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Women's Pilgrimage Stories

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When women talk of pilgrimage, they often mean the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, known as El Camino.

But there are many others.

What follows are tales of pilgrimage from women who have walked different paths and who have experienced pilgrimages in their own way - to Santiago and beyond.

Vaishnodevi Pilgrimage by Puja (Easton MA, USA)

Vaishnudevi is a pilgrimage in Jammu, India. I went there to pray to Mother Goddess. It is in the hills at a height of around 6000 feet above sea level and has difficult terrain. 

But the strength that Ma (God) gives to devotees really makes it easy to pass through the terrain so easily that one does not realize how tough it was. I went in a group of devotees. We all were chanting "Jai Mata Di" which means "We all bow to Mother Goddess". While I was walking I could sense the power of Mother Goddess. The more I was reaching to her, the stronger the feeling was.

We had to take a bath in the waterfall before we could visit her in the cave. Everyone was wearing red scarves around their neck and head and singing and dancing for mother goddess. Some were walking on foot with the help of stick, some were on the shoulders of men whose jobs it is to help others to climb the terrain and some were on horseback. Kids were enjoying this walk and liking it.

Once you reach the main sanctorum, you feel you have reached GOD. It’s so pure and powerful, you don’t have control to your feelings and you can sit and meditate there for hours. I went there to make a wish and it got fulfilled. I would love to go again. "Jai Mata Di."

Pilgrimage to Czestochowa, Poland by Kamila (Warsaw)

The tradition of pilgrimages to Czestochowa, a famous Marian sanctuary (also commonly known by the name of Clara Montana, the Bright Mountain) is a long and diverse one here in Poland. The pilgrimages can take many forms, ranging from weekend group retreats where participants travel by coach and participate in some religious services to much more arduous forms.

The most characteristic form, however, are summer walking pilgrimages to the sanctuary, when people from all over the country set off to walk in organized groups to this very special place. Those also vary greatly in distance, profile, accommodation on the way. The one I’ve participated in five times now already (and hoping for much more) is a pilgrimage from Krakow, one of the major Polish cities. The distance is about 200km and is covered within 7 days. The pilgrimage is organized by the youth and student ministry run by Dominican friars.

Quite logically, the experience involves a lot of walking – but not an unbearable amount even for the less sports-oriented (last year I went with my toddler in a stroller – still achievable). But there’s much more to do than just walk. The friars organize lectures on the way, focusing on various aspects of Catholic spirituality. There’s a morning Mass and an evening Eucharistic Adoration every day as well, not to mention the Rosary while walking and a lot of vigorous singing.

Perhaps the most striking feature of such an experience, however, does not relate in itself to all the religious activities – it is the attitudes of people you inevitably meet on the way. Not only would the co-pilgrims be happy to help you in any way you needed – from sharing drinking water or carrying you backpack for a while to just being there to listen when you need it – but also inhabitants of local villages the pilgrimage passes through offer vast assistance, provide meals, places to stay overnight, places to take a shower... virtually everything a tired pilgrim needs.

Thus the way to the sanctuary becomes at least equally important to finally reaching it – another nice parable to the Christian life.

And to the technical details: the experience is pretty open to anyone who would like to participate – it is just wise to contact the Dominicans at least a week prior to the pilgrimage start (every year 3 August in the morning). Each year there are some foreign guests – from the US, France, Finland, Philippines. Just bring yourself a pair of comfortable shoes – and you can start walking. See you in Czestochowa!

Umrah by Ayisha

I did Umrah back in June 2005 Alhamdulillah and the experience was great. I was really excited to go to Saudi for many reasons. The most important was obviously Umrah and the other one was meeting my Mamoo (my uncle) who last met me like 10 years ago because he has been living in Saudi for about 30 years now. 

The moment I was close to Masjid-al-Haram, I could see the huge minarets from far away. This was the moment I had been waiting for. As soon as I entered the masjid and and saw the kabah, I was just amazed. All this time, I had only seen it in pictures and on TV. Allah listens to you everywhere but at that place, I felt as if I was more closer to Allah Raheem-ul-Kareem than at ANY other place. There were no worries about doing house chores, or worrying about other stuff that goes on in my life. I saw brothers and sisters from all around the world who came all the way there to worship the one and only Allah. Everything seemed beautiful and pleasant there. 

