Finding the way
WILTON: Trio completes a 1,000-mile cultural trek through Western Europe
Sadie Zavgren, 19, Bridget Mooney, and Maggie Zavgren, 16, pose in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the typical ending point of El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of Saint James, a pilgrimage people have been making for more than 1,000 years.
The group poses at the 100-kilometer marker before Santiago with travelers from Portugal, Spain and South Korea. To acquire the compostela, a certificate of completion of El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim must travel at least 100 kilometers and get stamps at various stops along the way.
When Bridget Mooney and her two daughters, Sadie Rose Zavgren, 19, and Maggie Louisa Zavgren, 16, sat down with family for Thanksgiving, it was much more than the same old, same old that they had to talk about. That’s because the trio just returned to the U.S. on Nov. 19 after completing a 1,021-mile walk that took them from France, through the Pyrenees, to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compestela in Spain and finally to Muxia, Spain, and the Atlantic Ocean.
The trek is one that pilgrims have been making for more than 1,000 years, called El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of Saint James. Medieval Christians left from their homes to walk to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compestela, where, according to legend, St. James’ remains were buried after being carried by boat from Jerusalem. Today, The Way is less often a religious pilgrimage and more of a foreign adventure, in which travelers from around the world set off from different sites for the cultural experience, sport or challenge of walking such a long way. But before July, Mooney and her daughters didn’t know the first thing about The Way.
It all started when Maggie brought home a movie for the family to watch.
“Maggie had heard about this movie called “The Way” ... so she brought it home, and we watched it, and said, ‘Wow that’s amazing. We should do that.’ So we started planning the trip right away and left about two months after that,” Mooney said.
Though The Way can start from any number of places — in fact, any traveler who walks at least 100 kilometers may receive the compostela, a certificate of accomplishment given in Santiago de Compostela — Mooney said they chose to set off from Le Puy-en-Velay, a city in south-central France, because she read that it was a beautiful walk.
“We figured since we’re going all that way across the ocean maybe we should make it a longer walk,” Mooney said.
Each trekker packed her backpack with all the things they’d need along the way, amounting to about 22 pounds each, and on Sept. 10 they were off.
Mooney said they averaged 30 to 35 kilometers a day, or about 20 miles, and stayed in hostels — called gipe in France and albergues in Spain — where for five to 15 Euros a night, travelers get a bunk bed and sometimes a communal meal with other pilgrims. And since most people are going the same direction, pilgrims often meet and end up walking together and getting to know one another, a feature that both Maggie and Sadie said was one of the best parts of the trip.
“We met this one man from Norway,” Sadie said, “we met him pretty early on in this trip in France, and he had this light around him. He made everyone that he met happy and feel like they could do anything. He’s someone we’ll never forget.” She added, “It really helps when you’re walking to have someone to talk with who has good stories to tell.”
For the young women, the experience was a good opportunity to be immersed among foreign languages, something they’re both passionate about. Sadie knows Spanish and, after spending the past year in a Rotary exchange program in Thailand, Thai and Maggie knows Spanish and is hoping to learn Turkish on a similar exchange next year.
Maggie recalled a particular dinner in France as one of her favorite moments, when she ate dinner at a table with people speaking German, Norwegian, Spanish, French and English. And the list of nationalities they met along the way goes on, including many from as far away as South Korea and New Zealand, as well as just about every country in Europe.
They walked through towns, on mountainsides, over the Pyrenees, across people’s farmland, alongside cows, through villages and deep mud, and after 58 days they plunged into the unfamiliar side of the familiar Atlantic Ocean in Muxia, Spain — the most beautiful place on the trip, according to Maggie — before returning to the U.S. just three days before Thanksgiving.
“We did go swimming in late November in the ocean in Muxia, that was pretty exciting. It was really, really cold, but very exhilarating and a great way to end the trip.”