[Filed 2 October 2021 from the Madrid-Alicante train!]
The traditional goal for the Catholic pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela, particularly in a Holy Year, is to visit the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great and gain the indulgences that the Church offers for making that journey. Each pilgrim to Compostela walks as an individual, whether setting out alone or with others in a group, and enjoys or suffers the daily encounters with the road, the weather, and the availability—or not—of food and lodging. The personal psychological and spiritual challenges of the journey always involve encounters with other people, for even if you start out alone, you will eventually find yourself among a community of pilgrims, and in that respect little has changed since Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales.
I have been re-reading Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ during this pilgrimage and he says: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true, and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.” (LS 205)
This process of “taking an honest look at ourselves” can be usefully done on pilgrimage, where you are living out of a rucksack, often dependent on other people, and looking for signs of what is good, true, and beautiful, and allowing God to work his grace in our hearts. In the past two weeks—as a long-experienced veteran pilgrim—I have been observing this in the changing formations of pilgrim community on the road to Compostela and also reflecting on the complementary role played by those who provide hospitality in one form or another. The interaction in and between these two human groups, one itinerant and the other fixed, is the very center of pilgrimage.
Since pilgrims traveling on foot from place to place on a fixed route tend to set out early each day and walk more or less at a similar pace until completing another stage, this naturally forms loose-knit communities of pilgrims often arriving at the new point of lodging together, then socializing and eating together. There can also be a tension between the individual desire to walk alone—enjoying the silence, the natural surroundings, and the sense of spiritual quest—and ordinary human sociability. I witnessed a sad little scene just a few days ago when I sat down by a spring to fill my water bottle and eat a sandwich at one of two picnic tables. Another pilgrim arrived; a bearded young man in his twenties, with long hair tied back in a knot and a curved stick of freshly cut greenwood. He looked like some New Age archer from Game of Thrones. Shortly after he sat down at the other picnic table, another pilgrim of similar age joined him, arriving breathless and perspiring. He was wearing mismatched army camouflage trousers, a bright orange T-shirt, and a fluorescent green baseball cap: partly merging with the landscape and partly leaping out from it.
“At last I caught up with you,” he announced, swigging from his water bottle. “You are really hammering the pace today!”
“That’s because I want to walk alone,” said Game of Thrones. “Just because we had a conversation yesterday, that doesn’t mean we are walking together all the way to Compostela!”
Mr. Mismatch sulkily muttered some response which I did not hear, watching his not-to-be walking partner quickly sling his rucksack over his shoulders, grab his trusty greenwood bow, and leap back into a fast pace on the Camino, away from the picnic area and out of sight around a bend within a minute.
“Hello,” said Mr. Mismatch, calling across to me from the other picnic table. “My name is Johannes and I am Austrian but resident in Germany, and I work in software development.”
I wished him “Buen Camino!” and shouldered my rucksack, perhaps with unseemly haste. When I glanced back later, he had been joined by a group of three pilgrims that he seemed to be walking with, so he had found the new company he needed. A week earlier a veteran French pilgrim I walked with for a day made an interesting observation: “If someone on the road to Compostela begins by telling you their name, nationality, and what work they do, it will not be a good Camino conversation.”
When two pilgrims meet on the road as strangers, the typical start to a conversation will be an inquiry as to which place you set out from and what your experience of its hospitality was. Then you might exchange ideas about where you think you’ve now got to (comparing guidebooks or maps) and where is the next food or drink stop. Then the talk will normally turn to where you are hoping to arrive at the end of the day. Finally, at some point further into the walk—if you continue walking together—you might exchange names, where you come from, what you do; but often that stage of conversation is not even reached. You are simply pilgrims, and among pilgrims, that’s the only introduction needed.
In medieval times the pilgrimage to Compostela was a long, difficult, and sometimes dangerous undertaking; but we certainly find there are new challenges on the Camino in a post-Covid world. All along the way of Saint James there is pilgrim accommodation, often provided by the Church, local authorities, pilgrim associations, and increasingly private enterprise, for there was always profit in pilgrims, but the safety measures in response to the pandemic mean that there is severely reduced occupancy in many of these pilgrim hostels. Some are reducing the number of available beds to 30% of those offered pre-pandemic, which creates tight competition for places at the end of a day’s walk, particularly with larger numbers of pilgrims on the road during the Compostela Holy Year or Xacobeo as it is known. It is still possible to find a bed in one of the cheaply-priced pilgrim albergues for as little as 5 Euros for a night’s lodging, but that experience is now very rare, and a reminder of the way the Camino used to be twenty years ago.
