Why go to Santiago?

Why go to Santiago?
It’s all in your head anyway!
The Camino is more than just a physical trail, writes Colm Fitzpatrick


As I walked through the town of Arzúa on a blistering hot day, a message engraved into a wooden post stopped me in my tracks. It read: ‘Why go to Santiago – it’s all in your head anyway?’

The faint inscription was a poignant one – pilgrims from all over the world journey on the Camino to contemplate and pray, so, why would travelling to another country help in that interior endeavour? Whatever problems you’re facing, the Camino won’t solve them.

The sign immediately reminded me of a passage in The Life of Samthann, where when a teacher asks permission to postpone his learning in order to travel overseas on pilgrimage, the abbess replies that one can arrive at the Kingdom of Heaven from any land. These jarring words provoked in me a whole host of conflicting ideas in the face of a scorching heat that would usually render any focused thought impossible.

Is it really the case that people who choose to venture on this arduous hike do so to run away from their personal issues at home – or is there a more noble cause to the Camino, one that embodies both strength and hope?


It’s certainly true that many pilgrims travel this ancient path to escape the monotonous routine of everyday life, whether it be from relationships or work. Making strides from town to town, listening to stories about unease or boredom at home are aplenty. Others, however, make an unconscious decision to go, unaware of why they’re going or what it means to them.

“I think it’s for many different reasons. I think some people go maybe for the romance of it, other people go because they feel they need a break in their life to get away from all the ups-and-downs of home life, work life or in their relationships, maybe. I think they just need to take time out and find some sort of guidance or peace of mind,” Marian Pilgrimages guide Michael Murphy tells The Irish Catholic.

“I think lots of people I’ve met on it tend to go – they don’t really know the reason why they go – but while they’re on it, they discover the reason why they’re on it and that could be a spiritual thing or it could be anything.”

While the Camino – sometimes called ‘The Way’ – has widespread appeal today, the original or formal reason why pilgrims walked it dates far back to the 9th Century when supposedly the remains of St James the Apostle, also known as Santiago, were discovered in northern Spain after being carried by boat from Jerusalem. It is thought that King Alfonso II organised for the relics to be buried in a specially-built chapel, which would later become known as the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. The pilgrimage to the Galician capital was very popular in medieval piety as an alternative to Rome and Jerusalem. Highly travelled by hundreds of thousands, pilgrims sought to reach the apostle and receive a plenary indulgence, all the while experiencing spiritual transformation and renewal.

In subsequent years there was a drop-off in the pilgrimage numbers as the Black Death ravaged Europe and the Protestant Reformation created social, political and religious upheaval. Only a few hundred pilgrims travelled the route during this time, but a resurgence occurred towards the end of the last century when it was declared the first European Cultural Route and also named a World Heritage Site. While people are drawn to it today for secular reasons, it’s important to keep in mind the original religious motivation behind its inception.

One key aspect of the Camino is to travel light so as not be burdened with the weight of a ridiculously heavy rucksack”

It was in this spirit that I travelled to Spain with a group of 25 Irish pilgrims to experience the Camino for the first time. While the most popular route is the Camino Francés which stretches 780km from St Jean-Pied-du-Port, our route began in Sarria, just over 100km from our final destination. After the comfortable plane journey across the sea, I was greeted with a luxurious hotel which together deceptively convinced me that this was more of a holiday than a pilgrimage.

This illusion of cosiness was quickly dispelled on the first day as we began our 22.4km walk to Portomarín.

In almost 30C heat, the group moved off together with both excitement and trepidation, unsure of what lay ahead of them. The walk is covered by paved roads, paths, ascents and strong descents as well as many ecclesiastical buildings including the convent of Magdalena, and the churches of Santa Marina and El Salvador.


The initial kilometres were very enjoyable as I soaked in the sun and acclimatised to my new environment and group. Given the different walking pace of each person, various factions were formed where individuals could have more personal conversations with one another. I befriended quickly, and relished in discussions about politics, our own lives and the stories of why we were here.

