Steps Of Popes, Princes And Kings
|By Brandon Wilson
say that it’s the journey that matters and not the destination, I, too,
had my doubts. That was until I heard about Spain's Camino de Santiago.
And what a difference that trip has made. If the idea of exploring Europe
is met by a "been there, done that" response, think again.
There’s a unique
option whose concept started long before the advent of those whirlwind
package tours. You can walk all or part of the Camino de Santiago across
northern Spain for an intimate, at-your-own-pace exploration of a country
steeped in magnificent beauty, art, history and faith.
the Way of St. James had its origins over a thousand years ago when pilgrims
or peregrinos from throughout Europe journeyed across Spain to Santiago
de Compostela in search of miracles, as a penance, or to honor St. James
the Apostle who is entombed in the Cathedral. In those days, early pilgrims,
which included even royalty and popes, had to risk bandits, extreme illness,
wolves, difficult river crossings and dangerous encounters with the Moors.
challenges no longer exist, allowing millions to make this trek with
somewhat less hardship. But very early on, my trek turned out to be more
humbling than expected.
four blisters per foot the first day out, I was hobbled in pain. Even
with all the aerobic conditioning and weight lifting I’d done in advance,
nothing except rest could help my bloodied feet. So, I was forced to slow
down. And that, in retrospect, made all the difference.
their journey in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the rugged Pyrenees just across
the French border, or as I did in Roncesvalles on the Spanish side.
you can register and obtain a Pilgrim’s Credencial which identifies you
as a peregrino and allows you to stay in refugios, small inns along this
500 mile path. Each day you set out either alone, in couples, or a group,
depending on your inclination. This is no tour. Everyone sets their own
pace shepherded by well-marked arrows, signposts, or guidebooks from home.
path wends its way through vineyards overflowing with grapes ready for
harvest, among apple and pear orchards, across fields thickly scented
with thyme, past a mosaic checkered with fresh vegetables, over the desolate,
windswept meseta or plateau. Climbing thousands of feet to secluded mountain
Brigadoons, such as El Cebreiro featuring traditional Celtic round stone
houses, it descends to tree-lined Galician pastures with hórreos,
elaborate brick grain storage bins on stilts with crosses on the roofs.
out alone at a snail-like pace guided by well-marked arrows, I trekked
as far as I could with my small backpack, only ten miles at first, until
reaching a refugio. These inns are located in unusual settings, from historic
16th century convents to hospitals run today by the Knights of Malta to
modern prefab complexes. While all provide basic dormitory-style bunk bed
accommodations and showers, some may include common kitchens, pay phones,
laundry facilities or internet-connected computers. They hold 20-800 travelers
each night. Charges are modest, from $4 a night to a simple donation. Bedding
is usually not provided, so it’s a good idea to bring a sleeping bag.
first week, I had a lot of time to think. I hurriedly jotted down ideas,
often in the rain, as they’d float into my consciousness, these Lessons
of the Camino. It wasn’t til the second week when my blisters were healed
that I could set a better pace. And the settings more than compensated
for any delays. Over the next three weeks, the path wound through vineyards
overflowing with grapes ready for harvest, among apple and pear orchards,
across fields thickly scented with thyme, past a landscape mosaic checkered
with vegetables, over the desolate, windswept plateau, climbing thousands
of feet to secluded mountain Brigadoons such as El Cebreiro with traditional
then descended to tree-lined Galician pastures. So who walks the Camino
de Santiago today? Thousands of travelers of every age from around the
world. In just one typical year, there were over 25,000 pilgrims from 72
1999 pilgrimage, I met a virtual UN of peregrino travelers, ranging
from a good humored university administrator in his sixties who hiked nearly
a thousand miles from Dijon to twenty-something Spanish students to a couple
in their 70s who’d hiked and biked from Holland, and even a pilgrim with
MS on a specially-designed bicycle. But what attracts folks to the Camino?
