Among the Pilgrims: Journeys to Santiago de Compostela Paperback – 6 Jul 2006
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Mary Victoria Wallis's Among the Pilgrims is the story of her two pilgrimages - one by bicycle in 1997 and one on foot in 1998 - in northern Spain along the thousand year old route to the shrine of St. James the Apostle at Santiago de Compostela. In ten chapters covering everything from medieval miracle tales to the modern perils of shin splints and flat tires, she gives her view, as a medievalist, outdoor enthusiast, and inquiring pilgrim with Buddhist leanings, of the five hundred mile trail to Santiago. Among the Pilgrims takes the reader through a landscape of both the past and the present, the real and the imagined, through a topography not only of village and field, but of mind and spirit as well. In the cultural remains of medieval pilgrimage, Mary searches for the spiritual seeds of modern pilgrimage. Using a personal and impressionistic style, Among the Pilgrims brings into relief the treasury of literature, art, architecture, music, philosophy and science that was born and transmitted along the Camino de Santiago. Early in her first trip, for instance, Mary climbs the pass over the Pyrenees into the Spanish town of Roncesvalles. Here, in 779 AD, Count Roland was slain, blowing a dying note upon his magical oliphant to summon help from King Charlemagne - thereby giving birth to Le Chanson de Roland - and French literature. On the dry plains of northern Castile, she discovers the cradle of many Western musical traditions. Further west, she comes upon a 12th-century Templars castle that Napoleon thought about blowing up only two hundred years ago. Far from being isolated cultural artifacts, these stories, places and treasures are part of a heritage reaching into our own time. They are also mirrors in which we can find ourselves. In the Middle Ages, the pilgrim's destination at Santiago was, after Jerusalem and Rome, the third most important in Christian Europe. Eight centuries later, when Napoleon's armies ravaged Spain during the Peninsular Wars, the pilgrimage died out almost completely. Among the Pilgrims reflects on the rise and fall of the Camino, from its glorious beginnings with the Spanish Reconquista, to its decline during the Renaissance and Reformation, its near death in the wars of the 19th Century, and its odd echoes that have since reverberated as far west as Mexico and Peru. Among the Pilgrims is also about the resurgence of the Camino and the pilgrim's spirit. In the 1960s, the number of travellers on the road to Santiago began to grow; by the year 2000, the tiny hamlets along the way were seeing thousands of pilgrims each summer: walkers, cyclists, even a few horseback riders. The rise of the environmental movement, along with eco- and cultural tourism, are in some ways modern expressions of the urge to pilgrimage. Many travellers seek a transcendent meaning, a new - or perhaps an ancient - sacredness in nature. In Among the Pilgrims, Mary looks at the idea of pilgrimage through her own and other's experiences on the Camino. She asks how our response to the route is informed by what we know of its past, and also by our own personal pasts. She asks too what contemporary meaning - if any - an old Christian trail has in a world where the forces of organized religion are being dispersed into personal quests for spiritual harmony and fulfillment. Among the Pilgrims explores how people today experience the Camino and how an important tradition in western civilization - the Christian pilgrimage - is being transformed in a secular world trying to renew its experience of place.
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While she gives a lot of time to her problems with Christian faith, her Buddhist background substitutes in an interesting way and provides spiritual depth to her narrative. Her first Camino by bike with her husband turned into a second, solitary Camino the following year. She clearly was hooked and spends much of the book putting words to the spirituality of the 500-mile walk.
This is a good read, particularly for people open to Buddhist spirituality or deeply interested in Medieval Spanish history.