There are as many reasons why people flock to the Camino de Santiago as there are pilgrims along the Way. Some, like me, feel ‘called’ to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Galicia, Spain. Others go in thanksgiving, in supplication, in penance or just because it is there and they feel the need to walk.
Everyone who makes the Way to Santiago is changed by the experience. Some even find love.
This month, in honor of St. Valentine, my friend and fellow blogger Laurie Ferris, whose blog is The Camino Provides, is collecting stories about romance on the Camino de Santiago. If you have a story of romance to share, please be sure to contact her!
Calling all Camino Couples! You know who you are. Perhaps you met on the Camino and fell in love. Maybe you were newlyweds who walked the Camino for a honeymoon. Or an established couple who wanted to mix things up and test your relationship. Perhaps you walked alone and came to the conclusion that someone back home is your true love. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so they say.
I wonder how many marriage proposals happened as a result of the Camino. It seems the Camino works in mysterious ways. Is it something in the water or the Spanish wine? I think there’s something in the air.
For the month of February, I’ll feature a few Camino love stories. I certainly respect the premise of what happens on the Camino stays on the Camino. However, love is a splendid thing that should be celebrated. Has the Camino provided you with more than just a long walk? If you have a Camino love story to share, email me or use the form below. Photos and video links welcome.
Frankly, I love being snowed in. We have heat, electricity, food and…time.
Some of that time I spent wandering through photos from my pilgrimage on the Camino Portugués in 2010. Among them, I came upon these of the most wonderful, little church in Pontevedra, Spain, La Iglesia de la Divina Peregrina (The Church of the Divine Pilgrim).
La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Refugio
While other depictions of the Virgen Mary as a pilgrim exist along the various Camino routes, they are few and in my opinion, this chapel in Galicia is the most beautiful. It is easy for pilgrims to find, as it sits right on the Camino Portugués in thePraza Ferreira.
As you arrive in the Plaza, the first thing you notice is the unique design of the sanctuary. It is shaped like the vieira, or scallop shell that is the universal symbol of pilgrims and pilgrimage. In the front is a large fountain, graced on either side by matching staircases that lead to the glass doors of the main entrance.
Above the balustrade, La Divina Peregrina, Santiago, San Roque
Looking up, slender twin towers – the left, a clock tower and the right, the bells – flank an allegorical representation of Faith. Just below this there are three niches. In the center, is a sculpture of Mary the Pilgrim. On either side of her are two of the most iconic figures of the Camino – Santiago (St. James) and San Roque. It reminds me very much of the sculpture of St. James on the Cathedral of Santiago, which of course if you are walking this Way, is your ultimate destination.
This is one of the most important churches in Pontevedra since Nuestra Señora del Refugio (Our Lady of Refuge) or La Divina Peregrina (The Divine Pilgrim) is the Patroness of the city. So unlike many rural churches, you will nearly always find it open.
Built specifically as a sanctuary for La Divina Peregrina, symbols of the Camino de Santiago appear everywhere! On each of the plate glass doors, a large, etched, vieira welcomes pilgrims. These are crossed by the bastón (staff) and gourd and accompanied by a pilgrim hat also bearing a shell.
Stained glass – bastón y calabasa
Just inside, a huge oyster shell forms the Holy Water Font. The elegant, stained glass windows, the doors of the confessionals and the benches also all bear the symbol of the vieira crossed with the staff and gourd.
Above the main altar is the image of the chapel’s namesake, the Divine Pilgrim. She is dressed in the style of a French pilgrim and her dark curls contrast with the vivid green dress, cape and hat. In her right hand, she holds the staff and gourd of the pilgrim, in her left, the infant Jesus. At the highest point, suspended as it were by cherubs, is a lovely relief of the flight into Egypt.
Main altar – La Divina Peregrina
Nuestra Señora del Refugio
Construction of this unique chapel began in 1778 – it was consecrated in 1794. The style is late baroque with neoclassical elements. In 2008, the church underwent a major renovation to repair the main altar, the paintings, stained glass and the clock, which originated (1896) at the Hospital of San Juan de Dios, now demolished.
Historically and artistically, the church is a designated monument. But for the pilgrim, it is a special place of great beauty and refuge. Pilgrims always ask, “Is there any place that I must see?”. When on the Camino Portugués, this is definitely one.
