Irene Connelly

On our second day of hiking we walked through the pre-dawn hush to the Romanesque bridge for which the village was famous. My guidebook urged me to take note of its craftsmanship but I did not; I was worried that I had already lost my sunglasses, that we would be too tired to finish that day’s section of the trail, that my Spanish would prove insufficient and that I would fail my brother, whom I had convinced to join me on this trip. Comparatively, though, these were minor issues. The Codex Calixtinus, a 12th-century version of my guidebook, warned travelers of thieves who stood by the river “sharpening their knives, waiting to skin the horses of pilgrims.”

Now a quaint feature of the landscape, when the bridge’s classical arch first took shape in the 13th century it must have seemed like a marvel of technology. It was a safe passage across the water and a refuge from bandits on the riverbank. It was an invigorating sight at the beginning of a journey that was far more dangerous and far less fathomable than it is today: the pilgrimage to Santiago.

Two days earlier, I’d been sitting in the fluorescent atrium of the Philadelphia airport, wearing the single outfit I’d allotted myself for the next six weeks. I carried a 15-pound borrowed hiking pack whose carefully selected contents included a volume of Shakespeare, which I would not open once. Dangling from one of the straps was a yellow rape whistle, euphemistically labeled a “rescue howler,” which my mother insisted be within reach at all times. My brother, David, carried a matching one. We were setting out to hike Spain’s Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage trail that stretches from the French border in the Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago in the western Spanish province of Galicia. I was going to walk 15 miles a day and think Meaningful Thoughts.

They’re known today as Catholic pilgrimage routes, but the roads that make up the Camino de Santiago long precede Christian influence in the region. During the Roman occupation of Spain in 206 B.C., they served as trade routes, providing access to lucrative mining regions and a coastal point the Romans called finis terrae — “the end of the world.”

The Camino’s Christian epoch began in the first century A.D. when Santiago (also known as Saint James), one of the twelve apostles, sailed to Spain to convert the pagan populations in Galicia. Upon his return to Jerusalem, Santiago was beheaded, but his followers allegedly brought his remains back to Spain. The bones and their story then faded into obscurity until the 800s, when they were rediscovered through a series of coincidences attributed to divine intervention. The official legend pivots around a shepherd drawn to Santiago’s remains by a bright star (thus the final city on the route is named “Santiago de Compostela” or “Saint James of the field of stars”). But historians note that the remains appeared “in perfect timing to spearhead the Reconquista of Spain.” Santiago was cited in battles against Muslim forces in the south, and monarchs used the route as a way to shore up religious sentiment in the precariously Christian north. And the clergy took care to establish the saint as an official component of the Catholic apparatus, quashing attempts by other sects or cities to appropriate the legend. “May rivals across the mountains blush,” the Codex blusters, “who say they have anything of him or his relics.”

The Camino hit its heyday between the 12th and 14th centuries. At the time, there were fairly clear-cut reasons to go. A pilgrim who completed the journey received a clerical indulgence which pardoned all his sins and promised entry into Heaven (at least, until he committed more transgressions). And during the Middle Ages the Camino provided a kind of novelty we can barely comprehend today. Most travel was only available for the rich, with the average person never venturing more than a mile from his birthplace in his lifetime, except on a trip like this, subsidized by the Church.

The symbol of the trail is the seashell, frequently seen on waymarks and attached to pilgrims’ backpacks. What hikers may not realize is that this practice originated in the Middle Ages, when pilgrims would bring home shells from Finisterrae, the last town on the coast, to show family at home who had never seen a shell and could barely conceive of the ocean.

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About 150,000 people walk the Camino every year. In festival years, when the feast of Santiago falls on a Sunday, the number swells to over 250,000. But it never approaches the level of traffic it would have during the high Middle Ages. Then, pilgrims clogged the path, the richest carried in sedan chairs and followed by retinues and the poorest subsisting on berries and trout. The Codex warns that the path is filled with “malicious, hostile-looking types … perverse, treacherous, obsessed with sex and booze … hot-tempered and litigious.” With the exception of one old man who wanted to talk to my brother about whether he preferred “blonde or dark” women, these have been replaced by scrupulously polite hikers, on the trail to find themselves and brimming with goodwill. Even if we matched 13th-century numbers, I thought, we could never, with our ergonomic shoes and quick-dry shorts, our travel shampoo and Neosporin, approach the smell, the grit, the visceral spectacle of the earlier pilgrimages.

On the modern Camino most pilgrims make an approximately 33-day journey from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, just over the Pyrenees in France, to Santiago, nestled in the westernmost province of Galicia.  The route, which winds its way through pasture, flatlands, woods, highways and local backyards, is highly supported by the Church and by towns that make a lucrative industry from feeding, sheltering and providing beer to thousands of hikers every year. Most towns contain a hostel that for a few euros provides pilgrims with a bunk, a kitchen and the 30 least-satisfying showers of your life.

