Join me on a 500-mile journey that will take us from the southern border of France, across the infinite stretch of the Castilian plain, into Spain. I have selected Saint Jean in France as my point of departure, to hike the famed pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Walking is the preferred means of transport, but don’t be dissuaded by the distance. Destiny will determine who you meet, where you go and what you see. At the end of thirty days, you will be a different person: self aware, self motivated.
Walking – the best way to rise above the nearsightedness that comes with living in the city
There are many trails that run through France, Portugal and Spain. They are marked by yellow arrows and scallop shells that have become the symbols of a route that is commonly referred to as the camino. The Camino Frances, or the French route, is the most popular; crosses the French border in Navarre and at Samport, in Huesca. It stretches over an old Roman trade route that connected Rome to Spain. By the twelfth century, pilgrims who frequented this route had at their disposal a tour guide commissioned by Pope Calixtus II. The guide offered useful advice on where to find the inns, and where to get the water and food. He also warned pilgrims about dangerous river crossings and paths where they might encounter bandits.
Pilgrims first converged on the shrine of St. James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela in the ninth century, when it was believed that the apostle’s relics were the source of spiritual power; miracle cures and forgiveness for those who visited his tomb. The shrine of St. James would become the third greatest pilgrimage site for Christians, after St. Peter’s in Rome and Jerusalem.
Santiago de Compostela grew as a fulcrum of religious life in the Middle Ages attracting half a million pilgrims each year, only to decline in the sixteenth century after the Reformation, when iconoclasts like Martin Luther challenged the authenticity of St. James’s tomb. Today many pilgrims walk from a cultural-religious perspective, admiring one of the largest collections of Gothic and Romanesque architecture in Europe. The pilgrimage route has been widely promoted by the European Union. It grew mostly in the last decade since UNESCO declared it a Cultural Heritage Route in 1993. In 2005, 94,000 backpackers and cyclists passed through the Pilgrim Office’s registry in Santiago; 4,000 coming from North America. I set out on the camino for the first time in the summer of 2002 with two friends from Galicia.
As the son of Gallego immigrants, the pilgrimage to Santiago had become a popular metaphor for returning home. Growing up in a bicultural and bilingual environment deeply affected my perspective. After two generations of pushing west to America, I ventured east into the land of my parents, to reclaim my heritage. I had listened to numerous stories from my parents and grandparents that inspired me to walk the pilgrimage route to the cathedral that had captured their imagination. For me, the camino would become a circular journey where I could develop a higher sense of self.
My friends and I didn’t have much experience hiking. While an ambitious itinerary of 15 to 20 miles a day for the next 30 days was daunting, the road quickly became a good measure for tempering our pace. An abundance of pilgrim shelters along the route helped us divide the journey accordingly. On the first day, the fog narrowed our visibility to the width of the road in front of us, as we ascended slowly through the Pyrenees up to 3,500 feet. We covered a difficult distance of 19 miles from Saint Jean to Roncesvalles, that was only mitigated by the beauty of the changing landscape: undulating French pastures full of grazing horses and cattle at the base, open spaces densely populated with rock near the top of the mountain pass, and groves of pine and beech trees sloping into the Spanish countryside.
Roncesvalles, the first stop on our itinerary, is much more than a refuge for recuperating one's strength; it is the focal point of many legends and traditions that helped forge the camino. For the French, Roncesvalles is a strong proponent of French culture in Medieval Spain. The museum still houses many reliquaries and paintings, including relics that are loosely associated to Charlemagne’s expedition into Spain. It all began, they say, with a dream. Charlemagne had a vision of the body of James floating upriver in a stone ship. James unveiled his tomb to Charlemagne through a map of stars. A mission ensued to build an empire that would reach the westernmost edge of Europe.
Charlemagne never saw the vision of his empire fulfilled, but the heroics of his army in Spain were soon immortalized in tales of chivalry. Medieval pilgrims looked up to epic heroes like Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland, who incarnated the Christian virtues of charity, fortitude, love and wisdom. With the advent of the printing press, Roland’s adventures penetrated deeply into the realm of fantasy, associating him with wizards, giants, monsters and dragons. The twelfth century chapel of Sancti Spiritus in Roncesvalles originally held the bones of pilgrims who died while crossing the Pyrenees, but the widespread Carolingian legend transformed it into the crypt of Charlemagne’s legendary paladin; an enduring testament to Charlemagne’s dream.
By the eighth day, we were settled in our habits. We packed every night before bed, setting aside the necessary things for the morning. We woke up at 6:00 A.M. to get an early start. We had lunch after reaching our destination. The 16-mile stretch for that day had taken us through Rioja vineyards, past a long industrial estate, and across the Najerilla River where we sought the shade of nearby cliffs. Inspired by its Moorish name, “a place between rocks". Najera is born out of the red earth, replicating its homes with the same blushing stone.
Pilgrims usually follow an inner compass that leads them towards introspection. At the Monastery of Santa Maria La Real in Najera, you will find a sanctuary that will offer you the necessary solitude to decompress. Devoted to courtly life and the keeping of the royal dead, its undistinguished exterior makes no allusion to the secrets kept inside. Its pantheon recalls a time when Najera was the capital of Navarre, before its annexation to the kingdom of Castile in 1076 AD. The tombs of this fallen dynasty guard the entrance to a sacred cave. Here King Garcia is said to have found inspiration for the construction of the monastery in the Virgin Mary. A secular interpretation, however, accredits his wife, Queen Estefania, with being his only muse. She had envisioned a place of worship so big that it would ensure the persistence of their memory. Mysterious and significant, the monastery is still conducive to reflection.
