Ultreia, Buen Camino!

This phrase is an encouraging greeting often heard among pilgrims on a hiking trail called the Camino de Santiago, meaning “let’s go further” or “keep going”.  The Camino is a vast system of trails all across Europe that converge at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.  The cathedral is home to the supposed remains of Saint James the apostle and a shrine in his honor.  The earliest recorded religious pilgrimages to this site date back to the 9th century A.D.  When a pilgrim completed the trail, it was customary to bring back a scallop shell, often found on the shores of Galicia.  This practice gradually became the iconic badge of the pilgrims.  Many pilgrims today wear a scallop shell as a sign of their pilgrimage, and the trails are well marked with scallop shells on pillars, buildings, roads, and signs.

Often traveling for months and even years to reach the cathedral, pilgrims were cared for by hospitals, cafes, and hostels.  Along the pilgrimage, accommodations were free of charge by the local parish, town council, private owners, or pilgrim associations.  Now, the same services are offered for a small fee or donation if you have obtained a pilgrim’s credential (passport) obtained from an official starting point.  A passport stamp is given at each stop along the way to show proof of the journey, and it allows the pilgrim to receive a “Compostela” or certificate of completion at the end of the Camino.  The minimum distance required to obtain a certificate is 62 miles (100km) for walking or 120 miles (200km) for cycling.

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 A pilgrim’s mass is held at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela twice each day.  For those completing the journey, their country of origin is announced at the beginning of the service.  The ornate “Botafumeiro” containing one of the world’s largest incense burners is suspended on a pulley mechanism in the dome on the roof of the church.  This pulley system is operated by eight men in red robes (tirabolerios) who swing the Botafumeiro above the pilgrims’ heads and toward the rafters.  Tradition has it that the Botafumeiro came into use in the 11th century to purify and overcome the stench of unwashed pilgrims.  It was also believed to have had disease-preventing properties during the age of the plague, and it remains an important part of the religious liturgy.

My family first learned about the Camino from a movie starring Martin Sheen called The Way.  We were intrigued by the challenges presented by the pilgrimage, the beautiful landscapes pictured in the movie, and the spiritual aspects of the journey as well.  For my youngest daughter’s senior year trip, she requested to hike the Camino, and following her high school graduation, we packed our backpacks and headed for Spain.

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After arriving in Madrid, we took a train to Pamplona and met our host who transported us to his guest house where he and his wife provided us with a delicious Hungarian dinner and a comfortable room for the night.  The next morning, our host drove us and a few of our fellow pilgrims across the Spain-France border to St. Jean-de-Pied-du-Port, one of the official starting points of the Camino.  Due to our limited vacation time and desire to see as much of the Camino as possible, we broke up our hike and walked the sections we deemed most important for each of us to see.  Our first section was among the most difficult as it took us up and over the Pyrenees Mountains.  After completing this strenuous section, we would hike a few days from one village to the next and then travel by bus or train to start of our next chosen section of the Camino.  During our trek, we stayed primarily in albergues (pilgrim’s hostels), which are limited service accommodations with dorm-style rooms – and lots of noisy sleepers!  Once we came within the final 100km required to earn our Compostela, we hiked for five days to the Camino’s end point in Santiago de Compostela.  

To say this journey was a challenge would be an understatement.  Our daughter developed blisters on her feet the very first day that I would wish on no one.  Yet, she maintained her persistence and desire to finish our hike.  We were overwhelmed by the community of pilgrims who would stop to offer medical assistance, massage her feet, pray for her, and wish us all buen camino!

To this day, after visiting 23 countries and going on many amazing journeys, this trip has been my most memorable and favorite of them all.  I highly recommend that if you have two weeks or more to take a vacation, consider going on an adventure such as this one.  Keep your mind open to the multitude of cultures you will come across, the hospitality you will receive, and the personal/spiritual growth you will achieve.  You can travel alone, with a friend, or go with a tour group and I assure you, you won’t have one regret.

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Megan O’Neal

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