Hik­ing Spain’s Pil­grim Path

I set out on Spain’s fa­bled Camino de San­ti­ago de Com­postela, sorely in need of its an­cient magic

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY LIA GRAINGER

I KNEW THE WEATHER could be bad this time of year, but I hadn’t ex­pected snow. It came in great icy blasts that whis­tled in my frozen ears and ob­scured the for­est path be­fore me. I pushed for­wards, hug­ging my thin rain­coat tighter around me.

Ahead, the moun­tain road forked. With wa­ter­ing eyes, I scanned the white­ness for the one sign I knew would guide me.

Carved in a stone obelisk, a shape, smaller than the palm of my hand, con­fi­dently pointed me to­wards safety: a small, yel­low ar­row.

It was my sec­ond day on the Camino de San­ti­ago de Com­postela. I was just one of the quar­ter-mil­lion pil­grims who make their way each year on foot or bi­cy­cle to San­ti­ago in north-west Spain. Pa­gan trav­ellers may have walked the path as far back as 1000 BC; the first Chris­tian pil­grims did so in the ninth cen­tury to pay homage to St James the Greater, Spain’s pa­tron saint, who, le­gend says, is buried be­neath San­ti­ago’s cathe­dral. Many who walk ‘The Way’ to­day make the jour­ney for a range of non-pi­ous mo­tives.

I was one of them. For my en­tire adult life, I’d felt the need to fill ev­ery wak­ing mo­ment with an end­less sched­ule of work, travel, hob­bies and so­cial­is­ing. My rac­ing mind never stopped, a whirl­wind that gave rise to all kinds of anx­i­eties. I needed to slow down, and I needed to be brave and do it alone.

There are sev­eral well-es­tab­lished routes to San­ti­ago. I had set­tled on the most pop­u­lar, El Camino Francés, or ‘French Way’. To do the en­tire jour­ney means start­ing in Ron­ces­valles, south­ern France, be­fore ar­riv­ing in San­ti­ago nearly 800 km later, but many do only a por­tion. I had only eight days to com­plete my Camino, so I de­cided to start in Vil­lafranca del Bierzo, a tiny vil­lage 200 km from San­ti­ago.

It was a grey morn­ing in April when the bus dropped me off on the out­skirts of Vil­lafranca. On my feet were hik­ing boots I had never worn, and on my back a small pack con­tain­ing toi­letries, socks and un­der­wear, a sweater, a wa­ter bot­tle and lit­tle else. In my money belt was my prized pos­ses­sion: an empty pil­grim’s pass­port, ready to be filled with the stamps given out at stops along the way. I ducked into a bus sta­tion bar and found a very small old man qui­etly fold­ing nap­kins.

“Ex­cuse me,” I said in Span­ish, feel­ing silly to be ask­ing such a ba­sic ques­tion. “Where is the way?”

He smiled, then gently led me out­side. “See that red cross across the road?” he asked. “Past that, to the left, and off you go, all the way to San­ti­ago!”

It was driz­zling as I set off, climb­ing a small road all but de­serted of ve­hi­cles. I walked with my head up and swiv­el­ling. The land was on the cusp of spring. Rich moss and pale pink suc­cu­lents blan­keted the low walls that bor­dered the road.

Pil­grims on the Camino de San­ti­ago, near the vil­lage of Cas­tro­jeriz. This is sev­eral hun­dred kilo­me­tres from where the au­thor started her jour­ney at Vil­lafranca

The sun broke through the clouds just as the road reached a peak. Look­ing around, I re­alised I was com­pletely alone in the land­scape. I let out a long sigh as an un­ex­pected sense of calm washed over me.

I walked un­til I en­tered the tiny stone town of Pereje. Its streets felt de­serted, but I spot­ted a wo­man lean­ing against the grey slate wall of her tav­ern, so I went in and or­dered a large café con leche. In com­ing days the thought of that sweet, milky caf­feine would put a spring in my step on dull stretches of road.

As I sipped this first one, a mid­dleaged man haul­ing a pack much larger than mine came bar­relling awk­wardly through the door. He plunked him­self down be­side me at the bar.

I turned and of­fered a big smile.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Ger­many!” he replied, with a smile that ri­valled my own.

I be­gan to ask him ques­tions but he stopped me mid-sen­tence. “Lit­tle English, very lit­tle,” he said. I nod­ded. There was no mal­ice in his si­lenc­ing me.

As I gath­ered my things to leave, I felt him tap my shoul­der. “Buen Camino!” he of­fered.

“Buen Camino!” I replied. I would soon learn these were the two Span­ish words ev­ery pil­grim was guar­an­teed to know. They were a happy recog­ni­tion of a shared mis­sion.

