by Elyn Aviva
I first heard about the Camino de Santiago in 1981 from my friend Michael, when I was looking for a topic for my Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. Michael idly mentioned there had been an important medieval pilgrimage road in Spain and suggested I look for it—I might find its art and architecture of some interest.
In the summer of 1981 I arrived in Spain, still looking for a topic for anthropological fieldwork. I ended up in Sahagún, a small town in the north-central province of León, where I stayed at the Benedictine nuns’ guesthouse.
I didn’t have to look for the Camino de Santiago—it found me. Sahagún was on the pilgrimage road. Pilgrims came to the door of the guesthouse, passport-size pilgrimage credentials in their outstretched hands, seeking shelter for the night. The Benedictinas, observing millennium-old customs of hospitality, gave them a place to sleep and food to eat. I realized that the Camino wasn’t an historic artifact—pilgrims were still walking it.
I was fascinated by these pilgrims and soon captivated by the Camino. I learned that it stretched 500 miles across northern Spain, from the Pyrenees in the east to Santiago de Compostela in the west, the purported burial place of St. James the Greater, the first martyred apostle. The pilgrimage had begun after the rediscovery of the tomb in the 800s.
As in a vision, I saw before me a grand panorama of people in movement, spanning the centuries, traveling across the outer landscape of Europe, traveling through the inner landscape of the soul. I had found my research topic. I knew I had to walk the Camino.