A pilgrimage is a special trek. Pilgrims travel to holy or inspirational places to remind them of their life journey. There is usually a devotion, a promise (panata), veneration, sacrifice or contemplation attached to a pilgrimage. In modern times, it is also a way of entering into a cultural experience to understand and be inspired by the devotion of those who had walked before.
In the medieval ages, there were three major Christian pilgrimage sites: Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrims to Jerusalem were known as “Palmeros”; those to Rome were “Romeros.” Those traveling to Santiago de Compostela were known as “Peregrinos” from the Latin peregrinus, which, loosely translated, simply means foreign traveler.
Today, there are many Christian pilgrimage sites as well as those of other faith traditions including the pilgrimage to Mecca, which Muslims are enjoined to observe at least once in their lifetime.
The pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela in France and Spain are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There's only one other in this category are the pilgrimage routes in the Kii mountain range in Japan, known as the Kumano Kodo, which traverse lush forests and inspiring landscapes connecting ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.
By the end of last year, which was also the Year of Faith, I had traveled to other pilgrimage sites including the Vatican in Rome to attend the Sunday Angelus led by Pope Francis, to Assisi, which was celebrating the 800th anniversary of the pilgrimage of St. Francis of Assisi to Santiago de Compostela, and to the church of Sant'Agostino near the Piazza Navona in Rome where Caravaggio’s 17th-century masterpiece “Madonna dei Peregrini” (Our Lady of Pilgrims) is enshrined in the Cavalletti Chapel.
The Camino Provides
From the 24th to the 30th of September 2013, I walked with a small group of friends for a total of 130 kilometers from Santiago de Compostela to Finesterre and Muxia in Galicia, Spain. My four companions had walked the Camino Frances from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela the previous year.
I was a novice and one of the growing number of caminantes on the Camino de Santiago. I knew of so many pilgrim groups from the Philippines who embarked on this same journey at about the same time. But none had taken the route from Santiago de Compostela to Finesterre and Muxia.
Arriving in this ancient city where the remains of the Apostle St. James the Great is venerated, I attended a mass for pilgrims at the Cathedral. This is where his remains are buried and where he is venerated as the Patron Saint of Spain. I had also gone to the office for pilgrims to collect the Credencial or “passport” for the Camino. This little document would have to be stamped along the way as proof that one had indeed traveled the required distance on foot.
After the mass, I queued with other pilgrims and tourists to embrace the statue of Santiago that stands behind the main altar. It was a moment to pray for the grace and strength to progress in my Camino. I had read that one of the most powerful energy loci along the ley lines of the earth was at that point where one stood to embrace the statue. As I prayed, I could feel a sense of assurance and an absorbing energy, which I believe enabled me to walk approximately 20 km. a day on seven consecutive days.
My companions were well versed in Camino routine and etiquette. This would be the fifth Camino for one and the second for the rest of them. They shared some their experiences and guidelines with me before we started: walk at your own pace; manage your own equipment; take some water, a banana and hard candies to suck on when you feel depleted of energy; and keep a local mobile phone handy.
We started out together each morning after a good breakfast and met at the next hostal or casa rural at the end of each stage of the walk. By chance, we might stop for lunch at the same place. Otherwise, we carried on at our on time, only to experience that it was all really in God’s time.
The traditional peregrinos along this road of St. James carried all their belongings on their back and stayed overnight in refugios or dormitories that were set up for pilgrims. As long as one was a pilgrim on the Camino she was welcomed, and the hospitality she received was as much a source of grace and blessings for those who provided it.
In our case, we allowed for some concessions. We stayed in hostels or local homes where we could have private rooms and had our luggage transferred by courier from one hostel to the next. Others extend these concessions further by booking a tour that includes a van to follow them.