On the tenth day, we approached one of the most popular destinations on the route. In the late fifteenth century, Burgos boasted thirty two pilgrim hospices that were founded by royalty, private citizens, merchant guilds, and religious and military orders. It had thrived as a hub of Christianity in the Middle Ages; its cathedral became a beacon for those seeking passage to Santiago.
Upon entering the city, we walked across three miles of a largely commercial zone to access the cathedral. Standing in front of the western entrance, two open work spires rise above the skyline like plumes of white smoke. The pilgrim’s story is woven into the structure – an eight-pointed star-ribbed dome illuminates the center of the cathedral – a reminder of when stars illuminated the way to all destinations. Each point echoes one of the eight seasonal rituals observed by the pagan wheel of the year. It is a cycle of change, regeneration and abundance that has inspired many travelers on their journeys. The idea that life is cyclical can help us expand our concept of home. It transforms our home into a work-in-progress, an image or a memory that is developed while in transit to another place.
Pilgrims today travel on foot at the expense of time. They appeal to the spirit of walking to retrieve a sense of purpose from the past. Burgos, however, marks a return to modern city life, giving the old-fashioned walker an opportunity to intersect with the present. We let our fixation on distance fade; booked an extra day in an inn. We bought a newspaper; we caught up on the internet. We had a glass of wine from the region, Ribera del Duero. The innkeeper recommended a cool glass of Condado de Haza. For lunch, we stopped by the celebrated Asador de Aranda, and treated ourselves to a serving of their suckling pig. Then we waited out with a coffee in one of the city squares. By late afternoon, we were eager tourists; ready to access the most fanciful sights.
Nothing in your guidebook prepares you for the solitude and beauty of the Castilian landscape. By the seventeenth day, the sun rose over our backs as we made our way through cultivated wheat fields to the city of Leon. Leon is an old Roman outpost that rests on the northwestern corner of the Castilian meseta. Once the seat of an important dynasty, its buildings are gold and regal with the sun, not yet broken and lingering after dark. During the Middle Ages, Leon became a city of craftsmen and masons who built elaborate shrines for the most coveted relics on the pilgrimage. The Cathedral of Santa Maria la Real embodies the authentic spirit of the journey. Known as the “cathedral without walls”, it has more glass (one hundred thirty windows and three giant rose windows), and less stone than any other cathedral in Spain. Its delicate stain glass transforms the interior into a diaphanous space, bathing everyone and everything in a purifying light.
On the twenty-sixth day, we pushed westward through Galicia, descending from pine and chestnut groves that sloped towards the Miño River. In the summer, when the river runs dry, you can see the old ruins of Portomarin rising from the mud-encrusted reservoir. The new Portomarin rests island-like above its predecessor. Its small whitewashed houses and granite arcades could easily be relocated to the south of Spain. Most of the town was spared from the reservoir, transported stone by stone to the current site by 1962. Today the fortress-church of St. Nicholas stands out as the greatest achievement of the relocation. Many detractors, however, argue that as a Romanesque temple, the church’s orientation should be changed so that the apse faces east. During the Middle Ages, the Knights Hospitaller ran the church as a stronghold to ensure safe passage to Santiago. Its thick walls and huge restraining arches evoke a less secular time, when the romance of chivalry still kindled the hearts of pilgrims.
We approached our last day with the consciousness of ending a cycle. On the morning of the thirtieth day, we set out early into the darkness, fixated on reaching Santiago in time for the noon pilgrim mass. Medieval pilgrims would group for mass by country and language, waiting to hear the indulgences that were being granted on that particular day. Today many pilgrims see the mass as a rite for a new beginning. During the mass, we saw the familiar faces of pilgrims that we had encountered along the way. It was as if our life during the past thirty days had been condensed into that single moment. Then we experienced one of the last marvels of the camino; the lifting of the giant incense burner, known as the botafumeiro, swung like a pendulum across the transepts. There, in the billowing smoke, you will see yourself as someone changed; someone who looked at life through the quixotic eyes of a pilgrim.
Preparing for the journey is as important as walking it. Adequate footwear is a must. Waterproof boots will suffice, but bring a pair of sandals for when you are not trekking. Windbreakers, ponchos, or any other weather resistant material is ideal to keep dry and insulated. Remember to pack ligh – backpacks shouldn’t exceed more than 10% to 15% of your body weight. Although the route is complete with a network of shelters, refugios, designed for pilgrims, you need a sleeping bag.
Shelters are available for travelers with a Pilgrim Credential for U.S. $4.00 – $12.00 a night. You can obtain the credential at many shelters and tourist offices. Breakfast (coffee and pastry) on the road is about U.S.$4.00. A bocadillo,sandwich, is approximately U.S. $6.00. Some shelters have kitchens; supermarkets, stores and ATMs are available throughout the route.
Gitlitz, David M. and Davidson, Linda Kay. The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000.
Carandell, Luis.Historias, leyendas, gracias y desgracias del Camino de Santiago. Madrid: El Pais Aguilar, 1998.