Pilgrimage as a Teaching Tool

Learning beyond textbooks on the Camino de Santiago and the Via Francigena

The sun sets over a Viareggio pier
Viareggio is an Italian summer destination less famous than its nearby Cinque Terre neighbors. Beachcombers who walk the shore north of the city can find bits of marble from the mountains at Massa, Carrara, and Pietrasanta. It was in these mountains that Michelangelo found the stone for his masterworks. (Credit: Steve Cooper)

My plan was a simple one, in theory anyway. I planned to walk about 1,000 miles across Europe, studying culture, history, and art along a thousand-year-old pilgrimage called the Via Francigena. A few years earlier I completed a longer walk on an extended version of the Camino de Santiago, from Italy’s boot heel, across the bottom of France, and finishing at the top of Spain — a 2,000-mile trek. The thought of another adventure excited me. Although I had requested a leave from my teaching post that would allow me to embark during spring’s favorable weather, I wasn’t about to argue when word came that I could leave in January. I closed my house, turned off the water, garaged the car, loaded my backpack, and headed for London.

A month later I found myself slogging through cold, driving winter rain on the edge of a two-lane Italian highway, no shoulder, oncoming Fiats and Peugeots and cyclists buzzing me like a swarm of pissed-off wasps — not the romantic vision I’d had of a picturesque walk through a sunny, warm countryside, and yet, it was still more fun than being back in the classroom routine.

I believe we should teach pilgrimage as a topic in schools. The idea of an epic journey that tests us, that has a real physical cost, can lead to powerful lessons valuable to anyone. In some lit classes we teach about pilgrimages as concepts or history lessons; I think we should teach them as realistic, achievable ambitions.

Other cultures have embraced such trials as rites of passage into adulthood. Some Native American tribes follow vision quests that can include a literal trial by fire. There are Eastern cultures that practice extreme meditative ordeals intended to lead one to mental and spiritual growth. Religions around the world encourage their members to follow a path to Mecca, Jerusalem, Lourdes, or the 88 temples of Shikoku.

Sheep grazing atop the Pyrenees Mountains
The first day on the Camino de Santiago begins for many pilgrims in the Pyrenees above the French village of St. Jean Pied-de-Port. A hard day’s climb lifts the hikers from France and drops them down across the border of Spain above Pamplona (Credit: Steve Cooper)

We should offer students the opportunity for an epic journey, a step — or thousands of steps — toward a happier, more meaningful life. Successfully concluding the adventure is almost secondary. The journey, after all, is often more important than the destination.

Camino de Santiago

The last 500 miles of the Spanish Camino begins in picturesque Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a village in southwestern France, but the first day’s trail leads high over the Pyrenees, not far from where Hannibal’s war elephants marched toward Rome in 218 BCE.

Before that first day’s hike is finished, pilgrims pass the point where Roland blew his horn. He and his few men composed the rear guard for Charlemagne’s army, and their last and fatal stand in 778 inspired the Song of Roland, one of the oldest surviving epic poems in French literature.

The route continues through Basque villages and farms, crossing streams Hemingway mentions in his tales. The American writer-adventurer is often connected with Pamplona’s running of the bulls, which many pilgrims stop to experience in the walled city.

The Camino winds through the Pays Basques for the first week of the walk. Although the region is peaceful and welcoming to pilgrims, Basque flags and graffiti beside the trail remind us that many in the northeastern region still wish for an autonomous state separate from Madrid.

Map of western Europe highlighting the Camino de Santiago
Colored segments represent one week of travel on the author's pilgrimage.

During the 12th century, the Knights Templar were assigned to guard pilgrims on the Camino as part of their religious duties. The route is populated with bits and pieces of that history, including a grand, restored fortress above the river in Ponferrada. In Manjarín, which boasts the highest elevation along the Camino’s French Route, the albergue, or hostel, employs a hospitalero host who considers himself an active member of the lost fraternity of holy knights. He and his helpers can often be seen wearing white tunics bearing the red crusader’s cross.

As pilgrims, or peregrinos, climb the mountain to Galicia, the wind carries the sounds of bagpipes and pennywhistles, the region’s flavor of music reflecting its Celtic roots. Castilian Spanish gives way to the Gallegos language that welcomes walkers to the fabled city of Santiago de Compostela. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church used to assign the walk to Santiago as penance. They knew about the changes such a journey could offer.

It’s a magical experience to walk across a country. A transformation occurs. Things disappear. Weights physical and psychic fall away. Muscles grow. Spines stiffen. Blisters appear, but so do smiles. Loaves and fishes are consumed, and wine is shared. But there is a price to pay for that magic. And that’s a key lesson students should learn: There is no magic without pain — but the pain is worth it.

This might be one of the most difficult lessons to learn in a culture that worships ease and convenience. We love recreation and vacation. We work toward a leisurely retirement where the goal of a life seems to be to relax.

It’s also a difficult concept to teach when parents try to protect their children from difficulties and hardships. We do our best to coach our young people toward better decisions that will lead them away from trials and toward successful lives. However, it’s those trials and tests that build the character necessary to thrive. We should do our best to steer students toward lives that will not only feed, clothe, and shelter them but amaze them as well.

Via Francigena

Like the Camino de Santiago, the Via Francigena is an illuminated manuscript. For my walk in 2015, the first steps were on ancient Roman pavers of the Appia Antica on the south side of the nearly 3,000-year-old Italian capital. The road leads through tombs, sculptures, catacombs, and chapels.

