November 2014 Articles

Online Exclusive! Packs & Poles

Peregrinos (Pilgrims) on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela

By the Bryn Mawr Five of ’58

One sunny, mid-October afternoon in 2013  five ’58 classmates gathered for lunch at the Rhode Island home of Eliza (Cope) Harrison to continue rekindling  friendships launched over 50 years ago . Mary Skinner suggested we travel together on the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, known as “El Camino”or “The Way.” Over the next couple of months, we–Eliza, Mary, Llynda (Hinds) McFarlane, Betty (de Sabato) Swinton, and Barbara (Pinney) Slayter–explored options, calculating both physical and linguistic challenges for our group, and determined that an expedition organized by the educational organization, Road Scholar, was the way to go. And, thus, one year later we found ourselves meeting in Madrid for a two-week trip taking us by foot and by bus over the 325 miles between Burgos and Santiago, the last portion of a 500 mile pilgrimage route that begins at various points in France and Spain and ends at the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain. There the relics of St. James are held in a sacred crypt and a statue of the saint can be venerated by climbing stairs behind the altar to touch it.

El Camino the  Bryn Mawr 5

The Bryn Mawr Five of ’58 (left to right): Barbara (Pinney) Slayter, Eliza (Cope) Harrison, Mary Skinner, Llynda (Hinds) McFarlane, Elizabeth (deSabato) Swinton.

Procession of Pilgrims: For 10 centuries pilgrims have made their way to Santiago for spiritual, historic, religious, and cultural reasons. It is third after Jerusalem and Rome among pilgrimage destinations in the Christian world. We joined this long procession of pilgrims who have traveled to the site, each of us bringing our own questions, yearnings, curiosities, and delights to this expedition. Accompanied by Ignacio (Nacho) Engel, our superb Spanish guide, whose wealth of historical knowledge was peppered with stories and humor, and by a group of 20 (in total) pilgrims, we shared a keen curiosity about the historic heritage of El Camino and an appreciation for the natural beauty of northern Spain. Our companions represented 11 states—including Hawaii—and a variety of professional occupations. We were predominately female—only three men—and mostly seniors in the 60 to 80 age range. One 77-year-old is currently an Olympic sprinter in her age group!

El Camino the scallop showing the way

A bronze plaque with scallop embedded in the cobblestones of Burgos showing the way to Santiago.

The Scallop Shell: Mary gave each of us a scallop shell at the beginning of the journey to put on a back pack or otherwise use to indicate pilgrim status. The scallop shell is a symbol of St. James (Santiago) and of this pilgrimage. Its use derives from one of St. James’ miracles in which he rescued a knight who, along with his horse, had fallen into the sea and was presumed dead. When St. James caused the knight and horse to rise from the sea, they were alive but covered with scallop shellsScallop shells are commonplace along the Galician coast and, hence, it may not be surprising that this shell has become a symbol of the pilgrimage. The scallop shell is also a metaphor in that the grooves in the shell, dispersed at the outer edge, merge at a single point, just as do pilgrims arriving at Santiago de Compostela from all over the world.  Lastly, the shell is used as a visual marker all along the route directing travellers toward their goal.  At the end of the trip our guide gave each participant a scallop shell as a memento of the trip. These gift shells evoke specific memories for us. They were the ones—scrubbed in a dishwasher—from which we had eaten a delicious scallop appetizer, and they gave new meaning to coquille Saint Jacques.

El Camino road sign

A typical road sign to aid the peregrinos.

Searching for Saints: We walked in the steps of the saints. Many were early martyrs, who like Santiago, had taken on second lives through the pens of Carolingian scribes. Their relics had been found (or invented) and carried south by early French pilgrims to grace churches of the Way. We met two of the most impressive local saints in our first days of exploring the Camino east of Burgos. Santo Domingo de la Calzada was a young 11th-century shepherd who was rejected by a local monastery. With the encouragement of a papal legate friend, he retired as a hermit to the forest and assisted pilgrims. He became known for repairing roads and building bridges across the many local rivers. The next day we hiked to the shrine of San Juan de Ortega, Domingo’s disciple, who single-handedly cut pilgrim trails through the forests of the Oca Mountains, the first of three formidable ranges we were to cross en route to Santiago. One evening Barbara and Mary presented some humorous readings from the famous twelfth-century pilgrims’ guide that we later saw in beautiful early illuminated manuscripts at the monastery of Samos and the Cathedral Museum of Santiago.

