A pilgrimage to Camino de Santiago

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Saturday, August 9, 2014


WHAT is it like to walk 790 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago, a thousand-year-old pilgrimage route that stretches from the French Pyrenees to the shrine of the apostle St. James in Spain's northwest?

I have always wanted to go to Europe, always felt that the only way to see a country is to merge with the landscape for at least a month. But walk an average of 25 kilometers every day, clothes, sleeping bag, and all my creature comforts on my back? For 34 days, risk life and limb, the possibility of blisters, diarrhea, bed-bugs, bladder emergencies, heat, cold, storm, walking on three- inch thick sticky mud cum cow shit. . . to visit the tomb of an apostle?

Pilgrimages to Santiago began after the location of Saint James' remains was revealed to a shepherd in the 9th century. Stars of the Milky Way were said to have danced over this field, thus "Compostela," Field of Stars and one of the Camino's other names, "Via Lactea," the Milky Way.

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During the height of its popularity from the 12th to the 14th century, every year, an estimated one million pilgrims-saints and criminals, rich and poor-travelled from all over Europe to Santiago.

The number declined after the 16th century but since a parish priest painted yellow arrows to mark the Camino Frances in 1980 and John Paul II visited Santiago in 1982, more and more people of different faiths have been walking the Camino.

The Camino Frances, most popular of the 12 way-marked pilgrim routes to Santiago, is an enchanted walk back in time. Many of Europe's best examples of 12th to 15th century Romanesque and Gothic churches, the cathedrals of Burgos, Leon, and Santiago among these, are along the Camino.

Where better to sing "The Sound of Music" than in the Pyrenees? "The Song of Roland" makes legend of how Charlemagne's nephew died fighting Saracens in Roncesvalles. Ponferrada's Templar Castle is a throwback to when the Knights Templar safeguarded the Way. Where swords clashed and the blood of Christians and Muslims mingled, the Camino's yellow arrows lead through idyllic countryside into towns that have sheltered pilgrim's for centuries.

The problem was, no matter how unforgettable and absolutely breathtaking this pilgrimage route might be, what I and most Filipinos could not imagine was walking 25 kilometers daily for 33 to 35 days.

I changed my mind when four friends walked the last 110 kilometers of another route. 100K is the minimum a pilgrim must walk for a "Compostela" or certificate of his pilgrimage. In 2013, 142 Filipinos (compared to 2,774 South Koreans) were among 216,000 plus pilgrims who reach Santiago and obtained compostelas.

If a person can walk 20 to 25 kilometers a day for five days, 10 days is not that difficult to imagine, and two weeks of walking to explore a country rich with history and culture begins to seem do-able by Filipino standards.

Why not, since 33,460 senior citizens were among those who claimed Compostelas in 2013? Eventually, two weeks got stretched to five. After all, among the many absolutely impossible things there are to do in this life, the easiest and the most fun to do is probably walking 790 kilometers.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on August 09, 2014.

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