Between earth and asphalt: faith, hope and the modern world in the Camino pilgrimage

Heading for the same destination. Two roads to Santiago de Compostela, near Caldas de Reis, Galicia.

In the distant past, most pilgrims walked the Camino as an act of religious devotion, ritual penance or thanksgiving. Perhaps they were searching for remission of sins or paying off a moral debt. Maybe some believed that the travails of the walk tempered their souls in preparation for the rewards of a vividly imagined afterlife. Perhaps pilgrimage was a seasonal thing, something you did because winter had melted away and the restlessness of spring was tingling in your feet.

Today these rationales still propel some pilgrims. As Emmy and I walked the Via Portugues, we bobbed for a time in the wash from a group of earnest Spanish pilgrims. There were about a dozen of them: elderly women rolling along in black dresses and black stockings with snow-white Nike shoes; chattery, lip-sticked housewives; cheerful men with waistlines as lumpy as their backpacks; and several children making occasional watchful attempts at naughtiness. (One of the children was an African boy about 10 years old – probably a newly arrived orphan refugee – who couldn’t speak much Spanish and whose big eyes seemed filled with loneliness and bewilderment.) The party managed to combine solemnity with ebullience. They carried aloft a small cross on the end of a pole, and as they progressed they recited Hail Marys, sang hymns, thumbed their rosary beads, and knelt in roadside prayer.

But they were exceptions. In one way or another most of the pilgrims we met seemed to be… what is the right word… escapees? They kept their religious motivations (if they had any) to themselves but many walked with a kind of single-minded intensity, grunting and puffing with the clenched determination of marathon runners. Pre-Camino, they had probably been living a life that was regimented, stressed, noisy, cramped, fraught, compromised. They were hounded by a reality that grabbed them and bullied them, constricted their chests and glared relentlessly into their faces. On the Camino they were eager for an experience that would lift this weight of the everyday from them. To that extent they were “religious”.

In their book The Year We Seized the Day, Australian pilgrims Elizabeth Best and Colin Bowles report on their Camino experience. “It’s taken a week but – aware now of my solitary purpose – the urgency has finally left my feet. There are no bills to pay today, no calls to make, errands to run, traffic to battle, friends to meet or appointments to keep. But there is much work to be done. And it all revolves around the same four threads woven throughout every day: food, water, health and shelter. The life of a pilgrim is a life stripped bare, reduced to the essentials and nothing more.” [p.2]

Another Australian writes “Pilgrimage is about letting go of so many of the taken-for-granted props we have grown to depend on — cars and buses and trains to carry you from one place to another; the knowledge of where you will sleep this night; the ready availability of clothes and food. The journey of a pilgrim can depend on none of these. (“Strange encounters on the Spanish Camino” Tony Doherty Eureka Street 14/10/2009

Irreconcilable cultures? The Camino passes under a freeway between Ponte de Lima and Rubiaes in northern Portugal. (If you look closely you can see the yellow arrows of  the Camino roughly painted on the pillar at front right. Very symbolic!)

Jane Christmas, a Canadian, wrote “The idea of a pilgrimage – it has such a Chaucerian ring – was irresistable. It evokes a noble challenge, a test of one’s faith on a harsh, unknown, ancient path, the sort of pursuit that taps the primal urge to wander with intense curiosity. The Camino seemed a logical, albeit extreme, next step in my reconciliation with Mother Nature. All I needed was a backpack of belongings, strong legs and boundless enthusiasm. Check. Check. Check.” (What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim, p.7)

There is a kind of excited innocence, and sometimes a scarcely concealed yearning, in these observations. They communicate a vision of the Camino as a back-to-basics path of pre-modern simplicity, a bucolic idyll speckled with antique buildings and beaming companions. Certainly this image is right up front in John Brierly’s canonical guides to the Camino pilgrimage routes – little books that almost all English-speaking pilgrims seem to carry (certainly we did). For example, Brierly greets woodland paths and country roads lyrically and contrasts them with the harshness and danger of asphalt highways.

A truck passes over the Camino path. It is probably carrying the necessities of life that pilgrims must consume in order to keep walking.

“We now have our first glorious day where natural paths account for over half the route and there are no main roads at all.” (Camino Portugues p.132) “Most of this stage is along quiet country roads and woodland paths that follow the lovely Rio Louro valley. There is good shade and several drinking fonts along the way. The challenge today is the stretch of main road both entering and leaving the industrial town of Porrino and the slog through its industrial estates.” (Camino Portugues p.148)

For Brierly and, I suspect, for most pilgrims, walking the Camino is an exercise in the hope of redemption, a redemption that is beyond our grasp on the traffic-fraught highway of our ordinary lives. “We have a sacred contract, a divine function, and a reason why we came here. Perhaps your calling to go on pilgrimage will be the opportunity to find out what the purpose is and to provide the necessary space to re-orientate your life towards its fulfilment.” (Camino Portugues p.9) “And so, like a latter day Rip van Winkle we rise to dust off our boots and join the merry band of pilgrims making their way through the welcoming beauty and peace of northern Portugal to the city of St. James in neighbouring Galicia. You will meet other wayfarers and the native folk whose lands you pass over, but above all you may meet your Self, and that may make all the difference.” (Camino Portugues p.18)

Souvenir staves, shells and water gourds… just 11 euros per set in a souvenir shop in Tuy on the Spain-Portugal border.

