The Camino Is Always with You

Guest post by Elyn Aviva

The Cathedral of San Salvador or Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Salvador in Oviedo | Photo by Elyn Aviva

It seemed like no matter where I lived in Spain, I was on the Camino. It all began in 1982 when I first walked the 500-mile-long Camino Francés from the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. At that time, the medieval pilgrimage route was just being reclaimed for walkers; the yellow arrows that marked the way were few and far between, and there were no refugios or pilgrimage hostels to provide shelter. After completing the Camino, I spent the year living in the small town of Sahagún de Campos, located at the halfway point of the Camino Francés, while I did research for my Ph.D. in anthropology on the modern-day pilgrimage. Pilgrims occasionally passed through, the emblematic scallop-shell symbol of the Camino swinging from their packs or a cloth replica sewn onto their hats. I interviewed those who were willing to talk about their experiences.

Encountering pilgrims was a nearly daily event in Sahagún

In 1997 my husband (and fellow pilgrim), Gary White, and I walked the Camino Francés together and then lived for a year in Sahagún. Encountering pilgrims was a nearly daily event, and other pilgrimage routes were being waymarked across Spain to relieve the stress on the Camino Francés.

Sahagún, Spain, is near the markers that indicate the halfway point of the Camino Frances | Stacey Wittig photo

We returned to Sahagún in 2009. By that time, the pilgrimage had grown into a wildly popular adventure/pilgrimage/bucket-list item for many tens of thousands of hikers/bicyclists/and occasional horseback riders. Not surprisingly, we would step out the door of our apartment, which was located on the main plaza, and see pilgrims’ backpacks stacked against the outside walls of the nearby cafés. A babble of languages greeted us as pilgrims from many countries engaged in animated conversations over espresso or a glass of wine. In summer, I frequently woke up to the tap-tap-tap of early rising pilgrims, their staffs beating a staccato pattern on the sidewalks, often before the sun rose.

Girona, far from the Camino, I thought

A year later, we moved to Girona, a city some 70 miles north of Barcelona. We were far from the Camino, I thought. So imagine my surprise when I struck up a conversation at the outdoor market with a member of the “Friends of the Camino in Catalonia.” I asked him where the Camino was in Catalonia, and he informed me that the Camí de San Jaume (The Catalan Camino of St. James) passed in front of our apartment building on its way out of town. Although there were many fewer pilgrims than on the Camino Francés, we still encountered backpack-toting pilgrims walking through the city. Several times we began our own journey on the Camí, heading toward the iconic sacred mountain known as Montserrat.

Oviedo, where Camino Primitivo begins in the Cathedral’s Plaza

Shell indicator for the Camino Primitivo in Oviedo | Photo by Elyn Aviva

And then we moved to Oviedo, in the province of Asturias, in northern Spain. An old Spanish refrain asserts, “Quien va a Santiago y no al Salvador, visita al criado pero no a su Señor” — “He who visits Santiago de Compostela and not San Salvador Cathedral, visits the servant but not the Master.” That is because the Oviedo Cathedral camara santa houses several very important relics, including the sudarium, a blood-stained cloth that was supposedly wrapped around the head of Jesus after the crucifixion. Nonetheless, I figured we were done with the Camino for sure. But no. After we rented an apartment near the cathedral, I noticed a suspicious bronze scallop shell embedded in the plaza directly in front of our apartment building. Sure enough. It was a scallop-shell marker for the Camino as it wends its way through Oviedo en route to Santiago.

Not surprisingly, almost every time I went to the cathedral plaza, I would find a pilgrim—or a group of pilgrims—admiring the impressive façade. Sometimes, they were weary and worn from already having walked hundreds of miles on the Camino del Norte. Other times, they were eager, occasionally trepidatious, as they started their pilgrimage on the Camino Primitivo that began at the cathedral plaza. I often greeted these people with a cheerful “Buen camino” (that’s “pilgrim talk” for “Good journey”), and occasionally I provided directional advice or, in one case, a temporary respite in our spare bedroom for an older woman pilgrim with a badly gashed knee.

An Asturian bagpipe (gaita asturiana) band in the plaza of Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, one starting point for Camino Primitivo | Photo by Elyn Aviva

From Oviedo to Cottonwood, Arizona

And then we moved to Cottonwood, Arizona, far, far from the Camino. But no! Imagine my surprise to learn that an active and welcoming Camino support group, the Greater Flagstaff American Pilgrims on the Camino, is located not far away. My conclusion from all of this? The Camino is always with me, no matter how far away I roam.

Elyn Aviva, Ph.D. writes about powerful places and is a self-proclaimed ‘imaginaut.’ Go to www.pilgrimsprocess.com and www.powerfulplaces.com for information on her books, including Following the Milky Way – A Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (2nd edition). Her most recent publication is the young-adult novel, Melita’s Quest for the Grail.

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