New Film Explores Reasons Why People, Young And Old, Walk 500 Miles Across Spain

Feb 6, 2014

For centuries, people have been making a 500-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain known as the "Way of St. James" or El Camino de Santiago, and among them is a growing number of people from the Pacific Northwest.

The pilgrimage was traditionally made for religious reasons. The route ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of  St. James the Apostle are believed to be buried.

But Portland filmmaker Lydia B. Smith, whose documentary "Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago" is opening in Seattle this weekend, says there are many reasons people take on the challenge.

"A lot of people do it for the adventure or to ease a transition without looking for something specific," she said. "There really is no right or wrong reason to do the Camino."

Smith's documentary profiles several people from all over the world ranging in age from 3 to 70-something who've decided to make the pilgrimage.

There's an American woman who doesn't realize how physically challenging it will be. She's competitive. Her journey is about accepting herself.

"For her, it was really recognizing certain traits in her that weren't serving her, and how to shift those and move those, and make peace with herself," Smith said.

There's a Portuguese man who is seeking a different, more intimate way of connecting to Spain. He's walking by himself and is struck by the friends he ends up making along the route.

There's a Brazilian/British woman who says her life "is a mess" after ending a relationship and getting fired from her job. She wants to shake things up and take control of her life.

"She represents people who come to the Camino looking for answers, looking for her life to be changed," said Smith.

And there's a widower from Canada on a spiritual journey.

"For many people on the Camino, they find that their connection with the people who passed is intensified. My brother died when I was 10. And when I was on the Camino, it was like he was right there with me," Smith said.

Smith says people often think the Camino is a "light" experience instead of the intensely physical and emotional journey that it actually is.

"The most common topic people talk about is their blisters. So there's a fair amount of reference to that in the film. There's also the snoring. You're sleeping in these group hostels and the snoring is incredible. And that features prominently as well," she said. 

Those who make the pilgrimage come across hospitaleros — those "who volunteer to serve you food and give you rooms," said Smith.

"Even if you start out thinking, 'Oh, it's going to be this little adventure,' you can't help but be moved by these acts of kindness along the way," she said.

But above all, walking the Camino is about confronting your own fears, says Smith. 

"So often you're walking hours and hours by yourself, and there's nothing to distract you. So you're just with yourself the whole time," she said.

Smith lived in Spain for several years. But it wasn't until after she broke up with her fiance, and, as she puts it, "my whole kind of life plan was diverted" that she decided to walk the route. Her pilgrimage was intense, magical and sacred. She says there's no way she could have made the film without having walked the route.

“The Camino is so much about learning to trust yourself and your own intuition. It’s a metaphor, but it really does translate to your life,” she said. “It’s all kind of connecting more with ourselves rather than looking to somebody else to give us the answers.”


The film plays at SIFF in Seattle from Feb. 7 to Feb. 13. Director Lydia B. Smith is scheduled to attend the Feb. 7 and 8 screenings. Additional dates in Bellingham and in Tacoma are scheduled for next month.