When I walked the Camino de Santiago (St James’s way) I did not do it for any religious reasons. I am not really a religious person, I don’t think.
But somehow, I do like churches, monasteries, temples, mosques, synagogues, all kinds of places of worship. I even once bought a village church hall in East Anglia because I wanted to live there. I like the spaciousness of these places. I feel good inside them. Why that should be so, is not really important to me.
On the Camino you would normally spend your nights in hostels or refuges, albergues or a pilgrims’ shelter. Sometimes that may even be in a monastery. Every night, you are in a different place, for ever trying to get nearer to your destination. You make good progress along the way, but Santiago just seems soooo far away.
The Camino is lined with hundreds of churches, cathedrals and other landmarks with a religious connotation (and many cemeteries, but that could be another story). That is not surprising given that you walk the way that thousands of pilgrims, perhaps millions of them, have walked, on the very same track or path as you walk now, and somewhere someone has stopped to pray and worship and built a church or a chapel or whatever. We are talking about a tradition that is 1,000 years old or so. That is a very long time.
As I do like churches, I went into many of them. Some were remnants of Roman times with Romanesque features and most others were from Medieval times. The cathedral in Santander for instance is built one church on top of an even older one, and they are in use, both of them.
I not only visited many of these churches, I also attended services in some of them. After all, part of my Camino happened during the Easter week, and there were quite a lot of Easter services, Liturgies, Vespers and masses going on. On Good Friday, I attended a liturgical reading given by Don Ernesto of Güemes who invited me, as the only pilgrim to attend his service on this day, to share information about Easter customs and traditions in my hometown in Mallorca, which on a Good Friday would be the Taking Down From the Cross. And in Cobreces, where I spent the night in a Cistercian Monastery, I attended an afternoon Liturgy (see photo above) and also an evening Vesper. And another Vesper in Sobrado dos Monxes, again, with Cistercienses in their respective monastery.
Eventually, the whole Camino ends in the cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela where pilgrims attend the Pilgrims’ Mass. I freaked out a bit upon my arrival in Santiago. As I had chosen to walk the Camino del Norte, my last two days had been a bit of a disaster. The Northern Way is less frequented than the French Way. Two days before the final stop, my Northern Way joined the Camino Francés. Whereas my route had been one of solitude and planned loneliness, I was now surrounded by pilgrims, and to be frank, by too many of them. It suddenly all turned into a party-type event, and the mass in Santiago had a touristy feel to it. A bit like a spiritual Disneyland if you see what I mean.
The point I am trying to make is, that you can have a Santiago pilgrimage without having to have religious motives. You can visit a church or a cathedral or a Romanesque chapel, or just walk past them. You can spend the night at a monastery and no one asks about your confession. You are welcome everywhere, whether you are walking for your own spiritual good, for reasons of tradition, for a physical challenge, for a God-seeking experience or for whatever.
‘Whatever’ brings me to speak of Dominique. I never quite made out what his motives were for walking the Camino.
I did not meet too many pilgrims because I did not walk during the Camino period. I walked in April which is only just the start of the pilgrims’ season. Some albergues had only just opened after their winter break. And I walked the Northern Way, which is less frequented than the French Camino. Most nights I was the only person sleeping on any of the bunk beds. Sometimes I shared with two or three or four others, but those were the exception. I did not meet too many pilgrims, but I met some. There was Jon. There was Christian. There was Francisco. There was Frank. There was Roland. There was Ramón. There was Kathrin. And there was Dominique.
Dominique was the one who stood out the most. Dominique was French. Like me, and unlike most of the other pilgrims, he did the entire length of the Camino. Not only that, but this was not his first Camino. He had done two previous walks already, both having started from central France (that’s over 1,300 kms every time), and this was his third go. His Spanish was negligible and his English was plain bad. So we spoke French most of the time, with me struggling a bit. He was an astonishing chap. He carried a small propane gas stove with him, making coffee or rice or noodle soup every so often and happily sharing such delights – believe me, simple things turn into a delight after three or four weeks on the road. He carried a massive backpack of at least 15 kgs compared to my smaller, but bulky one of perhaps 11 kgs. But in addition he carried a small second bag with an digital SLR camera complete with an external hard drive, a walkman, a mobile phone, a battery charger and, you name it. He had everything that you might think of, and more, plus the cork screw and the torch that you strap to your forehead. Plus all his food provisions.
He was a toughie. He was short and stocky, perhaps fifty years old compared to my sixty, but he was well trained and well versed. He knew everything that you needed to know about the Camino and about life in general, and a lot more that you did not really want to know. We walked together, on and off, over four or five days, and I must say, my Camino would not have been the one that I had, without having met him.
Je te salu, Dominique, mon ami. Merci.