Do you have a “must see” place on the Camino Portugués? Tell us about it in the comments.
Whenever I see those words, they jump out at me. I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago – the 500-mile pilgrimage route in northern Spain – four times. It has and continues to play an important role in my life. Known by various names, El Camino, The Pilgrim Road, The Way of St. James – and for those who are intimately familiar with it, it is simply The Way.
In 2010, Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez heightened awareness, particularly in the United States, of the pilgrimage with their fictional, yet inspiring film by the same title.
Recently, when I was in Adare, Co. Limerick, I ducked into the cool interior of one of my favourite churches in Ireland, Holy Trinity Church. Centrally situated on the main street, it is a stunning 14th century grey stone structure with simple yet elegant lines. On this visit, I was immediately intrigued when I spotted a cone-shaped, bronze sculpture tucked into a corner at the back of the church.
On first glance it reminded me of the Sorting Hat of Harry Potter fame, so, curious as to why something pertaining to Harry Potter would be in the church, I had to appease my curiosity by getting a closer look.
It was clearly NOT a Sorting Hat.
The Camino de Santiago – near Cacabelos
However, due to the title The Way, my next assumption was to associate it somehow with the now famous Pilgrimage route. The popularity of the Camino has grown immensely in Ireland as well. Wrong again. Despite the title, the fascinating sculpture had nothing at all to do with the Camino de Santiago.
Approximately two feet high, its conical shape represents the hill of Jerusalem. There, the sculptor, John Blakely, obtained a 5 million-year-old piece of marble excavated from the city walls. It is one of only three such stones to have been taken out of Jerusalem adding to the unique nature of this bas relief. The marble stone is embedded near the top of the bronze sculpture, which is actually a representation of a staircase and path leading through the city of Jerusalem, a path which Jesus would likely have used.
So in a manner of speaking, the Camino de Santiago and the Irish Sculpture are related. Pilgrims making their way to Santiago de Compostela often make reference to Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Or perhaps it is just me – I seem to find correlations to the Camino de Santiago in many strange places.
Nonetheless, this piece is one of many treasures found in Holy Trinity Church. When visiting Adare, with all there is to do and see, it is easy to overlook this beautiful church. Don’t.
My eyes opened wide and I burst into tears as my front tooth dropped out of my mouth and into my hand. Broken off at the gum line.
Three weeks prior in Madrid, I had cracked the tooth. Nothing special, just an aging tooth after a 30-year-old root canal. I was previewing a film for my students, mindlessly nibbling on my thumbnail. Suddenly I heard an odd noise and thought I had broken my nail. Unfortunately, the nail was just fine.
The young Spanish dentist who tended to me on an emergency basis was wonderful. He did his best to explain clearly what was happening – my Spanish is good, but the medical/ dental terminology wasn’t exactly part of daily conversation. Still and all, there was no mistaking his conclusion: “No podemos salvar este diente hoy.” “We cannot save this tooth today.” The most he could do was to try to stabilize it until I got back to the States to have it properly looked after. Read: replaced.
“Cuando vuelves a los Estados Unidos?” “When do you return to the States?” he queried. “Perhaps a week or two,” I replied, both uncertain and confused. This little episode was unexpected.
I neglected to inform the nice dentist that it was my plan to walk the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile pilgrimage route across northern Spain – a journey that would take a minimum of 30 days.
He assured me that if I were careful with what I ate and drank, the tooth would probably stay put until I returned home. So I cut my food into tiny pieces, fastidiously chewed in the back of my mouth and carefully made sure all potentially damaging ice cubes remained firmly in the bottom of the glass.
But I noticed that each day, notwithstanding my diligent care, the tooth was bailando – dancing – a little more.
So there I was, in the tiny village of Azofra, seven days into my Camino adventure when a single strand of spaghetti al dente threatened to bring my dream to an end.
Despite my valiant efforts to cut the spaghetti into small bits and chew in the back, one brazen little piece worked its way to the front and when I bit down, the already fragile tooth gave way.
“I have to go home!” I sobbed to the other pilgrims who gathered ‘round to see why I was crying.
“Does it hurt very much?” asked one.