For many it
is the solitude and chance to shut out the distractions of a busy world,
to meditate, to reaffirm their faith, to search for answers, to find inspiration.
the perfect venue, since it can be a walking meditation, not a marathon.
it is the chance to discover precious, little-seen art and architecture,
such as Astorga’s magnificent Bishop’s Palace built by renowned architect
Antonio Gaudi. It’s a chance to stroll ancient Roman roads and appreciate
twenty-arch stone bridges like the Paso Honroso, commemorating a month-long
jousting tournament in 1434. Or you might explore castles built by the
Knights Templar, elaborate fountains, frescoes, sculpture and relics sequestered
in tiny romanesque churches along the way.
it is simply the opportunity to take part in a rich tradition of wandering
the same path in the same spirit (and earning the same aching muscles
and blisters) as millions of peregrinos over the past millennium. Certainly
a highlight is savoring Spain's rich culture. If you're lucky, you might
arrive in a village during their version of the running of the bulls, or
during a Saint’s Day festival, complete with memorable local cuisine, traditional
costumes, lively games and parades.
revel in the exploration of traditional delicacies, from the wonderful
selection of rustic chorizo (sausage) and hearty sheep cheeses of
the distinctive Basque region to Portomarin’s enormous almond pastries,
Torta de Santiago, decorated with sword and shepherd’s staff, to the tapas,
pulpo (octopus) and other fresh seafood delights of Galicia. Sip
delicious viño tinto wines across Rioja, Burgos and the Mesa, and
delicate white wines poured at arm’s length into pottery saucers in Galicia,
most of which you’ll never find at home.
your motivation, villagers will often surprise you with a "Buena
Camino!" from their modest doorstep or second floor window, or may
graciously fill your water bottle. Peregrinos have trod this path for a
thousand years and these towns have a long tradition of hosting travelers.
You’ll still see bags of water hanging over the doorways of some inns,
symbolic of the days when innkeepers washed the feet of pilgrim guests.
arrive in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela, an emotionally charged
finale is to attend the Peregrino Mass, featuring the world’s largest incense
burner, the Botafumeiro, swung nearly at ceiling level by eight men, back
and forth across the transept. Then join the throngs in paying a reverent
visit to the apostle St. James’ tomb. Later, with your Pilgrim’s Credential
filled with stamps from all of your refugio stays and church visits in
hand, go to the Office of Peregrinos to receive your official Compostela,
certificate, as proof of your pilgrimage.
it is the journey that matters, not the destination. Remember this,
and with any luck you'll find whatever answers you seek on this or any
does it take:
Walking the Camino can take as little as 26-30 days if you plan to do it
in one stretch. Or can take as long as you wish. Many hike two weeks one
year and two the next. Bicyclists typically spend two weeks on the trail.
time to go:
People trek the Camino year round. Summers are crowded at the refugios
and are very hot, with little or no shade in many sections of the trail.
I recommend spring or fall treks. The weather is better and the crowds
are fewer. Fall temperatures range from 80 to 40 degrees (F), and
winters can be quite cold with snow. Plan on rain any time of year, but
especially in verdant Galicia, Spain’s equivalent to America's Pacific
get there: Most frequent connections to Roncesvalles are through
Madrid. Take bus to Pamplona, then a bus next day (only 1 daily)
to Roncesvalles. Bus connections also available though Barcelona. To St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port,
take train from Paris to Bayonne, then a local train.
of St. James by Alison Raju, 1999, Cicerone Press, England. Confraternity
of St. James, First Floor, 1 Talbot Yard, Borough High Street, London,
are Brandon's previous articles for the magazine:
is an internationally published author, adventure travel writer, award-winning
photographer and expert trekker. This was the third such hike for the author.
The first was a 1000-km. (650-mile) trek from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu,
Nepal when he and his wife Cheryl, accompanied only by their Tibetan horse,
became the first Western couple to trek an ancient pilgrimage trail across
the unforgiving Himalayan plains. It is the subject of his new book, Yak
Butter Blues: A Tibetan Trek of Faith Visit http://www.YakButterBlues.com
for a preview including a sample chapter, maps, color photos, Tibetan music
and information about other long-distance pilgrimage treks. Available now
from his website, bookstores, Amazon.com, BN.com, Borders.com, Amazon-Canada,
Chapters.ca, Blackwell's (UK), CDbox.it (EU), McGovern & Prentice's
New Zealand Online Books, Seekbooks.au (Australia), Amazon-Japan, and others.
Index ~ Spain