I would dare to say that the lines that I am writing and you are reading here are owed almost completely to one man, small of stature and, as many say, of great heart and courage. That man is Elías Valiña Sampedro, the driving force behind the Camino as we know it today, the visionary who, with hundreds of yellow arrows, was able to lay out a route that was forgotten hundreds of years before and to create the special ambiance that is alive in the Camino de Santiago today.
UNA VIDA DEDICADA AL CAMINO
Elías Valiña Sampedro was born in 1929 in Lier, a small village near Sarria. In 1959, 12 years after he began his ecclesiastical studies in the Seminary of Lugo, he was named parish priest of O Cebreiro, another small town that was even smaller than his birthplace in Lier and was treated poorly by time and forgotten by the people.
Practically from the moment he set foot there, he became interested in el Camino de Santigo, so much so, that he chose it as the topic for his doctoral thesis, “El Camino de Santiago. Estudio histórico-jurídico,” a work that, in 1967, won the “Antonio de Nebrija” award from the University of Salamanca. Who would have thought that since 1996, an award bearing his name would be given for the promotion and conservation of the Camino de Santiago?
O CEBREIRO, SU CASA
O Cebreiro prospered after the arrival of the young priest who, after taking charge of the small Church of Santa Maria la Real, worked with all the residents to almost completely reconstruct the temple and practically the entire town. He was able to bring running water and electricity to all the residents. He left his small, beloved parish infrequently, but when he did, it was to continue studying and getting information about the old routes through which el Camino passes.
CIENTOS DE FLECHAS AMARILLAS
There was no turning back; the Camino had trapped him and he allowed himself to be taken by it. He was completely convinced that that route towards the apostle’s tomb could change Europe and return to being the main focus of the pilgrimages as it has been centuries before. He was hardly wrong, although perhaps, not in his wildest dreams did he imagine that the number pilgrims would almost reach millions.
With or without knowing it, each and every person that has done el Camino de Santiago has borne witness to one of the most important and recognizable legacies that Elías Valiña left behind, and I am sure that he never imagined that the practical, yellow arrows that he started using to mark the route in 1984 would become a symbol of the pilgrimage of St. James that would come to overshadow the shell. They say it was all a coincidence, that he asked for the rest of some paint from some workers who were walking nearby, constructing the new road to village. Coincidence or not, it is not the only story about the arrows, since close to the French border, after being asked be some “Guardias Civiles” why he was painting yellow arrows, the only thing he thought to say was that he was planning a great invasionn.
PROMOTOR DE LAS ASOCIACIONES DEL CAMINO
He knew from the beginning that he could not realize his vision of the Camino alone, so he mobilized and encouraged people from all the communities that the Camino passes through so that each of them would create associations to defend the interests of el Camino. Strangely, the association, A Coruña was the last to be created. In 1985, the “I Encuentro Jacobeo” was held, and he was named commissioner of el Camino de Santiago. The seed was planted and, bit by bit, he began creating a rudimentary but necessary infrastructure that would eventually be able to receive more pilgrims.
SU FACETA DE ESCRITOR
Beyond being the pioneer of el Camino of dust and dirt and endowing it, bit by bit, with everything needed for the attention and care of the pilgrims, he also knew that he should make it known on an intellectual level if he wanted people to live this unique experience. To this purpose, he wrote various guides for pilgrims and edited a bulletin from 1985 to 1987. Between publication after publication, in 1986, thanks to “la diputación de Lugo,” the first credentials for the identification of pilgrims were issued.
SIEMPRE EN EL CAMINO
In 1989 at 60 years old, Elías Valiña died. He was buried in la Iglesia de Santa María la Real de O Cebreiro, the same church that he rescued from ruin. There are several monuments that pay homage to his labor and we remember his legacy, but certainly, there is no greater homage to him than the care and passion that so many people have for the Camino.