The “buen camino”
Santiago de Compostela, where pilgrims are the majority
“A stable and statistically significant decrease in levels of stress and emotional distress, with a consistent increase in life satisfaction”. With these words, the University of Zaragoza, explains the success of the Camino de Santiago, and the reasons why people from all places and times consider it the most important, decisive or pleasant experience of their lives. The study, which was conducted in 2021, involved more than 400 pilgrims and took the name Ultreya (go beyond), which is an exhortation pilgrims exchange with each other.
Pilgrims are people who are accustomed to traveling in the most diverse ways, not least sharing the dorms of the ‘albergues’ every night. There are bunk beds, shared showers, boiling stoves, mountains of shoes and feet in the air. The strong smell of Vaseline. The needle and thread with which José, an Argentinean, pierces Maria’s first blister, an Italian, explaining that the thread must remain there to absorb the water. The clothes hanging out to dry, because the ideal weight for a backpack is under 10 kilos, so there are very few clothes therein. There are two guys from Santander snoring mercilessly. The two American friends who couldn't stop talking. Fortunately, there is Mikki too, a Korean girl from Paris who doesn't speak much and is walking on her own. She usually arrives at the albergue before the others and prepares dinner.
At dawn, “buen camino!”, and with that we set off again. We are certain that this greeting will come repeatedly, from other pilgrims, from inhabitants of the towns or villages we travel through. Stray dogs sniffing about without barking; lorry drivers who, travelling past from some nearby motorway, greet everyone with a blast of their horn.
It could be for all this that in 10 years, from 2009 to 2019, the number of pilgrims in search of the “Compostela” -the parchment that certifies the achievement of having reached the goal-, have doubled, to exceed 300,000 per year. In addition, it will be because of that caring for each other, for the mindset to make sure that no one is left behind, to extend a hand to those who must cross a stream, to listen to the stories of unknown companions, that the Way of St. James is increasingly becoming the way of women. The most suitable, say the guides, to be traveled alone. According to the Spanish Confederation of Travel Agents, 65 percent of people traveling alone are women. Like Lin, who is from Hong Kong, and works in a shopping mall and wants to “find silence and think about how to change.” In 2018, the number of women travelling the Way of St. James was greater than that of men, with 164,836, pilgrims, 50.35 percent of the total. Today, with the pandemic, the numbers are lower; in 2020, thirty thousand wayfarers, then back up to one hundred thousand in 2021. The year in which, as for 2022, the Jacobean was extended, which means plenary indulgence for all. There is always, however, a good reason to travel those 781 kilometers (or the shorter stages) the traveler bathed in sunlight or under the rain, with their eyes immersed in the green of the woods or in the blue of the sea, their bones aching, their knees creaking, blisters splitting their feet. The physical destination is the Cathedral where the apostle St. James, who was beheaded in Palestine in 44 A.D., is venerated and his burial place located, it is said, eight centuries later in Galicia, in the field of the star, Compostela. The place was called thus because, according to tradition, it was the stars that indicated the place where the severed body was buried. It was to get there, that around the year 825, King Alfonso the Chaste, started out from Oviedo, and made what is considered the first pilgrimage in history.
Ma qualcuno la moglie se la portava, perché proprio non riusciva a separarsene, come Ulf Gudmarsson, marito di Santa Brigida di Svezia: insieme fecero otto figli e quel lungo cammino attraverso l’Europa, da Nord a Sud, nel 1341, proprio quando i papi vivevano la cattività avignonese. Al ritorno, Ulf si ammalò e morì: Brigida rinunciò per sempre ai beni, entrò in monastero e iniziò il suo percorso verso la santità.
There were those who brought his wife too, because they just could not be separated, as Ulf Gudmarsson, husband of St Bridget of Sweden did so. Together, the couple had eight children and they made that long journey across Europe, from north to south, in 1341, just when the popes were experiencing captivity in Avignonese. On his return, Ulf fell ill and died; henceforth, Bridget renounced property forever, and entered a monastery and began her journey to sanctity.
Before St Bridget, there was a girl who did the Camino alone. This was the 18 year old Saint Bona of Pisa who, when returning from the Holy Land in 1174, was struck by a vision that led her to join a group of pilgrims departing for Santiago. In addition, she understood that her mission was precisely to assist those who undertook that arduous dangerous journey. On the last part, she was so exhausted that, it is said, it was St James himself who helped her, flying her to her destination. In 1962, Pope John XXIII named her the patron saint of flight attendants.