A visit to Vatican City for a stamp of approval on my pilgrim’s passport led me to Michelangelo’s Pietà, beside Bernini’s Baldachin over Saint Peter’s tomb, and back out through the heart of the basilica. The route northward out of the city pointed me toward Lago di Bracciano and the Etruscan tombs at Sutri.

Sailboats wade through the glass-calm waters of Lac Leman
Lac Leman, or Lake Geneva, near Montreux, Switzerland, can be as calm as glass on a spring morning. It can also be wild and stormy as it might have been when Mary Shelley was in residence there with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. She wrote Frankenstein while in residence in a small cottage just north of Geneva. (Credit: Steve Cooper)

The heart of Tuscany provides decoration for a piece of the trail. Rolling green hills and rows of sentinel trees guard the route. Lucca, another city with defensive walls still standing, claims the composer Puccini as one of its own. His music can be heard every day of the year on the streets and in concerts throughout the city.

Passing the lake where Puccini kept a home near Viareggio, pilgrims reach the coast and taste breezes from the Ligurian Sea. Viareggio lies at the foot of the marble mountains at Carrara. It is from these mountains that Leonardo and others found the marble for their creations.

Nearby Pietrasanta was the location of Michelangelo’s quarry. I stepped off the trail there, walked beside the sea, and found mounds of marble pebbles washed down from the quarries to the shore, worn smooth by the waves and wind. I had to wonder if one of those pieces of marble might have flown from Michelangelo’s chisel as he freed his David from a Pietrasanta column of white stone.

It was beside this sea where one dark afternoon Percy Bysshe Shelley met the storm that would claim his life. It was just a few miles east of the trail, along the beach at Lerici, where some days after the accident his body washed ashore and his friends built his funeral pyre.

Map of western Europe highlighting the Via Francigena
Colored segments represent one week of travel on the author's pilgrimage.

The encyclopedic journey continues inland to Pontremoli, where archeologists study rocky monolith steles and menhirs that are 5,000 years old. The trail rises, climbing over the Cisa Pass and across the Taro, passing near Busseto, the birthplace of the opera composer Verdi.

A week farther north, hikers pass through the shadow of the Forti di Bard, where a small garrison of men delayed Napoleon’s mighty army on its march to Rome. Today that picturesque redoubt is a museum and favorite movie set when Hollywood wants the look of an impregnable fortress.

Continuing on the trail leads pilgrims up through the Aosta Valley and toward the St. Bernard Pass. For centuries an Augustinian monastery at the border of Italy and Switzerland has provided a home for pilgrims tired from their trek up the Alps. Members of that order also bred the famous Alpine rescue dogs that still bear the name of their patron saint.

The Swiss leg leads down into a fertile valley at Martigny and beside a Roman colosseum. The lake at the mouth of that valley connects Montreux to Geneva and has generated musical inspiration for the likes of Stravinsky, Hindemith, and even Freddie Mercury. Byron and the Shelleys lived for a time on its shores, and Frankenstein was born there.

In France just north of the Jura Mountains, pilgrims find the source of the Loue River and enter Ornans, birthplace of Realist painting pioneer Courbet.

Ghosts of fallen soldiers populate the trail ahead in the Marne and Somme Valleys, witnesses to some of the most devastating scenes of battle in both World Wars. The cemeteries and monuments recreate pictures of incredible hardship, heroism, and the waste of human life on an unbelievable scale.

Reading these bits of history can be fascinating, but walking through them breathes life into printed facts. But it’s not just the cultural, historical, and artistic knowledge from which students can benefit on pilgrimages.

The trail finds the English Channel at Wisques near Calais, where stands a powerful bronze by Rodin depicting the anguish and determination of a handful of town leaders willing to sacrifice themselves to save their friends.

It was at Calais in this summer of 2015 that my historical pilgrimage bumped into current events: The city was a target of thousands of Syrian and African refugees who were fleeing wars for the possibility of a better life in the U.K. At the time, there were still camps of immigrants stalled near the entrance to the Chunnel, still hoping for a chance to somehow cross that final 40 miles of water to England.

Just across that stretch of water, barely visible on clear mornings, are the white cliffs of Dover, the trailhead to Canterbury, fabled by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales and in T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral.

Reading these bits of history can be fascinating, but walking through them breathes life into printed facts. But it’s not just the cultural, historical, and artistic knowledge from which students can benefit on pilgrimages.

Somewhere in those time-crowded school days, we teachers must find a way to drive in a few more wedges of learning, lessons on how to be real people, how to raise students’ eyes from the immediacy of content to see a bigger goal down the road. Of course we want to teach the facts and skills that give them a better chance at jobs and careers, but we also must realize that we might be the only factors for fulfillment in the lives of many of these future adults. The best teachers I know get it: We’re there first of all to teach people; the subject matter is just a means to help us lead them to a place with more options.

For a few decades I’ve been on faculty at a community college, and often I’ve had the freedom to invest more time on outcomes that aren’t strictly tied to the course content. In every class I find an excuse to slip in a session on finding your own epic journey.

On my own journeys along El Camino de Santiago and the Via Francigena, every day’s walk led me to an encounter with another author or painter, a setting for an opera, a tale of a warrior or peacemaker, or another sinner or saint. Bringing students to see the possibility of their own modern pilgrimage might be the best way to bring textbooks back to life.