A note for readers: This is the ninth in a series of articles intended to describe my experience of walking two of the many pilgrimage routes that make up Spain’s Camino de Santiago. Although I documented those experiences on Facebook as they were unfolding in October 2023, this is a much deeper look into their implications.
Should you need to review previous articles for context, please scroll down.
After a shower, a brief nap, and some tapas, I make my way along the crowded streets of Oviedo to the Cathedral of San Salvador, the formal end of the pilgrimage route. The late afternoon autumn light is a warm glow of reddish gold, casting long shadows. The church is closed for the day, but the plaza before it is occupied with people who are strolling, or, like me, sitting at the edge of a fountain, and a busker is playing religious songs on a sad trumpet, its notes echoing against the light-brown stone of the surrounding centuries-old buildings.
I’m feeling a mild, sweet melancholy ̶ ̶̶ the perfect mood to consider my transition between two distinct-yet-contiguous pilgrimage walks ̶ ̶ from one step into the next, from the intention of penitence into that of grace, from exhale to inhale. I’m here now at the bottom of that breath, in this perfect late-day light, the cooling temperature, and the echoing notes, feeling the ease and relief of standing down from an arduous walk ̶ ̶ one that had its moments. Occasionally in this sweet old world, times like this arise that would make it okay to set aside all else, and to have it be this way forever.
Once again, morning dawns clear and sunny. I’ve planned a rest day of casual wandering through the city, which I’ll begin by exploring the cathedral and its sacred relics, most notably the Shroud of Oviedo, said to have been wrapped around the head of Jesus as his body was removed from the cross. Walking through spaces such as this is always a walk through time; in this case, the Cathedral of San Salvador took 140 years to build and has stood essentially as it is for half a millennium.
I move through the magnificent, vaulted sanctuary that took the labor of seven generations to build, past the altar and its massive, intricate retablo, through the small chapels and stately cloister, the crypt, and the museum rooms full of fine art objects and artifacts of the faith. I arrive at the gated-off area containing the ancient relics, the centerpiece of which is a reproduction of the Shroud. (The original is displayed only on certain holy days.) Although I am duly impressed and deeply touched, I find myself struggling to feel spiritually moved by these objects and spaces, or by the devotion they appear to inspire in my fellow visitors. But try as I might, and despite the sheer weight and beauty of it all, I cannot. This walk through time, through the creations of time, has ultimately left me feeling spiritually bereft, for I’m given to remember the mountain walking, where it was the eternal itself that touched me.
And so it is with this shift of intention from penitence to grace, a shift from a construct of the human mind to a faculty of the divine. As I carried these intentions with me to Spain, I had thought it to be along the lines of a call and response, but today it seems more like an order of ascension, maybe even a collapse of one into the other, the two things becoming one thing.
The fruits of pilgrimage are often revealed in thin layers of understanding, so for now, this is all I can say of it. There is more walking to do.
Next day, I pull into the morning rush hour traffic, leaving Oviedo for Santiago de Compostela. I hope to arrive at the airport car-rental agency there in the early afternoon. My navigation app tells me this will be the case, so I relax into the drive heading west along the northern coast of Spain to the region of Galicia on yet another perfect weather day.
The trip is glorious, a simple route involving only two highways and one secondary road. There are several times early in the drive when I am in sight of the Bay of Biscay, and at one point I spontaneously decide to exit for a brief detour onto a local road that brings me even closer. Briefly, I motor through a region where tall foothills meet sparsely populated farmland that extends to the coast, and here I find an open roadside cafe for a late breakfast.
A little after noon, I pull into the airport complex, return the rental car, then hike along the access roads to intercept the French route of the Camino de Santiago near the village of Lavacolla. From here, I begin to walk the final 13 kilometers of the same route I walked seven years ago into the beautiful city of Santiago de Compostela and the Cathedral of St. James. There, my next pilgrimage route begins, a pilgrimage of grace to the Atlantic Ocean.
Next, into Santiago de Compostela, a place between two walks.