Today, there are fewer dangers on the six Compostela routes. The names of which are: Camino Francés, the longest and busiest; the Camino Portugués; the Camino del Norte; the Camino Inglés; the Camino Primitivo; and, the Via de la Platea. The Guardia Civil patrols all of the routes, and those passing remember Denise Pikka Thiem, a Hong Kong-born American who was killed at age 41 in 2015 while crossing the province of León. A man was convicted of the crime, and the sentence says he altered the directions of the route to lure her to his home, attack her and then bury her hurriedly in his garden.
It must be said, the indications are the thing that pilgrims trust most: the flecha (arrow) amarilla and the concha, the shell, which is also yellow, and the very symbol of the pilgrimage to Compostela. These indications punctuate roads and trails, and are essential indications for the Way, which heads to the West and has two reference points in the sky; the Sun and its parabola by day, the Milky Way at night. Today, smartphones have arrived to indicate the pilgrims' routes, and to help navigate the UNESCO World Heritage Sites; in addition, there is an app to help women, called Alertcops. This app allows immediate intervention through geolocation. There is also a community on Facebook, the International Network of Women on the Way to Santiago.
There is nothing to compare the feeling of walking next to the pilgrims from the Middle Ages, even with hiking shoes and technological walking poles, all thanks to the paths that climb the mountains, the small ruined churches, and small villages.
There are purpose-built medieval bridges; for example, the Magdalene Bridge, at the foot of the walls of Pamplona, and the Puente della Reina, built by Munia of Navarre. There are also cruceiros, which are part objects of devotion, part ancient signs of what was a sacred route of Celtic cults, before the Christian era and the Roman conquest.
It does not matter if a route happens to cross roads clogged with cars or concrete buildings. Inside the heart, or head, or soul of the pilgrim, there is always something religious, and mystical, that drives the walker forward. It does not even matter what a person’s religion is, or even if the pilgrim actually has one. There are those who are inspired by the somewhat new age spirituality of Paolo Coelho and his 1987 travelogue. There are those who seek the strength to resist the pain as described by Korean journalist Kim Hyo Sun in her autobiographical bestseller, Six Ways to Abandon Suicidal Intentions. There are those in search of the irreverent world of Luis Bunuel’s Milky Way too. However, even the surrealist director, in order to claim the power of reason over spirituality, had no choice but to have his heroes travel along the Way: to let them deny the pilgrimage, he made them pilgrims. This is how the journalist Bruno Manfellotto, the former director of the weekly L’Espresso and other Italian newspapers, and Sergio Valzanìa, director of radio programs found themselves on the road in 2004 for a project destined for the radio. The truth is that everyone, whatever the motivation may be that drives them, is ready to suffer when climbing the “mountains of pain”; they know that they will eventually arrive on the Mount of Joy, the one from which they can see their goal, the Romanesque cathedral of Santiago. Its baroque facade, the facade of the Obradorio, seems to be there, just one more step away, it seems within touching distance, but it is an illusion. From here, there is one more hour's walk, more than four kilometers, to reach the square, enter, and attend the Pilgrim's Mass. Only then, finally to benefit from the rite of the “botafumeiro”, when the enormous and very heavy censer hanging from the central altar is swung around the transept at an incredible speed, almost touching the heads of those present, leaving behind a scented trail.
Maggi is 32 years old, from Germany, a sergeant major in the army. She has been to Afghanistan three times; Simona, from Tuscany from Mugello, in her third year at law school, a waitress and babysitter; a Russian girl who eats seeds and water with pieces of fruit; the Brazilian who left everything behind “to understand what I should do to help people”. Can they stop now?
To tell the truth, for those who really want to consider the adventure complete, there is still a three-day, 90-kilometer walk to Cape Finisterre, on the Atlantic Ocean, where, before Columbus' voyage, the known land ended. It was from there that pilgrims in the Middle Ages went to collect a seashell, to prove that they had made the journey.
A lady with white hair, sitting on the steps of the cathedral, is talking to two children:
“Grandma what is the camino?”
“It's what you did”
“Yes, but then?”
“What you’re going to do, but mostly what you’re doing”.
by Federica Re David