With changing times and now the extra pressure from reduced occupancy in purpose-designated hostels, in the wake of Covid-19, pilgrims are now becoming resigned to paying commercial prices for accommodation in hotels and B&B boarding houses (casas rurales) often charging ten times more. Yesterday’s pilgrimage to Compostela was for all who wanted to make the journey, and you did not need much money on the road, but today’s pilgrim needs to be well-funded, frequently paying the full price for commercial hotels—only to leave early in the morning without time to enjoy the tourist comfort for which they are paying extra.
The communitarian pilgrim accommodation of former times was also coupled to a strong tradition of pilgrim hospitality. I encountered a rare and outstanding example of that in the town of Ordes, which is now off the official Camino Inglés route, thanks to constant route changes which are sometimes prompted by local political and commercial interests, so the locals told me. I had been slowing down considerably in the last kilometers of this pilgrimage and had a painful blister on my left foot, as well as worrying early signs of tendonitis. In a village called Poulo, I hesitated at a crossroads while deciding whether to divert to a nearby town, Ordes. A regional government Camino maintenance truck stopped and the driver asked if I needed help. When I explained, he offered me a lift to Ordes and dropped me at the pharmacy. Then I made my way, carrying a pharmacy paper bag filled with blister pads and bandages, to a nearby hotel, recommended in the list provided by the English pilgrim association, the Confraternity of Saint James.
If the Camino de Santiago means any one thing, it means hospitality. And if I was to point to a concrete example of Camino hospitality, it would be the Hostal Louro in Ordes. At the small hotel bar in which he spends his day, except when peeling vegetables for the guests’ supper, the owner welcomed me warmly, “¡Bienvenido peregrino!” as if I was the first pilgrim he had ever seen! He noticed the paper bag from the pharmacy and immediately diagnosed foot blisters, but I need not worry because his good wife would attend to me immediately with a warm footbath that would cure any blisters before I left the next morning.
For the next half an hour, even before I could go to my room and unpack my rucksack, his wife fussed over me in the cleaning room where all the mops and buckets were kept. “Is the water too hot? It needs to be hot but we mustn’t scald your foot. Here is the jar of salt. Shall I put in more salt? I’ll stir the salt into the water. Are you sure it is not too hot…? Poor pilgrim. How you’ve suffered. God will appreciate your efforts and reward them. Oh, the water is draining out: I put in the wrong sized plug and it is leaking out. I’ll get another plug and some more salt. You just sit there. The blister will be gone as soon as I get the right sized plug…”
There is much Gospel symbolism in the washing of feet, but I had never really much appreciated it before the Hostal Louro in Ordes. Wonderfully, the blister on my left sole—which had been developing over a whole week—had gone by the next morning. The hospitality shown by this married couple, who appear well beyond retirement age, was truly inspiring. After breakfast, with boots on and rucksack ready to go, I asked for the bill. Somehow I knew it would be reasonable but was surprised nevertheless. The total bill was 27 Euros for the room, a 3-course evening meal, breakfast, and all of the attention over my foot. There is a very good monograph by Regalado and Lahoski on the subject of Camino hospitality, which I mentioned in my previous series Postcards from the Camino, and if the book ever to be updated, this lovely old couple deserve a chapter to themselves.
Fortified by the hospitality received, I made my way back to Poulo where I had left the Camino Inglés, and then spent the entire day completing the journey on foot to Santiago de Compostela. The group with which I had formed a loose community over the previous days had now gone well ahead of me and would probably be spending their day in the city of the Apostle, as I continued alone on the last stage. That is how it works: sometimes the pilgrim is part of a community on the road and at other times alone and drawing upon inner strength and reliance upon God and His holy angels.
So, I finally trudge into Santiago de Compostela one more time, in the damp autumn weather of Galicia, and I go through the Holy Door which has been unsealed for this extended Xacobeo. Pilgrims file in, then go down the steep stone stairs to spend some moments in front of the silver reliquary containing bones which the Church believes to be those of Saint James the Great, apostle of Jesus Christ. I go to the pilgrim reception and my credencial—the pilgrim passport—is assessed. The clerk congratulates me and writes out the Latin inscription on my certificate. That’s it: been there, done that, got another Compostelana to add to my collection. Will I do this again, or was this the last time? I somehow hope it was. The physical challenge seems harder every time and the Covid restrictions and constant fussing this time have added an extra burden. The simplicity of the Camino community and the hospitality is slowly fading.
 Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’: on care for our common home (Vatican Press, 2015.)
 Antonio Regalado and Beth Ann Lahoski, Un Paso en el Tiempo: Historias y Hospitalidad a la vera del Camino del Apóstol, (Silex Ediciones, 2005.)
Images: Header photo: Pilgrim on the Camino Inglés alongside the main highway near Segueiro. All photos taken by the author in September/October 2021.
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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).