For this walk, the Fordham pelegrinos trekked from the urban sprawl of Astorga to a sleepy little Maragoto village named Rabanal del Camino. The walk itself had its challenges, given that the first few kilometers were spent exiting the outskirts of Astorga via rocky pathways alongside the highway. Once this section of the Camino was completed, however, we found ourselves in a charming little town where most students stopped to grab a pincho de tortilla, refill their water bottles, and prepare themselves–and their mochilas–for the impending rainfall. Luckily for us, the rain didn’t appear until the very last few kilometers, after students had already had the opportunity to take in some truly breathtaking patches of land, drink cervezas at the now infamous “cowboy” bar, and chat with a Camino-pro-turned-falconer on the side of the trail.
Given Rabanal’s small size, we knew that this isolated village would be very limited, especially in comparison to Astorga’s urban amenities. Camino traffic, after all, is one of the core lifelines of this dusty little town. We were all thrilled to see, therefore, that our albergue for the night–el Albergue Nuestra Señora del Pilar–came equipped with a fully stocked restaurant and bar, decent showers, and some of the most charming social spaces we have yet to see on the Camino. In fact, Nuestra Señora del Pilar’s open concept and canopy layout made the entire establishment feel like a hidden treehouse, tucked safely away from the weary Camino trail. After a night of laughs, vino tintos, and good food, Nuestra Señora del Pilar became a fan favorite among Fordham’s peregrinos.
Before our nightly festivities could begin, however, we made our way to la Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción, a Romanesque church that is presently operated by the Benedictine monks of San Salvador del Monte Irago. These German monks restored the church in 2001, after the Benedictines of St. Ottilien saw an opportunity to create a transient spiritual community out of the incoming/outgoing foot traffic. The monks also maintain a small albergue across the street from the church, where pilgrims can stay for a period of 3-10 days and pray alongside the monks. It’s a truly spectacular group of monks, one that certainly gives back to its surrounding community in spades. It came as a great surprise to us, then, that these monks were banished from the town in August of 2001 by a mob of local townspeople, after the Benedictines had requested and subsequently received a loan of one million euros from Castilla-León to restore their church. This recent event proved to be an interesting point of discussion for us, as it demonstrates the oftentimes vexing relationship that peregrinos share with the communities that house them. On the one hand, villages like Rabanal undoubtedly depend on Camino travelers to survive; that does not mean, however, that these poor communities do not have needs of their own that could be foreseeable remedied by loans from their parent regions.
In this way, the events at San Salvador del Monte Irago provides a lens through which we can better understand the Camino in a more contemporary, engaging sense. It’s certainly important to understand the historic importance of the pilgrimage; but it is critical that we understand the Camino as it exists in its modern landscape — a landscape that is certainly marked by its rich history, but also occasionally by frustration and contention.