Camino Pilgrims Help Keep Rural Spanish Towns Alive

by Giovanna Dell’Orto | The Associated Press

TERRADILLOS DE LOS TEMPLARIOS, Spain — Amidst Spain’s vast grain fields, a medieval church guards a handful of adobe houses where some 50 people live — and two time travelers along the Camino de Santiago spend the night this summer.

Terradillos de los Templarios, and dozens of villages like it, were built to host medieval pilgrims who walked the 500-mile (800-kilometer) route across Spain to the tomb of the Apostle James in Santiago de Compostela. Today’s Camino travelers are saving them from disappearance.

“It’s life for the villages,” said Nuria Quintana, who manages one of Teradillos’ two pilgrim’s hostels. “In winter when no pilgrims come, you can walk around the village 200 times and not see anyone.”

A pilgrim walks along the ancient road during a phase of the “Camino de Santiago” or St. James Way in Sirouki, northern Spain, Tuesday, May 31, 2022. Alvaro Barrientos / The Associated Press

Named after a medieval knightly order established to protect pilgrims, and throughout the route, the return of travelers – after pandemic-related disruptions – is helping to restore the livelihoods and vitality of villages that are constantly losing jobs, population , even losing their livelihood. social structure.

“If it weren’t for the Camino, a cafe wouldn’t even open. And the bar is where people meet,” said Raul Castillo, an agent for Guardia Civil, the law enforcement agency that patrols Spain’s streets and villages. He has spent 14 years in Sahagun, eight miles (13 kilometers) away, from where agents cover 49 settlements.

“Villages near the Camino – they make you cry. Houses fall, even grass on the sidewalks,” he said, pointing to a tabletop.

From the Pyrenees Mountains on the border with France, hundreds of miles of sun-roasted plains of Spain rolling down the Atlantic Ocean to the mist-capped hills of Galicia, once thriving cities of farmers and ranchers have grown in recent decades. started bleeding the population.

Mechanization significantly reduced the need for farm labour. As soon as the young people left, shops and cafes were closed.

Often, grand churches filled with priceless artwork – the legacy of medieval and Renaissance artists brought by the affluent city burghers – said historian Julia Pavone of the University of Navarra in Pamplona, ​​the Camino’s first large city.

But by the early 1990s, the Camino gained international popularity, with thousands of visitors hiking and biking every spring, summer, and fall. After a severe decline amid the pandemic in 2020 and the start of recovery with mostly Spanish pilgrims in 2021, 2022 feels like the “last” year, as Quintana said, with more than 25,000 visitors in May alone on the most traditional route With, “the French way.”

With the smallest villages having ten times the number of daily visitors than residents, the impact is enormous.

“All that works (in the city) now is the hospitality industry,” said Oscar Tardajos, who was born on a farm along the Camino. For 33 years, he has managed a hotel and restaurant in Castrojeriz, a hillside village of stone buildings that was the center of the wool trade centuries ago, when half a dozen churches were built on it.

The Camino helps to generate jobs and maintain cultural heritage, said Melchor Fernández, professor of economics at the University of Santiago de Compostela. “It has put the brakes on depopulation,” which is 30% higher in Galician villages away from the Camino.

While most pilgrims spend only 50 euros (dollars) a day, it remains local.

“The bread in the pilgrim’s sandwich is not bimbo,” Fernandez said, referring to the multinational company. “It’s from the bakery next door.”

Baker Conchi Sagaradia, serving pastries and fruit juice to a Florida pilgrim, said in Sirauki, a mountain village in Navarra, the lone bakery survived because dozens of pilgrims stop by it daily.

Apart from the pilgrims, the main customers of these shops are the older residents of the villages, where some younger adults live.

“In the summer, Grandma sits with the Camino to watch the pilgrims,” said Lourdes González, a Paraguayan who has owned the cafe in Radisilla del Camino for 10 years. Its only road is the Camino.

Her concern – shared widely along the route – is to keep that unique pilgrim spirit alive, even as the Camino’s popularity leads to greater commercialization.

In increasing instances, the signature yellow arrowheads lead to bars or foot massage businesses instead of caminos. One recent morning in the town of Tardajos, Esteban Velasco, a retired shepherd, stood at a crossroads pointing out the right path for pilgrims.

“The Camino would have no reason to exist without the pilgrimage,” said Jesus Aguirre, president of the Association of Friends of the Camino de Santiago in the province of Burgos. “Someone may do it for different reasons, but you keep attaching yourself to something else.”

Sjm Ilgrims Path 98679320
A sign showing the distance to Santiago displayed to pilgrims during a phase of the “Camino de Santiago” or St. James Way, in Rabe de la Calzada, northern Spain, Wednesday, June 1, 2022. Alvaro Barrientos / The Associated Press

For many, this is a spiritual or religious pursuit. The encouragement to keep churches open to pilgrims revived parishes, even in Spain’s increasingly secularised.

The 900-year-old Church of Santa María in Los Arcos is one of the most spectacular of the Camino villages, with a soaring belfry and intricately sculpted altar. Pilgrims often double the number of people attending the workday, said Rev. Andrés Lacarra.

In Hontanas, a group of stone houses that appear to suddenly dip after a trek through the wide open plains of Castilla, there is only Sunday Mass, as is often the case where a priest covers several parishes. Is.

But on a recent Wednesday evening, church bells rang out loud—Rev Jihwan Cho, a Toronto priest on his second pilgrimage, prepared to celebrate the Eucharist.
“The fact that I was able to celebrate Mass … it made me really happy,” he said.

International pilgrims like him are making some cities increasingly cosmopolitan.

In Sahagun, the English teacher Nuria instructs Quintana’s daughter and her classmates to shade the pilgrims and practice their language.

In the small Calzadilla de la Cuezza, “people have become much more sociable,” said Cesar Acero.

Fellow villagers called him “crazy” when, in 1990, he opened the hostel and restaurant where, on a recent afternoon, two farmers on tractors had a quick coffee next to a group of cyclists riding from the Netherlands to Santiago .

“Now you see people that when I was little I never looked at all the nationalities,” said Lolly Valcarcel, owner of a pizzeria in Sarria. It is one of the busiest cities on the Camino as it is only a short distance from the distance needed to earn a “certificate” of completion in Santiago.

Very few pilgrims take the ancient Roman road through Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, where as a child Gemma Herreros helped feed sheep that her family had passed down for generations.

She along with her Cuban husband, a former pilgrim, runs a bed and breakfast illustrating the history of the ancient street near the city’s open-air museum. Hereros hopes that the village will continue to flourish – but without completely losing the “absolute independence and solidarity” of its childhood.

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