On the streets of Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, pilgrims crowded together with their backpacks, floppy hats, and high-tech walking sticks, sharing tales from the road. Most of them still had scallop shells affixed to their walking sticks or backpacks, which identify pilgrims as they make their way, town to town, across Spain. El camino de Santiago, the pilgrim trail, begins in southern France and is approximately 500 miles long. The route was established in eleventh century as a way for religious devotees to reach the Cathedral del Apostol, in Santiago, which is where the remains of St. James the Apostle are believed by many to be housed. Not everyone does the whole camino, but from the looks of the bandaged, blackened feet of some of the pilgrims—newly relieved of their hiking boots now that they’d reached their destination—they’d traveled quite a distance.
Andrew and I pointed pilgrims out to each other as we made our own pilgrimage from café to café. The pilgrims, male and female, old and young, were dressed virtually identically in rugged shorts, t-shirts, and complicated, heavy-soled sandals. There seemed to be a preponderance of white-haired retiree sorts from Germany and Britain, many of whom appeared to have done the pilgrimage together. As Andrew and I sipped café con leche and ate tartes de Santiago—a kind of large, round pastry with a cross and sword etched into powdered sugar dusted over the top, and served in wedge-shaped slices—we contentedly watched the pilgrims and tossed around the idea of doing the pilgrimage ourselves.
There’s something very appealing about the idea of walking across Spain, stopping each night in a different tiny town and sleeping in spartan pilgrims’ quarters—a way to explore a Spain otherwise invisible, even impenetrable. Andrew is attracted by the concept of a remarkable physical challenge. Our pilgrimage wouldn’t be rooted in religion. Instead, it would be a way for us to have an adventure in the months after Andrew’s graduation, a different kind of adventure than simply buying another set of plane tickets to yet another new destination. We bought a book about the trail in the Cathedral’s gift shop.
Throughout the weekend, we shadowed the pilgrims, enjoying the rituals of the Cathedral. On Sunday, as a crowded Mass was being said, we joined a long line snaking around the Cathedral and behind the altar, where we filed into a tiny doorway and walked up a narrow, steep flight of stairs. At the top, we found ourselves behind the large, gold-plated statue of St. James that hovers over the altar. Following the lead of those in front of me, I put my hands on St. James’s jewel-encrusted shoulders for a contemplative minute. Over St. James’s head, I could see the priest on the altar and the faces of the worshippers in the pews. Then the line snaked into a narrow corridor beneath the altar, to a tiny chapel holding one kneeler in front of a glass-fronted case. Inside was the reliquary holding the remains of St. James. After a brief pause, we were back outside in the Cathedral, surrounded by chants and hymns.
On Monday, Andrew and I returned to the Cathedral, this time heading toward the back, where yet another line was inching toward an ornately-carved marble column flanked by two stone statues. One of the statues is a self-portrait of Maestro Mateo, the architect and artist who created much of the sculpture in the Cathedral; the other is of Hercules. Bumping your head three times on the head of each of the statues will, according to legend, bring genius. When I reached the column, I put my hand in the hand-shaped groove that has been worn in to it; I put my other hand into the open mouth of a stone fish, an action I hadn’t read about in any guidebooks but had seen those before me do. Then I bumped my head three times on the head of each of the statues.
To us, the rituals we followed in Santiago were curiosities; to the pilgrims, they surely held greater significance, or at least greater satisfaction. All weekend, I felt like an intruder, as though I hadn’t yet earned a place at the charming sidewalk cafes and in a pew inside the stunning cathedral. I had simply hopped a Vueling flight from Barcelona—many others had hiked there, walking day after day with the town in mind. The whole town had an air of celebration and victory. It was a place where everyone wanted to be—a place they had dreamed of being. At night, we stretched out with the pilgrims on the warm, flat stones in front of the cathedral and just stared up at the lighted façade, as the spires were circled by ghostly pigeons and the star-specks of flying bats.