We started off from the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos in Santiago de Compostela, a parador that had been built as a hospital and refuge for pilgrims by Isabela la Catolica. We walked on roads less traveled from Santiago to Negreira to Las Marones. From Las Marones to Lagosa, then to Cee before proceeding to Finesterre. After Finesterre, we walked to Lires and finally from Lires to Muxia.
We walked through country roads, forests, hills, mountains, beaches, and crossed ancient bridges and modern highways. We walked in the sunlight, in pouring rain, through mist and other unexpected conditions. We walked together and we walked alone, but not totally alone. An overpowering grace accompanied us.
The roads are all well marked. The famous symbol of the conch shell pointed in the direction of our destination; that is, until we reached the crossroads after Lagosa. The conch shell either pointed up or downward to indicate that one could walk either to the left or the right of the marker, to Finesterre or to Muxia.
Sometimes, there were two conch shells pointing in either direction. The choice seemed easy. We had decided to proceed to Finesterre and end our Camino in Muxia. But as we progressed we realized that there would be some challenges and that it was possible to get diverted or even lost.
I found myself alone in one of these instances, but I continued walking to where arrows scribbled on rocks or the pavement pointed. These were found in long distances between the official conch shell markers. Occasionally, a sense of doubt or uncertainty would surface. I told myself to trust the Camino and carry on, to let go of my rational thinking. As soon as I did, a confirmation of the right direction would appear in the form of another pilgrim traveling the opposite way.
“Muxia?” I asked, pointing towards my direction. “Si,” he responded, but added that it was still quite far. “Lires?” “Si, esta cerca,” he replied, indicating that the next town was virtually around the corner. As quickly as the pilgrim appeared from around the bend, he disappeared from my sight. I then remembered what I had heard earlier. The Camino always provides.
There were times when I had thought, “What did I get myself into?” There were steep climbs that almost made my face turn blue. One of my friends was patient enough to wait for me and to stop as I caught my breath. The Camino does provide. In our original plan, this steep climb would have been the easy one.
A more challenging one would come ahead. But somewhere along the way, the sequence of our walk changed at the advice of locals who insisted that we should enjoy the panoramic view of the Atlantic upon entering Finesterre. This meant going to Finesterre first and ending our walk in Muxia. No more hard climbs. The Camino provides.
On the second day of our walk, we started out under a drizzle. As we made the curve up from the city’s edge into the forest, I felt my rucksack lighten significantly. I had to ask one of my companions to check if my walking poles were still attached to my bag. They were. I then thought that I may have left something out of the rucksack, but when I checked later, everything that I had put in was still there. What was it that I had let go to lighten my burden?
The drizzle turned to rain and then to pouring rain. We walked through a forested area. Muddy paths turned to a series of puddles. Our waterproof garments and shoes proved their worth. There were no cafes or restaurants in the next four hours.
One is never given more than one can endure. The forest soon opened to an inhabited area and a crossroads. The sign pointed to a cafe on the right and to an old farmhouse serving breakfast on the left. We chose to stop in the old farmhouse, not knowing then that we would have the best homemade meal to warm our drenched bodies while the rain continued unabated outside.
To the End of Earth
Before Columbus found his way to the “New World,” Finesterre was “the end of the earth”—finis, end, and terrae, the Earth.
At the edge of a promontory where pilgrims burned their shoes and other clothing worn in the Camino to mark the end of their long journey, one looked out to the Atlantic, imagining that somewhere in the deep, across the horizon might be the drowned continent of Atlantis or Lemuria.
Finesterre sits in the “Costa del Morte,” the coast of death. Many sailors lost their lives on shipwrecks along this coast. The walk up to this point was filled with mist and fog. A lighthouse loomed in the distance showing the way. If one was lucky a beautiful sunset awaited.
At the town hall in Finesterre, we showed our credencial with multiple stamps of towns we had passed along the way. There we received the first of our pilgrim certificates, the Finesterrana.