I’D SET OFF THAT MORN­ING from Vil­lafranca del Bierzo with the goal of walk­ing the roughly 29 km to the hill­top town of O’Ce­breiro. My plan was to fol­low the of­fi­cial stages of the

Camino Francés: the en­tire path is di­vided into sec­tions of be­tween 18 and 37 km. Most start and end in rel­a­tively large towns that have at least a few ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions, and the ac­tual ter­rain varies greatly, from muddy moun­tain paths to sec­tions that fol­low the lo­cal high­way.

As af­ter­noon turned to early evening, I re­alised I’d walked for six hours and was still a good five kilo­me­tres out of O’Ce­breiro. The trail had emp­tied of pil­grims. I crested a steep hill and rolled into the tiny farm­ing town of La Faba in search of a place to sleep.

In the old days, pil­grims slept out­doors or were of­fered shel­ter in barns, churches or homes. To­day there is an ‘al­ber­gue’ – a ba­sic hos­tel – nearly ev­ery five kilo­me­tres, of­ten staffed by vol­un­teers.

The first place I came across was the Al­ber­gue Ger­man Con­fra­ter­nity de Faba, where a blonde re­tiree named Ellen Zierott wel­comed me, col­lect­ing the small fee and ex­plain­ing the rules: boots off in the front hall, lights out at 10pm and ev­ery­one out by 8am sharp.

I poked my head into the ex­pan­sive dorm room lined with dozens of bunk beds, about half oc­cu­pied by pil­grims in var­i­ous stages of re­pose. The early bed­time was rapidly ap­proach­ing, so I ran down the road to one of the town’s two cafés to wolf down a plate of pasta, then re­turned to slip un­der the thin fleece blan­ket pro­vided and say good­night to an older Ja­panese wo­man tuck­ing her­self in two me­tres away. The lights went out and within what felt like se­conds a ca­coph­ony of snor­ing erupted. I cursed my­self for not bring­ing earplugs and then, ex­hausted, promptly fell asleep.

“GOOD MORN­ING!” said a perky voice. It took me a mo­ment to re­alise it was Ellen.

“Good morn­ing!” re­sponded a cho­rus of groggy but cheer­ful voices. I looked at my watch: 7am. Time to start walk­ing.

I stepped out into the dark, icy morn­ing. The pil­grims in the café the evening be­fore had spo­ken of snow – the climb to O’Ce­breiro reached an alti­tude of 1296 me­tres – but I’d laughed them off. Af­ter all, it was April in Spain.

The wind was gen­tle at first, but within an hour the trees bor­der­ing the moun­tain path were whip­ping wildly to and fro. A town emerged atop the hill: O’Ce­breiro. I turned into the first open door.

In­side the tav­ern, coals glowed in the enor­mous fire­place. I pulled up a stool next to a grand­fa­therly man with blue eyes and a white beard.

“One caldo gal­lego,” said the man to the bar­maid. He turned to me. “It’s very good here.”

I too or­dered what turned out to be a typ­i­cal Gali­cian dish – de­li­cious pork broth with greens and white beans steam­ing in a rough brown bowl with hearty bread. We be­gan to chat. He was Gün­ter, from Ger­many, and this was his third time on the Camino.

There were cer­tainly a lot of Ger­mans on the path. I would later learn this was due in large part to a 2014 book about the Camino by a Ger­man TV celebrity.

“Peo­ple have prob­lems,” said Gün­ter in his rough English. “They come on the Camino and the prob­lems go away.”

Just then the door burst open, let­ting in a gust of cold air. In walked another Ger­man, as it turned out also called Gün­ter. This one was younger and bun­dled in high-tech gear. He called out for his own caldo gal­lego.

“I am an in­ven­tor,” he said when I asked why he was on the Camino. “Have you ever seen an in­flat­able movie screen? That was me.”

Gün­ter’s in­ven­tion busi­ness had been go­ing great, when sud­denly his part­ners swin­dled him out of his share. “I was dev­as­tated,” he said. “I lay on the couch for a year.”

One day he picked up a book his wife had been read­ing. It was The Pil­grim­age by Brazil­ian writer Paulo Coelho, a per­sonal ac­count that had al­most sin­gle-hand­edly rein­vig­o­rated pub­lic in­ter­est in the Camino in the 1980s. “Ten days later I was on the Camino,” said Gün­ter. To­day he was near­ing the end of his sixth pil­grim­age.

My Swiss walk­ing com­pan­ion pointed out a patch of smooth stone, where mil­lions had walked be­fore us

It was the Camino that broke his de­pres­sion and that he cred­ited with help­ing him fi­nally con­ceive a child ­af­ter years of try­ing. I was struck by the in­ten­sity of his story.

We fin­ished our soups and headed out into the snow. The Gün­ters led the way through the gath­er­ing white­ness. Soon they were dis­tant shapes, min­utes later they were gone and I found my­self trudg­ing the moun­tain path alone.