Legacies in Burgos: Eliza arrived in Burgos armed with copies of two drawings her grandfather made in 1895 when, as a young architect, he visited Burgos. Nacho was able to identify one site as El Hospital del Rey or the King’s Hospital near the university. So, Eliza and Betty set out with the drawings and little more Spanish than “Donde esta Hospital del Rey?” They asked pedestrians, cabdrivers, and even a woman on her balcony for directions and finally found–within the precincts of the university–the magnificent courtyard of the King’s Hospital which was beautifully captured in the drawing. Other visitors in the courtyard were curious about the drawing and its history and one, entering into the spirit of the search, showed Eliza the place where her grandfather must have stood when he made the drawing. The Spaniards were delighted that an American architect in 1895 was studying their architecture and Eliza was thrilled to find the buildings and to interact with the Spaniards who made this connection possible. She was also able to identify the other drawing as the gate to the Chapel of the Ministers in the Burgos Cathedral.  These discoveries made the visit to Burgos a very special and unexpected adventure.

El Camino walking on the meseta

Our group of pilgrims walking on the Meseta, the high plateau of Central Spain.

Leon at Festival Time: As it turned out, we were in Leon for the celebration of San Froilan, its patron saint. The crowds were enormous as multi-generation families celebrated the occasion and enjoyed a medieval fair in the historic part of the city. The fair was divided into ethnic precincts identified as Christian, Arab and Jewish. This seemed odd to politically correct Americans, but it was only a reference to the city’s medieval heritage. The atmosphere was not contemplative. Nevertheless we were able to appreciate the 13th century Gothic cathedral with its magnificent stained glass windows–second only to Chartres, as well as the sacred space of the Romanesque Basilica of San Isidoro, that contains the Royal Pantheon of the Kings of Leon with its fabulous twelfth century wall paintings, Gothic capitals, and the greatest of relics the agate Holy Grail framed in gold.

Packs and Poles: With packs on our backs—containing rain gear for the province of Galicia is notoriously rainy—and trekking poles in constant use, we hiked between five and ten miles a day on various surfaces from steep steps and pathways to rocky mountain trails, muddy lanes and paved roads. For the most part, the weather on this trip was congenial, but the skies opened up in Ponferrada and we traipsed around a 12th-century castle of the Knights Templar in a deluge wielding our umbrellas, jumping puddles, and remarking how difficult life must have been in terms of weather and health 900 years ago!

El Camino Mary on trail in Asturias

Mary on a narrow, misty trail in the mountains of Asturia.

Comino Credencial del PeregrinoThroughout the two weeks we were seeking stamps for our Credencial, a document that could be obtained for a small fee from official sites along the Camino.  The objective is to have the Credencial stamped in towns and cities along the way as proof of having made the pilgrimage by traveling on the Camino for the requisite 100 kilometers (by foot) or 200 kilometers (by bicycle). These stamps were necessary to obtain the official Compostelana, the certificate of completion of the pilgrimage.  Churches, coffee bars, restaurants, and hostels can provide the official stamp, and so it is that each of us bears a Credencial complete with stamps demonstrating progress on the Camino and useable in the future should any among us choose to return to complete it.  Although we were staying in charming hotels along the way and not in hostels (albergues) that provide inexpensive accommodation for pilgrims, the latter became favorite places to acquire our stamps.  Of all the hostels we visited, perhaps our favorite was the albergue in Astorga, a lively town that is the site where three different routes to Santiago converge.  There the celebrated Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi designed a castlelike residence for a BishopIt was deemed too elegant for a clerical residence, and it is now a Peregrino Museum.

El Camino Resting Pilgrims

Three weary pilgrims, Llynda, Betty and friend.

Wear and tear on our joints: Alas, we were not far into our trip when some medical problems emerged. Betty tore the meniscus in her right knee on the rocky uneven paths. She found herself (along with Eliza and Mary) sometimes opting for “Plan B” kindly offered by our guide. If a particular route might be too challenging for a participant, Plan B provided for a bus ride, a longer stay in a coffee bar at our next destination, and an opportunity for an extra stroll in that area while the Plan A trekkers gathered up their packs and polls and hiked the distance. This alternative proved altogether satisfactory for observing daily village life, visiting country churches and local museums. A number of our companions took advantage of this opportunity as occasion required. Our guides, however, encouraged us to try tough walks, and Leonor, our gracious and patient assistant guide, served as “sweep” making sure that no slow hikers got left behind.

