Traveling the Camino on Foot and by Car

By Don Harrison – Pilgrims of all ages have been walking the Camino de Santiago since the 8th century. Their reasons vary for making the trek on the main route, from the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, the city in the northwest corner of Spain.

Many are drawn to the Cathedral in Santiago, where the remains of the apostle, St. James, are said to be buried. Others chose to walk The Way of St. James as a retreat, to follow a dream or simply as a challenge to experience weeks in a foreign land. Today, hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims travel the route each year.

In deference to our ages, Patti and Don Harrison made the decision to do what is called a partial Camino. We walked and we drove. It required seven days, from the morning of July 14 to a warm afternoon on July 21, for us to negotiate the 390 miles from the town of Santo Domingo to Santiago.

What prompted our personal pilgrimage? We wanted to walk this holy ground in the footsteps of those who had traveled before us. In part, we were inspired by the 2010 film, “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen. Two of our young friends, Chris Constand and Loredana Trandu, had just completed their journey and spoke glowingly about the undertaking. Two other friends, Joyce and Tom Flynn, who had traveled to Spain, shared helpful advice. For six months we faithfully went to the gym to gain some endurance.

We found the Spanish people to be welcoming, kind and hospitable, eager to help us in our journey. Two examples: A police officer in Carrion, who spoke no English, provided directions with a hand-drawn map and a smile. In a small supermarket in Astorga, we encountered a young shopper named Ramiro, who knew basic English.

Hearing that we were seeking the route to the Iron Cross in the Leon Mountains—the iconic marker where pilgrims pray and traditionally leave a rock they had carried since the start of their journey at the foot of the cross—Ramiro said he could help. “Follow me home on my bicycle and I will show you the directions,” he stated. We did. And he did.

En route to Santiago, we explored three ancient cathedrals, each a wonder of architecture. The Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada is named for its founder, Domingo Garcia (1040-1109), who devoted much of his life to assisting visiting pilgrims. He creating a hostel, where travelers could seek refuge; constructed a bridge across a river, and erected a small church.

The Cathedral of St. Mary in Burgos, consecrated in 1260, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984. It houses the works of great Spanish painters, sculptors and architects as well as the tomb of El Cid, the 11th century military hero, and his wife, Dona Jimena.

The Leon Cathedral, dedicated to Santa Maria de la Regia, was built on the site of ancient Roman baths. The church has nearly 1,800 square meters of stained glass windows, making it the third largest church in the world.

Shortly after leaving the cathedral in Leon, we encountered another pilgrim, a German woman named Uta. Through flawless English, she explained that she had walked from her home in Stuttgart and, although her feet were sore and wrapped in bandages, she planned to carry on to Santiago. We asked if we could help, but Uta cheerfully told us all she needed was patience. Her feet would heal and she would go on.

We were impressed, of course, by the massive Santiago Cathedral, a predominantly Romanesque structure completed in 1211. The Baroque façade, added between 1738 and 1750, is regarded as the symbol of the city. A likeness of St. James looks down at the activity in the plaza from a niche in the central tower.

Inside, we climbed the stairs behind the altar that lead to the gilded statue of St. James; like most pilgrims, we gave the statue a hug. Then we descended into the crypt where the saint’s relics are kept in a silver casket and prayed. We attend the daily noon-time Pilgrim Mass (standing room only) in the main cathedral and, the following morning, the English-speaking Mass in a cathedral side chapel.

We introduced ourselves, shared where we were from and why we had traveled the Camino. The stories were both profound and touching. Father Joe O’Cochlain, a visiting priest from Cork, Ireland, was the celebrant at the English Mass, and we wondered: Was it mere coincidence that my wife’s paternal grandmother was born in Cork and Father Joe served in the North Cathedral Church where she was baptized?