“No,” I snuffled through my tears, “it doesn’t hurt at all.” The errant tooth stared back at me from the palm of my hand. “But I can’t walk to Santiago with a hole in the front of my mouth!”
“Why not?” one of the women asked. “If it doesn’t hurt, then why not just keep going?”
I stared at her blankly. That was absurd. Of course I couldn’t keep walking to Santiago, a distance of at least three weeks walking time, with a gaping hole in the front of my mouth. No one walks around like that unless they are…well, unless…well.
Hang on a minute. I had to walk at least 2 days just to get to a town that had a bus station. And maybe 8 days to Burgos to catch a train back to Madrid. If I could walk that far, what, exactly was keeping me from finishing my pilgrimage? Pride? Vanity? Fear?
Yes, yes and yes.
The gathered crowd began to drift away. Nothing to see here.
Deirdre Y Ana
I wiped away my tears and tried to comfort the poor Italian woman, Ana, who had been walking with me and was so excited to make her spaghetti al dente for our dinner. She felt terrible – somehow responsible. I laughed my toothless smile as I self-consciously moved my hand to cover my mouth – a gesture that became all too familiar in the ensuing weeks.
“Vino,” I said. “We need some wine!” Everything appears better after a glass of Spanish Rioja.
For reasons that I cannot explain, I deposited the broken remnants of my tooth in a zip lock baggie and tucked it safely into my rucksack. In the morning, I strapped on the pack and headed out the door with all the other pilgrims making our way west.
There are many photos of that journey and in each and every one of them I managed to develop a calm, soft-looking, closed-mouth, half smile. When people spoke to me I had a rather unusual habit of resting my elbow on the table and placing my hand lightly across my mouth as if I were contemplating my response.
I made it all the way to Santiago de Compostela – 500 miles and none the worse for the wear.
Cruz de Hierro
And the infamous tooth? There is a place on the Camino called the Cruz de Hierro – the Iron Cross. It is a spiritual place where pilgrims often leave a stone that they have brought from home. The stone represents the burden they carry with them as they make their pilgrimage. I had forgotten to bring a stone, but as I stood in that place, I suddenly recalled the tooth, buried in my backpack. I dug it out, said my small blessing and left it there among the stones and ephemera. A very personal contribution to the Camino de Santiago.
12 hours after my flight from Spain touched down in the US, I was firmly ensconced in the dentist’s chair. Because it’s obvious that you simply cannot walk around for weeks with a gaping hole in the front of your mouth!
Recently, author and fellow member of American Pilgrims on the Camino Kurt Koontz graciously forwarded me a copy of his new book about the Camino de Santiago, A Million Steps. I have walked various parts of the Camino de Santiago, one of the three great pilgrimage routes of the world, four times and so am quite familiar with the subject.
There are many, many books in print about the Camino de Santiago. They range from the ridiculous to the sublime, covering everything from profound spiritual awakening to cavorting through the Spanish countryside. Every once in a while one captures, at least to me, the essence of the Camino de Santiago – the personal journey.
A Million Steps is clearly about Kurt’s personal journey. From the title, which is his estimation of how many footsteps he walked from San Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, to the daily-diary style, the reader gets a true sense of the people, places and experience that is the Camino de Santiago.
Most Americans have never heard of the Way of St. James, El Camino de Santiago. Despite the fact that people have been traversing the routes for more than 2000 years – first as a trade route and later as a pilgrimage route- it has remained largely a well-kept Spanish secret. And for most Americans, who furiously seek out the parking space closest to the doors at the mall, the thought of walking 500 miles anywhere is more foreign than the Spanish language. But more and more, in large thanks to the personal accounts of famous and soon-to-be-famous authors like Kurt Koontz, the Camino de Santiago is a secret no more.
Like so many pilgrims, Kurt kept daily notes in a journal, jotting down the names of people and places, his impressions and emotions. Those extensive notes, along with relevant photos, provide an excellent account of the highs and lows of the pilgrim experience during the 30-day journey. Chapter titles such as “Camino Wine”, “Arrows and Signs” and “Taxi Temptations” lead the armchair pilgrim through some of the most familiar and memorable aspects of the Way. I don’t think there is a pilgrim alive who at some point on the journey, did not gaze longingly at a taxi, bus or train wishing to be on it going anywhere – as long as it meant not having to stand on your own feet.