Then of course I went to Madina as well. Prayed there in Masjid-un-Nabwi and visited the graves of Muahmmad (S.A.W), Abu Bakr and Umar (R.A). I must say that compared to Makkah, Madina was more fun and 'alive'. Almost everyone who went there has to say the same thing. I visited a lot of other historical places with my uncle as well. 

And if Allah wills, Insha'Allah I will try to go for Hajj too.

Wailing Wall in Jerusalem by Patricia N.

In 1983 I made a decision that was to form a backdrop to most of my adult life. I decided that I wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. 

I am a woman living in Halifax in England and didn’t until this point have any particular religious bent. The idea came to me in a dream and stuck with me so strongly that it became all I could think about. 

At the time I worked in a fish packing facility and despite asking around I couldn’t find any of my colleagues who knew anything about the Wailing Wall. Indeed, at the time I didn’t even know anyone who had even been to Israel.

It took over twenty years for my to realize my dream. I had my first child in 1984 shortly followed by three more. On returning to work in the early 1990s I got promoted to a middle management position in the fish factory and work and young motherhood took precedence over my dreams. Two messy divorces further complicated my life.

However, in 2004 a private equity firm bought out the factory and all managers received a one off bonus payment. Three of my children were in university and the youngest was unfortunately in prison so I was freed from the financial and maternal shackles that had hampered my dream. Finally I was able to start my pilgrimage. 

I decided to walk from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on my own as a symbolic but meaningful metaphor for the pilgrimage that my life had been. On landing at Ben Gurion airport I donned my rucksack and although it was nearly midnight I headed out onto the road, walking all the way.

My journey ended up taking four months. I stopped and worked on a kibbutz. I got sidetracked when I fell in love, briefly, with a watercolor artist who was making studies of the desert colors. Finally, and with sore feet but a soaring heart I arrived in Jerusalem. I took in the sites, sounds and smells of the city before finally completing the journey of my life. 

There are no words to describe how I felt when I arrived at the Wailing Wall. Sublime and ecstasy are the only words that come close. To be at that moment, surrounded by history, religion and culture was both spiritually and metaphysically the crowning moment of my life. A dream fulfilled.

Everywhere and Back by Amanda H. Bazner (Worcester MA, USA)

I got hurt my freshman year in college and was told I'd be permanently disabled in 10 years. (That anniversary is this month, and they're right.) Before I had gotten hurt, I'd enjoyed traveling on Greyhound buses, and even afterwards I had bused around some, but always with company and always east of the Mississippi River. It was time to take the one big cross-country bus trip alone that I'd always dreamed of, before it was too late.

I set my schedule: from home in Worcester, MA, to South Bend, IN, then Cheyenne, WY to Las Vegas, NV. I had met a woman on the bus from South Bend who lived in Sacramento, and she invited me to visit. Fortunately, I had gotten an open-ended pass for 3 weeks, so I headed into Sacramento totally unplanned. It was May, and yet the mountains between NV and CA were covered in snow. We paused at one rest stop for everyone to get out of the bus and have a snowball fight.

After a tour of Sacramento, we had dinner on a riverboat. The waiter overheard us talking and introduced himself - he grew up not ten miles from where my father did. Then on up the West Coast. 

In Spokane, another wonderful find: a public library a block from my hotel, which overlooked a panoramic view of a waterfall. How can you go wrong? I was accosted, I thought at first, by a young man who turned out to be a deaf-mute. I was very nervous at first - young woman alone in a strange place, you know - until he figured out what the problem was and gave me a card, which had his name and situation printed on it, and wrote in a small notebook, "I am good." We had a fascinating conversation via that notebook. I sent him postcards the rest of my way home.

On through Montana. I had doubted its claims of "big sky country" - after Cheyenne, how could anything get better? But it was better, although I did have rather a shock upon entering the state and seeing a sign for Exit 600. In New England, we number our exits in order, not by miles. First I was relieved to realize the difference, but then the enormity of 600 miles hit me. A little calculation with my many roadmaps revealed that Montana could hold all of New England twice over.

