It seems far-fetched, risible even, yet some experts claim the Camino de Santiago de Compostella is the origin of the European Union project. The argument goes that the pilgrims of the Middle-Ages who tramped across the many Pilgrim Ways that coalesce in the City of Santiago, north-west Spain, brought tolerance of differences and a focus on a common goal; a road that eventually led to the idea of a united Europe. Pilgrim’s objectives were spiritual, religious and off course selfish. A pilgrim making the pilgrimage in a Jacobean year – when the feast of St James 25th July falls on a Sunday – were rewarded, and still are I believe, with a plenary indulgence – a get-into- heaven-quick card; a big deal back then, and for many, a big deal still.
So to avoid the 2021 rush, in September this year, I travelled with my brothers, my sons and a friend of the Jewish faith to walk the 125 Km of the Camino from the small town of Sarria to the city of Santiago. I am secular not religious; I might loosely be termed a “Cultural Catholic” which perhaps singles me out as a hypocrite and a coward but I really don’t care. My reasons for walking the Camino were to get and keep fitter and a wish to better connect; with my sons now they are adults and with my brothers who, when I last lived with them, were children. And my friend of the Jewish Faith? Well for some unknown reason he just wanted to come along.
There is a certain secure rhythm to the daily routine of the modern pilgrim; rising before dawn, getting on the road at first light, walking, reaching a destination by late afternoon, dining when food is ready and retiring when dark. The Galician countryside is beautiful, and with a high annual rainfall, lusciously green and surprisingly like Ireland. The well-worn pilgrim paths wind over rolling hills and under huge early-autumn skies were carpeted with acorns that rained down from the oak trees. The chestnut trees seemed decorated with garish lime-green pompoms but they too fell to the ground and burst open to reveal the brown tear-drop shaped seed; a street food in every European city. These woods of indigenous trees were enhanced with orderly stands of Eucalyptus brought to the region from Australia in the 1800s as a decorative garden tree but now a vital part of the local paper industry. Outside the woods, in the unfenced fields maze is the main crop; the six feet stalks ready for harvesting and in the fenced-fields dairy herds grazed.
We often shared the lanes of the Way with these cows being herded from milking parlours to fresh grass. The herders, mainly middle-aged women, generally ignored us. The Way regularly snaked through ancient farm buildings with a stench of manure and silage and in each farm house vegetable patch there was a horreo – a raised granary building unique to the region. Our nightly auberges were these ancient farm houses beautifully restored; one even with fresh a water spring running through the dining area. No menus, we greedily ate the wonderful food served. One evening lamb another fish, always potatoes, our vegetables coming from the Galician soup served with rustic bread as a starter and, of course, copious chilled red wine. Some snored too long and too loudly and caused the only friction of the trip but we worked through it; our days of sharing a bedroom we now know have ended.
Strangers on the Way quickly became friends and an unwritten code required each to offer another a “Buen Camino” greeting. We met myriad nationalities the most distant culturally were the groups of South Koreans who walked in tight-line formation but were still friendly if not engaging.
The outside world can easily cease to exist with such simple daily objectives yet we were engaged with a rich diversity of language, ideas and opinions. Then, all too quickly, we reached the City of Santiago and it was over. In the Cathedral we were lucky to witness the swinging of the “Botafumeiro” the giant thurible smoking incense through the cathedral while skilfully propelled into flight by eight rope-pulling monks. The tearful emotional outpouring of many in the pews was moving to watch. I had come here to strengthen family relationships and that I had done and this pleased me. My friend of the Jewish faith was surprised by the lack of overt Christian religiosity on the Way and this pleased me too.
The Camino; the origin of the European Union Project? Perhaps. But I am convinced that for us now in 2107 the UK exit is disastrous. The three items to be disposed of before trade negotiations: the divorce bill, N. Ireland border arrangements and the fate of EU citizens living in the UK contain a certain irony for those of us living in this region of Europe. I had seen these as separate issues, and technically they are, but the last two have a touch of the political surreal. With about 40% of the population of N. Ireland – Irish passport holders – EU citizens and the unavoidable need for a border with the EU somewhere in the UK, N. Ireland is far from a side show but front and central to Brexit. Living here you wouldn’t think that it takes you to go to Spain to see it.