The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Thematic: The Varieties of Travel Experience

On Pilgrimage and Package Tours

The spiritual good to be found in modern travel.

Tara Isabella Burton

Sculptures of pilgrims hailing Santiago de Compostela cathedral, Galicia, Spain; Donna Tabbert Long/Alamy Stock Photo.

England’s age of pilgrimage came to an end in 1538. On April 24, King Henry VIII—freshly and controversially divorced from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon—issued a formal summons to St. Thomas à Becket. Never mind that the onetime archbishop of Canterbury had been dead for nearly four centuries, martyred following a religious conflict with an earlier Henry, the Plantagenet monarch Henry II. Henry VIII charged the long-deceased Becket with a variety of crimes against the Crown and state, chief among them treason and rebellion. The charges were read out in Canterbury Cathedral, and Thomas was given thirty days’ right of response. When, as you might imagine, the late cleric failed to appear, the case was turned over to Westminster, and on June 10, Thomas was convicted.

Thomas couldn’t be executed a second time, of course. But he could be exhumed. His bones were duly removed from Canterbury Cathedral and scattered. Martyred once for defending the Catholic Church, in death he served as a convenient scapegoat for Roman authority, an authority that Henry had moved to formally replace with his own as Supreme Head of the Church of England—a title conferred by an act of Parliament in 1534.

Overnight, the cult of Thomas à Becket disappeared. So too did the pilgrimage route that for centuries had been part of the lifeblood of English Catholicism. Since Becket’s canonization in 1173, just three years after his martyrdom, his cult had been one of England’s most zealous. According to one account, he appeared in dreams to at least seven hundred of the faithful, healing wounds and illnesses alike. Those healed, or who wished to be healed, made their way to Canterbury, the seat of his bishopric and site of his martyrdom, to give thanks or pray for intercession, wearing pilgrims’ badges and carrying bottles containing what was known as St. Thomas’s Water, so called because it was reputed to be mixed with the disintegrated remains of the clothing Thomas was wearing at the time of his death, still stained with his venerated blood.

The demise of the Canterbury Way was by far the most dramatic decline in fortune for a pilgrimage route during the Protestant Reformation. But it was far from the only one. In Spain, the ire of detractors had also descended upon the once popular way of Santiago de Compostela—to the tomb of James, the apostle and saint, in the Galician city that bears his name. In “The Religious Pilgrimage,” a colloquy by the humanist Desiderius Erasmus, two characters discuss the fate of the route. One henpecked pilgrim, who has undertaken the journey not of his own volition but under pressure from his wife and mother-in-law, concedes that St. James is

not so well by far as he used to be…. He has not so many Visits made to him as he used to have; and those that do come, give him a bare Salute, and either nothing at all, or little or nothing else…. This great Apostle, that used to glitter with Gold and Jewels, now is brought to the very Block that he is made of, and scarce has a Tallow candle.

The myriad articles of pilgrimage—badges, relics, travel guides, conch shells—came increasingly to be seen as expensive tourist trinkets at best. At worst, they were fig leaves the indolent and the licentious could use to justify their months and years away from home: the early-modern equivalent of a perpetual spring break. New Protestant paradigms, in which God was to be found not on the road, or even in the churches and gravesites that marked the road’s end, but in one’s own soul, wheresoever that soul’s body was to be found. The beliefs that had long impelled pilgrimages came to be seen as increasingly outmoded forms of superstition.

Even in fervently Catholic Spain, by the end of the seventeenth century the model for Christian spiritual excurse was no longer St. James but his erstwhile rival for the role of the country’s patron saint, the Carmelite nun Teresa of Ávila, who in her writings preached not an exterior voyage but a journey through what she called the interior castle of the soul.

Yet in the twenty-first century, at least, pilgrimage is having a renaissance, often fused to the economics and aesthetics of secular adventure travel, as well the spiritualized paradigms of wellness and self-care. Spain’s Camino de Santiago—which saw its first politicized resurgence in the mid–twentieth century under the propagandistic Catholic dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco—has reinvented itself as a destination not only for Catholic pilgrims but for hikers, bikers, backpackers, and the ever-increasing ranks of those categorized as “spiritual but not religious.” In 2019, a prepandemic record was set when almost 350,000 hikers received their certification of completion, granted to those who finish the final fifty-odd continuous miles of the trail in a week. Of these, 60 percent denied that their motivation was religious—at least by the conventional standards of organized religion.

