Span­ish pil­grim­ages gen­er­ate tears of rage and hymns of joy

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - One Travel Perfect Day -

THERE are few plea­sures — maybe only one— greater than read­ing about the pri­va­tions of trav­ellers from the com­fort of an arm­chair. I de­rived just this kind of en­joy­ment from TheYearWe SeizedtheDay by El­iz­a­beth Best and Colin Bowles (Allen & Un­win, $29.95), though very lit­tle else.

Two friends de­cide, with­out much en­thu­si­asm, to do the de­mand­ing walk across the top of Spain to San­ti­ago de Com­postela, Europe’s most fa­mous cen­tre of pil­grim­age. She is a one-book novice, he the 50-year-old au­thor of many. She needs to prove her­self af­ter a se­ri­ous ill­ness. He hopes to purge his guilt over his wife’s sui­cide and get over a failed love af­fair.

So in­no­cence and ex­pe­ri­ence set out on the 800km jour­ney, and keep di­aries of their days. It soon be­comes ob­vi­ous that (a) Colin is no His­panophile and (b) the pro­pri­eties are not for him. The chur­ros (a kind of dough­nut) he tries for break­fast are: ‘‘ Chewy, sweet, and sit in the stom­ach like shit on a shovel.’’

El­iz­a­beth, too, has trou­ble cop­ing, and soon col­lapses. Colin is as sen­si­tive about her con­di­tion as he is about the food: ‘‘ Eli is se­ri­ously f---ed.’’ Only in the metaphor­i­cal sense. As they toil along the pil­grim tracks bent un­der their packs, El­iz­a­beth comes to re­gard him as a fa­ther fig­ure. But the last thing Colin wants is to be looked up to. It means he has to hide his own prob­lems, which the walk only seems to ex­ac­er­bate. He can’t stop think­ing about the role his in­fi­deli­ties might have played in the sui­cide of his wife, and his love af­fair’s fail­ure tears what­ever is left of him apart.

So he gets grumpier and grumpier, while El­iz­a­beth goes into an equiv­a­lent phys­i­cal de­cline. Their feet and their egos are hurt­ing, their pa­tience is wear­ing thin, and when Colin loses it, it’s not a pretty sight: ‘‘ Across the ta­ble, his eyes grow wide, his face twists like a wrung-out rag, he arcs on his seat, his voice changes tone. Sud­denly I know longer know the man.’’

One cri­sis fol­lows an­other. Worst of all, the in­fec­tion from El­iz­a­beth’s blis­ters is spread­ing, and doc­tors give her dire warn­ings. The in­fec­tion heads for the knee, and they for San­ti­ago. The race is on.

They make it in time, and their re­ac­tions to the cathe­dral high­light their dif­fer­ences. El­iz­a­beth, though not a be­liever, can­not help but gen­u­flect and pray. Colin finds it the un­holi­est place he’s ever seen, and reaches for his trusty sledge­ham­mer: ‘‘ with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of the Pussy Ping Pong Club in Bangkok’’.

Af­ter the ten­sions of Best and Bowles, Walk­ingth­eCamino by Tony Kevin (Scribe, $32.95) is like a cold Span­ish beer. Never mind that he’s 63, over­weight and his feet give him hell; he’s on a pil­grim­age. Kevin, a re­tired diplo­mat and au­thor of TheSink­ing oftheSiev-X (an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the no­to­ri­ous asy­lum-seeker drown­ings), takes the less trav­elled trail from south to north; longer, but a lot more in­ter­est­ing.

Cities such as Cor­doba and Sala­manca fas­ci­nate him, es­pe­cially their ‘‘ gra­cious and un­stressed ur­ban­ity’’. They have peo­ple-cen­tred streetscapes that Aus­tralian cities have long lost. The vil­lages, newly pros­per­ous thanks to Spain’s mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union, are sim­i­larly hu­mane, evolv­ing over cen­turies of con­viven­cia (liv­ing to­gether).

No one knows bet­ter than Kevin, a stu­dent of His­panic his­tory, that Spain hasn’t al­ways been like that. There has been sav­agery as well as ci­vil­ity: the ex­pul­sion of the Moors, the In­qui­si­tion, the civil war, the na­tional sport of bull­fight­ing. ‘‘ What kind of men and women,’’ he won­ders, ‘‘ could en­joy watch­ing this?’’

He has an­other ad­van­tage over the feck­less trav­ellers who bat­tled and bick­ered across the penin­sula’s top. He’s a prac­tis­ing Catholic. The churches on his way are for prayer, not pho­tog­ra­phy. As he pushes his protest­ing body on­ward, his demons are driven out: ‘‘ The doors into my soul started to open.’’ And there’s a slowly spread­ing sense of peace.

So his San­ti­ago is a dif­fer­ent place from the one in the Best and Bowles book, and it brings this gen­tle and thought­ful nar­ra­tive to a pow­er­ful finale: ‘‘ Priests in red and white vest­ments be­gan to gather be­fore the al­tar, and then sud­denly the grand cathe­dral or­gan rang out, fill­ing our ears with rich, tri­umphant blocks of chords, and it was un­der way at last — our great Pil­grims’ Mass.’’ Kevin had come home.

If you’re brave or fool­ish enough to tackle the trip, Walk­ingth­eCamino , as re­plete with travel tips as it is with wis­dom, would be the per­fect part­ner. Barry Oak­ley Barry Oak­ley is a for­mer lit­er­ary ed­i­tor of TheAus­tralian.

Span­ish steps: Along the Camino trail

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