The daily routine is both stark and rich in its simplicity. You wake up in the dark, shuffle through breakfast alongside other somnolent hikers, and are out the door before the sun rises. When leaving a small town, you might see stars over the fields and pilgrims in the distance, bobbing and indistinct. Passing through a city you share the streets with laughing partygoers finally turning in for the night. The route is flecked with Lilliputian towns whose metal shutter-clamped windows give an unfriendly impression, but are really just a defense against the pressing afternoon heat. Pilgrims stop to catch up with friends of three or 23 days, and to have a fortifying cafe con leche around the plastic Estrella Galicia card tables in the cafes. The same hikers resurface at each coffee break, and I amused myself by assigning them names before I’d formally met them: a capable German doctor was Dietrich, and a dazed Frenchman in purple running shorts was Jean-Paul-Claude-Henri-Baptiste. By early afternoon the heat of the day begins and pilgrims reach their endpoint, where they claim a bunk at the next hostel, devour lunches and nap or explore until dinner and bedtime.

While the daily routine has not changed materially since the Middle Ages, contemporary reasons to walk the Camino are now more varied. In this age, when religion has a much weaker hold on our collective consciousness, it’s not often the primary reason to walk. “Es un asunto de fe,” some people told me — “it’s a matter of faith” — without elaborating or qualifying. But they were the minority. Many people listed faith as part of a long list of motivations. I spoke to a German man named Michael who was working as a hospitalero, a volunteer who runs the parish hostels that provide inexpensive accommodation to pilgrims. He said religion was one of his reasons for going, but that it was “not so important … [I wanted to] know the countries I crossed, and to know the people, to speak all the languages I ever tried to learn.”

Antonio, a younger hiker, made a distinction between traveling for religion and spirituality, saying that he wasn’t “into dogmas or codes” but that he started the Camino hoping “it would be an experience of spiritual relevance.” Marianna, who had just graduated high school when she began the Camino, told me, “The reason I went is I thought, ‘Oh I’m going to find myself, I’m going to have some revelation about who I am.’”

One hospitalera I encountered, Marie, said that after she suffered neck damage in a car accident, she made a promise, not to God but to herself, that if she got better she would walk the Camino. The next year, recovered but with her husband carrying her pack, she did. Afterward, they both began to volunteer as hospitaleros.

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What most people agree on is that they are not tourists, and usually view the concept of tourism negatively and diametrically opposed to a spiritual journey. Marianna said she “didn’t think of [herself] as a tourist” because she felt so “natural” on the Camino. Marie, who has worked as a hospitalera in a town outside Finisterre for the last 20 years, described a gradual negative shift in Camino culture away from spirituality and toward tourism. She said that while “there used to be much more spirituality” on the trail, now people are more focused on how many kilometers they can hike a day than “reasons of the heart.”

Nowhere does this antipathy toward tourism emerge more ferociously than in the last 100 kilometers of the pilgrimage, from Sarria to Santiago. Pilgrims can begin walking at any point on the route, but in order to receive the compostela, an official certificate of completion from the cathedral, hikers have to walk at least 100 kilometers — so time-pressed hikers, tour groups and people on vacation often begin in Sarria. The sudden influx of hikers at Sarria not only ramps up competition for hostel beds, but also impedes the tranquility of the walk and is often jarring to pilgrims who have been seeing the same limited cast of characters for almost a month. On the way out of Sarria, fellow hikers indignantly pointed at people getting out of tour buses; one of my friends was so frustrated that she stopped greeting people with the standard buen camino. I tried to adhere to my guidebook’s warning to resist “aloofness based on a false sense of superiority,” but nevertheless I found myself scrutinizing hikers for boots that were too fresh or clothes that were too clean. While these distinctions are forgiven in the euphoria of arriving in Santiago, almost everyone can remember which other pilgrims have walked more or less.

“To arrive at Santiago is the beautiful thing,” Marie told me of her own experience, and I agree in a way, because the sense of getting there is much more awe-inspiring than the actual sights. Unlike at Burgos and Leon — where brilliant confections of buttresses and stained glass appear in the distance an hour before you reach them — the Cathedral de Santiago is a stolid structure, surrounded by a block of parochial administrative buildings. Its small, opaque windows, mismatched on either side, reminded me of the abandoned factories by my hometown’s train station. The front gate is forbidding and institutional. When I arrived, most of the facade was covered by scaffolding. But the feeling of finally getting there, after over a month of walking, made up for any lack of aesthetics. Galician bagpipe music echoed over the immense plaza on which just-arrived pilgrims lay spent on the ground, posed for pictures and shared cigarettes. Hikers hugged strangers and reunited with friends lost weeks ago on the trail.

At this point it became more acceptable to “be a tourist.” After a month hiking through towns that often featured one sole dusty market, we were in a city whose every street was lined with souvenir shops, whose menus came in multiple languages. I accompanied a friend to get a commemorative tattoo and ran into several others doing the same. It was a departure, if a pardonable one, from the purer spiritual ethos we imagined our predecessors possessed. Though, in the Museo de Peregrinacion, I saw shards of blue and white pottery that looked remarkably like those for sale outside, on a plaza which the Codex describes as filled with vendors hawking “wineskins, purses, herbs and spices” to pilgrims who want something to bring back to their mothers.

Lining up for the pilgrim Mass at the cathedral or the famous statue of Santiago, people complained of being caught in the crowd of tourists. In fact, we are just doing as centuries of pilgrims did before us, who were also strangers to the area, also stumbling in their Spanish. So, anxiety about the dichotomy between tourism and spirituality on the trail is somewhat misplaced. As the presence of a medieval guidebook suggests, the Camino has been a tourist haunt for hundreds of years. To be a tourist now, following centuries upon centuries of past tourists, is to participate in the most essential aspect of its history.