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Camino pilgrims support the survival of rural villages in Spain

A little group of adobe homes in Spain’s enormous grain fields are home to about 50 people, and this summer, twice as many pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago stay the night there. An ancient cathedral guards these homes.

Numerous villages, like Terradillos de los Templarios, were created to house medieval pilgrims on the 800-kilometer (500-mile) trip across Spain to the shrine of the Apostle James in Santiago de Compostela. They are being preserved by today’s Camino pilgrims.

One of Terradillos’ two pilgrim hostels is run by Nuria Quintana, who described it as “life for the villages.”

In winter when no pilgrims come through, you could walk through the village 200 times and see nobody.

The return of travelers after pandemic-related disruptions is helping in restoring the livelihood and vibrancy of towns that were progressively losing jobs, population, and even their social fabric, in this hamlet named after a medieval knightly order intended to protect pilgrims.

“If it weren’t for the Camino, there wouldn’t even be a café open. And the bar is where people meet”, according to Guardia Civil agent Ral Castillo, who monitors Spain’s communities and roadways. He has been working in Sahagn for 14 years, which is eight miles (13 kilometers) from where agents cover 49 hamlets.

The villages next door, off the Camino — they make you cry. Homes falling in, the grass sprouting on the sidewalks up to here, he added, gesturing to a tabletop.

The once-thriving villages of farmers and ranchers began to lose residents in recent decades from the Pyrenees Mountains at the French border, across hundreds of miles of Spain’s sun-roasted plains, to the mist-covered hills of Galicia rolling toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Farm laborers were no longer as necessary thanks to mechanization. Shops and cafes closed as young people migrated.
According to Julia Pavón, a historian at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, the Camino’s first significant city, the huge churches filled with precious artwork—the legacy of the medieval and Renaissance painters brought in by prosperous town burghers—often did as well.
But starting in the 1990s, the Camino regained popularity on a global scale, drawing tens of thousands of tourists each spring, summer, and fall to hiking and biking.

Following a significant decline due to the pandemic in 2020 and the beginning of recovery with mostly Spanish pilgrims in 2021, 2022 feels like the “at last” year, in Quintana’s words, with more than 25,000 travelers on the most popular route, the “French way,” in May alone.

With daily visitors outnumbering residents tenfold in the tiniest hamlets, the impact is huge.

The only sector of the economy now operating in the town, according to Manuel Tardajos, a Camino raised on a farm, is the hospitality sector. In Castrojeriz, a hillside community of stone structures that was once a center of the wool trade when its half-dozen churches were built, he has been the manager of a hotel and restaurant for 33 years.

According to Melchor Fernandez, an economics professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela, the Camino contributes to job creation and the preservation of cultural heritage. It has stopped the depopulation, which is 30% more pronounced in Galician villages away from the Camino.
Most pilgrims only spend about 50 euros (dollars) each day, but that money stays in the region.

The bread in the pilgrim’s sandwich is not Bimbo, Fernández said, referring to the multinational company. It’s from the bakery next door.

According to baker Conchi Sagarda, who was serving a pilgrim from Florida a pastry and fruit juice, the lone bakery in Cirauqui, a mountain community in Navarra, survived because dozens of pilgrims stop by it every day.

In addition to pilgrims, the older locals of the villages—where there aren’t many young adults—are the shops’ main customers.

“In the summer, the grandmas sit down along the Camino to watch the pilgrims go by”, according to Lourdes González, a Paraguayan who has owned the cafe in Redecilla del Camino for ten years. The Camino is the only street in it.

Her worry, which is a common one throughout the Camino, is to preserve the distinctive pilgrim spirit even as increased commercialization results from the Camino’s growing popularity.

The distinctive yellow arrows increasingly point away from the Camino and toward bars or businesses offering foot massages. A elderly shepherd named Esteban Velasco was directing pilgrims toward the right path at a junction in the town of Tardajos one recent morning.

The Camino wouldn’t have a reason to exist without pilgrimage, said Jesús Aguirre, president of the Association of Friends of the Camino de Santiago in Burgos province. One can do it for different reasons, but you keep imbuing yourself with something else.

That represents a spiritual or religious search for many. In a rapidly secularizing Spain, the desire to keep churches open for pilgrims revitalizes parishes as well.

One of the most gorgeous Camino settlements is Santa Mara in Los Arcos, a 900-year-old church with an intricate altarpiece and belltower. According to the Rev. Andrés Lacarra, pilgrims frequently attend Mass in double the number of people who do on weekdays.

There is only Sunday Mass at Hontanas, a group of stone homes that arrive unexpectedly in a dip after a journey through Castilla’s wide-open plains, as is frequently the case when one priest serves many parishes. But on a recent Wednesday night, the Rev. Jihwan Cho, a priest from Toronto on his second pilgrimage, was preparing to celebrate the Eucharist when the church bells rang fervently.

The fact that I was able to celebrate Mass … it made me really happy, he said.

Some places are becoming more and more cosmopolitan thanks to visitors from abroad like him.

The daughter of Nuria Quintana and her classmates are given instructions by the English teacher in Sahagn to observe pilgrims and practice their language.

According to César Acero, “people have become much more sociable” in small Calzadilla de la Cueza.

When he started the hostel and restaurant in 1990, the locals referred to him as “crazy.” On a recent afternoon, two farmers with tractors and a group of cyclists traveling from the Netherlands to Santiago shared a coffee.

Now you see people that when I was little I never saw, of all nationalities, said Loly Valcárcel, who owns a pizzeria in Sarria.

It is one of the busiest villages on the Camino because it is only a short distance from Santiago, where a “certificate” of completion is given.

Fewer pilgrims travel the historic Roman route through Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, where Gemma Herreros assisted her family in tending to the sheep as a child.

She and her Cuban husband, a previous pilgrim, manage a bed-and-breakfast close to the town’s open-air museum portraying the history of the historic road. Herreros thinks the community will prosper going forward while retaining some of the “absolute freedom and solidarity” of her childhood.

Similar aspirations are shared by Mari Carmen Rodrguez in Hornillos del Camino, a one-street community of honey-colored stone houses.

When she was young, a small group of pilgrims passed by.

Now, she added as she left her restaurant to buy fish from a truck, which sometimes serves as a substitute for grocery stores in many of the communities, “the quantity of people almost makes you afraid to go into the street.”

Without the Camino, we would go right back to disappearing

With funding from Lilly Endowment Inc., the Associated Press collaborates with The Conversation US to support its coverage of religion. 

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