The second one would be awarded to us at the end of our walk—in Muxia, where it is believed the Blessed Virgin arrived on a boat made of stone to come to the aid of St. James in his work of evangelization. The road of St. James or Santiago commemorates his travels to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in Iberia. Here, we received the Muxiana, our second certificate for the walk.
“No es oficial”
We marked the end of our Camino in the church of Nuestra Señora de la Barca in Muxia, overlooking the Atlantic. We gave thanks for the seven days of our walk. From there we called a taxi to take us back to Santiago de Compostela. It took an hour to get back along the same route that took us seven days to walk.We passed the cities and towns we had been to. It was difficult to believe that we had traveled the distance.
Those who have walked the entire length of the Camino, from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees, may think nothing of the distance. To a novice in her senior years, it was a long walk. Instead of feeling fatigue, however, I felt renewed energy and clarity. I had the confidence that all was well and that all would be well, as the mystic Julian of Norwich declared.
Arriving back in Santiago de Compostela, we checked in at the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos where we had began. After settling down, we walked in the medieval town before the evening mass for pilgrims. As the queue in the office where one could obtain a Compostelana was not long, I decided to inquire whether I would be qualified for one. I knew the answer before I heard it. “Lo siento, Señora, pero no es official.”
The lady in charge said she was sorry that I would not qualify for a Compostelana because the route from Santiago de Compostela to Finesterre-Muxia was not an official route. It is not recognized by the Church, although this may soon change. I was not disappointed. We proceeded to the pilgrims’ mass and there as the botafumeiro, the large incense burner, swung high up to the rafters of the church, I felt blessed.
The road to “the end of the earth” is a pre-Christian route, a pagan route with Celtic beginnings. Galicia, which the route crosses, is one of the oldest, yet least known, Celtic nations. Finesterre itself was a place where Celts, Druids and Romans venerated the sun in the Ara Solis or altar of the sun.
Sitting on the rocks behind the lighthouse or faro in Finesterre, one sees the burnt offerings of old clothing left by pilgrims, who had let go of the vestiges of their physical journey to give way to a deeper meaning in their lives. One sees, too, the vastness of an endless ocean meeting the horizon and rising to the skies. Here the Earth ends to meet Heaven, reminding us of our destination.
Patricia Araneta promotes traditional arts and crafts and the importance of cultural heritage through interdisciplinary and multi-dimensional education. She lives in Manila and in London where she is Outreach Programme Director at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts.
How to Prepare for the Camino
There are many caminos or pilgrimage routes. The most popular is the Camino Frances which starts in St. Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees in France. It would take over a month to do this Camino.
Watch the video featuring Martin Sheen called "The Way." It will give you a good idea of what the Camino is about. There are many pilgrim's accounts that are also available on YouTube. Those too will give you ideas about the journey you may go through both physically and emotionally as well as spiritually.
Many take an abbreviated walk from Sarria and to Santiago de Compostela. This takes about a week to do and covers the minimum distance required to obtain a Compostelana.
It is important to know how much time you can give to the Camino. It will help you decide on what kind of Camino to take. Knowing the time of year you will go is also vital. It is also important to train for the Camino, to build resistance and fitness.
I highly recommend the guidebooks of John Brierley, which are available on Amazon. Also visit his website www.caminoguides.com. Brierley has updates for his guidebooks on his website. There are other sites you can visit on the internet. Just search.
For the not so fit, there is an option for taking an organized pilgrimage tour by booking with a tour company. You can find several reputable ones on the internet. This does not mean that you will not have to walk. You will still need to train before you go.
I was fortunate to have been invited my friends who had done the Camino before. We walked 20 kilometers a day and stayed in lovely local inns, mostly run by families. We carried only a day pack on our back as we walked. We contracted a courier to take our luggage from inn to inn. This can be arranged with the inn keepers.
The Camino is very personal. Even if you go with a group, you will have to decide for yourself how you want to do it. Knowing what to take with you is important as is knowing what to leave behind on the Camino.