In the af­ter­noon I met Hans-Peter, from Switzer­land, while tak­ing a break

to sip a much-needed café con leche. I was feel­ing burnt out but Hans was in the mood to chat.

“Cold out there?” he of­fered. I re­sponded du­ti­fully in the af­fir­ma­tive. My cheeks were turn­ing scar­let and felt strangely bruised as they thawed, which I men­tioned.

“Have some!” said Hans, and held out a tiny tub of Vase­line. I rubbed it all over my face.

“We walk to­gether?” Hans asked with a smile.

My new Swiss friend seemed to bounce along. “Look, here,” he said, point­ing to a large patch of smooth stone in the path. “This stone was worn down by the mil­lions of peo­ple who walked here be­fore us. Kings, priests, popes.” He paused. “Can you imag­ine an old king be­ing car­ried down this very path?”

In­deed I could, with Hans as my guide as we neared our next stop, the sleepy ham­let of Tri­a­castela.

I’D FAILED TO BREAK IN my hik­ing boots be­fore set­ting off and the next day, by the time I was about three hours out of Tri­a­castela, I was find­ing it dif­fi­cult to walk. My sur­round­ings were breath­tak­ing – green fields bathed in gen­tle sun­shine – yet all I could think about was the sear­ing pain in my Achilles ten­dons.

I stopped for lunch at a café and wearily un­laced the tor­ture de­vices. Fel­low pil­grims lis­tened sym­pa­thet­i­cally as I de­scribed the agony wrought

by my boots. We all knew there was only one thing to be done – keep walk­ing. Push­ing through phys­i­cal pain seemed al­most a wel­come ex­pe­ri­ence here. I imag­ined that for pil­grims with re­li­gious mo­ti­va­tions, pain could be seen as a sign of de­vo­tion. For me, strug­gling on gave me a sense of ac­com­plish­ment. I laced those suck­ers back up and winced my way on­wards.

Over the next sev­eral days, the Camino went from be­ing my jour­ney to my home, and I fell into a se­ries of habits that dou­bled as sur­vival tac­tics.

I’d start each day by wait­ing un­til nearly ev­ery­one had de­parted. Then I’d slowly pre­pare for the day in peace. My mind found a rare still­ness. Life here was won­der­fully sim­ple: wake, walk, eat, sleep.

I stuck to a four-kilo­me­tre-per-hour walk­ing pace. In the morn­ings I was

usu­ally in the mood to be alone, walk­ing in front of or be­hind nearby pil­grims. In the af­ter­noon I’d match up with some­one whose life story I thought I’d like to hear.

Those sto­ries were many. There was An­dres, the tall young man who had started the Camino from the doorstep of his house in Freiberg, Ger­many. “I like to meet in­ter­est­ing peo­ple and be in beau­ti­ful na­ture,” he told me. “But I do also love walk­ing. I need it,” he ad­mit­ted.

There was the Fin­nish girl who dreamed of be­ing a sailor, the young Ro­ma­nian who’d fallen hope­lessly in love on the Camino, a young Brit, the el­derly Chi­nese cou­ple who lived in Man­hat­tan. To my de­light, the whole hodge­podge cast of char­ac­ters kept pop­ping up wher­ever I went: on the trail, in a café, in the bunk above me at an al­ber­gue.

Never had I felt so alone and yet so among friends. I car­ried this won­der­fully odd feel­ing with me as I walked the fi­nal 20 km to San­ti­ago.

At last, the city came into sight, and then the cathe­dral, an epic ­Ro­manesque struc­ture – which over the cen­turies had been added to in Gothic, Re­nais­sance and Baroque ­ar­chi­tec­tural styles – nearly 1000 years old. As I ap­proached, pil­grims were stream­ing in, em­brac­ing one another, cry­ing, laugh­ing and pray­ing.

It was over. I had done it. Yet as I re­ceived my com­postela – the of­fi­cial cer­tifi­cate of com­ple­tion – my ela­tion was mixed with a pro­found sad­ness. My trea­sured sim­ple rou­tine – wake, walk, eat, sleep – was end­ing. I would re­turn to a whirl­wind life of tasks and distractions.

But then some­thing oc­curred to me, some­thing An­dres had told me that very morn­ing. “It’s not about the Camino,” he said. “It’s about fol­low­ing those lit­tle yel­low ar­rows in your ev­ery­day life.”

I re­alised I could carry the Camino with me: its sim­plic­ity, in­her­ent kind­ness and open­ness to strangers. Those ‘yel­low ar­rows’ were my own in­stincts, my own heart. They would tell me where to go.

I made my­self a prom­ise there and then that I would be back the fol­low­ing year to walk the Camino Francés from start to fin­ish.

Only next time, I’ll bring a bet­ter pair of boots.

The Cathe­dral of San­ti­ago de Com­postela, the end of the pil­grim­age

Au­thor Lia Grainger on the trail on her first day, just be­fore reach­ing La Faba

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