I recently watched the 2010 film The Way by director Emilio Estevez. It’s about a father (played by Estevez’s own father, Martin Sheen) who travels to France to bring home his son’s body (played by Estevez in flashbacks) who had died while walking El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James). Once there the father decides to complete the pilgrimage himself. It’s not a flashy film, nor does it have a big Hollywood budget one. It’s a simple beautifully done film about a father coming to terms with his son’s untimely death against the backdrop of one of history’s most revered pilgrimages. (Estevez’s son and Sheen had driven the length of the Camino, which served as the inspiration for the film.)
When one hears the term pilgrimage they usually equate it with religious devotees but as The Way showed, El Camino can be a quest about anything and you don’t necessarily need to be a practicing Catholic to walk it. As a gypsy says to Sheen’s character, “it’s not about religion” after Sheen tells him that he’s not a very religious man. One of the supporting characters in the film was walking it as a means of losing weight so that he could fit into a suit for his brother’s upcoming wedding, while hoping that his wife would find him attractive again. Another character, a writer from Ireland, decided to walk in hopes to cure the writer’s block he was experiencing since much of El Camino is remote and barren, far from civilization and its many distractions. He was also a Catholic who refused to go into any of the churches along El Camino. “Where I come from, churches have a lot to answer for. Temples of tears. I don’t go in them anymore.” However, upon arriving in Santiago, he actually enters the cathedral there much to the shock of his fellow walkers. “Well I’m here, aren’t I?”
El Camino de Santiago is the pilgrimage route to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain. Tradition has it that the remains of the apostle St. James are buried there after having been transported by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain and buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.
From one of its most popular starting points, St. Jean Pied de Port in southwestern France, El Camino stretches nearly 500 miles to Santiago (another popular starting point is Roncesvalles in Spain). Pilgrims, or peregrinos, as they are known in Spanish carry a document called a credencial, a pilgrim’s passport, that receives an official St. James stamp from each town or refugio at which a pilgrim has stayed. It serves as proof that a pilgrim has walked El Camino according to an official route, and also is necessary if a pilgrim wants to obtain a compostela, or certificate of completion of the pilgrimage.
Besides needing to be extremely fit to walk El Camino, pilgrims should also be prepared for less than luxurious accommodations. Along El Camino, pilgrims stay at hostels (the dormitory kind and not those outfitted with private rooms and en-suite bathrooms like some are today), religious convents, and sometimes even the great outdoors. My favorite line from The Way was when Sheen’s character and his walking companions arrive in the city of Burgos, awestruck with the beautiful parador (a luxury hotel usually located in a historic building such as a castle or monastery) in front of them. It’s obvious they want to stay there to rest their tired and weary bones, but the character from Ireland says what they are all thinking. “No self-respecting pilgrim would ever stay in a parador.” However, Sheen’s character ends up treating all of them to rooms there for the night.
As inspirational as the film was, I’m not sure if I would ever walk El Camino (the idea of walking 500 miles is a tad intimidating). However, I do know that one day I would like to visit Santiago de Compostela and perhaps at least drive a route similar to the ones that the pilgrims walk. When I studied in Spain, I never ventured further north than the capital of Madrid and Galicia is a region of the country I would love to explore. I think that is perhaps what I love most about Spain, its regions are so distinct and unique from each other. Galicia is especially so, with its culture, its food, its language, and as The Way showed, its incredibly striking landscape.