Why follow the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in north-western Spain?
This past summer as luck, or rather providence would have it, I was fortunate enough to find out what all the fuss is about. After a retreat in the Monastery of Montserrat, near Barcelona, I had just enough time to follow the Camino from there to Santiago before I had to return to seminary for the start of the academic year. It is said that you should start your Camino on your own doorstep. Now since my doorstep for that particular week happened to be on the front door of Montserrat, it seemed only right to begin my Camino there and to get my first stamp in my Credencial, or pilgrim passport, from the monks.
My route from Montserrat to Santiago was nearly 750 miles long, and I only had three weeks to get there. In addition to that, I only had five days to get from Montserrat to Logroño, some 300 miles away. This was because I had arranged to meet up with some friends there who were following the French Way. We planned to go on together from Logroño to Santiago. All of this meant that the traditional way of travelling on foot was out of the question and so I decided to use another acceptable option, and, if I’m honest, my favourite mode of transport—my bicycle!
As I set out from Montserrat, I cycled along the much quieter Camí de Sant Jaumeor Catalan Way as far as Logroño. On this route I only met five other pilgrims following the Camino. As I travelled along, I soon became accustomed to looking out for the two things essential to a successful Camino. The little yellow arrows which point the way to Santiago and the albergues. The arrows are common sights along the Way, and it is amazing how quickly you become dependent on them. The albergues were very common too, and they were also basic and very cheap. So quiet was the Catalan Way that I was often the only pilgrim staying in the Albergues. Once I arrived in Logroño all of that changed. I met up with my friends and encountered many of the other pilgrims who followed this most popular of routes.
The Way between Montserrat and Logroño is dotted with quiet little towns and beautiful churches, but one in particular stands out: the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, in Zaragoza. This magnificent church is built on the site of what is said to be the first church ever to be dedicated to Our Lady. Local tradition tells that Our Lady appeared at this spot to St. James himself during his original efforts to evangelise this part of Spain.
From Logroño we travelled quickly stopping briefly in the cities and staying in the smaller towns further along the Way. We saw the great cathedrals of Burgos and Leon, and cycled through vineyards which stretched for hundreds of miles. We struggled up the mountain to the Cruz de Ferro, the highest point along the Way and were glad of the views and the rest at the top.
On the second last day, we entered rained-soaked Galicia, whose architecture and climate made us feel like we had been transported to some remote corner of Scotland or Ireland. It was as if we were being reintroduced to our weather in order to prepare us for going home, for the end was now in sight. On the following day, in the late evening of the 14th of September, we arrived in Santiago de Compostela and glimpsed the great cathedral which houses the final resting place of the Apostle St. James.
In Santiago we went first to the Pilgrim’s Office to collect our ‘Compostela’ and then to the Cathedral for Mass and to venerate the relics of St. James in thanksgiving for a successful pilgrimage. Before we knew it, we were boarding the plane to go home.
I had the great pleasure and privilege of meeting so many wonderful pilgrims and locals along the Way and having so many wonderful experiences that I would never be able to recount them all here. This was my first pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James and it will stay with me forever, but God willing it won’t be my last. Although next time, I might just follow in St. James’ footsteps, rather than cycle over them.
Emmet O’Dowd – Theology III