Unfortunately for the integrity of this vision, the great python of the tourist industry has wound its coils around the Camino pilgrimage and is squeezing hard. Its jaws are already clamped over the city of Santiago de Compostela and it is sucking in the roads that lead to the city. Slowly the liminal innocence of the pilgrimage is being gulped down, helped along by peristaltic waves of seasonal enthusiasm generated by the tourist industry, the church, and supportive government policy. Tim Moore, an American who walked the Via Frances with a donkey, catches this half-ingested – half spiritual, half self indulgent – quality with sardonic accuracy. “… [walking the Camino] was the search for something beyond the typical tourist routine, an antidote to the vacuous consumerism of contemporary travel. A trip to the moral high ground – I hear the view’s excellent up there. A trip purged of the empty decadence that characterised most foreign trips, yet still demanded alcoholic indulgence in the name of historical authenticity. A holiday that wasn’t a holiday, even though it involved going to Spain. A journey of transcendental discovery that was also a stiff but sensible aerobic challenge, and whose inherent asceticism had the happy side benefit of economy. A medieval tale retold for our times but at 1350 prices.” (Spanish Steps 2005, p.5)

The fact is, the Camino cannot be disentangled from the lifestyle it is supposed to reproach. Its romanticised “otherness” is a delusion. The despised asphalt highway carries the food that pilgrims eat, the materials that build albergues and hotels, the buses that whisk staff to the airports that pilgrims use, the vans that run sherpa services for pilgrims, the trucks that deliver souvenirs to the shops of Santiago de Compostela. To be blunt, it is this “degraded” world of modern commerce that makes mass pilgrimage possible. There is no return to a medieval past, there is no genuine stripped-down simplicity, except in the imagination of pilgrims determined to shut out reality and romanticise their walk. Today the Camino pilgrimage is in a symbiotic embrace with the economy of northern Spain. The two infuse each other and give momentum to each other. They are Siamese twins with a single heart.

The cathedral of Santiago records the number of compostela certificates issued to pilgrims who complete the pilgrimage. The statistics show that pilgrim numbers have been rising steadily since the 1980s. Last year there were 272,000 arrivals at the cathedral, though 2010 was a Holy Year when higher numbers than usual walked the Way. The current year 2011 will probably see close to 200,000 arrivals, down from last year but still a very big number and well up on the 146,000 of 2009. These multitudes have to be sheltered and fed in the small towns and villages they pass through. As Tony Kevin says: “… the economic value of the pilgrimage in encouraging remote-area tourism and bringing more economic activity into isolated villages [has been] accepted. Of course, the pilgrimage has wider long-term benefits for Spanish tourism: walkers on the camino may not be big spenders, but they may return in later years with their families for more conventional holidays in Spain.” (Walking the Camino p.39)

Hungry pilgrims who like to eat well (like Emmy and me, for example) keep countless local restaurants alive.

And the commercial momentum of the Camino pilgrimage is flowing out across the borders of Spain. In scores of cities across the world young women in shiny high-heels, and young men wrapped in the fragrance of after-shave, are sitting in front of computers making money from the provision of services for sweaty, dusty pilgrims. Emmy and I were customers of Follow the Camino, a company based in Dublin. Working via the internet and email they organised our accommodation, arranged sherpa transport of our suitcases from stopping-point to stopping-point, and supplied information about the route. It was relatively expensive but for us it was money very well spent. [see:]

In Carlisle, northern England, we celebrated our completion of the Cumbria Way walk (see Footsore in Carlisle: We complete the Cumbria Way posted August 22, 2011) with a meal at Nando’s in Warwick Street, one of a world-wide chain of restaurants that specialise in fried chicken spiced with Portuguese peri-peri sauce. A Camino story was emblazoned in wavy lines of lettering on the wall behind us.

“This tale dates back to the 14th century and, like all legends, the details differ depending on who’s doing the telling. Here’s our version. A pilgrim was passing through the village of Barcelos in Portugal when he was wrongly accused of theft. This was a serious charge for which a guilty verdict meant death. The pilgrim was brought before the town’s judge who was about to eat a cockerel for dinner. Feeling vulnerable in a strange village, and knowing what his sorry fate might be, the pilgrim pleaded: “If I am innocent, may that cockerel get up and crow!” No sooner had he spoken than the cockerel got up and crowed heartily (well it is a legend!) With that, the pilgrim was pardoned and allowed to go on his way. Ever since, the Barcelos cockerel has been the symbol of Faith, Justice & Good Luck.”

… and – we should add – it is also the symbol of Nando’s peri-peri fried chicken.

A story from the Camino pilgrimage on the wall of Nando’s peri-peri chicken restaurant in Carlisle, northern England.

Thus does the power of a Camino narrative lend pseudo-religious authority to Nando’s corporate image, helping the company to filch money from the pockets of diners and boost profits even in the bleak streets of distant Carlisle.

For many pilgrims, walking the Camino is a “spiritual” experience they imagine (or hope?) is utterly different from stressing out on the highways of modern society…

… but the Camino depends absolutely on those highways, i.e. on the infrastructure of modern commerce, and can’t be disentangled from it. In Santiago de Compostela the earthen path and the asphalt highway merge in the city’s narrow lanes – packed with restaurants and souvenir shops – that lead to the cathedral.


2 thoughts on “Between earth and asphalt: faith, hope and the modern world in the Camino pilgrimage

  1. A correction: Jane Christmas is a Canadian (not an American). Canadians get more ticked by the error than Americans do when they are pegged as Canadians. (It’s like the Australian/New Zealand thing.) If you read further into Christmas’s book, she has a look at this phenomenon.

    • Thanks Peter. I’m a New Zealander myself (AND of Canadian descent – my father was born and grew up in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island) so I understand your comment. When I can get around to it I’ll correct the error in the post.

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