Yet when I walked a portion of the Camino last year—not as a pilgrim proper, but as a pilgrimage-curious lecturer working on a group hiking tour for National Geographic—the vast majority of the people I met on the trail understood themselves to be, if not pilgrims in a technical sense, travelers on a spiritually significant journey of some kind. There was a family with a wheelchair-using teenager who had spearheaded the trip (and its attendant Instagram account) as a fundraising opportunity for a friend back home who required specialized medical treatment. There were hikers, backpackers, and bikers dutifully stamping their pilgrims’ passports at paradores hotels, churches, and coffee shops all the way from Pamplona to Burgos to Santiago itself, all sporting the same scallop shell—a traditional emblem of St. James—that has come to be associated with the trail, and with pilgrimage more broadly.

But if there was little obvious distinction between “religious” pilgrims and “regular” travelers, it was partly because the discourse of contemporary travel is so often geared toward the same ends as pilgrimage proper: a journey that results in the transformation, and ideally purification, of the searching self. This is the goal underlying, for example, travel-as-transformation narratives like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, an account of the author’s solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s divorce-and-self-actualization memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Travel, at least the kind of travel so often coded as “real” or “authentic” (as opposed to, say, the family resort vacation, the Instagram trip, or the perfunctory list-ticking of the much-derided “tourist”), is already treated as a kind of secular pilgrimage in which we find out who we really are only by untethering ourselves from those elements of our identities too closely linked to habit and home. Only when we are away from our daily routines, this ideology implies, from our bosses and spouses and children, when we are challenged by language barrier or public transit mishap or unexpected romantic chemistry, can we come to know who we really are.

We can find the spirit of secular pilgrimage in travels explicitly coded as such: journeys to, say, the grave of Oscar Wilde or Jim Morrison in Paris’s Père Lachaise, or to Graceland or Dollywood, or even those White Lotus–style family journeys to the imagined Old Country: ancestral villages of which hyphenated Americans might have no particular individual or even collective memory, but where distant cousins and a nebulous sense of roots might be found. We can also find this new spirit of pilgrimage in travel that is specifically advertised as wellness related: a five-day yoga retreat in Mexico or Nepal, for instance. But we can find it far more broadly in the ideology underpinning a backpacking trip or a teenager’s gap year, or the call for solo travel—especially the “authentic” kind that turns away from established sites and historical monuments toward “off the beaten track” underground bars and “best-kept secrets.” Travel qua travel, as an experience of self-transcendence through alienation, is not about the visited place itself but the traveler’s own interior journey: one made possible less by a particular encounter with a city, a church, or a historic site, but simply by the mere fact of being away from home.

Central to this ideology is the notion that the true self can be understood only outside its quotidian constraints. Central, too, is the notion that the true (and implicitly untethered) self is in some sense purer and morally superior to the self that, say, runs errands, buys groceries, and changes diapers. Travel, in this schema, is a spiritualized act of bravery, of self-assertion against repressive demands, a quest for self-knowledge that can only come through the willful rejection of embeddedness in one’s own home. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in one telling passage in Eat, Pray, Love:

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.

Travel, for Gilbert, becomes a means to an end, a movement of the self that ultimately locates the self not in a place but in its own interior castle, seeking its own happiness through movement. To be still, Gilbert implies, either in the geographic or personal sense, is to abandon one’s highest duty—the unceasing pursuit of one’s own dynamic becoming.

All “authentic” travel, in other words, becomes a kind of secular pilgrimage. It is travel vaunted for its own sake, and for the transformation it is supposed to engender in us. Coded in this way, travel is not for vacation or pleasure, or familial or romantic bonding, but for personal ennoblement. We travel not for the sake of our stomachs, say, but for our souls. Those who do not travel, or who travel in ways coded as vulgar or incurious (the cruise, the package tour, the Frommer’s guidebook checklist), are often coded as moral and intellectual rubes. They may be tourists in a place, seeing the “right things,” but they aren’t true travelers.

