Pilgrims return to Spain’s “El Camino” paths after pandemic

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELLE, Spain (AP) – Embarking on the pilgrim’s path has for centuries been a source of renewal for those who want to put their lives on hold and spend days, weeks or even months crossing Spain on along the Camino de Santiago, a journey that takes hikers to the reported burial place of the apostle Santiago.

But after a year of being away from the Camino de Santiago due to travel restrictions linked to the pandemic, soul seekers hoping to heal the wounds left by the coronavirus are once again strapping into backpacks and following trails marked with a shell emblem to the sanctuary in the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Some travelers to the Camino are like Laura Ferrón, whose marriage ended during Spain’s lockdown and who fears losing her job because the bank she works for is planning massive layoffs. She and two longtime friends flew from their homes in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in North Africa to spend a week traveling the last 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the pilgrimage route.

“It helps you let go of everything. This pandemic has taught us to give more importance to what we have and to look at ourselves for a long time, ”said Ferrón, 33, as he rested on a climb near Arzúa. The village in the green hills of northwestern Spain is about two days from the medieval Santiago Cathedral which is the traditional point of arrival.

The Camino de Santiago is actually a series of paths that stretch beyond the Iberian Peninsula and stretch across Europe. Whichever route you take, they all end at the Baroque Cathedral of Santiago, where believers can visit what would be the tomb of James, the apostle who, according to Catholic tradition, brought Christianity to Spain and Portugal. .

Soul seekers hoping to heal the wounds left by the coronavirus are once again attaching themselves to backpacks and following trails to the sanctuary in the city of Santiago de Compostela.

The pilgrimage has its roots in the alleged discovery of the tomb in the 9th century. Pilgrims have been coming to Santiago for a millennium, but the number of believers and non-believers who have made the trip has skyrocketed in recent decades after regional authorities relaunched the route.

It is now supported by an extensive network of religious and civic organizations and served by public and private hostels at prices for all wallets.

More than 340,000 people from all over the world walked “El Camino” in 2019. Only 50,000 walked it last year, when Spain blocked travel abroad and at home, except during the months of ‘summer.

Before the end of the state of emergency limiting movement between Spanish regions on May 9, only a handful of Spanish pilgrims arrived in Santiago each day and registered with the pilgrim reception office to receive their official accreditation for have completed the pilgrimage.

Now that travel is allowed again, more and more people from Spain and elsewhere in Europe are taking the old path, although many hostels that welcome pilgrims are still closed. A few hundred arrive in Santiago every day, compared with several thousand exhausted pilgrims swinging their trekking poles through the city’s cobblestone streets during a typical summer.

Now that travel is allowed again, more and more people in Spain and elsewhere in Europe are taking the old path.

The Spanish Ministry of Health has reported the deaths of more than 79,000 people from COVID-19. As in the rest of the world, the disease has claimed the most lives among the country’s oldest residents.

“For the elderly, a year of the pandemic has been like five,” said Naty Arias, 81, as she hiked the Camino with her 84-year-old husband and two of their daughters. “And like my husband says, we’re running out of time anyway, so we need to make the most of it. “

The number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago over the next year and a half will increase after Pope Francis extended the 2021 holy year dedicated to Santiago until 2022. For Roman Catholics participating in the pilgrimage, travel it for A Jubilee Year gives them the chance to receive the plenary indulgence, which grants them full remission of the temporal punishment for their sins. The trail’s last jubilee year dates back to 2010.

Archbishop of Santiago Julián Barrio has said he is cautiously optimistic that some 300,000 pilgrims could come this year, as long as the pace of Spain’s immunization program and the health situation around the world continue to improve. He expects many to come to seek solace in the pain of the pandemic.

“The Camino de Santiago, in this sense, can help us. It is a space that helps us to regain our inner peace, our stability, our spirit, which we all undoubtedly need, given the difficulties we have to face the pain and the ravages of the pandemic that leave us sometimes speechless, ”said Barrio. The Associated Press.

Mental health experts agree that the pilgrimage can lead to emotional healing both for faithful Roman Catholics and for the large number of non-Catholics who are drawn to doing so.

Daniel Sarto, 67, joined three friends on the track, looking to relax after months of stress after watching his Barcelona-based salon company generate zero income.

“It’s been a very, very, very difficult year. Psychologically, it is very sad to constantly think that this is going nowhere, about what will happen to our employees, ”said Sarto. “It’s a relief to be here, without a doubt. My wife told me I had to get out of the house. I had to come.

Mental health experts agree that the pilgrimage can lead to emotional healing both for faithful Roman Catholics and for the large number of non-Catholics who are drawn to doing so. Dr Albert Feliu, health psychologist and lecturer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, ​​said preliminary results from a survey of 100 pilgrims indicate a reduction in stress and depression that exceeds those seen after a vacation. regular.

The survey was part of a multi-year study on the benefits of walking the Camino de Santiago conducted by clinical researchers from Spanish and Brazilian universities. Manu Mariño, director of the Quietud Mindfulness Center in Santiago, is also involved in the research. He made 24 pilgrimages.

“The Camino de Santiago is a great place to help us realize that suffering is part of life and that our suffering depends on how we relate to what we are experiencing,” said Mariño. “You learn to live with just what is needed, which is exactly what you can carry in a backpack.”

Vladimir Vala, 25, a university business graduate, came to Spain to walk for three weeks before returning to the Czech Republic to get married. For Vala, the pandemic has a positive side to all the misery, which he feels in line with the experience of walking, mostly alone, day in and day out through the countryside.

“People were alone and they had to face each other (during the pandemic),” Vala said after visiting the cathedral. “And I think the Camino is (roughly) facing you in its meaning. So it really comes close. It is beautiful and hard.

Newly divorced Ferrón had a similar assessment.

“The trail is good for your mental health because all of it can drive anyone crazy, be locked up, scared, psychotic,” she said. “Some climbs are really tough, but at the end of the day you hit your goal and then you have the reward of a cold beer, which is divine.”

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John McTaggart

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