As I gazed up at the arched cathedral ceilings, held aloft by massive Romanesque columns, my mind wandered during mass as I thought about the week my family had just spent completing the Camino de Santiago. For years, my parents discussed us one day completing the walk across Spain. A tradition that started in the 9th century, the religious pilgrimage consists of various routes (ours was Camino Frances, the “French route”) that end at the shrine of the apostle St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The hope of my parents was that it would allow us not only to intimately connect with the Spanish countryside and our fellow travelers, but that it would give us a unique opportunity before I left for college, to bond with one another and escape the busyness of our everyday lives back home in Texas.
The pilgrimage allows travelers to choose the best path and trip length for their individual needs; we chose the most popular portion of the trip, a one week journey of 70 miles from Sarria to Santiago. The first two days we enjoyed the spring time weather as we explored the oak lined country roads of Galicia and visited monasteries, cafes, and fortresses of Sarria and Portomarin. More importantly though, it gave us the opportunity to meet many new people and spend time together, laughing and asking fellow travelers about their countries. Although at home in the South people are generally friendly to strangers, it doesn’t come close to the camaraderie and generosity of spirit we encountered while completing the Camino. With every person we met came another story of what brought them to make the journey to Compostela. We met a newly married Austrailian couple on their honeymoon who joked that if they could survive the 40 days of the walk, they knew that the rest of marriage would be a breeze. We met a quiet, close-knit father and daughter team from Manitoba who were completing the walk in honor of her mother, a woman who had dreamed of seeing Spain to celebrate their 25th anniversary, but tragically passed away from breast cancer before having the chance. Everyone we met had a story they were proud to share, and even when we sometimes chose to honor the natural silence and quietly process the experience, we felt united, a group of strangers connected by love, loss, and the rolling hills of the countryside.
The next two days took us across Galicia’s longest river, the Mino, and then to the marketplace of Melide where the local vendors of the pulperias are famous for their cheeses and octopus. My parents and I warily tried it, delighted to find it very similar to scallops, and much different from the slimy, chewy texture that I had imagined. The Galicians we encountered welcomed and embraced pilgrims, offering lodgings, a glass of wine, dinner—whatever the weary traveler needed. They were eager to hear our stories, share their own, and welcome us at each village.
The last days of the trip took us down winding forest paths and quiet hamlets, eventually guiding us to Lavacolla, the river where pilgrims washed off the grime and sweat before arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago. My family had only been on the walk for one week, traveling with only what we could carry in our packs, and I could easily imagine the exhaustion and disrepair of pilgrims taking longer routes. During the trip, we often laughed about the luxuries of suburban life back in Houston and how different we each became during the trip. In the end, the journey wasn’t about the final destination, but rather the simplicity of the journey and time it allowed us to spend together as a family.
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