Martin Sheen on screen is paving the way for American tourists to walk across northern Spain
When Eat, Pray, Love became a bestseller and then a movie, American women (in particular) headed for Italy, India and Indonesia to find themselves and their soulmates. Sheen carries a single picturesque wooden walking pole, but of course, modern-day pilgrims are likely to use a pair of poles. In any case, what author Elizabeth Gilbert and movie star Julia Roberts did for those three I-countries (was that intentional?, I wonder), “The Way” will doubtless do for the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. It stars Martin Sheen and is less of a chick flick than EPL, so men as well as women will most likely be motivated to follow the fabled pilgrimage route, known in English as the Way of St. James.
The Plot: Sheen is an American doctor named Tom who goes to France to retrieve the ashes of his grown son who died during a storm while walking the ancient pilgrimage route (a Roman route before that) to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. In his grief and to honor his son’s personal mission, he decides to walk the same ancient spiritual trail where his son perished. Carrying his son’s pack, he embarks on a journey that ultimately includes encounters with others from around the world, some of whom are also lost or grieving, and seeking for greater meaning or spirituality in their lives. Call it Canterbury Tales for the 21st century.
The Prediction: American travelers (in particular) will start looking at northern Spain as they never did before. By mountain bike, on horseback, in organized tours complete with sag wagons but especially on foot, they will follow the path that Christian pilgrims have followed for more than a millennium. It has been designated a European Cultural Route and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at roughly 750 kilometers for the whole route, surely the longest, skinniest such “site.”
The Pilgrimage Route: There is not just one El Camino de Santiago (the well-known Spanish name, or O Camiño de Santiago in Galacian, Chemin de St-Jacques in French, Jakobsweg in German, O Caminho de Santiago in Portuguese and Done Jakue bidea in Basque, which is useful to know since the long route crosses the Pyrenees, Sheen’s fictional son perished). The four main tourist/pilgrim routes start in various places and measure out to various distances, All are are well mapped, marked with a scallop symbol, documented in media from books to blogs, and on film and video. Churches, inns and other simple places of refuge where pilgrims can spend the night, have a meal and wash are the traditional accommodations, but greater comfort is available in hotels along the way too.
The Passport & The Certificate: Much like the National Park Service’s popular passport that can be stamped at all NPS units, there is a Compostela passport called the credencial (or something like that). Collect stamps along the way to earn the compostela, a certificate of accomplishment given to those who arrive at the cathedral after walking a minimum of 100 kilometers (roughly 60 miles) or bicycling at least 200 kilometers. To earn it, many walkers make their way to Sarria by bus or train, and head out from there. A daily Pilgrim’s Mass at noon includes the “Hymn to Santiago” synchronized with the swinging of the Botafumeiro, an enormous metal incensory above the pilgrims’ heads.
The Tour Packages: Something like 150,000 pilgrims have completed the route in recent years, but I’m betting interest soars. As the film gains traction, additional tours will be added and more tour operators will get into the game, adding “The Way” package options. Here are a couple that can be booked now:
- Sentiers de France’s self-guided 12-day program from Puy en Velay. Basic walking tour with lodging in 1- and 2-star hotels; “comfort” tour with lodging in 2- and 3-star “charming” hotels with some meals.
- Marly Tours walking and bicycling itineraries include lodging, support vehicle, luggage transfer, itinerary, security and some meals, but pilgrims travel independently.
- Fresco Tours has a dozen scheduled 10-day, 9-night walking tours for small groups between April and October 2012; included are ground transportation, lodging, meals, support vehicle and guide.