Camino pilgrims help the empty villages of rural Spain survive

TERRADILLOS DE LOS TEMPLARIOS – In the midst of the vast grain fields of Spain, a medieval church watches over the few mud houses in which about 50 people live – and twice as many travelers on the Way of St. James spend the night this summer.

Terradillos de los Templarios and dozens of similar villages were built to accommodate medieval pilgrims trekking the 800-kilometer route across Spain to the tomb of the Apostle James in Santiago de Compostela. Today’s Camino travelers save them from disappearing.

“This is life for the villages,” said Nuria Quintana, who runs one of Terradillos’ two pilgrim hostels. “In winter, when no pilgrims come through, you could walk through the village 200 times and not see anyone.”

In this hamlet, named after a medieval order of knights founded to protect pilgrims, and along the entire route, the return of the travelers – following pandemic-related disruptions – is helping to restore livelihoods and vitality to villages that have been steadily losing jobs, population and even their social fabric.


“Without the Camino, there wouldn’t even be a café. And the bar is where people meet,” said Raúl Castillo, an agent with the Guardia Civil, the law enforcement agency that patrols Spain’s streets and villages. He has lived in Sahagún, 13 kilometers away, for 14 years, from where agents cover 49 villages.

“The villages next door, off the Camino – they make you cry. Houses are collapsing, the grass is sprouting up here on the sidewalks,” he added, pointing to a tabletop.

From the Pyrenees on the border with France, hundreds of miles across the sun-kissed plains of Spain to the mist-shrouded hills of Galicia spreading toward the Atlantic, once-booming farming and ranching towns have begun to bleed the population dry in recent decades.

Mechanization drastically reduced the need for farm workers. As young people moved away, shops and cafes closed.

Often so did the great churches, packed with priceless works of art – the legacy of medieval and Renaissance artists brought in by wealthy townsfolk, said Julia Pavón, a historian at the University of Navarre in Pamplona, ​​the first major city on the Camino.


But starting in the 1990s, the Camino regained international popularity, with tens of thousands of visitors hiking and biking it every spring, summer, and fall. After a severe slump amid the pandemic in 2020 and the start of a recovery with mostly Spanish pilgrims in 2021, 2022 feels like the “finally” year, as Quintana put it, with more than 25,000 visitors in May alone on the most traditional route , the “French way”.

Since the number of daily visitors in the smallest hamlets is ten times the number of residents, the effect is enormous.

“Now only hospitality works (in the city),” said Óscar Tardajos, who was born on a farm on the Camino. For 33 years he has run a hotel and restaurant in Castrojeriz, a hilltop village of stone houses that was a center of the wool trade centuries ago when half a dozen churches were built.

The Camino helps create jobs and preserve cultural heritage, said Melchor Fernández, an economics professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela. “It has curbed depopulation”, which is 30% higher in Galician villages off the Camino.


While most pilgrims only spend around 50 euros (dollars) a day, it remains local.

“The bread in the pilgrim’s sandwich is not bimbo,” said Fernández, referring to the multinational. “It’s from the bakery next door.”

In Cirauqui, a mountain village in Navarre, the lone bakery has survived because dozens of pilgrims drop by every day, baker Conchi Sagardía said while serving pastries and fruit juice to a pilgrim from Florida.

In addition to pilgrims, the main customers of these shops are elderly residents of the villages, where few younger adults live.

“In the summer, grannies sit along the Camino to watch the pilgrims go by,” said Lourdes González, a Paraguayan who has owned the café in Redecilla del Camino for 10 years. Its only road is the Camino.

Their concern – widespread along the route – is to keep this unique pilgrimage spirit alive, even as the popularity of the Camino leads to greater commercialization.


In increasing cases, the distinctive yellow arrows lead to bars or foot massage shops instead of the Camino. One recent morning in the town of Tardajos, Esteban Velasco, a retired shepherd, was standing at a crossroads directing pilgrims to the right path.

“Without the pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago would have no reason to exist,” said Jesús Aguirre, President of the Association of Friends of the Camino de Santiago in the province of Burgos. “You can do it for different reasons, but you always infuse yourself with something else.”

For many it is a spiritual or religious quest. The incentive to keep churches open to pilgrims is also reviving parishes in rapidly secularizing Spain.

With a soaring bell tower and intricately carved altarpiece, the 900-year-old Church of Santa María in Los Arcos is one of the most magnificent of the Camino villages. Pilgrims often double the number of weekday Masses, Rev. Andrés Lacarra said.


In Hontanas, a cluster of stone houses that suddenly appear in a hollow after a hike through the vast plains of Castile, there is only Sunday Mass, as is often the case when a priest covers several parishes.

But on a recent Wednesday night, church bells rang enthusiastically as Rev. Jihwan Cho, a Toronto priest on his second pilgrimage, was preparing to celebrate the Eucharist.

“The fact that I could celebrate Mass made me really happy,” he said.

International pilgrims like him are making some cities more and more cosmopolitan.

In Sahagún, the English teacher, Nuria Quintana, instructs Quintana’s daughter and her classmates to shadow pilgrims and practice their language.

In tiny Calzadilla de la Cueza, “people have become much more sociable,” said César Acero.

Villagers called him “crazy” when he opened the hostel and restaurant in 1990, where two farmers on tractors stopped for a quick coffee one afternoon recently alongside a group of cyclists driving from the Netherlands to Santiago.


“Now you see people of all nationalities that I never saw when I was little,” said Loly Valcárcel, who owns a pizzeria in Sarria. It’s one of the busiest cities on the Camino, being just short of the distance required to earn a degree “certificate” in Santiago.

Far fewer pilgrims take the ancient Roman road through Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, where as a child Gemma Herreros helped feed the sheep her family had tended for generations.

She runs a bed and breakfast near the city’s open-air museum, which depicts the history of the old road, with her Cuban husband, a former pilgrim. Herreros hopes that the village will continue to thrive – but without completely losing the “absolute freedom and solidarity” of her childhood.

In Hornillos del Camino, a one-street village of honey-colored stone houses, Mari Carmen Rodríguez shares similar hopes.

When she was little, a handful of pilgrims would pass by. Now “the amount of people almost scares you to go out into the street,” she said, stepping out of her restaurant to buy fish from a truck — a common grocery store staple in many villages.


But she was quick to add, “If it weren’t for the Camino, we’d be gone in a heartbeat.”


The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/06/19/camino-pilgrims-help-rural-spains-emptying-villages-survive/ Camino pilgrims help the empty villages of rural Spain survive

Sarah Y. Kim

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