Pilgrim Stories: On and off the Road to Santiago, Journeys along an Ancient Way in Modern Spain

Pilgrim Stories: On and off the Road to Santiago, Journeys along an Ancient Way in Modern Spain

Pilgrim Stories: On and off the Road to Santiago, Journeys along an Ancient Way in Modern Spain

Pilgrim Stories: On and off the Road to Santiago, Journeys along an Ancient Way in Modern Spain

Synopsis

Each year thousands of men and women from more than sixty countries journey by foot and bicycle across northern Spain, following the medieval pilgrimage road known as the Camino de Santiago. Their destination is Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the apostle James are said to be buried. These modern-day pilgrims and the role of the pilgrimage in their lives are the subject of Nancy Louise Frey's fascinating book. Unlike the religiously-oriented pilgrims who visit Marian shrines such as Lourdes, the modern Road of St. James attracts an ecumenical mix of largely well-educated, urban middle-class participants. Eschewing comfortable methods of travel, they choose physically demanding journeys, some as long as four months, in order to experience nature, enjoy cultural and historical patrimony, renew faith, or cope with personal trauma. Frey's anthropological study focuses on the remarkable reanimation of the Road that has gained momentum since the 1980s. Her intensive fieldwork (including making the pilgrimage several times herself) provides a colorful portrayal of the pilgrimage while revealing a spectrum of hopes, discontents, and desires among its participants, many of whom feel estranged from society. The Camino's physical and mental journey offers them closer community, greater personal knowledge, and links to the past and to nature. But what happens when pilgrims return home? Exploring this crucial question Frey finds that pilgrims often reflect deeply on their lives and some make significant changes: an artistic voice is discovered, a marriage is ended, meaningful work is found. Other pilgrims repeat the pilgrimage or join a pilgrims' association to keep their connection to the Camino alive. And some only remain pilgrims while on the road. In all, Pilgrim Stories is an exceptional prism through which to understand the desires and dissatisfactions of contemporary Western life at the end of the millennium.

Excerpt

… Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself
before she found herself falling down a very deep well.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

From the moment I entered the majestic Plaza del Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostela, I was surprised to see that far from having disappeared with the Middle Ages, the pilgrimage was alive and well. I could immediately recognize the modern pilgrims, who represented a mixture of the present and the past. Their backpacks and bicycles were adorned by the pilgrim’s scallop shell, and many carried walking sticks. They ambled in the plaza—some alone, others in groups, all ages and nationalities—while some appeared to know where they were going, others seemed to be in their own private worlds. Their faces, tanned by many days of sun, registered a combination of joy, tears, disappointment, and fatigue. They seemed to be perfectly integrated into the animated scene. Occasionally a tour bus pulled up and middle-aged men and women got off, visited the plaza, and then moved toward the cathedral’s double staircase. At the base of the granite stairs three or four women gathered, their arms laden with silver charms and souvenirs, while former members of the tunas (university student singing groups), their long black capes flowing in the wind, tried to vend their music. In the plaza’s center a group of ten teenagers flopped down to rest on top of their packs and staffs. A pair of cyclists, with shells tied to their handlebars, stopped in the middle of the square, looked at the cathedral’s baroque facade, and hugged each other. Passing by them were what appeared to be businessmen and an occasional black-robed priest or nun. In the air was a combination of church bells and the sweet sound of a flute reverberating across the stone of ages.

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