View from the Camino – near Castrojerez
But more than just writing a memoir of an amazing walk, Kurt opens his heart and allows us to share deep personal insight. To me it is one of the reasons to walk the Camino “alone”. ( I put the word alone in quotation marks because on the Camino it is a relative term – a topic about which you could write volumes.) In our incredibly busy world of electronic “connectedness”, the Camino provides an opportunity to disconnect, to quiet your mind and life and to take stock. From the outset of A Million Steps, Kurt makes no secret of the spiritual, emotional and physical aspects of undertaking the Camino that drew him to it. Through the progression of days, he shares his thoughts in ways that allowed me to empathize, to smile and made me nod my head in recollective agreement.
Tomb of St. James the Apostle
A Million Steps is an easy read. It is neither ethereal nor ponderous, but rather a down-to-earth account of one man’s journey and his existential burdens to which many of us can relate. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is contemplating walking the Camino de Santiago. For those of us who have walked it, A Million Steps is a marvelous way to revisit the journey. Finally, if walking across Spain to the tomb of St. James the Apostle is not in your future plans, you can still enjoy the journey vicariously through A Million Steps. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
Full Disclosure: The author provided me a copy of his book to read, but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
A Million Steps by Kurt Koontz ISBN: 978-061585-292-8 Available in paperback at www.amazon.com
I am a licensed tourist guide in Washington, D.C., and as such I belong to a few informational listservs. Recently, an inquiry came over one of them asking about the reason for stacking coins on headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. I happened to be in the Visitor Center there when the request came and so I asked at the information desk. I was told that it is the same as the custom of stacking stones – to pay one’s respect and to indicate that one had been there. Since then, there has been some discussion on the listserv about this topic. It seems to be unfamiliar territory.
Since I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago various times, I am quite accustomed to seeing stacked stones. They are everywhere on the Camino; on stone walls, on cruceiros, on bollards, but mostly on the ground. In some places along the Way, there are hundreds or even thousands of little (and not so little) piles of stones.
As it turns out, there are various reasons why people stack stones. It is done all over the world. Hikers often use cairns, as the rock stacks are called, to mark trails in places where the path is unclear. They indicate that the trail is nearby and may or may not be directional. Sometimes the stack will include a “pointy” stone that indicates the direction of the path. But that is not always the case. Some people use them as a type of “memorial” or to indicate that, yes, they have been there. One of the most common reasons, however, is to create a Sacred Space. It is a simple way to pay homage to the grandeur of the Universe without the need for tools. In moments, anyone can create his own personal little cathedral.
Culturally, many people associate rock stacking with the Jewish people. In the Bible, Moses “created an altar of stones”. Stones or pebbles on graves were meant to “keep the soul in place”. Based on the tradition that souls remain for a while in the graves in which they are placed, the stones help to keep them there, keep them from wandering, if you will. While many people place flowers on graves, the Jewish people considered this to be a pagan tradition and it was therefore discouraged. Stones offer a sense of permanence, representing the enduring memory of the deceased loved one.
Camino Aragonés – Stacked Stones
Buddhist monks stacked stones in monasteries for contemplation. A newer Buddhist tradition however, is to stack stones at a temple as a form of worship or more likely a gesture to ask or wish for good fortune to be bestowed on the family. Each stone represents a member of the family or a particular wish.
The Inuit people have been building inuksuk for thousands of years – rock towers designed to celebrate “I am here”. They too, can be used to mark trails, to be a reference point, to indicate a message or to communicate with Spirits.
The spiritual meaning of stacked stones appears to be a constant for nearly everyone. This would clearly explain the proliferation of cairns along the various routes to Santiago de Compostela. I’ve often added to an existing one, or built a small one of my own. Or sometimes I’ve just contemplated the thousands of people who have walked the Way before me and placed all these rocks, one atop the other, leaving their mark for those who follow.
So back to Arlington National Cemetery – why do you suppose people stack coins? I’m guessing that it is in lieu of stones. There aren’t many stones readily available in Arlington, so perhaps people who are so moved take a coin from their pocket and place it on a headstone. But why on earth are people suddenly leaving nickles at the site of Robert F. Kennedy’s grave?
“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it,