Lessons from a walker — Integration and culture on the road to Santiago de Compostela

Upon arriving to Santiago de Compostela, after having walked 280 kilometers in eleven days, I saw the following phrase written on the floor: “Europe was created on a pilgrimage to Compostela”. Attributed to Goethe -difficult to verify as a true or apocryphal phrase; although se non è vero, è ben trovato—, the phrase highlights a fact that we have almost naturalized, but which has not always been a reality: European integration.

The Roads to Compostela are a network of trails that extend through at least eight countries connecting different cities in Europe with the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela —Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Switzerland. There are seven officially recognized routes, but the Cathedral can be reached by walking through any European country and then connecting with the official sections, which are generally found in Spain, Portugal and France.

Connecting Europe on foot, crossing its borders without even realizing it -in our case, we crossed from Portugal to Spain on a ferry across the Miño and noticed that we were in another country only due to the change in the language of the signs- is something that today has become trivial and achievable in just minutes, thanks to a series of invisible structures that facilitate the existence of this space for the free circulation of goods, people, capital and services. However, the Schengen Area and the European Common Market are not a factum of nature but are the result of hard-won political agreements, which Brexit and the uncoordinated national responses to the coronavirus pandemic have put in evidence.

The Road itself, as it is often called when one travels it (as if there weren't so many others!) is also a true reflection of European integration. In 1987 it was named a European Cultural Itinerary by the Council of Europe, as a tour representing European history and heritage that reflects some of its fundamental values. Fortunately, is not the only itinerary, since we can also find others such as the Mozart Roads, the Viking Route or the European route of Jewish heritage -some of which are even longer than the Roads to Compostela. This series of tours helps to outline this cultural construct that we conceive as Europe, in its historical contrasts of lights and shadows, as well as in the fullness of its contradictions. It helps to understand that territorial, administrative and cultural identity is not monolithic, but complex and in constant transformation and re-signification, and as its leitmotif precisely indicates, the European Union bases its wealth on “unity in diversity”.

Likewise, the trails that make up the Road are a current testimony to the work of the European Union at the service of the heritage of its member states. Between 2015 and 2017, the final sections of the Road, located in the Autonomous Community of Galicia, were restored with financing from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) of the EU. Some 2,900,000 euros were invested, of which 2,500,000 were provided by the EU for the improvement of the trails and the placement of signs: milestones -those concrete monoliths that bring us the good news of kilometers advanced and that guide us like beacons when we think we have lost our way; arrows –the famous yellow arrows that one sees even in dreams; and tiles with golden seashells on blue backgrounds, the logo of the Road to Compostela since the Middle Ages, indicating that one is literally on the right track.

Highlighting the ERDF is not innocent on my part since it was one of the instruments used by the European Commission to slowly weave the mesh of European integration and interconnectivity as new members joined. The importance of the ERDF lies in the fact that it contributes to strengthening the Union's socio-economic cohesion, striving to compensate for the differences and imbalances between its members. It is precisely one of the harmonizing elements that allow such dissimilar entities to coexist within the same political process.

Last but not least, the diversity and cultural richness of the Road is expressed through the collection of experiences that one accumulate along the kilometers: the languages ​​we encounter (with more or less success, we passed from French at our starting point, to Portuguese, and then to Galician, finally arriving to the Spanish that we inhabit linguistically); the foods that we taste, the museums we visit and the personalities (historical or current) that we get to know. It is as much a history lesson as it is a life lesson.

Nowadays we begin walking with our Decathlon equipment and return by plane after arriving at our destination, but it was not always like this: at some point in history, arriving in Compostela -if one arrived- implied surviving diseases, bandits and climatic and geographic inclemencies. Many never returned, preferring to settle in Compostela rather than brave the hundreds of leagues that separated them from their homes, or ending their days resting in the pilgrim cemetery, which was built next to the Cathedral so that those who could not pass the test would at least find their way to the gates of Heaven. Compostela thus became a cosmopolitan city, a metaphor for the Europe in the making.

This brief experience of continental pilgrimage -more and more people travel the Road with an athletic or non-religious spiritual vocation, and in my case I think there was even a certain federalist impulse- reminded me of a series of important lessons about the conditions of possibility vis-à-vis regional integration in the Southern Cone. Not only are shared values ​​and visions required, which is undoubtedly the starting point, but also infrastructure and physical connectivity to materialize freedom of movement, as well as an important political will, which is manifested through an institutional architecture that allows to correct the asymmetries where they are most visible.


Micaela Finkielsztoyn has a Bachelor of Arts (UBA) and a Master in International Relations (UTDT-Sciences Po). A career diplomat, she served at the Rio Branco Institute (Brazil) and at the Argentine Embassy in France, where she is currently. Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the UBA (undergraduate and graduate courses) and at UCES, she is studying a specialized Master's degree in European Public Affairs at the National School of Administration in France. She is a consultant member of CARI.

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