A thousand years ago, pilgrims made their way on foot, on horses or donkeys along El Camino de Santiago. The world has changed a great deal since then, but there are still those who follow the Way of St. James.
Jerry Lomshek, Chicopee, and his son Jurij Lomshek have just returned home from their pilgrimage, which took them from Nice, France, to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
“The tomb of St. James the Apostle is in the cathedral there,” Jerry Lomshek said. “The tradition is that James came to that part of Spain to evangelize, but did not meet with much success. He returned to Jerusalem and Herod killed him. Two of his disciples brought his body back to Spain, and by the ninth century it was a pilgrimage spot.”
He said that the pilgrims walk for all kinds of reasons, some simply enjoying the hike through the beautiful countryside.
“But in most of them there is some kind of discernment along the way,” Lomshek said. “Everyone is sweaty and tired, and there’s no rich or poor. You’re all the same along the way.”
He said that he had read a lot about the Camino de Santiago and had always wanted to do a pilgrimage.
“I retired, but then our daughter went back to school and I helped with the grandchildren,” Lomshek said. “She graduated, and I decided I was going to go before I got any older. Jurij was going to quit his job here because he’s going to Seattle and getting married, so he decided to quit a little earlier and come with me.”
The two left May 11 and flew to Nice, France, rented a car and drove to La Salette, the first of several Marian sites that they visited during their trip. On Sept. 19, 1846, two local children told the story of seeing the Virgin Mary on Mount Sous-Les Baisses.
“You don’t hear a lot about La Salette,” Lomshek said. “A lot of Europeans don’t even know about it.”
After a day at Avignon, they went on to Lourdes, a major place of Roman Catholic pilgrimage and of miraculous healings. In 1858 a local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, 14, claimed that a beautiful lady appeared to her in the Grotto of Massabielle.
There are several routes that can be used to get to the Camino de Santiago, but the Lomsheks chose Route Frances, which begins at St. Jean Pied de Port.
This is the most popular route,” Lomshek said. “They estimate that 70,000 to 100,000 people a year walk this route.”
There they picked up their credentials (pilgrims’ passports) which are required for staying in pilgrims’ hostels.
The first day of the walk, from St. Jean to Roncesvalles through the Pyrenees Mountains, is considered to be the hardest one day of the entire Camino.
“St. Jean is at 170 meters elevation, or 600 feet,” Jurij Lomshek said. “At the peak it was 1,450 meters elevation, which is 4,750 feet. That was the steepest part.”
His father said that they walked through hills through much of the route, though an area called the meseta was flat like western Kansas.
“It’s not a holiday, not a walk in the park,” Lomshek said.
His son said that there were two or three days when the temperature hit 1000 degrees, It also rained the first three days, and on the second day the two had reached the top of a mountain peak when a storm struck with lightning and hail.
“I thought we all had some serious sins,” the younger man said.
“There were no trees or any place to take shelter, so we just had to keep on walking,” his father added.
He said that the route was well marked with yellow arrows or signs bearing the image of a scallop shell, the traditional symbol of St. James.
“Every one of the pilgrims has a scallop shell that they wear on their backpack,” Lomshek said. “Everybody knows you’re a pilgrim.”
Pilgrims are entitled to stay at special hostels that cost around five to 10 Euros a night, and many restaurants and cafes offer them specially priced meals.
“You can do the Camino for 25 Euros a day,” Lomshek said.
The walk can be too much for some pilgrims.
“We heard about at least 15 deaths along the route,” Jurij Lomshek said.
One of them was a man from Michigan they had gotten to known.
“He was 52 and he’d been a welder, then gone back to school and gotten a degree in social work,” Lomshek said. “He was trying to decide if he should go to work or go on for a master’s degree. Another time we were told that a man had died at a hostel 15 minutes before we got there.”
Then there was Dick, 79, the oldest walker the Lomsheks met.
“He was also the fastest walker, and we couldn’t keep up with him,” Lomshek said. “Then he pulled a leg muscle and thought he’d have to quite the Camino. Three days later we saw him coming up the route. He’d called his wife and she told him to get going, so he did, and he made it to Santiago.”
It took the Lomsheks 33 days to get to the cathedral, where a Mass is celebrated at noon every day for the pilgrims who come in that day. Certificates are presented to the pilgrims who can prove, through stamps on their passports, that they have properly traveled the Camino.
But that wasn’t quite the end. The Lomsheks walked on another three days on the Camino Finisterre, which ends in the most western point in Europe.
“The last day was Jurij’s 33rd birthday,” Lomshek said. “We went to the lighthouse and sat and watched the sun go down into the sea. We stayed until 2 a.m. and watched the moon go into the sea, and then I said, ‘It’s done, we’re going home’.”
But they took their time doing it. After the Camino the Lomsheks took a bus to Fatima, in Portugal. In 1917, starting on May 13, the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared on the 13th day of six consecutive months to three shepherd children. From there they went to Lisbon, then flew to Venice and drove to Slovenia.
“Our son Janez, his wife Ali and their three children met us in Slovenia, and we spent two weeks visiting family,” Lomshek said. “We got back July 17.”
Melissa Cheung, Jurij Lomshek’s fiancee, also spent a week with them. The couple will be getting married July 28 in Seattle.
“Dad and I joked that the pilgrimage was our bachelor party,” Jurij Lomshek said.
“It was a life experience to do it,” his father said. “I’d encourage anybody to do the Camino. It’s a break, a time for reflection.”