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On Spain’s Camino de Santiago, even Óscar the donkey is a pilgrim


Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Renche, Spain, Oct. 1, 2021. An artist and an innkeeper have enlisted the help of a burro in their effort to rescue the traditions of Spain’s ancient pilgrimage route from mass tourism (and selfies).

By Nicholas Casey


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 García-Inés and 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.


And then there is Óscar, the donkey.


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


But somewhere along the way, García-Inés said, 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 (62 miles) 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,” García-Inés said.


And so García-Inés and 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 Jato’s garden that he canned, much like the pilgrims of yore did.


For 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.


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, 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.


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 Spanish city of Lleida, 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.


On another afternoon, 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. Jato talked to 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.


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


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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