Ultreia et Suseia!
Onwards and upwards!
In April 2017, I achieved a lifetime’s ambition of walking the Camino Francés, the historic pilgrimage route across the north of Spain, from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in western Spain.
When we set off, I expected to walk through modest little villages and glorious countryside. What I wasn’t prepared for was the wealth of outstanding Spanish architecture in an eclectic mix of styles, as well as the variety of gorgeous boutique hotels and quality bistros providing comfort and a little luxury along the way.
I had often joked with travel writer colleagues that I would like a series of ‘Not-so-rough-guides’, I have reached the age when I appreciate a comfortable mattress and some well-prepared local dishes. I still have my adventurous, pioneering spirit, but occasionally my knees give up on me at the most inconvenient moment.
Dublin-based travel agency Follow the Camino offered me a way to discover whether this Camino was the one for me. The trip combines boutique hotels and quality restaurants with the essence of El Camino - the walking, the solitary contemplation, and the ever-changing countryside. They whisked us by minibus through the less interesting sections and - best of all - they hauled our suitcases along the way.
‘Camino’ usually translates as a ‘path’ or ‘road’, but it can also mean a journey. This path leads to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the disciple were enshrined after his martyrdom in 44 CE.
This pilgrimage way has been walked for centuries by thousands and nine main routes to Santiago have developed.
We walked and drove along the entire length of the most popular route; the Camino Francés, which starts in France at St. Jean Pied de Port, crosses the Pyrenees, passes along the north of Spain, through the Basque country, Navarre, Rioja, Castilla y León and Galicia before reaching Santiago de Compostela.
Normally, this route of 790 km (490 miles) would take around 32 days to walk, averaging 25 km (15.5 miles) a day. We did it all in one week.
The good thing about walking in a group is that you don’t have to talk if you don’t feel in a chatty mood. I lead walks in Sussex, on the South Downs, and I agree with Clare Balding, who says of her BBC Radio4 walking and interviewing Ramblings programme; “You get the best out of people, when you’re not sitting face to face, grilling somebody, and they often reveal more about themselves when walking and admiring the natural beauty all around.”
However, the Camino is no longer a solitary, deserted path to Santiago and enlightenment. It depends what time of year you walk, but I worried that it would be like London’s Oxford Street in December. As the Camino is about finding oneself and enjoying the silence and solitude, how would it be on a group trip?
As our guide, Caroline Aphessetche, said “the best way to do the Camino is alone”.
I had other concerns about the basic hostel accommodation, the pilgrims’ alburgues along the way. I could cope with ‘basic’, but I fretted about disturbed nights from (other walkers’!) snoring, the mixed dorms and the stories of furious rows over opening windows at night.
These fears were compounded by a documentary, Six ways to Santiago, that I watched as part of my research, when a slightly neurotic woman set off on her solo journey of self-discovery, but woke one morning to find an elderly bearded man sharing her pillow, snoring gently.
However, I had to find out for myself, and one sunny April morning, I set off on my slightly less rough Camino pilgrimage.
“Many people ask why the Camino goes the way it does,” said Alberto Bosque, from the Junta de Castilla y León, “and the answer is that the route was decided in medieval times by those that walked it.”
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a charming French commune in the Pyrenean foothills. The town is also the old capital of the traditional Basque province of Lower Navarre and the traditional starting point for the Camino Francés, the most popular route for modern-day pilgrims.
Above the town at the top of the hill is the Mendiguren Citadel, built in 1628 by Antoine de Ville, remodelled in the 17th century by the Marquis de Vauban, a great military engineer, and now housing a school and sadly closed to the public. The grounds are open, though, and the view of the surrounding countryside is spectacular.
The cobbled Rue de la Citadelle runs down hill and over the River Nive from the 15th century Porte St-Jacques to the Porte d’Espagne by the bridge.
The Porte St-Jacques was, along with the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France, made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1998.
The 14th century red schist Gothic church, Notre-Dame-du-Bout-du-Pont, stands by the Porte d’Espagne. The original was built by Sancho VII ‘El Fuerte’ of Navarre to commemorate the 1212 Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, an important turning point in the Reconquista of Spain, taking back control from the Moorish occupation.
Sancho VII was King of Navarre from 1194 to his death in 1234. He was extremely tall; over seven foot (2.23m) in height and, judging from his nickname, extremely strong.
Sancho continued the construction of a new cathedral in Pamplona, began by his father and completed by his successor.
When Sancho VII died in 1234, he bequeathed his kingdom a wealthy treasury and a library of 1.7 million books. He was originally interred in the church of San Nicolás, but was later moved to Roncesvalles, where we viewed his sarcophagus on the next stage of our walk.
We set off in a group of seven, led by the immensely capable and kind guide, Caroline, and first called in at the Camino office at 32, Rue de la Citadelle to collect our Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrim’s Passport). These were to be filled with stamps from hostels, cafes and monasteries along the way, then presented at the Official Pilgrims Office in Santiago to receive the Compostela, the Certificate of Completion.
