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Article: "El Camino"

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An alternative pilgrimage to Santiago: An account Alan Riley wrote of his 1999 pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, published in The Tablet in August 1999. As it turned Alan's knowledge of the Camino proved useful when we had to cancel Scottish Cross in 2001 because of the foot and mouth outbreak. A group of Scottish Crossers walked to Santiago de Compostela instead of Iona that year.

El Camino: The view from the Pilgrims Foot.

At the mountain top the village of O Cebreiro I was unsure what hacked me off the most. Was it the incompetence of the Xunta de Galicia ( the regional government) in providing too few tents for pilgrims (in Galicia summer temperatures are akin to those of Ireland not Spain, shelter is vital). And then the placing of those tents on a mountain top, where even pilgrims with a four season sleeping bag would freeze? Or was it the smug self- satisfaction of those pilgrims who had a bed or bunk for the night in a refuge or hostal? Or the fact that faced with the number of people needing shelter the local church did not open its hallowed portals to the shivering pilgrims. The Church has actively encourage pilgrims to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in this Holy Year. The Spanish tourist authorities had also spent considerable sums advertising El Camino. Neither seemed that interested in providing facilities for those who had responded to the call to pilgrimage.

The benefits of pilgrimage are undeniable. At a minimum they provide the more secular pilgrim with the opportunity to renew his or her batteries. Far more substantially pilgrimage provides an opportunity of spiritual renewal; to find new pathways to and understandings of God. As my Finnish fellow pilgrim said "tender feet lead to a tender heart". Pilgrimage also fosters a strong community spirit. From, for example, the simple operation of assisting each other with putting on a poncho when it rains (an operation that cannot be undertaken alone if you want it to cover your backpack). To Pepe the Brazilian doctor checking everyones feet each day and Carlos, the Spanish piper at keeping our spirits up with tunes ranging from Greensleeves through to the theme tune from the film Titanic. Also not to be forgotten was the encouragement of people along the route lorry drivers sounding their horns as they passed by; the villagers giving us directions to lost and confused pilgrims and the French speaking lady bar owner, at her Hostal not far from Santiago who took one look at my dishevelled and exhausted figure and produced as if from nowhere a une grande verre de jus d’orange. Nor to be forgotten are the beautiful villages of northern Spain through which we passed. After one day walking some 20 miles through high mountains from Rabanal down toward Ponferrada I came across Molinacesa. Tired and dusty I walked into this beautiful village to find that they damned the river for swimming in summer. So, I was able to strip off, plunge into the icy water and do two lengths of the river-pure bliss!

Nor to be forgotten is that special feature of the Holy Year: the self-drive pilgrim. These are people who drive from refugio to refugio collecting stamps for their pilgrim passports, buy the T-shirt, but do no or very little walking. Another version is the self- drive group. This group will send off their driver in the minibus with 30 pilgrim passports to block book a refugio. Later on the driver comes back picks the group up and drive them in to the next refugio. These pilgrims can be spotted easily outside the pilgrim office in Santiago queing up for their compostelas. They are the ones with the ironed shirts and clean trainers. Walking pilgrims wear dusty boots and have clothes which have not seen an iron for weeks.

Unfortunately the benefits of the Santiago pilgrimage are undermined by the lack of preparation by Church and State. Fundamentally, there is unbelievably inadequate accommodation provided for the numbers of pilgrims that arrive in a Holy Year. This is not just the matter of the state and regional authorities providing more tents. It was surprising that along the route the local churches were so little involved in providing accommodation. At Portomarin for example, the pilgrims were sleeping out in the local park, in a town full of churches. Surely some of the churches, church halls or church controlled schools could have been used to provide shelter for the pilgrims.

Worse still lack of accommodation led to a second and in my view extremely damaging effect upon the spirit of the pilgrimage. As the pilgrims began to realise that the accommodation was scarce an "every man for himself-" attitude took hold. The low point of this attitude for me was at the Benedictine monastery at Samos. All the pilgrims slept in a dormitory. The fear of lack of accommodation became so great that many of the pilgrims left very early. Unfortunately this meant setting their alarm clocks fall 2.30, 2.45, 3.00, 3.30, 3.45AM. One pilgrim memorably set his alarm clock for 4.15AM. Sadly for his fellow-pilgrims it was an old-fashioned alarm and he had difficulty in finding the off switch-so it rang merrily for 20 minutes or so. It is doubtful that such behaviour can be squared with any notion of pilgrimage fellowship never mind the golden rule.

The accommodation problems also created a major safety issue. In order to obtain accommodation many of the pilgrims left at night. As light did not appear before 6.15AM they were often walking in darkness without reflectors or lights for two to three hours. In some places the route to Santiago runs along main roads bearing heavy traffic. During the day I have been a little scared as 40 tonne lorries pass by. At night without lights or reflectors such walking would be positively frightening and possibly deadly. A further safety problem is exacerbated by the numbers of pilgrims walking the Camino in a Holy Year. Privately or state run pilgrim refugios, proving free or cheap accommodation, along the route normally take 40 pilgrims. In a Holy Year, numbers can shoot up close to 200. Not only do many of these refugios not have fire alarms, smoke detectors and fire exits, they also lock the pilgrims in until dawn. Admittedly, locking the pilgrims in is one way of stopping them leaving early and endangering themselves on the roads. However, taking an all round view of the safety of pilgrims such measures are akin to exchanging the frying pan for the fire.

Would I recommend the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Yes, the benefits to the soul and mind are great. Just a avoid the July of any Holy Year.

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