Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Walking the road not-so-less traveled: Following the Way of El Camino de Santiago

Walking the road not-so-less traveled: Following the Way of El Camino de Santiago

It has been said that the real essence of traveling is in the journey itself and not the destination. For friends Luz Lorenzo and Bunny Fabella, this adage became a reality as they set across Spain’s pilgrimage route to the holy city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

Economist Luz Lorenzo was first intrigued by the artistry of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral while doing research for a college humanities assignment. Fascinated by its history, Romanesque interiors, and pilgrimage, Luz vowed that she would one day go on the pilgrimage and see the Cathedral for herself.

Fast forward to 2002, after much planning and several postponed travel arrangements, Luz finally found herself with a credencial or a “pilgrim passport,” backpacking the Spanish pilgrimage route via the Camino Frances. On her own and on-foot, Luz mapped out a self-guided 800-kilometer trek to Santiago de Compostela to begin her six-week expedition.

A web of interconnecting routes which extend throughout Spain and across parts of Europe, “The Way of St. James” or “El Camino de Santiago”1 leads pilgrims to the shrine of St. James (or Santiago in Spanish) at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the endpoint of the El Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims who complete the camino to the Cathedral are believed to earn plenary indulgence for their perseverance and faithfulness.

Walking the camino unaccompanied is quite common and easy. Guided group tours are also available. Pilgrims can either walk, bike, or travel on horseback on any of the four roads: the Camino Frances, Camino Portuges, Camino del Norte, and Camino Ingles. Similar to the varied modes of traveling the camino, Compostela’s pilgrims nowadays have different reasons for tackling the road: it could be spiritual upliftment, athletic endeavor, cultural immersion, or simply marking a turning point in life. Whatever mode or reason modern pilgrims have, since the medieval times, droves of people still find fulfillment in completing the pilgrimage.

Scallop-shaped road markers and arrows strategically dot the entire route. Friendly locals also gladly help disoriented peregrinos or pilgrims to the right track. The pilgrimage’s growing popularity assures peregrinos that they’ll bump into fellow travelers along the way.

Though she took the trip alone, Luz said the solitary walk gave her an opportunity to bump into people she wouldn’t ordinarily meet if she was on the pilgrimage with a group of friends. “It’s different because I didn’t feel isolated; I wasn’t cocooned off from my fellow travelers. I met different groups of people, especially in the beginning since I was walking by myself,” said Luz.

Families or friends who plan to do the pilgrimage together will find it a good bonding activity as well. Professional caterer Bunny Fabella was part of a group of five who navigated the 112-km camino from Sarria to Compostela. While each of them treaded the camino at their own pace, they found comfort and encouragement at the thought that their companions were just a few paces away.

Peregrinos like Bunny and Luz would walk an average of 20 kms a day and stop before nightfall to rest at refugios or albergues de peregrinos, also known as pilgrim shelters. These room or dormitory-type hostels ask a minimum fee or donativo donation to certified peregrinos. According to Luz, most refugios have rudimentary facilities — mainly a bed, bathrooms, and wash area. Managed by hospitaleros, these overnight accommodations also give free medical treatment to sick or injured pilgrims and even allow them to extend their stay.

Food is also not a problem for those walking the Way. Some albergues offer homemade Spanish meals to pilgrims at inexpensive prices. Travelers who prefer to dine at authentic Spanish restaurants will also enjoy discounts with the pilgrim menu.

One major consideration peregrinos should think about though is traveling and packing light. Bunny and Luz agree that people planning to walk either 100 kms or 800 kms of the El Camino de Santiago should pack lightweight, quick-drying essentials that can be worn in the sweltering heat, unpredictable rain showers, or gusty wind.

Sleeping mats, walking sticks, medicine kits, toiletries, drinking water, and some food like the customary Spanish bocadillo or sandwich baguette is enough to sustain pilgrims.

Peregrinos, who have completed all stamps in their credencials, receive a certificate of accomplishment or compostela. They can hear the Pilgrim Mass which is held each noon at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. As with other churches throughout the route, peregrinos who receive the compostela have their country of origin and starting point announced during the mass. Priests administer the Sacrament of Penance to enable pilgrims to fully attain the plenary indulgence. Furthermore, pilgrims get their scallop shells upon reaching Santiago de Compostela to remind them of their trip across the Spanish countryside.

“There are plenty of aspects to the trip. There’s a religious aspect. There’s also a cultural aspect because you see a lot of good architecture, and you get to meet people and witness their culture, language and way of life,” said Luz.

Bunny said that the pilgrimage gave them not only a first-hand taste of Spanish hospitality but also authentic Spanish gastronomy. The far-reaching and comprehensive scope of this one-of-a-kind journey is proof that anyone who decides to step foot on the camino is guaranteed to have a wealth of experiences, if not enlightenment. “If you really want a pilgrimage, you do this, because it’s multi-faceted. It’s fun, uplifting, relaxing and definitely a trip of a lifetime,” said Bunny.

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