By Gigi Ragland
What is a Pilgrimage?
A pilgrimage is a quest to a sacred or secular place to fulfill a deeper spiritual or religious desire. Traditional pilgrimages involved an often arduous and long journey to a religious shrine as an act of devotion for believers seeking moral or spiritual aid. Most of the world’s major religions include some sort of pilgrimage in their history. Over the years, the concept of a pilgrimage has expanded to include non-religious reasons to visit places of historical, cultural, or religious significance that still hold special meaning to the pilgrim.
In travel, sometimes we speak of the journey being greater than the destination of the trip. It’s what you experience along the way that brings a greater sense of overall satisfaction, rather than reaching the final place. For example, a mountaineer can apply that concept to her trek in reaching a difficult summit as she moves from base camp to base camp; so can a cyclist pushing steadily while pedaling a difficult climb in a multi-stage race. Each step or rotation is just as important as the last, and they all have meaning in reaching the goal. Take that idea and apply it to the modern-day pilgrimage tour; then, you will discover how the journey is the true essence of the trip.
Pilgrimage tours are now offered by a range of outfitters and travel companies to accommodate a variety of interests and not just religious. A pilgrimage might be a tour to historic Civil War battlefields or perhaps a tour of favorite novelists’ homes in England. Plus, there are non-religious visits to traditional pilgrim sites like the one I will undertake via bicycle this fall in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain. El Camino de Santiago, which translates to “The Way of St. James,” is considered the most popular Christian pilgrimage trail route dating back to the Medieval Ages.
Admittedly, the romanticism of the European Middle Ages with castles and fortresses, lords and ladies, and dashing knights in shining armor have enchanted me since I was a small child. It all seemed much more of a storybook fantasy than a reality, then. Reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in school was my first encounter with pilgrims. Chaucer’s collection of stories recounted the tales of villagers (pilgrims) making the journey to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. I’ve been hooked ever since on the historical and cultural aspects of pilgrimages throughout the ages. In fact, the pilgrimage is claimed to be the first adventure travel trip. Easy to see why, when you consider that some people traveled from their homelands, crossing great distances over mountains and rivers, with little food and dependent on the kindness of the towns along the way for sustenance.
Since the 560-mile route’s origins in the tenth century, pilgrims still flock to El Camino de Santiago, now a World Heritage Site. The travelers (pilgrims) hike and bike the ancient trail relying on the next town for the chance of food and lodging, much like pilgrims did more than a thousand years ago. I suspect I will not be the only non-religious pilgrimage tourist cycling El Camino de Santiago. There will be others like me fascinated with experiencing the historical journey, open to the lessons and or epiphanies that each spin of the wheel from the Pyrenees to the great cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela will bring.
Follow Travel Editor Gigi Ragland On the Camino De Santiago
The 15-day bike tour will cover a total distance of 558 miles, 30 to 68 miles of riding daily with ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours. Our small group will follow a twelfth century guidebook, with a few modern adjustments. You can follow my journey on Women’s Adventure magazine’s website this September. I plan to share details of each leg with readers, relaying the nitty-gritty trail happenings with each post. You will discover the famous cathedrals, bridges, waypoints, Spanish tapas and wine, uphill climbs, and descents right along with me. Cheer me on toward completing my Pilgrim’s Passport, too, please!
To learn about Gigi’s tour visit experienceplus.com and type “Camino de Santiago” into the search bar.
Pilgrimage Tours Around the World
JAPAN: Self-guided hiking pilgrimage tour of Kumano Kodo, an ancient 11th century route connecting Kyoto with the shrines of Kumano and the Kii Peninsula.
TIBET: An adventure expedition to the high plateaus of the Ngari region leading to Mount Kailash, considered the meeting place between Earth and Heaven. Check out somajourneys.com.
NEW MEXICO: Of the many pilgrimage tours you can plan on your own within the “Land of Enchantment,” the most popular is to the village of Chimayó, where a chapel has marked the site of miraculous healings since 1816. Tip: Road bike the High Road between Taos and Chimayó.