The Magazine

Pilgrims' Progress

Another trek to Santiago?

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By THOMAS SWICK
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"Location, location, location," as everyone knows, is the appropriately redundant rule of contemporary travel writing. It's proven in every bookstore, where titles on Italy and France sometimes outnumber those on the rest of the world combined.

I have a friend who believes that very few of these books ever get read. People see a book on Italy, he says, they know someone who loves Italy (who doesn't?), and so they buy the book and give it as a birthday gift or Christmas present. The recipient may put it on his coffee table, or give it to a friend who shares his affection for Vespas, but he will not feel inspired to read it
himself.

Travel books: the fruitcakes of the publishing industry.

What makes this most-favored-nation policy all the more annoying is that it doesn't even apply to the entire country. There are very few new books on southern Italy, and even fewer on northern France. (Jamais Alsace.) Publishers of travel books have reduced the world to a pair of regions that share a number of things, including a border.

Obviously, other places get written about, often by writers who've established a name, but no cottage industry grows up around them. And some countries are deemed flat-out unworthy of books, victims of a kind of geographical blacklisting. For years, a friend of mine has been shopping around an excellent travel book about Germany--a large, influential European country--only to be told that, sadly, there would be no market for it. Never mind that it would be something different, rare, enlightening, well-written. Young writers who peruse the travel shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble cannot help but conclude that the one thing this country could use is another book on Italy or France. As with Starbucks, the more you have the more you need.

Mounting a small challenge to the Franco-Italian hegemony is Spain (another large, important European country). But it's usually the sunny south that gets the advances. When Mayle & Co. turned the travel book from an exploration of place--think Elliot Paul's The Last Time I Saw
Paris--into a guide to the good life, climate became paramount.

But it's not always Andalusia that gets into print. There exist a number of books that illustrate another rule of travel writing: You may write about the north of Spain, but only if you're walking to Santiago de Compostela.

El camino de Santiago is a route that has been traveled by pilgrims for centuries, and by foreign writers for about two decades. And not all of them have been in the travel biz. One of the first footsore scribes was Paulo Coelho, who in his wispy-mysti way walked the route in 1986. His account of this journey, The Pilgrimage, brought both him and the ancient religious tradition into the spotlight.

A pilgrimage holds an obvious attraction to writers, with its built-in narrative (will the author make it?), its cast of colorful characters, its mingling of the sacred and the profane, its themes of spirituality and quest which can be visited, repeatedly and fruitfully, during the long stretches of monotonous marching.

I know, because I walked on a pilgrimage in 1982, to the shrine of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa. I was nearing the end of two eventful years in Poland, where I had married (two months after Lech Walesa successfully led the strikes at the Gdansk shipyards) and found a job teaching English in Warsaw. In December 1981 the leaders of Solidarity were arrested and martial law was declared. It was still in effect that August when I, along with thousands of Varsovians, arrived on Plac Zamkowy for the nine-day walk to the monastery of Jasna Góra. It was the first mass gathering of Poles since the institution of martial law, and as such, it constituted not just a religious procession but a political demonstration. One that lasted for over a week and gathered steam as it moved through the country.

The experience was so rich--the pilgrims, the villages, the sermons, the stories, the hymns, the solidarity--that when I returned home I wrote a book about it. I sent it around to publishers, with no success. An editor at one house seemed to speak for all of them when he wrote that there would be little interest "in a book about a pilgrimage in Poland."

Writers love to pick apart rejection letters--questioning the reasoning, deploring the language, disagreeing, vehemently, with the verdict (it's our only defense). But in retrospect, this one seems remarkably prescient. Remember, this was 1983, still four years before Coelho's book appeared. With two words--"in Poland"--the editor, if not foresaw, at least allowed for the possibility of a pilgrimage every publisher could love.

And so it has come to pass. Not everyone who walks to Santiago writes a book about it (yet), but virtually everyone who writes about a pilgrimage does so about Santiago. It is to the writer crowd what Dale Earnhardt still is to NASCAR fans: the one and only, eclipsing all others.

A search on Amazon.com for
"pilgrimage to Santiago" will bring up about 875 results, at least two dozen of which are travel books (the majority of them written within the last eight years). So pilgrims setting off for the renowned cathedral--which holds, according to legend, the remains of St. James--have no excuse for arriving ill-informed. They can read Edwin Mullins's The Pilgrimage to Santiago (a book that predates Coelho's by 13 years) or Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela by Conrad Randolph.

Their curiosity piqued, they can move on to Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route into Spain by Jack Hitt; The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago by Arthur Paul Boers; Walking the Camino: A Modern Pilgrimage to Santiago by Tony Kevin; Walking the Camino de Santiago by Bethan Davies and Ben Cole; Walking to Santiago: Diary of a Pilgrimage by Mary Wilkie; and Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago by Susan Alcorn.

If those books don't do it, there's Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela: Chronicle of Love by Jack deGroot; Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago by Kerry Egan; and El Camino de Santiago: Rites of Passage by Wayne Chimenti.

For the starstruck, there's To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim's Journey to Santiago de Compostela by Kevin A. Codd; Road of Stars to Santiago by Edward F. Stanton; Following the Milky Way: A Pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago by Elyn Aviva; and The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit by Shirley MacLaine.

People looking for some comic relief can try Travels with My Donkey: One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago by Tim Moore or I'm Off for a Bit, Then, by the German comedian Hape Kerkeling. (A bestseller in Germany, it has yet to appear here; but since the author's style has been compared to that of Bill Bryson, it will.)

Perhaps you'd prefer your pilgrimage filtered through a more literary sensibility? Once again, the old camino does not disappoint, giving you Cees Nooteboom's Roads to Santiago and Kathryn Harrison's The Road to Santiago.

The road to Santiago is paved with pages.

Finding the proper title for a book is always tricky, and just because these titles (with the exception of the German's) possess a depressing sameness doesn't necessarily mean that the books do. Every person is unique, we know, and reacts to life in an individual way.

But do we need all these reactions to the same undertaking? Publishing's addiction to the sure bet is as strong as Hollywood's, but it's more troubling because of an inherent mission that goes beyond entertainment. How much of value is being ignored because of this tiresome pursuit of the proven? Even Hollywood stops after one remake.

Like Tuscany and Provence, the pilgrimage to Santiago (to coin a phrase) has been anointed with properties of inexhaustibility--and of course, profitability. While the rest of the world elbows for space on the shelf.

Thomas Swick, the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler, has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing  for 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2008.