One key aspect of the Camino is to travel light so as not to be burdened with the weight of a heavy rucksack. This made the walk much easier, and the group was especially lucky as most of our belongings could be left in the hotel, leaving us to carry only essentials like water, a snack and sunscreen. This is more than just a practical application; at a deeper level it signifies a mental decluttering where addictive attachment to modern day items is examined and quelled.

“I’m a big believer in that we’re so caught up in consumerism and materialism that maybe it’s time just to stop, take time, lighten the load,” Michael explains, adding that technological devices like mobile phones which connect you to social media and work inhibit one’s ability to be truly free.

“I think you need to shed all that stuff and just let your mind be free and be open and just sit with it and let the Spirit work.”


In today’s culture, happiness is often conflated with material wealth creating the false impression that a lack property is the cause of one’s woes and ills. Paradoxically, by travelling light, the Camino reminds us that freedom is not synonymous with fulfilling our worldly cravings.

Most people doing the full walk carry all their gear in a large backpack, alternating between two sets of clothes during their pilgrimage. As I trudged wearily towards my final destination on the first day, I was amazed at the many pilgrims much older than myself who were carrying these loads on their backs with seemingly great ease.

This bewilderment only intensified as the bus made its way back to the hotel, prompting the realisation that the majority of travellers would probably be residing in a cramped hostel (albergue) for the night.

Day two involved pacing through picturesque villages with part of the way crossing the Ligonde Mountain range that separates the Mino and Ulla rivers. Walking became increasingly difficult after muscle aches developed from the previous day’s route, with solace being found in the intermittent café breaks. It was here that the group reconnected, replenished and motivated one another to finish the route. The food was usually very basic and surprisingly cheap – once again reinforcing the simple lifestyle the Camino asks of us.

These humorous moments of tiredness and collapse during those food stops are a memorable part of my Camino experience as there was a shared sense of empathy but also a group desire to finish what we’d started that day – which we did, arriving in Palas de Rei that evening.

On the third day, I decided to walk alone and reflect spiritually and mentally. In the busyness of everyday life, it’s hard to take a step back from the unconscious robotisation of your existence and think about what really matters. Without the gnawing problem of external distractions, the Camino offers an opportunity for self-reflection and honest thought.

Even when walking alone however, there is a pervasive sense of safety and direction as small, yellows arrows guide you”

This is echoed by Fr Brendan McManus SJ, when he writes in his book Contemplating the Camino: An Ignatian Guide: “The essence of the Camino is that there is a beautiful experience of insight, healing or re-connection awaiting you, but you have to be prepared to pass through some darkness. This could be the ugliness within yourself, a resurgence of past memories or unhealed wounds.

“You need to let this be transformed through the process of walking in nature and being centred and reflective even in the midst of people. There are no shortcuts, easy routes or back doors. The only way is through the fragility of human reality.”

Even when walking alone however, there is a pervasive sense of safety and direction as small, yellows arrows guide you through the forests and villages, indicating how many kilometres are left to the cathedral. Often these markers are covered in drawings and signatures from fellow past travellers, acting as a reminder that you are only one of the many millions of people who have walked this path.


On route, your attention is also drawn to the iconic scallop shells tied to rucksacks of people passing by. It is said to be a metaphor, its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travel from, with all walking trails leading to the tomb.

“The first thing that ever struck me about the Camino when I went on it was that it didn’t matter if you were on your own, it didn’t matter if you were with a group of Irish people, there was this sense of togetherness, that everybody is one the road and I suppose I often talk about that we’re all on the road home in one sense,” Michael explains.

“People from every walk of life, every path of life are on that one path, and they have a common goal. They mightn’t be able to explain it to you but there’s something about where you’re on it with them. There’s no sense of loneliness and there’s definitely no sense of being lost.”


There are many myths which attempt to associate the shell with St James the Apostle – one which states that after his body was lost in the ocean, it washed to shore undamaged covered in scallops, whereas another says the apostle once rescued a knight covered in shells. Regardless of the historical veracity of these accounts, the scallop shell is now seen as an iconic symbol of the Camino and a memento of having completed it.

