Reflections on My Camino
May, 2016

Pilgrims have been walking to the Shrine of St. James the Great in Santiago for more than 1200 years. This pilgrimage is known as the Camino de Santiago in Spanish, the Way of St. James in English and Jacobsweg in German. As the highlight of my sabbatical in the spring semester of 2016, I walked 500 miles on this camino with Classics/History major Nick Mainz ’17.

Our Camino really began on Sunday, May 8th, at Immaculate Conception Church in Monmouth when the pastor of the church, Msgr. Thomas Mack, sent us off with the traditional pilgrim’s blessing printed below.  (Little did we realize at the time that we would receive this blessing again and again as we attended Masses across Spain.)

We then traveled to St. Jean Pied du Port in France and began walking our Camino on May 15. We crossed the Pyrennes into Spain on our first day and spent the next month walking c.15 miles a day across northern Spain to the tomb of St. James in Santiago. Our route took us through very diverse parts of Spain, including the famous wine country of la Rioja, the great Meseta or plateau of central Spain and the eucalyptus forests of Galicia. We visited many beautiful churches and cathedrals, especially in Pamplona, Burgos, Astorga, and Santiago. We met so many other pilgrims, from so many different countries, on the same journey. We reached Santiago almost exactly a month later, on June 16.

The life of a pilgrim is simple: walk during the day and find a good meal and a place to sleep at the end of the day’s journey. Many restaurants offer simple and inexpensive pilgrims’ menus for about $8-9. Pilgrims mostly sleep in simple albergues usually run by the town or by a parish church or sometimes by a private person. Private rooms are rare and expensive. Typically pilgrims sleep in bunkbeds in large dormitories which cost $5-10 a night.

People ask us if we enjoyed our experience. Our response is that the Camino is always challenging and rewarding but it is only sometimes enjoyable. It is challenging to spend the day walking such distances with a knapsack on your back, often with blisters on your feet or a painful knee. It is rewarding to reach your daily goal as well as the ultimate goal of St. James’ tomb. On the Camino the simple pleasures are enjoyable: drinking fresh, cool water from a public fountain after a long, hot walk; eating fresh cherries under the shade of a tree; walking along a wheat field pocketed with red poppies; sitting quietly in a village church to rest and to pray; wishing a fellow pilgrim “Buen Camino” (“Good Journey!”) or having another pilgrim wish you the same.

One memorable experience sums up what it is like to be a pilgrim on the Camino. We walked into the city of Logrono on a late Saturday afternoon only to find that every single albergue as well as every hotel was completely full. We were tired and desperate enough to sleep, if necessary, on the sidewalk. Fortunately, two French pilgrims whom we had met occasionally on the Way recognized our difficulty and told us that we might be able to find a place to sleep at the Church of Santiago (St. James), which was known for its welcome to pilgrims. We were not optimistic but we found the church, where a kind woman received us and explained that while they had no more beds in their dormitories they could let us sleep on mats in the church. We gratefully accepted this offer, attended Mass in the Church that evening and probably had the soundest sleep of our Camino that night as we slept in the Sacristy. St. James had looked out for us, indeed.

As Classicists, Nick and I did have several enjoyable experiences on the Camino. We visited several excellent museums with artifacts from Roman Spain (in Logrono, León and in Astorga, especially). The town of Astorga also has several archaeological sites from the Roman period, including a house, a gateway and part of the Forum. But our best Classics experience took place in Virgen del Camino, a little town west of Leon. As Nick and I were walking through that town and trying to decide whether we would call it a day and spend the night there, we saw a sign which said in Spanish “Roman Reenactment.” We followed the arrow to a park where we found dozens of Spaniards dressed in Roman costumes and preparing for an evening of demonstrations of Roman culture, including a funeral, a slave auction, and even gladiatorial contests. Needless to say, Nick and I decided to spend the night there and attend the show. We had a great time.

If you would like to know more about the Camino de Santiago, you might watch a film called “The Way” starring Martin Sheen. You can look back on our travels on Facebook by searching “Camino de Santiago Monmouth group.”

We will leave you with the most important lesson we learned on our walk: We are all walking the Camino of Life and need to accept the challenges, rewards and simple pleasures that road gives us. We do not walk this Camino alone. We do so with the help and prayers of others, the intercession of saints like St. James, and the protection of the Blessed Mother and her Divine Son. Buen camino!