Follow Historian Carson Poplin as She Embarks on the Camino de San Santiago (Part 1)
Here I go again, in a few days I will embark on the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic pilgrimage through Spain to the remains of St. James in the northwest city of Santiago de Compostela. Also referred to by its English name, the Way of St. James, it is a hiking route with centuries of religious and cultural tradition attached to it, dating back to the ninth century. It’s one of three major Catholic pilgrimages that exist, the other two being to Rome and Jerusalem. It’s been well traveled over the centuries, first popular during medieval times then “rediscovered” in the twentieth century. So I’m not unique to the walk but many people are confused by my desire to complete a pilgrimage that usually attracts religious and spiritual walkers. I’m among the group of people looking for a unique travel experience.
Why the Camino
photo: Trevor Huxham via flickr
The Camino de Santiago appeals to me because it is so firmly rooted in history. The cities I will walk through on my route have been hosting peregrinos (the Spanish term for pilgrims) for centuries. While there are numerous pilgrimage routes that all culminate at the Cathedral de Santiago, I have chosen the road most-traveled, known as the French Way. I will begin in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees, cross the border into Spain to make the trek across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. It will take about five weeks to reach my destination, but the journey will be filled with beautiful sights, stunning Romanesque churches, and a culture so deeply rooted in history, I can’t imagine but am itching to experience.
For the most part, I will stay in pilgrim hostels known as albergues or refugios. To stay in these hostels, pilgrims need to present a pilgrim’s passport, or credencial, that is stamped at each stop along the way and presented at the end in order to prove completion of the Camino de Santiago. I am looking forward to the kind of camaraderie that lodgings like this will provide, with people from all walks of life enjoying a shared experience. Even though I’m starting the pilgrimage on my own, I doubt I will get the chance to feel lonely on a route where everyone has the same goal. This has the added bonus of giving me a peace of mind concerning my safety, which while I’ve read several accounts attesting to the safety of the route, a woman traveling abroad alone can never be too careful.
photo: nesimo via flickr
I first heard of the Camino de Santiago a few years ago when I watched the film The Way, starring Martin Sheen and directed by Emilio Estevez. It tells the story of a man whose adult son dies while completing the Camino and who then decides to complete the pilgrimage himself. The story piqued my interest, causing me to start planning my own pilgrimage. Since I heard about it, I’ve sat down numerous times planning budgets, tracking flight prices, and researching all the best gear. I finally made the decision to complete my Camino in September and October of this year, avoiding the peak busy months of June and July.
I spent my summer doing even more research on the Camino and reading travelogues written by people who have already completed the walk. What seems to bind peregrinos together is a thirst for unique experiences and a desire to contemplate our own place in the world. I just finished graduate school in May, and am looking forward to immersing myself in a completely different kind of experience. I loved being in school and pursuing my passion, but too much time spent focused on a singular idea forced me to temporarily abandon my other interests. This Camino is a chance for me to reignite some of those interests, especially my curiosity for other cultures.
What Lies Ahead
It’s hard to write about an experience you haven’t had yet, but I am excited about the Camino de Santiago being a source of inspiration for enjoying a journey rather than anticipating a destination. It will also no doubt be a physical and mental challenge, and not just because I’ll have to walk about 15 miles a day. It will force me to think without the distractions that usually bombards our everyday life.