At a point on your journey when giving up seems like the easiest option, the shell acts an impetus to power through any physical or mental blocks. Without doubt, completing the routes were becoming consistently more difficult as fatigue wore in, and after walking around 25 kilometres, we were all content to be heading back to the hotel that evening.


The third and fourth days were undoubtedly the most strenuous and combined with extreme heat, there was an instinctual desire to complete it as soon as possible. As I pushed my way through each step, I came to the realisation that this struggle is a key component of the pilgrimage. By overcoming adversity and one’s own self-imposed limits, watershed moments can occur.

“I think life is like that and if we don’t face the struggle and if we don’t face the hardship then we’re never probably going to get through life. You come through darkness to get to the light and the darkness isn’t always a happy place and not always an easy place,” Michael says.

He adds that every day is a challenge, but that a sense of achievement is garnered on a daily basis from completing the route.

The penitential nature of the Camino allows one to realise their humanness, their successes and shortfalls, and prompt an inward desire to become a better person.

Every individual experiences their own personal challenge, whether it be grieving after the bereavement of a loved one, attempting to mend a broken relationship, or trying to find God in the midst of chaos. Irrespective of the particular burden, the Camino acts as a safe haven for healing, direction and renewal.

The Camino reaches its climax on the last day when you travel from the small town of O Pedrouzo to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

On this route, it’s common to follow tradition by symbolically cleansing oneself in the river Lauamentula.


The terrain changes vastly as forests and streams become roads, roundabouts and townhouses. At Monte de Gozo the city is visible and after manoeuvring through the narrow and saturated streets, I was greeted with an overwhelming scene: thousands of pilgrims gathered in the Praza do Oberdeiro – the main square of the old town – smiling, laughing and relaxing.

The sense of relief is palpable as families, friends and groups snap photos and record videos, elated at their achievement. The journey, however, is not yet over as pilgrims make their way to the Cathedral of St James.

A statue of the apostle presides over the main altar of the cathedral which people usually hug, and beneath this is the crypt. Pilgrims thank St James for his guidance and prayers are offered in his name. After a long journey on foot, overcoming obstacles, weaknesses and fears, the Camino is finally complete.


The Marian Pilgrimages’ group were delighted with their achievement – despite the difficulties along the way, we all managed to make it together in one piece. New bonds were formed and people who seemed like strangers a week prior were now companions.

The day after, the Pilgrim’s Mass was celebrated where thousands of pilgrims gathered to give thanks to God for their experience. For me, this marked the formal end of the Camino, but in reality, it was really just the start of a new one.

The Camino is an ongoing journey of prayerful reflection and thanksgiving; this is a practice and process that extends far beyond Spain.  As one leaves the cathedral through the southern door, on the mullion between the arch of the two doors, a monogram of Christ is present, but the letters are backwards.

The Alpha has changed places with the Omega, symbolising that the end is at the beginning.

The Camino has started anew – and this one asks us to grow stronger and more hopeful every day.

So, why go to Santiago then, if it’s all in your head anyway? That cynical inscription assumes that any personal or spiritual development is a wholly inward venture, impervious to any external sources or inspiration – which is not the case.

The pilgrimage reminds us that we are able to overcome adversity in all of its forms”

We go on the Camino then not to cowardly run away from our problems or worries, but to bravely face them head on in an environment conducive for reflection. As Fr McManus writes: “Something happens on the Camino that people normally only hint at or allude to: people find it good for their spirits, get perspective on difficult personal issues and can often come home transformed.

“The Camino is not just the physical route or trail through Spain or France, rather it is an interior issue. This not just for religious or people of faith; rather everyone seems to be the better for this healing of the heart, that is the Spirit of the Camino.”

The pilgrimage reminds us that we are able to overcome adversity in all of its forms, and for people of faith, that God is always present in the midst of this even when it looks like he’s gone.

“God works in many different ways and his light seems to shine through, sometimes if it can’t come through you, it can come through others and maybe the path is lit that way for you,” Michael says.