Der Standard

Preserving a Pilgrimage’s Past, on Foot and on Hoof


SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — Of all those journeying along the Camino de Santiago, a fabled route that attracts thousands of pilgrims each year, few are like Óscar.

He walks on four legs instead of two. A burro of uncertain age, Óscar pulls an old donkey cart and the duo who own him, Irene García-Inés, a 37-year-old sculptor, and an octogenari­an innkeeper named Jesús Jato.

Most pilgrims walk the Camino’s routes through the mountains of northern Spain for several weeks before they receive a certificat­e of a journey completed. But

Ms. García-Inés and Mr. Jato have wandered these hills for more than a year and have more radical plans: They want to critique nothing less than the way we travel today by bringing back the lost traditions of an ancient pilgrimage route.

The two stop at homes to take down the old songs that were sung about pilgrims. They barter for lodging with inn owners, with goods they canned before their journey.

And then there is Óscar. “He is how the pilgrims used to travel back then,” Ms. García-Inés said.

In some ways, it was here on the Camino that modern travel began in the form of the Christian pilgrimage.

According to legend, after the death of Jesus’ apostle James, angels accompanie­d his body in a boat from Judea to the shores of Spain, where villagers set up a shrine for his relics. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims began to arrive on journeys from as far away as England, Italy and Poland. They called the route the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James.

Today, backpacker­s traverse these mountains debating their life plans for adulthood. Couples work through marital problems as they make their way to the endpoint at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

But at some point, Ms. García-Inés says, the route began to bustle with pilgrims, some coming in buses. Instagram left people seeking “likes” along the path.

Many now came only for the last 100 kilometers of the route, the minimum the Roman Catholic Church allows to gain the certificat­e of completion — which means bypassing a rich landscape where pilgrims once traded goods with farmers and chatted with stonemason­s repairing the road.

“Today’s pilgrims come in a hurry and hardly talk to anyone,”

Ms. García-Inés said. “Before, people

who traveled were people with deep restlessne­ss. They had the spirit deep within them.”

Last year during the pandemic, the artist, who had met and befriended the innkeeper as a teenager when she made the pilgrimage herself, suggested the two set off for a different kind of journey, one that would try to recover the traditions lost on the route.

For Ms. García-Inés, the trek is

Jesús Jato, an innkeeper, and Irene García-Inés, an artist, travel the Camino de Santiago with Óscar, a burro. Pilgrims are drawn to the ancient route because of a legend about Jesus’ apostle James.

the kind of performanc­e art that she is known for.

A decade ago, at the Venice Biennale, she worked with residents to rebuild a boat and sailed it in the canals. She said it was a statement against the mass tourism of cruise ships.

Mr. Jato came to the journey after decades as an innkeeper at Ave Fenix, a hilltop hostel he built with old stones and wood that he recycled from buildings in his town of Villafranc­a del Bierzo.

“Losing these traditions, it’s like what if we lost the pyramids?” Ms. García-Inés said. “We put a lot of value on monuments, but less on the small things. There are so many tourist traps in the world, but sacred routes, there are very few of those.”

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