On to the Twin Cities, then when an 8-hour layover in Detroit was unavoidable, I replaced it with an 8-hour loop through Michigan. Unlimited bus pass, remember? I called my grandmother from Kalamazoo, MI. She refused to believe there was any such place, until I offered to put one of the locals on the phone to confirm it. Then back to South Bend - familiar territory, after all these strange miles! - and the long last leg back to Worcester. I slept for nearly two days upon arriving home.

Now I am homebound. I haven't gone as many miles in the past year as I would cover from here to South Bend alone. But reviewing my trip makes me feel free again. I suppose it's not a pilgrimage in the traditional sense - going to a specific place. But in fact, my destination was everywhere: everywhere that I had been told I would never get to go. I have crossed our great country, met people from just about everywhere, seen all kinds of local vegetation, and done so all by myself. And then I came home again, immensely enriched.

I guess you could say that home was the destination of my pilgrimage. After all, a crippling injury makes you feel like you're not even at home in your own body. But after that trip, I feel at home everywhere.

Irish Pilgrimage: The Celtic Lands by Vanessa Hammond (Victoria, BC, Canada)

Ireland has pulled me home almost every year since I left in 1966. For the first few years my return journeys were to see family, sometimes as part of a work journey. Later I took kids and grandkids. In 2001, by accident, I organized a journey through Wales, Ireland and Scotland for a group of 12 of us. We visited pre-Celtic, Celtic and early Celtic-Christian sties, walked the land I loved and shared our experiences. We grew together as a group, had wonderful conversations, thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. One of the group, a member of the clergy, described it as "A whole new way of seeing and being." At some point someone in the group started to describe it as a pilgrimage. It was. We were seeing the world differently. We had reasons beyond the entirely practical for our choices of where to visit.

For me, the concept of pilgrimage was not new. As a child I had lived near the Ganges, one of several holy rivers for Hindus. My father had Moslem friends who rejoiced in their experience of the Hajj. And, living in Ireland, the landscape was alive with holy wells, pilgrimage mountains, places of cultural and spiritual richness. I found myself reading and studying extensively to build on what I had learned from my family.

That first "Island Pilgrims" journey has been adapted each year, reflecting the interests of each of the current group of pilgrims. I go as one of the group, organizing and driving, but paying the same as everyone else, certain that if I was a paid leader I would become "tour guide" rather than spiritual explorer. The time apart renews me for the rest of the year, not because of startling revelations, but because of the feeling of being in my homeland, communitas within the group, and the reminder that all of creation is sacred. And I am reminded that every day is its own pilgrimage, can never be repeated, can be lived to the full.

May your luggage be light, your hearts open, and your friendships as wide as the world.

Camino de Santiago del Norte by Cynthia (Lake Geneva, WI)

This was a burning desire of mine since reading the book Pilgrimage by Paulo Cuelho in 2005. At that time my life was paying off two mortgages, car, credit cards and supporting my daughter through college. My desire grew over the years. The time was ripe!! I strategically paid off one debt at a time.  In 2014 my plan was to walk from Pamplona, Spain to Santiago, using the popular route through the middle of Spain. 

The day before my departure for Pamplona I decided that the Northern route took me through the parts of Spain that I desired to see, Asturias, Santander, and the Beach of the Cathedrals.

I was alone with no guide book. There were yellow arrows that I followed through town. The plan was to start off my stamp book with a Basilica stamp. My walk was in circles not knowing how to get a stamp from anyone. So, I followed the yellow arrows until I couldn't walk anymore. I found a hotel and studied a map before leaving the next morning. 

Little by little the universe gives you what you need. People will help you along the way. It wasn't until my second week walking someone showed me a guidebook that was extremely useful. Thank God for technology and Kindle. The phone is much lighter than the book. 

When walking a long distance keep in mind the weight in the bag. You need a comfy pair of shoes to walk at night, two pairs of lightweight pants and one nice dress or change for hanging out in the cities you visit. Bring a portable clothes line so you can wash your clothes when you are done walking and hang them in the hostel, albergue, or hotel while your in your night clothes. Every ounce counts. 

It took me one month to walk 685 kilometers from Bilbao to Santiago. It was definitely the best experience of my life. Just don't ask my feet :)

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