The irony, of course, is that these derided “tourists” are often far more likely to engage with a place on its own terms than the self-styled travelers. To spend time in, say, the Uffizi Museum in Florence, or Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna, may not be a particularly personally transformative thing to do (unless you have a special interest in Renaissance art or the Habsburg monarchy), but it is far more likely to give you a sense of the weight of European history and its role in shaping Europe’s respective cities than, say, a night at a San Spirito speakeasy or an Austrian rave bar. It is precisely in its lack of emotive “authenticity,” its rigid refusal to conform to personal desires or tastes, that the “tourist trail,” traps and all, demands a kind of conformity of its visitors. Anyone who has ever been on a package or group tour knows that part of the experience is getting up a little earlier than you would like, spending too much or not enough time at a place of historical interest, navigating other people’s dietary preferences or polite conversations over breakfast with people we would not otherwise get along with or even likely meet. In my own relatively limited experience lecturing on group tours, I have often been struck by the energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity of those travelers—regardless of their level of prior knowledge or experience—most willing to sacrifice their autonomy, not because (as “authentic traveler” lore would have it) they demand an inordinate degree of comfort, luxury, or safety, but because they would like to see and do as much as possible in a place, in the limited time available.

In this, bucket list tourism, even—perhaps especially—the organized, package kind, may be more closely aligned with the spirit, if not the form, of traditional religious pilgrimage. (After all, many of history’s first bucket list–style travel guides, such as the twelfth-century Codex Calixtinus, began as handbooks for pilgrims eager to visit all the requisite shrines and churches en route to their ultimate destination.) Indeed, when it comes to travel aesthetics, “traditional” religious pilgrimage destinations—from Nazareth and Galilee to Vatican City to Santiago de Compostela—often far more closely resemble package tour attractions (think parking lots full of tour buses and near-infinite numbers of kitschy souvenir shops) than they do their more “authentic” brethren.

The classical pilgrim does not leave home in search of new rooms for his interior castle—though he may well be open to the emotive experience of divine love should he be fortunate enough to perceive it—but in pursuit of concrete, external, and earthly goals. The relics he goes to see or venerate or kiss are real bones (though, it must be admitted, not always those of the saints to whom they purportedly belong); the churches he visits are real places. His travels do not so much bring him into himself as demand that he put his own self—and his desires—on hold; that he perform actions both unpleasant and perfunctory, for a purpose that transcends any particular goal, need, or want he may have. The goal of the pilgrim, after all, is not to Have a Religious Experience but simply to make it, alive and relatively healthy, to his final destination, and then, having dispensed with his obligations, to make it back home.

That is not to say, of course, that secular pilgrimage cannot exist, or that travel cannot be a mechanism for self-discovery as such. Nor do I think we ought to encourage every would-be traveler to sign up for a Viking River Cruise instead of grabbing an Interrail pass and a backpack. Yet if there is a spiritual good to be found in modern travel, we would do better to identify it not in the act of travel but in the specificity of place traveled to. In a world in which so many of us are already deracinated and digitized, in which we work remotely and meet potential partners online and pursue professional success through making people halfway across the world from us interested enough in our content to Like and Follow us, the idea that there is something novel, transgressive, or morally purgative in further uprooting ourselves, in celebrating our selfhood as selves in motion rather than in community, feels discomfitingly redundant at best, actively noxious at worst.

What we are left with, when we leave behind this fantasy of the untrammeled self, may be far more interesting—and far closer to the promise of pilgrimage proper. When we are left with the materiality of place: of walking trails and churches but also bus stations and hotels, of monuments and sites, however requisite or “overdone,” that demand our reverence and attention and understanding and leave little room for our own self-regard, when we travel not in search of our own selves but in search of objects other than our own selves, when we recognize ourselves as, frankly, unimportant (if not immaterial) next to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, or the Colosseum, only then can translocation have any useful internally transformative effect. We must think less of travel, in other words, and more of going to particular places—emphasizing, as it were, the destination rather than the journey.