Friday, November 28, 2014

Finding My Way

Antique Map of El Camino Frances

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is a spiritual journey that pilgrims have traveled for over a thousand years. The Way of Saint James emerged as the most traveled pilgrimage route because it offered medieval pilgrims a safer passage than the perilous trip to Jerusalem or Rome

By the 12th and 13th centuries, half a million pilgrims made their way to and across northern Spain  and back each year. The Kings of AragonNavarre and Castile built hospitals, hostels, roads and bridges to accommodate them.

The city of Santiago became the first major thoroughfare of Christian Europe, a meeting place for people from all nations and different faiths, an intersection for spiritual, economic and cultural growth stimulated by millions of pilgrims. 

The Knights Templar patrolled this pilgrim path, providing protection, places of hospitality, healing and worship, as well as a banking system that became a source of their fabled wealth and established the beginning of a common European monetary system. 

While pilgrims are supposed to start the journey "from home," traditional starting points for the Camino are located in France and converge on a single road across Northern Spain known as the Camino Frances, the most traveled French Road which passes the Pyrenees before entering Galicia

Drawn to the Camino by the rich cultural history, ancient architecture, beautiful scenery and the opportunity for a long soulful walk across Spain, pilgrims surging toward Santiago have turned what was a medieval obstacle course into a driver of Spain's tourism. 

Among historical and popular figures who walked the Camino were Charlemagne, Francis of Assisi, Dante Alighieri, Pope John Paul II, Kings and Queens of Europe and even, as Chaucer tells us in The Canterbury Tales, the bawdy Wife of Bath. 

In the 17th century, Sir Walter Raleigh immortalized the pilgrimage with a poem:
Give me my scallop shell of quiet;
My staff of faith to walk upon;
My scrip of joy, immortal diet;
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory, hope's true gauge
And then I'll take my pilgrimage. 

The scallop symbolized the completion of the Camino and the arrival to Santiago. To ensure the integrity of this distinction as well as manage the control of its rents, the Catholic Church established a monopoly on the sale of shells, and the excommunication of whomever sold them privately.

A clandestine trade of souvenir shells flourished outside the walls of the city, forcing an agreement underlying a franchise of sorts. This illicit market had leveraged a small legal loophole to thrive, and gave birth to the guild and neighborhood of los concheiros in Santiago

One of the pleasures of being in Spain was the opportunity to experience its cuisine. A Spanish writer remarked that "a country's cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot." Walking through the landscape of Spanish cooking was justified by the mileage we walked. We learned that Spaniards break for food and "a little sip" five times a day: desayuno (breakfast), almuerzo (lunch), copita (a small drink), merienda (mid-afternoon snack) and cena (supper). 

We savored the fatty jamons (hams), tortillas (omelets with potatoes and ham), queso (cheese) with membrillo (quince jelly) with fresh baked Galician bread; we dipped flaky sugared churros (funnel pastry) into thick hot chocolate; we watched pulpo (octopus) being pounded with tentacles dangling off the counter; and we licked our plates clean after a dessert of tarta de Santiago (almond cake with the cross of Santiago).


Modern-day pilgrims walking the Camino are inspired to contemplate life while on the road to Santiago. Pilgrim virtues of patience, compassion, faith, humility, gratitude, and courage come together with a sense of purpose to make the walking pilgrimage a learning journey. Bringing these lessons home is the takeaway gift of the journey toward our better self.

Ultreia is the Spanish expression, greeting, and encouragement for pilgrims to "go onward!" Finding our way when we return to the Camino of our own lives, the spirit of ultreia and the image of the yellow arrows that guided us along the way serve as reminders of the mysterious force that led us to embark on "the only journey worth taking, the journey within." [~William Butler Yeats]