Monday, July 28, 2014

Walking the Camino de Santiago: 1,000 Years of Introspection

In honor of last Friday's feast of St. James the Apostle, here's a post by my father Hampden Smith (Chairman Emeritus of the Washington & Lee Journalism Department) about walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Santiago is the Spanish word for James or St. James, who is credited with evangelizing Spain. The 500-mile Camino ends at the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. In their golden years, my extremely active parents are up for almost any new experience, including making a Catholic pilgrimage when they're not actually Catholic. We keep hoping.

Last May and June, my wife and I and another retired couple (we’re all 70 or older) spent three weeks as pilgrims, or peregrinos, on the Camino. We began at the Pyrenees, on the French border, and walked about 250 of the 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela. It was a magnificent experience in many ways. 

We averaged 12 miles a day walking, a couple of times as much as 17 miles; it took us, including stops for cafĂ© latte and lunch, most of the day.  Nearly all peregrinos carry everything on their backs: a change of clothes, a thin mattress pad, toilet articles, a guidebook. As old guys, we cheated; we carried backpacks weighing about 5 pounds and sent our full packs by carrier to the next night’s lodging. We also stayed in small hotels, not the alberges with dozens of bunk beds and communal showers that is the norm.

We were frequently aware of the 1,000-year-old tradition of the Camino that untold numbers of pilgrims have taken since the 11th century. There’s something deeply moving about walking on the remnants of Roman roads and over Roman bridges, along ancient paths trod by devout sinners to reach the cathedral in Santiago and hug the statue of Saint James there. You learn quickly you are a part of an historic tradition that has drawn believers to a religion and a culture that has largely created what we know as the Western world.

However, we also quickly learned how different our lives are from most of those who preceded us. On our bus days, it took us less than half an hour to cover a route that would take all day on foot. And then we realized: A hundred years ago, the pilgrims didn’t just reach Santiago; they had to walk back, to Paris or to Cologne or Amsterdam.

As you trudge along, there is determination and solitude and camaraderie. No matter torrential rain that floods your rocky, hilly path, nor blistering sun, you must continue if you are to reach the goal you set for yourself. No matter the many fellow pilgrims you get to know along this communal route, there are hours and  hours of being alone with yourself, with asking why am I doing this, with seeking answers to who I am and who I wish to be. Yet you learn to be open to everyone, to your fellow peregrinos, to the wrinkled and hobbling old lady who wishes you to “go with God,” to the farmers and merchants who wave and call out, “Buen Camino” – and the exhausted, despondent American judge who responded, “Don’t you “Buen Camino” me!”

The country is beautiful. The Roman breadbasket continues, with endless fields of wheat and dry rice and, thank goodness, vineyards. Snow-capped mountains line the horizon, and the hills are adorned with skyscraper-tall wind turbines that produce 17 percent of Spain’s electricity.

The church architecture is grand, from the stark simplicity of Romanesque chapels with primitive carvings of strange little beasts among the saints and angels, to the grandeur of Gothic cathedrals so astonishingly beautiful that tears come to your eyes. No matter how devout or doubting the pilgrim, you cannot be confronted by these examples of the highest creations of mankind without realizing how central to civilization and culture the Church must be.

At the end, there is the pilgrim Mass in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a breathtaking, soaring monument into which many pilgrims literally crawl on their knees, tears falling from their eyes. A nun with the voice of an angel teaches the peregrinos the refrains they will sing during Mass, and a priest reads out the names of all the countries pilgrims have come from. Australia, the United States, Canada, Japan, England, Holland, Korea, Spain, Kenya.  United in an experience to some religious, to others spiritual, to a few cultural and, to a small awkward percentage, a lark.


  1. Thanks for this insightful word picture. I enjoyed the trip. May Jesus bless you.