Camino pilgrims lift Spanish spirit and economy

Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain dates from the ninth century, but its booming modern appeal has invigorated not only local economies but also debate over how to balance tourism and spiritual reflection, writes The New York Times.

There are the pilgrims who hobble along with a staff, painstakingly making their way through a monthlong journey of contemplation.

Then there are the others, looking all the fresher for walking a shorter route or paying a tour operator to carry their backpacks, and more likely to be clutching a cellphone or a guidebook.

All, however, must navigate the proliferating array of souvenir shops selling Jesus key rings and T-shirts and painted scallop shells: the symbol of the pilgrimage to  the shrine of St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. The pilgrimage has become known simply as the Camino, or the "Way."

At a time when other parts of the economy are still suffering, the pilgrimage has become big business.

“You suddenly find yourself, exhausted, walking alongside people who are in party mood, as if they were heading to an entertainment park,” said Marie Ange de Montesquieu, who works for a Christian radio station in Paris and was completing a 480-mile route that began on the French side of the Pyrenees.

Still, she was philosophical. “It’s like life itself,” she added, “a mix of pleasant and less pleasant experiences.”

In southern Spain, the municipality of Aznalcázar announced earlier this year that it would impose an environmental fee on pilgrims going to worship the Virgin of El Rocío, to cover the cost of cleaning up the trash left in the wake of the springtime passage. The decision generated an outcry, forcing Aznalcázar to shelve the plan. Some municipalities have been pushing to add more official routes to the Camino, hoping to benefit from the bonanza.

Santiago was the final resting place of St James, and the discovery of his remains created one of the main medieval pilgrimages. Its importance dwindled because of the rise of Protestantism and the effects of the plague and conflicts, which hindered European travel.

In 1984, just 423 pilgrims were certified as having completed the route here. This year, an estimated 240,000 pilgrims are expected to come, up from 215,880 last year. The most prominent recent visitors included Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, who walked a short part of the route when they held a meeting in August.

Read full article: Lifting the Soul, and the Spanish Economy, Too (The New York Times)

RELATED:

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Walking the camino: our tips (Lonely Planet)

WATCH:

The Way starring Martin Sheen Trailer (YouTube)

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