We also purchased scallop shells to attach to the back of our rucksacks. The shell is a symbol of the Camino and acts as a way marker along the Way, found on road signs, hostel and cafe walls, and signposts in the middle of nowhere. Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meanings.
There are several versions of the myth concerning
the scallop and they are linked to Saint James, who was martyred by beheading in Jerusalem in 44 CE. One tells how, after James’s death, his disciples took his body by boat to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain, a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, his body washed ashore undamaged, but covered in scallops.
The scallop shell also acts as a metaphor. The grooves in the shell meet at a single point, representing the various routes pilgrims travelled, eventually arriving at a single destination. For practical purposes, the shell was the right size for gathering water to drink or for use as a food bowl.
On the second day, we set off from Ibañeta, a high mountain pass in the Pyrenees on the FranceSpain border and walked down through beautiful birch and oak forests to the historic monastery at Roncesvalles.
Roncesvalles is famous for the defeat of Charlemagne and the death of his nephew Roland in 778, during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, when Basque tribes attacked the rear guard. Roland was an iconic figure in medieval Europe and his life was immortalised in many minstrel songs, poems and epic tales of the noble Christian killed by Islamic forces. “Many people ask why the Camino goes the way it does,” said Alberto Bosque, from the Junta de Castilla y León, “and the answer is that the route was decided in medieval times by those that walked it.”
The Camino always passes by the cathedral of a city, or the main church or monastery in a smaller settlement, so even when it passes through modern, built-up suburbs such as Pamplona, our next stop, the route can still be located.
The historical capital city of Navarre, Pamplona is famous for its San Fermín Festival - the Running of the Bulls - which takes place in July. Ernest Hemingway described the event in his 1926 novel
The Sun Also Rises. Founded as Pompaelo by Roman general Pompey in 75–74 BCE, the area served as a camp in the war against Sertorius.
From here, we drove along a stretch where the Camino trail follows main roads and flat, uninspiring terrain. However, there was one highlight. Located 770 m above sea level, the Mirador Sierra del Perdón is a natural viewpoint with excellent views northwards to the Pyrenees, and to the south, the cereal fields and medieval villages. The regular high winds here meant that the El Perdón mountain range was chosen as the site of the first wind farm in Navarre.
This location is seen by believers as a symbolic summit where all sins will be pardoned. The summit featured in the 2010 film, The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, as a doctor who carries the ashes of his recently-deceased son to Santiago. The film is credited with introducing thousands of new walkers to this pilgrimage route.
Vincent Galbete created the life-size, sheet metal sculpture Monument to the Pilgrim which represents a group of pilgrims, children and donkeys from different eras crossing the line of
wind turbines. The inscription reads; 'Where the route of the wind crosses that of the stars'.
The Way then passes right through the photogenic little town of Puente la Reina, where Queen Muniadona of Castile (995-1066), wife of King Sancho III gave her name to the town and built the six-arched bridge over the Río Arga for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
We spent the night in the bustling city of Logroño, capital of La Rioja wine region, so, of course, we couldn’t miss a tour of the 50 bodegas and pintxos (the name for tapas in this region) bars in the labyrinth of tiny streets. I particularly enjoyed the little green Padrón peppers sautéed in rock salt, and giant mushrooms dripping in garlic butter.
In 1984, the Catedral de Santa María de Burgos was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site and the spectacular Gothic structure was one of the high points in my journey. Construction began in 1221, and while the facade is quite overwhelming in its immense detail and engineering, the interior is crammed with architectural, sculptural and pictorial treasures, from the tomb of Castilian nobleman and military leader El Cid (1040-1099) and his wife Jimena Díaz, to the articulated ‘Papamoscas’ statue that opens his mouth to chime on the hour. Entrance costs €7, which includes a recorded guide. I could happily have stayed there all day as I was totally blown away by the stained glass windows, the powerful arches and delicate masonry filigrees.
We drove across the stark, arid Meseta Central, literally ‘table mountain’, a sun-drenched plateau between Burgos and Astorga, where there are few trees and little shade.
The ruins of the monastery at San Antón, founded by Alonso VII in 1146, recall the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony who dedicated their lives to caring for those suffering from the convulsive and gangrenous medieval disease, St. Anthony’s Fire. Members of the order, the Antoines, wore a black habit with the Greek letter Tau in blue. The symbol of a large 'T' can be seen around the ruins, protecting against evil.
The beautiful, uniform yellow sandstone village of Castrojeriz rises up on a hill above the scorched flat earth all around. For tired and thirsty pilgrims,
there is a superb restaurant, El Mesón, frequented by crowds of locals enjoying hearty peasant dishes of cabbage, chick peas and every part of the pig.
I sat outside a cafe, drank a juice and admired the landscape stretching out in front. A Dutch lady Elsa Veringa sat down beside me and immediately took off her trainers and socks. This is acceptable social etiquette on the Camino. Elsa was walking for spiritual rather than religious reasons and explained; “Sometimes you don’t find out the reason for walking the Camino until you are well on your way.”
