“What’s your reason for walking the camino?” asked the red head as her alluring Buddha smile and the rising sun made my acquaintance. We were climbing a gentle hill on an ancient Roman road; and Angelita from Sardinia, had just asked the question, that all new friends on the pilgrim road to Santiago ask each other.
In the summer of 2012 I set out on a journey that started in France on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) and took me far beyond the end destination of Santiago. Here I share my story of the Camino, taken from Travelmag (first published January 2014).
The Way of Saint James or El Camino de Santiago is a 1,000 year old, 500 mile pilgrimage (if you take the classic route from St. Jean in the French Pyrenees), that ends at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of the apostle Saint James are believed to be buried. At its peak in medieval times over one million pilgrims a year journeyed to Santiago to receive plenary indulgence. European wars reduced the pilgrimage’s popularity; but in recent decades spirituality pervades, and in 2012 alone, more than 200,000 modern pilgrims re-traced the Camino.
Forcing my eyes shut again I cursed the fact my rucksack containing my earplugs was somewhere below my bunk bed, hidden in the dark, with my fellow pilgrims and their animal noises! But at €10 for the night, which included a typical French continental breakfast of bread, jam and coffee I couldn’t really complain about the hostel. And accommodation and food on the Spanish side I’d been told was even cheaper. So my second night’s accommodation was a welcome sight, a monastery in Roncesvalles. The day had been a good day but as tiring an introduction to the pilgrimage as one could have imagined. A 1,200 metre ascent over the Pyrenees and across a seamless border into Spain. But the climb offered its rewards: mountainscapes carpeted in green velvet, a dozen griffon vultures hovering over a humble shrine of the Madonna and of course a bed for the night.
Attached to the monastery – Real Collegiata de Santa Maria – was a modern dormitory with 200 clean beds costing €5 a night. Municipal pilgrim hostels, albergues, maintained by the local authority as well as private albergues (usually costing €5 Euros extra) were the mainstay of my accommodation and line the route of the camino.
I left Roncesvalles in a misty morning haze through woods that took me into a mosaic of Van Gogh landscapes. Blue mountains behind and hilly country descending to the River Arga and fly fishermen. For much of Navarre, the Arga was a companion, only briefly departing my side when passing through golden wheat and ploughed fields and villages. In one village I spotted a group of young women in the courtyard of a house chopping and washing white asparagus, and they offered me a taste. The crunchy stalk was a little sour; nonetheless I smiled and thanked them.
The River Arga finally left as a mature mass of water, under six stone arches – Puenta la Reina (Queen’s Bridge, namesake to the town I’d spent the night in), named in honour of Dona Mayor, wife of Sancho III, who was also aware of the river’s coming of age. She commissioned the bridge’s construction to save pilgrims from drowning.
A dirt track ran by a tangled mass of wine vines and to a wine font at the rear of Bodegas Irache. And like most of my fellow pilgrims on the road that morning I’d taken an early break at the fountain, and emptied my water bottle to collect the free red wine. The camino was now close to the famous wine region of Rioja, so perhaps the bodega was keen to impress that Navarre’s wine was just as good as their famous neighbours’. But as soon as I entered Rioja it was like a line had been drawn in the earth; the soil was redder and the wine vines were now as tall as me.
Beyond the vineyards, pine forests and a rocky moor the journey enters the urban world: the city suburbs of Burgos but at the heart of the old city is a spider web of a cathedral. And the intertwine of flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings prevented my usual crack of dawn start. I’d already seen numerous grand churches but Burgos’ dedication to worship was ethereal. On arrival I circled the 13th century cathedral, admiring its greatness and wondered about the different generations who’d committed to its completion, before I entered and found myself sitting at the back of a chapel in a daze during a pilgrim mass…
A beer and the company of fellow pilgrims in the medieval streets later roused me. The next morning I returned to the cathedral and this time wandered through its numerous chapels and admired frescoes, gold carvings, a kaleidoscope of colours in a majestic stained glass rose window and St. James above the high altar. While at the heart of the cathedral I found El Cid’s resting place below a huge star lantern. I exited the cathedral’s square through a majestic arch; its facade guarded by defiant looking knights and was met by a protective river and an inviting patch of grass.
My first blisters and a calf strain crept up on me on day fourteen. After limping for a couple of hours I took refuge at a shop, which also doubled up as the local cafe. The only other shop in town was a pharmacy. A Belgian girl with dark cropped hair, taking a rest offered me a roll of cotton bandage, suggesting I tie it around my calf for support. Though the look of doubt in her blue eyes mirrored my thoughts – that time out for a couple of days would be the only cure. I handed her back the roll and hobbled over to the pharmacy, thinking I’d end up asking where the nearest hotel was. But in there I found Arnica – in fact arnica gel. I’ve never quite understood the virtues of homeopathic medicine, but this was the camino and miracles happen no?
Yes they do! Within a few hours of walking the ache in my leg subsided and I was tackling the flat but endless Meseta – two days of agricultural wilderness. It was in the heat of the Meseta that I met Carol. A middle-aged mother she was unassuming and spoke with a soft southern accent. After an hour or so of walking together Carol looked to her brother-in-law Al, whom I only then noticed was carrying her backpack in addition to his own. She said, “I originally wanted to come alone but my family insisted on joining me.” Carol was terminally ill, and she explained her family from different parts of the USA were joining her along various parts of the trip.
The times I chose to be alone were when I met the locals. One morning an old man with a round grey stubble face, shaded under a baseball cap, and riding an old blue bicycle stopped and said, “lehagano”, when he spotted me eyeing the bunches of herbs strapped to his bike. When he realised I didn’t understand he propped the bike against a stone wall and handed me a bunch to smell. It was the same smell that had wafted across the green fields earlier, it was oregano. It pays to learn a little Spanish because I was able to answer his questions of: where was I from and where was I heading that day. I said the village of Rabanal, and he suggested I should rest there a while – explaining it was the last village before the climb to the highest point of the journey in the Montes de León.
In Rabanal I re-grouped with ‘The Team’ and Angelita, or “El Capo” (The Boss), which we now fondly referred to her as. I’d been walking on and off with The Team throughout the journey; and that night in the kitchen of an albergue overlooking the main street of the frontier looking town, another Italian, Luca (El Matador) cooked “el dente” pasta and sauce for the ten of us.
By the time we reached Santiago some 150 miles later I’d learnt all The Team’s stories; although Federico (El Toro), the fourth Italian in the gang was silent about his until just before the end. We were standing in a meadow our ears attune to the sounds of the wind across the tree tops and rushing water of a shallow stream, and eyes sharp on a robin stretching its legs on the rails of a wooden bridge. And after the sounds of silence Federico opened up. His mother had recently died after a battle with Parkinson’s disease and his father had also died before his time. In 2009 Federico’s house was damaged by an earthquake that devastated the region of Abruzzo, and a few months before he set out on the Camino, his electrician’s job was killed by the financial crisis. But he spoke peacefully and added, “walk slowly, slowly,” which I think he meant as a metaphor for life.
Arriving in Santiago it seemed my world of people from the last four weeks, were all in attendance at the Pilgrim’s mass. And as I sat silently with The Team I knew I hadn’t found god or salvation but I did feel slightly different. Of course I was elated, but what I felt was a deep feeling of companionship. This was unexpected given we’d all soon be going our separate ways; and my solo journey across Europe and escape from corporate life was still in its infancy.
If you’ve walked The Way of St. James or contemplating it, please feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section below…