On Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Even Óscar the Donkey Is a Pilgrim

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 quite like Óscar.

He walks on four legs instead of two. A burro of uncertain age, Óscar pulls an old donkey cart and the unlikely 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 various 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 friends 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.

A memorial at the end of the Finisterre Cape, where the Camino de Santiago ends.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

And then there is Óscar, the donkey.

“He is how the pilgrims used to travel back then,” said Ms. García-Inés as Óscar neighed outside the old stone inn where the travelers had stopped.

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.

Even in today’s more secular times, the spiritual draw of walking the Camino has remained. Young backpackers traverse these mountains debating their life plans for adulthood. Couples on the ropes work through marital problems as they make their way to the endpoint at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrims hugging each other on a rainy day in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela after finishing their long walk across the Camino de Santiago. Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

But somewhere along the way, Ms. García-Inés says, what had for centuries been a deliberate, contemplative trek started to change. The route began to bustle with pilgrims, some coming in buses. Instagram left people seeking “likes” on selfies snapped along their 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 entirely 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. But before, people who traveled were people with deep restlessness. They had the spirit deep within them,” Ms. García-Inés said.

And so Ms. García-Inés and Mr. Jato aim to show how it ought to be done.

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 traditions that had been lost on the route.

The pair would make the trip in stages with a donkey, and pay for food and lodging when they could with red peppers from Mr. Jato’s garden that he canned, much like the pilgrims of yore did.

Ms. García-Inés last month in her studio, inside the pilgrims’ hostel that Mr. Jato runs in the town of Villafranca del Bierzo. Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
A sign reading “We host you out of our love for the Camino and the pilgrims,” outside Mr. Jato’s hostel.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
Pilgrims resting in the pilgrims’ hostel that Mr. Jato runs.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Jato swung open the door to the workshop of Elena Ferro, in Vila de Cruces, a village that attracts many pilgrims. The last in the line of a family of cobblers, Ms. Ferro makes a kind of wooden shoe typical of the Galicia region called a “zoco,” a business begun by her grandfather in 1915.

“We called them ‘galochos,’” Mr. Jato said, before rattling off two or three other names his village had for the shoes when he was growing up in the 1940s.

Modern shoes, with their rubber soles, were no good when roads weren’t paved, Mr. Jato explained. For mud, you needed a sturdy wooden zoco, which aren’t easy to find anymore. But there were plenty in Ms. Ferro’s workshop to admire.

“We only used shoes for parties, or Sundays,” Ms. Ferro said.

Zocos designed by Elena Ferro at her workshop in the village of Vila de Cruces, near the Camino de Santiago.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

For Ms. García-Inés, the trek with the donkey is as much a pilgrimage as it is the kind of performance art that she has become known for.

A decade ago, at the Venice Biennale, she worked with local residents to rebuild a boat and sailed it around the canals. She said it was a meant as a statement against the mass tourism of cruise ships that dominated the city for decades. It was also the start of an obsession with travel that has run through her work ever since.

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.

At times, Mr. Jato seems as much an authority on the old ways as anyone the pair seek out on the road. Back at his hostel one night, he regaled pilgrims with stories of his childhood in his parents’ home in the 1940s — the night he was born, there were seven pilgrims staying there, he said — and of Spain’s dictatorship, when Francisco Franco’s soldiers hunted down Republican fighters in the hills.

Mr. Jato has bartered for food and lodging along the route with red peppers from his garden that he canned.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

Those in the inn listening to him that night had come from all walks of life: a restaurant owner from the Spanish city of Valencia, a student from Germany, a Mexican man who was traveling alone.

José Antonio Carrasco said he had lost his job in the city of Lleida in northwest Spain, becoming homeless during the pandemic before falling into drug addiction. At a rehabilitation center, he met pilgrims heading to Santiago.

“I took the Camino to avoid living on the street,” he said, saying that the food and shelter at the hostels were often free for pilgrims who could not pay.

In the morning, the sun rose over Villafranca del Bierzo, and a retired gentleman named Ramón Cela stood in front of the old church next to the inn asking the pilgrims filing out if they knew why this place of worship was so important.

No, they said; it looked like any other on the Camino.

Sunset in an old cemetery near the pilgrimage route.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

Mr. Cela launched into a speech on the church’s architectural history, its centuries-old papal orders from Callixtus III and Urban II, its unique role as the only church where people can receive a certificate if they can’t reach the end of the of the Camino for health reasons.

“Are you a priest?” asked one of the tourists.

No, he said, just someone else who wanted to preserve the old knowledge that ran the length of the Camino — the kind you get precious little of in the guidebooks.

On another afternoon, Ms. García-Inés went to the home of Lola Touron, a basket maker in the village of San Xulián whom she was filming for a documentary on the Camino. Mr. Jato talked to Ms. Touron in the local Galician language. She told him about an unwieldy suit made of straw called a “coroza,” meant to protect shepherds from the rain.

Ms. García-Inés knows that keeping the coroza tradition might be hard. But there were many other traditions that could still be saved, she said.

Ms. García-Inés hugging Óscar.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

She knew of a cycle of songs that once kept a tally of the stops along the Camino as a mnemonic device for pilgrims before guidebooks were common. Some of the older people in the hills still knew the lyrics, she said.

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

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