‘In 1962, Álvaro Cunqueiro, the gentle Gallego giant, shared rye bread and cottage cheese with the children of O Cebreiro, and found they did not know what pilgrims were. Cunqueiro, one of Galicia’s 20th century geniuses, may also have been a prophet. He foresaw the “beautiful justice” that a resurrected Camino might bring to this poor backwater. But much water would flow under the old bridges of the Way before another great son of Galicia produced a new miracle in O Cebreiro.
One fine day in the early 1980’ s, up in the darkest Pyrenees, a Guardia Civil patrol on the lookout for Basque terror suspects pulled off the road to check out a rickety white van with Lugo license plates. There stood a little man with a can of yellow paint in his hand, painting arrows on the guardrail. “I am Elias Valiña, parish priest of O Cebreiro, in Galicia,” the man said.
“What the hell are you doing out here?”
“I am preparing the way for a great invasion.”
Any attempt to tell the modern history of the Way of Saint James is manifestly incomplete without mention of Don Elias and the misty village of O Cebreiro. Elias shared the dream that Cunqueiro had years before –a resurrected Camino de Santiago.
Elias Valiña lived with his family in the mountain town, and now and then a passing pilgrim would tell him of the decay and abandonment he’d seen along the millennial route. Don Elias was a scholar with a substantial background in Jacobean research. When assigned to serve O Cebreiro, he had not hesitated to lead the way in restoring the ruined village to economic viability. He decided to do the same with the Way, starting with the faint flames still burning among the Friends of the Camino de Santiago in Estella, and the Parisian association of René de la Coste Messeliere.
Elias fanned the flame into a fire. The dream of the Camino de Santiago was embodied in a small priest driving his rickety van full of yellow paint, mobilizing consciences, stirring sleeping souls and inane authorities. He didn’t only want a historic hiking trail across the peninsula, he wanted a pilgrimage, a modern-day spiritual journey. A Way that is open and free for all, a road within the reach the humblest of pilgrims, a dirt path where again the best of old Europe went searching for a lost tomb at the end of the Earth. The little priest threw himself into one of the most beautiful adventures recorded in the end of the last century. We, his heirs, still ask: Who was Elias? What motivated this extraordinary character?
Passion, faith, and an iron will, carried with a simplicity well remembered by those who shared those evenings by the fire of O Cebreiro, where every pilgrim received his personal attention. The same simplicity that marked the Way with yellow arrows, the beacons which mark all the many historic routes that lead to Santiago. Passion, soul, will, simplicity … the values that shine at the heart of the Camino.
But was there anything else? Yes, Elias had a sense of universality and fraternity. He had vision and native intelligence, and he knew how to share that inner fire with everybody around him, no matter their class, nationality, or political views. He knew the physical and spiritual recovery of the Camino de Santiago was a job too big for one man. He knew how to delegate. For that he needed charisma, and thankfully, he had that in buckets. He wasn’t above stepping into overalls to help shift the broken stones of O Cebreiro. He’d travel to any point on the Camino to investigate a section that needed rescuing. He tracked-down and spoke to whoever was needed for whatever kind of job presented itself. He encouraged the creation of a national Jacobean association. The Road came alive, newly waymarked, ready again for the pilgrims to pass through all the towns, towpaths, mountains, and forests. The pilgrims were Elias’s best spokesmen. They soon made the Road their own, armed with that mythical Everest “red guide,” another of the missiles the little priest launched into the world.
I know the rest of the story because I am taking part in it this very moment, walking the road that was abandoned not so long ago, sleeping in dedicated pilgrim albergues. Jacobean associations run shelters in towns all along the trail, staffed with volunteer hosts from all over the world –another of Elias’ legacies.’
— from The Great Westward Walk: From the Front Door to the End of the Earth, by Antxon González Gabarain