture,” Oliveira said in Spanish translated by a bilingual pilgrim. “This represents the whole point of the Camino. When your feet are tired after climbing a bunch of mountains, that’s when the spiritual aspect comes to you.”

It was, fittingly, a Sunday. We left the hermitage and around noon found ourselves at the 18th-century Church of San Martín de Cingüenza, filled with families toting little girls in white dresses and little boys in suits — First Communion Sunday, it would seem. And soon enough we were at our destination for the night, Cóbreces. Stopping there made for a shorter day, but we’d chosen it on purpose, as the guidebook promised an albergue located in an abbey, where the monks would invite pilgrims to join in evening vespers. 

The guidebook, printed in 2015, apparently wasn’t on top of the times, as the albergue turned out to be a rather creepy and unkempt 30-bed room in which my mom and I were the only guests. Vespers, though, was all we’d hoped, a wash of chants and prayers led by robed monks. 

 

A place to lay one’s head

As a pilgrim, you never really know where you’ll be spending the next night, or how far you’ll be walking to get there. Even after you get there, there’s more walking — to find dinner, buy groceries or look for an ATM. There’s a lot of walking, and nobody escapes the blisters. 

Our guidebook, wasn’t always accurate as to which places had opened or closed in the last several years. It wasn’t until we’d walked 13 miles to San Vicente de la Barquera — on increasingly blistered feet — that we discovered the town’s sole albergue de peregrinos had since closed. Luckily, as we were bumbling around the albergue’s purported location we ran into a French couple, also pilgrims, who told us about a woman who was renting rooms in a nearby apartment. We walked in the direction indicated, and sure enough a tiny Spanish lady hailed us from her second-story balcony. Before we knew it we were upstairs handing her 13 Euros apiece.

Something similar happened the next day. We were headed for Colombres, and with 120 beds we figured the hostel would be easy to get into. But as we drew closer we ran into a pilgrim we’d met before — the same guy who had translated for Oliveira at the hermitage — and he informed us there was a giant festival going on in Colombres and likely no beds available. But, he said, there was this new albergue that had opened in nearby Bustio last year, not included in our book. We should check it out. 

 

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Fifi Arias says goodbye as we leave her albergue in Bustio.

 

We did, and it was perhaps the best thing that happened the whole trip. The albergue, it turned out, was located in a townhouse operated by Fifi Arias and her 59-year-old daughter Maria Luz. We knocked and were immediately welcomed, served a giant cup of sweet, milky coffee and shown up to an actual bedroom, with actual beds covered with actual sheets. The room had doors and cabinets made of richly carved wood and a private bathroom featuring a clawfoot tub with a wraparound shower curtain. All of this, ours for the night. 

I would come to find out that this was Arias’ family home, and that it had eight bedrooms — one for each of the seven children who had grown up there and one for the parents. Arias and Luz had previously lived in Santander, a city some distance to the east, when a pair of tragedies befell them. First, Arias had a stroke that left her without the ability to walk or write. Then, her son died in front of her. 

“We opened the albergue so that my mother could get healthy,” Luz said in Spanish. 

It’s Arias’ job to write in the pilgrims’ information when they arrive, a task that’s helped to rebuild her small motor skills. And perhaps more importantly, the constant interactions with these people from such different places and walks of life have bolstered her previously failing emotional health. Luz’s face lit up when she spoke about the pilgrims, and the wonders the albergue has done for her and for her mother. 

“I’m content. I’m good,” said Luz. “And so that has to reflect onto the pilgrims. It’s a good energy that we give to the pilgrims.”

 

The journey, not the destination

We left Luz’s home to walk our final and longest day on the Camino, a nearly 16-mile trek to the purportedly hipster town of Llanes that would take us through some of the most spectacular coastal scenery of the trip but also offer the most stringent test of our physical limits. 

Luz’s story stayed with me, though, throughout the walk. The trauma of loss and illness, the healing power of service to others, and the bond that forms as a result. I began to think more carefully about what it meant, that pilgrims had walked this trail for centuries before me, in a time when the world was a much larger, scarier and unknown sort of place, leaving behind their families yet still pressing onward, not knowing where they would lay their head at night or where their next meal would come from. 

In my head, I’d often compared the Camino to the Appalachian Trail. That’s the easiest analogy for my American brain. They’re both long-distance treks, done on foot, enjoying (or plagued by, depending on your perspective) increasing popularity due to the publication of various books and movies as well as a growing interest in outdoor recreation. 

But the Camino is fundamentally different, to its very core. The A.T. was created for the purpose of the journey, envisioned as a trail through the wilderness where people could find escape and renewal. But for the Camino, the journey was borne of necessity, merely a byproduct of the early pilgrims’ determination to reach Santiago. 

“People would go to Santiago because there in the cathedral, in Santiago, they were being healed. They were experiencing relief from the guilt of sin. There wasn’t this mystique around the Camino itself,” my friend Bridget Ryder reflected as we sat outside a bar in Madrid, sipping wine the night before an airplane would return me to the States. Ryder is a devout Catholic, has completed the Camino Francés and even wrote her master’s thesis on the Camino. She and her husband, a Spaniard, live in Madrid. Of all the people I know personally, she’s certainly the most qualified to ponder the meaning of the Camino. 

 

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A large crucifix hangs above the altar at the Ermita de San Pedro.

 

If you want the Holy Year plenary indulgence the church grants at Santiago, you can get there however you want, she said. You can drive a car, even. But for most people these days — even Catholics — the journey itself has taken on the greater significance. 

“They’re thinking about how cool it is to walk across Spain, and not that people don’t do that from a genuinely Christian perspective,” Ryder said. “There’s Catholic groups that go and you read their stories and for them, this is real religion. But it’s a reverse dynamic.”

In modern times, Santiago has in some ways become important because of the Camino, rather than the Camino being important because of Santiago. For Ryder, too, it was the journey, rather than the destination, that motivated her to walk the Francés. 

I didn’t make it to Santiago, and never even really planned to. That in itself puts me in that more modern group of journey-motivated pilgrims. And I’m OK with that, because it’s the journey that imparts the thrill of exploring a foreign country on foot, the gratitude that comes with casting yourself untethered into an unknown place and finding your needs somehow met, and the joy of sitting outdoors as the Spanish sun finally sets, sipping wine with friends and talking about the things that make us human. 

 

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I pause for a moment to take in a view of the Bay of Biscay. Karen Kays photo

 

 

Camino de Asheville

Asheville resident Don Walton has been hooked on the Camino since 2007, when he spent a month walking the Camino Francés with four other people. Last year, he finished his eighth Camino, and he’s planning a ninth. 

“The last one is usually my favorite, and that’s generally been true,” Walton said when asked which route he liked the most. “They’re all great. The one I remember most vividly is the most recent one usually.”

Walton is also co-coordinator for the Asheville Camino Chapter of the American Pilgrims on the Camino. The national organization has more that 50 chapters spread across the U.S. and works to provide information and encouragement to present and future pilgrims, as well as supporting Camino infrastructure and gathering pilgrims together. 

The Asheville group is quite active, offering monthly walks on the “Asheville Camino Trail,” routes through the Asheville area designed to mimic terrain found on the Camino Francés and Camino del Norte. Informational presentations are offered at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of each month at REI in Asheville, and informal meetings over coffee are held 9 to 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays at Green Sage Westgate. 

To learn more, visit www.ashevillecamino.org.

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