Having taken the wrong footwear entirely, I became obsessed with studying the shoes of the pilgrims who passed me along the way. For future reference, as long as it’s not mid-winter, then a good quality pair of comfortable, worn-in trainers is perfectly fine, and take flipflops or something light and cool for the evenings.
Along the Way, we saw many pilgrims hobbling along, many sitting by the side of the road, shoes and socks off, airing their poor gnarled trotters. There are very few actual benches to sit down on along the way - if you stop, you drop. “The first three days are the hardest,” said our guide. After three days of hell, I decided that pain was an important part of my journey to enlightenment. I really had no choice! It’s very important to pace yourself and not do too much, otherwise you end up with tendonitis. A distance of 15 miles a day is the recommended amount.
I saw many women of all ages, walking the Camino alone, and Caroline told me it was pretty safe. However, in 2015, an American woman, Denise Thiem, was lured away from the main trail near Astorga and murdered. Because almost 300,000 pilgrims walk the Camino every year, the percentage of attacks is very low and Spanish authorities are keen to play down the levels of crime. To be safe, choose a more busy season to walk - from May to August is the most popular - and don’t walk in the early morning or late evening.
I met many middle-aged, solo-walking women, and I really admired them. I don’t think I could do the shared dormitory thing anymore; the arguments, the over-friendly middle-aged single men, the shared dorms, drunken parties, and worse still, the ones who wanted to talk to me about Jesus. On the Camino, I found my own personal moments of wonder and awe, but these usually arose from witnessing the beauty of nature and the incredible architecture.
I have to admit that I felt moved spiritually by the stunning Burgos Cathedral, until our guide informed me, rather cruelly and cynically, that the kings, architects and engineers who created these immense palaces of worship were not doing it for the glory of God or by divine inspiration, but merely to show off their wealth, outdo their neighbours and impress the peasants. Well, this peasant was very impressed!
In León, we spent the night in the Hotel Real Colegiata San Isidoro in the 11th century San Isidoro Collegiate complex, with its Basilica, cloisters and museum. The Basilica de San Isidoro holds a rare treasure, the Chalice of Doña Urraca; a jewel-encrusted onyx chalice, allegedly the Holy Grail from which Jesus drank and served Holy Communion. Since the 2014 publication of The Kings of the
Grail, claiming that the chalice is the Holy Grail, museum staff have withdrawn the chalice from display, as the crowds were overwhelming.
Santa María de León Cathedral also called Pulchra Leonina (The House of Light) was built on the site of second century Roman baths, converted into a palace 800 years later by King Ordońo II.
When legendary architect Antoni Gaudí was working on the construction of the Episcopal Palace of Astorga, his friend and patron, Eusebi
Güell recommended that he design a warehouse for a fabrics company in the centre of León. The Modernist Casa Botines was built in 1891-92 and its nickname came from the company’s former owner, Joan Homs i Botinàs.
In 1929, the savings bank of León, Caja España, bought the building, which Gaudî had designed to reflect León’s medieval heritage with many Gothic touches. To ventilate and illuminate the basement, Gaudí created a moat around two of the façades, a strategy he would repeat at the Sagrada Família in Barcelona and at our next stop, Astorga.
Bishop Joan Baptista Grua proposed that Antoni Gaudi build the new Episcopal Palace in Astorga after the original one burnt down in 1886. Gaudi put forward his plans, but dropped the project in 1893 due to the constant bureaucratic struggles with local authorities. Another architect, Ricardo García Guereta, completed Gaudí’s masterpiece in 1915.
The Palace is constructed in a neo-Gothic modernist style, and Gaudí took El Bierzo granite to make the building stand out against the red sandstone cathedral across the square. The four pointed towers and moat give the building a fairytale appearance.
From Astorga, we walked through the hippy village of Foncebadón, and came across a Scottish Highland landscape of rolling hills covered in purple heather and bright yellow gorse. In the distance the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra de los Ancares, a mountain range of the Galician Massif rose up in north-west Spain.
Leaving the village, I passed what remains of the church and hospital built in the 12th century by the hermit Gaucelmo. At the top of Monte Irago is the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross).
The Cruz de Ferro is a five-foot-high wooden pole, mounted with an iron cross, and surrounded by a mound of pebbles. Legend says that when the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was being built, pilgrims were asked to contribute by bringing a stone. The tradition is to throw a stone, brought from the pilgrim’s place of origin, with one’s back to the cross, to symbolise the journey.
At Manjarín, pilgrims have left signposts stating how far it is to their homes. I noted that it was 2,615 km to Budapest, my old home.
At Manjarín, a man offers free coffee to pilgrims from his rudimentary shack. There is also a very basic outhouse toilet over a hole and open to the
Above, left: Sign along El Camino
Above, right: Pilgrim statue near O Cebreiro
Above: The ruins of the monastery of San Anton
Left: Colourful pots at a house in Puente de la Reina
Above: Door of the Coronería (13th century) at the Catedral de Santa María de Burgos
Right: Statue of El Cid included in the 14th-15th century Santa María gateway, at Burgos
Above: Walking through the countryside near Castrojeriz
Above, inset: The signposts at Manjarin