Camino pilgrims help rural Spain’s emptying villages survive
Amid the vast grain fields of Spain, a medieval church stands guard over the handful of adobe homes where some 50 people live — and twice as many travelers along the Camino de Santiago spend the night this summer.
Terradillos de los Templarios, and dozens of villages like it, were built to host medieval pilgrims walking the 500-mile (800-kilometer) route across Spain to the Apostle James’ tomb in Santiago de Compostela. Today’s Camino travelers are saving them from disappearing.
“This is life for the villages,” said Nuria Quintana, who manages one of Terradillos’ two pilgrim hostels. “In winter when no pilgrims come through, you could walk through the village 200 times and see nobody.”
In this hamlet named after a medieval knightly order founded to protect pilgrims, and all along the route, the return of travelers — after pandemic-related disruptions — is helping restore the livelihood and vitality of villages that were steadily losing jobs, population, even their social fabric.
“If it weren’t for the Camino, there wouldn’t even be a café open. And the bar is where people meet,” said Raúl Castillo, an agent with the Guardia Civil, the law enforcement agency that patrols Spain’s roads and villages. He’s spent 14 years based in Sahagún, eight miles (13 kilometers) away, from where agents cover 49 hamlets.
“The villages next door, off the Camino — they make you cry. Homes falling in, the grass sprouting on the sidewalks up to here,” he added, gesturing to a tabletop.
From the Pyrenees Mountains at the border with France, across hundreds of miles of Spain’s sun-roasted plains to the mist-covered hills of Galicia rolling toward the Atlantic Ocean, once-booming towns of farmers and ranchers started hemorrhaging population in recent decades.
Mechanization drastically reduced the need for farm laborers. As young people moved away, shops and cafes shuttered.
Often, so did the grand churches full of priceless artwork — the heritage of the medieval and Renaissance artists brought in by prospering town burghers, said Julia Pavón, historian at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, the Camino’s first large city.
But starting in the 1990s, the Camino regained international popularity, with tens of thousands of visitors hiking and biking it each spring, summer and fall. After a serious dip amid the pandemic in 2020 and the start of recovery with mostly Spanish pilgrims in 2021, 2022 feels like the “at last” year, as Quintana put it, with more than 25,000 visitors in May alone on the most traditional route, the “French way.”
With daily visitors outnumbering residents tenfold in the tiniest hamlets, the impact is huge.
“Now all that works (in town) is the hospitality industry,” said Óscar Tardajos, who was born on a farm along the Camino. For 33 years, he’s managed a hotel and restaurant in Castrojeriz, a hillside village of stone buildings that was a center of the wool trade centuries ago, when its half dozen churches were built.
The Camino helps create jobs and maintain the cultural heritage, said Melchor Fernández, professor of economics at the University of Santiago de Compostela. “It has put the brakes on depopulation,” which is 30% higher in Galician villages off the Camino.
While most pilgrims spend only around 50 euros (dollars) a day, it stays local.
“The bread in the pilgrim’s sandwich is not Bimbo,” Fernández said, referring to the multinational company. “It’s from the bakery next door.”
In Cirauqui, a hilltop village in Navarra, the lone bakery survived because dozens of pilgrims stop by it daily, said baker Conchi Sagardía while serving a pastry and fruit juice to a pilgrim from Florida.
Aside from pilgrims, the main customers of these shops are older residents of the villages, where few younger adults live.
“In the summer, the grandmas sit down along the Camino to watch the pilgrims go by,” said Lourdes González, a Paraguayan who for 10 years has owned the cafe in Redecilla del Camino. Its only street is the Camino.
Her concern — shared widely along the route – is to keep that unique pilgrim spirit alive even as the Camino’s popularity leads to greater commercialization.
In growing instances, the signature yellow arrows lead to bars or foot massage businesses instead of the Camino. One recent morning in the town of Tardajos, Esteban Velasco, a retired shepherd, stood at a crossroads pointing the correct route to pilgrims.
“The Camino wouldn’t have a reason to exist without pilgrimage,” said Jesús Aguirre, president of the Association of Friends of the Camino de Santiago in Burgos province. “One can do it for different reasons, but you keep imbuing yourself with something else.”
For many, that is a spiritual or religious quest. The incentive to keep churches open for pilgrims revitalizes parishes, too, in rapidly secularizing Spain.
The 900-year-old church of Santa María in Los Arcos is one of the Camino villages’ most magnificent, with a soaring belltower and intricately sculpted altarpiece. Pilgrims often double the numbers attending weekday Masses, said the Rev. Andrés Lacarra.
In Hontanas, a cluster of stone houses that appear suddenly in a dip after a trek through the wide-open plains of Castilla, there’s only Sunday Mass, as is often the case where one priest covers multiple parishes.
But on a recent Wednesday evening, the church bells tolled rapturously — the Rev. Jihwan Cho, a priest from Toronto on his second pilgrimage, was readying to celebrate the Eucharist.
“The fact that I was able to celebrate Mass … it made me really happy,” he said.
International pilgrims like him are making some towns increasingly cosmopolitan.
In Sahagún, the English teacher instructs Nuria 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.
Fellow villagers called him “crazy” when, in 1990, he opened the hostel and restaurant where, on a recent afternoon, two farmers on tractors got a quick coffee next to a group of bicyclists riding from the Netherlands to Santiago.
“Now you see people that when I was little I never saw, of all nationalities,” said Loly Valcárcel, who owns a pizzeria in Sarria. It’s one of the busiest towns on the Camino because it’s just past the distance needed to earn a completion “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 that her family tended for generations.
She runs a bed-and-breakfast with her Cuban husband, a former pilgrim, near the town’s open-air museum portraying the history of the ancient road. Herreros hopes the village will continue to thrive — but without losing entirely 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.
A handful of pilgrims came by when she was little. Now, “the quantity of people almost makes you afraid to go into the street,” she said as she stepped out from her restaurant to buy fish from a truck — a common fill-in for grocery stores in many of the villages.
But she quickly added, “Without the Camino, we would go right back to disappearing.”
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