So here in españa, I am taking a course all about the Camino de Santiago, which is a Catholic pilgrimage route that ends in Santiago de Compostela in the Northwest corner of Spain. For the class, we got to actually complete the camino ourselves, walking more than 110 km from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela (that’s 70 miles for you Yankees) with just our backpacks.
The Atheist in me cringed at the idea of making this great trek to a gaudy Cathedral honoring a saint who was supposedly resurrected to slaughter Arabs by the thousands in the historic battle of Clavijo. That is, by the way, what he is most celebrated for– winning Spain back for the Spanish. There are depictions of St. James Matamoros (Moor-Killer, literally) in churches across the country, and for this figure almost a quarter of a million people wear down their feet each year, hoping to get the chance to hug his holy likeness and have their sins erased.
St. James Matamoros
However, the huge cultural significance of the pilgrimage and the lure of exploring northern Spain’s countryside and architecture won me over and I transferred out of an almost equally tempting class on Politics and Identity in Spain (incidentally, it turns out that I didn’t have to do that… details are irrelevant). So I packed my bags, broke in my new hiking boots, and prepared to make the camino.
As with most things in life, my experience matched almost none of my expectations. I had no idea how much I had missed the lush greenery of my home in the U.S. until I was walking through tunnels of trees covered in ivy, the morning mist just beginning to clear. I expected to get a lot of good, productive thinking done– about my academic plans, about my relationships, about my family– but what I was able to do was clear my mind completely, to walk and to not think at all. Much of the peacefulness of the journey came not from the more social aspect of the walk itself, but in the hours after we had reached our destination for the day, wandering the small towns as the sun set and just being quiet.
One expectation that unfortunately (or not) was met was that getting to Santiago and beholding the great Cathedral of St. James was my least favorite part of the trip. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it by any means, it just didn’t compare to the days of walking with purpose through fields and forests and tiny villages. The sudden bustling town, combined with the knowledge that the journey was over cast a bit of a shadow over my arrival… not to mention my now almost non-functional right knee. The cathedral was very beautiful, and we met interesting people of all flavors along the way.
Ultimately, I said farewell to Santiago fondly; the journey was long but exactly the fall vacation I needed- a time for friends, the beauty of nature, and learning to appreciate a decent meal. It was a unique experience, and while many of my friends went to other exotic places in europe in planes, trains, and taxicabs, I wouldn’t have traded this trip for any other.