Spiritual or sacred spaces: All along the route are churches, monuments, monasteries, chapels and other places of religious significance. Each person making the trip will have his or her places that gave special meaning to the journey. For all of us, O Cebreiro touched the soul.  It is an ancient village high in the mountains of Galicia, a magical place from Celtic times.  The day we were there, it was engulfed in fog, mist, and a damp chill.  O Cebreiro’s Iglesia de Santa Maria, built on a religious site dating from the 9th century, is the oldest existing church associated with the Camino. It is sombre, still, and evocative of centuries of pilgrims past. O Cebreiro is a reminder of the enduring influence of the Celts whose symbols were noted in various places throughout Galicia. The Holy Grail, from which Christ drank wine at the Last Supper, is reputed to have been hidden for some time at O Cebreiro. It is also the burial site of Sampedro, the priest who was responsible for facilitating a modern signpost and support system for the Camino. We were all also touched most particularly by the beauty of Fromista, the Romanesque Iglesia of San Martin with its elegant lines and quiet dignity, as well as our experience at the simple rural church where Mary assisted the priest in offering a pilgrims’ blessing for all of us.

The Grand Finale: Thus, we made our way to the ancient city of Santiago. We paused at the Mont of Joy where pilgrims over the centuries have first caught a glimpse of the distant spires of the cathedral, and we could imagine the relief and exhilaration of those who might have spent months or even years en route. It was with a profound sense of awe that we too viewed the relics of St. James in the crypt and touched the statue of St. James.  Most special was the Pilgrims’ Mass held in this magnificent and immense cathedral the day after our arrival. Countless candles lighted the high altar and the light reflecting off its gold decoration created a spiritual and other-worldly space.  The priests were resplendent in white robes with red chasubles.  It took six attendants to pull the ropes of the huge censer, the Botafumeiro, suspended on a pulley mechanism from the ceiling. They hoisted the censer so that it swung up nearly to the ceiling of the transept, going back and forth in front of the altar to the far side again and again, reaching speeds reputed to be nearly 50 miles an hour, and spreading incense around the cathedral for several minutes. All this was accompanied by an amazing organ and choir performance. It was truly an extraordinary moment.


The Botafumeiro, the giant incense burner.

Memorable moments: Of course, there were many. We all especially enjoyed the convivial lunches and dinners, most often at charming or elegant restaurants, with our group of Road Scholars who seemed to relish not only the walks and the local cuisine, but each other’s company.  While Eliza and Betty were solving architectural puzzles in Burgos, Llynda, Mary and Barbara remember the day hiking in Asturias, part of the northernmost route to Santiago, a beautiful mountainous region of steep, narrow trails where shepherds and cowherds, as well as their charges, were our companions and where the villages are old, remote, and peaceful. It was also one of the many days that our valiant bus driver, Luis, won our appreciation and admiration for his skill in manoeuvring the bus in incredibly tight places. We all recall our first night in Santiago when we were treated to Nacho’s Galician, after dinner poetic incantation over a bubbly, flaming and potable brew, a liqueur that certainly heightened the excitement of our arrival. Our treks were replete with many special moments walking village pathways under giant chestnut and oak trees, skirting pastures, barns, and walls, admiring fabulous hydrangeas, and getting to know our fellow walkers along the way.  And, of course, we made the final, day-long trek (via foot and bus) beyond Santiago to Finisterre, the majestic and rocky westernmost point on the Atlantic coast of Spain that for centuries people believed was literally “the end of the earth.”


The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

In Sum: Are we glad we made the journey to Santiago? Absolutely! We are thrilled and elated as well as humbled by evidence of the courage, fortitude and perseverance of pilgrims over the centuries. Each one of us has received much from our trek on El Camino, including the strengthening of bonds of friendship among the five of us. We hope we have contributed to the camaraderie, well being, and individual growth of others along the way. If these thoughts and perceptions should fade over time–as no doubt they will–we shall have our scallop shells and our Credencial to remind us of the very special journey to the Cathedral of St. James in the Field of Stars, Santiago de Compostela.

Comments on “Online Exclusive! Packs & Poles”

  1. Another Bryn Mawrtyr, Class of 1956, walked the Way about when you did. I was there in early October of this year — we started in St. Jean Pied du Port, crossed over the Pyrenees, then across the flat Kansas-like Castilla y Leon area (where I got terrible blisters), and then into the mountains of Galicia. My favorite place was O Cebreiro as well. Your article captures El Camino perfectly.