El Camino de Santiago — Walking the Way

“Sigue la flecha amarilla. Síguela, y podrás encontrar el camino.” Follow the yellow arrow, I was told, and you’ll find the way.

by Monica Wang


“[dropcap]S[/dropcap]igue la flecha amarilla. Síguela, y podrás encontrar el camino.” Follow the yellow arrow, I was told, and you’ll find the way.

They certainly were not difficult to spot – these yellow arrows marked brick walls, tree branches, stone pillars, farm sheds, and occasionally, even the utility poles. Past rolling fields of corn and pastures of grazing cows, the Way meandered through the beautiful countryside of Galicia. My eyes found beauty in the green and open landscape; the sight never ceased to impress. But above all, it was the people, the 21st century pilgrims embarking on an almost anachronistic journey, that made up El Camino de Santiago.

One of the most important pilgrimage routes in the world, the Way of St. James – or El Camino de Santiago in Spanish – is not a single path that takes you from point A to point B. Historically, point B has always been Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia in Spain’s westernmost region. According to a legend, the hermit Pelayo discovered the remains of the apostle Saint James in 813 A.D., and subsequently a tomb, then a chapel, then a cathedral. Finally a burgeoning city was constructed around the site of the discovery. Santiago de Compostela played an important role in medieval history from its inception, giving Christian kings in northern Spain a religious, ideological, and physical locus to bolster their campaign to drive out the Moors in the south and reconquer all of Spain. Point B has therefore been set from the very beginning.

Point A, however, has not. Personally, I started in Sarria, a small town in the province of Lugo that is approximately 100 kilometers from the destination and a popular place to start. The specific path I took was a section of the French Way, one of the most historically renowned routes that crosses the Pyrenees from the French side to reach Roncesvalles on the Spanish side and then continues on. Roncesvalles, however, is more than 750 kilometers from Santiago de Compostela, according to an elderly Dutch couple I met while taking a break in a roadside café. As I sipped my café con leche, the husband recounted tales of their journey from Roncesvalles, often giving detailed descriptions of the scenery and the people they met on the way. Afterwards, as they glided forward with walking sticks in their hands, I witnessed the couple walking at a surprisingly rapid speed – no wonder they made it all the way from the French border.

I did not choose to walk the Camino for religious purposes, yet the diversity of modern-day pilgrims still took me by surprise. Having octopus and beer in the famous Pulpería Ezequiel in the Galician town of Melide, I met a Dutch mother and daughter who decided to walk the Camino as an unconventional way of spending the holidays. Chuckling, the mother told me that she had completed the journey several times before, but this one was bound to be special with her daughter by her side. Later on, as I attempted to trek up a seemingly unsurmountable hill, I began to talk to a girl panting next to me. She was an exchange student from Mexico studying abroad in Spain. Everyone had recommended the journey, she said – it promised to be rewarding.

Revived in the 1980s, today’s Camino attracts more non-believers, students, and travelers than the strictly religious pilgrims that had traveled along the same paths a thousand years ago, and many now choose to undertake the journey for spiritual and personal reasons. Still, along the Camino, children from youth church groups sang songs and laughed at each other’s jokes. Inside the albergues (pilgrim hostels), I conversed with natives of the country in my broken Spanish, amazed at how the Camino managed to bring people of all ages, backgrounds, cultures, and even religions together. The Way may seem daunting, but it’s never a lonely path.

“Buen camino,” they all said before we packed our bags to continue the journey. “Good walk,” they said, “and remember always to walk on.”

Monica Wang is a sophomore History major in Trumbull College. Contact her at monica.wang@yale.edu