As the number of walkers increases, the number of those doing it for religious reasons steadily declines.
Have I ever told you how I first heard of Camino de Santiago?
Picture this: Cuba, 1947. Nah, I’m kidding. It’s Finland, September 2009. I have just started high school and I’m on my first month of Spanish classes. We’re learning a new chapter. In it, a few people gathered around a fire talk about their lives. Someone had got divorced, someone else lost everything in a fire. They were walking Camino de Santiago to sort out their lives.
For the longest time I thought the path was in South America because, you know, that’s where the city of Santiago is.
I did get my geography straight in the end. Inspired by some of my favourite bloggers, the likes of Free Candie and Flora the Explorer, I’d dreamed of walking the Camino for years. Last summer, as I got off a Skype call with the curly-haired hostel manager who’d just confirmed that I was their best candidate for a job in a Spanish hostel, I sat on the edge of my bed and thought about moving to Spain for the winter. And then I remembered the Camino and thought, I could do that, couldn’t I?
I had decided to start my walk on Camino de Norte from San Sebastian, a lively seaside town famed for its delicious seafood – especially pintxos, Basque-style tapas – and gorgeous architecture. I headed to the cathedral to pick up my pilgrim passport. Under renovation, the Neo-Gothic structure was surrounded by scaffoldings, but a short, smiling nun guided me through a modest back door and asked me to wait as she went to find the passport.
I stood on the doorway and peeked into the church. Just one man was present. He was sat in the front pew, head bowed under Jesus hanging from the cross. Evening light filtered through the stained-glass windows and cast a sparkled rainbow on Jesus’ stone-carved face. I stared at that, the tragic grey Jesus dappled in purple and pink and yellow, a gospel from the loudspeakers slowly growing in tempo.
The nun returned and showed me to another room where I filled in a form stating my name, age, address and reason for walking. “Religious” and “spiritual” didn’t seem to cut it – I ticked “other”.
As I was leaving the cathedral, the nun asked me if I was Catholic. Suddenly very aware of my pagan status – I’m not a member of any church – I just kind of gave her a little laugh and replied: ‘Not yet – but anything can happen on the Camino!’
Well, maybe not that.
The Camino is deeply rooted in religious tradition. Its origins are intertwined with myth and reality. When a Galician farmer was said to have found the bones of Saint James, one of the twelve apostles and the one that was said to have helped spread Christianity on the Iberian Peninsula, the Spanish king Alfonso II himself travelled by foot to see this relic. The remains were put in a specifically-built chapel that would hundreds of years later become the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – the city named after the apostle’s Spanish name.
These days, Santiago de Compostela is the official ending point to the Camino although many pilgrims choose to continue for three more days until Finisterre. Weary pilgrims sit in front of the cathedral, leaning onto their backpacks, quietly celebrating the end of their journey. It’s a very religious end point to a religious walk.
I had thought about my reasons to walk the Camino a lot. It is a religious way, after all, established by monks walking the footsteps of King Alfonso II over a thousand years ago. I wondered if it would be appropriate for me to partake in an experience like this. I am not religious; you could hardly even call me spiritual.
I’ve heard people scorn those who decide to walk “for exercise”. But I’d argue that there are hardly too many people who would voluntarily spend weeks of their lives – for most of them, their only holiday of the year – to walk hundreds of kilometres just because “sports”.
In fact, a survey by the travel agency Camino Ways found that only about 28% of the pilgrims these days walk for religious reasons. A similar number of people declared they needed a new challenge, and 17% said they just needed an escape from their daily lives and to reconnect to nature.
Only about 11% said they were walking for health and exercise – although I suspect this is an underlying reason for many pilgrims. Not the primary push but a nice bonus.
Some people walk to honour passed loved ones or to get over a traumatic life event; some walk merely because they love the community. Because of this, many Camino seniors return to the different trails year after year, looking for the famous “Camino spirit”. I met countless pilgrims who were on their second, fifth or even fourteenth Camino.
Based on what I’d read beforehand (and that one Spanish textbook chapter), I expected people to be talking about their reasons for walking a lot more. But it rarely came up. Whenever the question was asked, though, most people gave the same answer: I don’t know exactly.
I don’t know exactly but it seemed like an interesting experience.
I don’t know exactly but I wanted to try it.
I don’t know exactly but it felt right.
Were my fellow walkers really this out of touch with their decision-making process or were they just reluctant to reveal their reasons to a stranger?
I was definitely guilty for the same response. The night before starting out, I pondered about my reasons for walking. This is what I wrote in my journal: ‘There is just an idea – no, more like a vague hope – that along the way I find something that I didn’t know I was looking for.’
The modern Camino doesn’t lure in people with promises of religious redemption. But it does call to people in some mysterious, seemingly inexplicable way.
Little towns passed in time with days. I walked past small icons attached to signposts and makeshift altars with simple images of Jesus hanging over them. I passed pilgrims with the white shell of Saint James swinging from their packs, the ubiquitous red cross painted across many of them.
Lists with mass schedules were hung on corkboards at the albergues but most pilgrims didn’t seem to even notice. In every town, the tall, sharp shape of a church tower protruded among the houses. Some of them I stepped into; some I watched from the outside, feeling some kind of a way about invading a place of a God I didn’t believe in.
I saw things that would make a believer lose faith. In Getaria, a few pilgrims got robbed in the middle of the night: one guy lost his hiking boots and went home. With increasing numbers of pilgrims, unfortunately opportunistic petty crime also rears its ugly head.
But mostly, I saw kindness.
I met many people on the way but most of them passed the places of worship with the same oversight as I did. They were not looking for God here – they were looking for other people. Every day I witnessed or heard about small acts of kindness: a pilgrim donating a walking stick to another limping along the path or a group of newly-made friends making sure there’d be a bed left for someone who was walking slower.
I walked to the end of the world with a religious man. When we watched the sun set in the Atlantic, though, it didn’t matter what either of us believed in. We had come hundreds of kilometres and ended up in the same place anyway.
As more and more people take on the famous Camino every year, the number of pilgrims going for religious reasons dwindles. The modern Camino is a secular place where prayers don’t mean petitions to a higher power but what we dole out among other walkers to wish them well.
I am not a spiritual person. But what is religion but a community of people who share the same worldview, the same journey? For a few weeks, the Camino becomes your religion, and like a faith or an omen it can leave a lasting mark on you.
You might not be religious; but maybe you’ll find Catholic-like penance through pain with your bend shoulders and aching soles. Maybe you’ll stop by the side of the road to offer a fellow pilgrim some water or plasters or just kind words like a good Samaritan. Maybe one morning you set out early and find your place on the trail before anyone else, and you’ll watch the sun rise before you and feel a part of something bigger than yourself.
It might not be religion; but it is the spirit of the Camino.