Pil­grims join forces to hike Spain’s Camino de San­ti­ago.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - Travel@wash­post.com

Our read­ers share tales of their ram­blings around the world. Who: Shankar Chaud­huri (au­thor) of Glen Ridge, N.J., with friends Shailen­dra Ghor­pade of Mont­clair, N.J., and Pradeep Sax­ena of Moun­tain View, Calif. Where, when, why: The Camino de San­ti­ago is a net­work of walk­ing paths lead­ing to San­ti­ago de Com­postela, the burial city of Saint James, in Gali­cia, Spain. About 225,000 peo­ple make a pil­grim­age there ev­ery year on foot, horse­back or bi­cy­cle, cover­ing vary­ing dis­tances. Last year, I made a long trek to San­ti­ago on Camino Frances (the French Way) be­gin­ning in the Pyre­nees. I com­pleted my walk in two phases. For the first phase, I be­gan my trip in Ron­ces­valles, a Span­ish town in the Pyre­nees, and ended it in Logrono. It lasted about a week and a half. Dur­ing the sec­ond phase, I walked from Leon to San­ti­ago in 15 days. On av­er­age, I walked 14 to 16 miles a day. High­lights and high points: In Spain, the French Way is a 500mile route to San­ti­ago that most pil­grims em­bark on in Ron­ces­valles. The jour­ney be­gin­ning in the Basque­dom­i­nated area in the north, fol­lowed by flat­lands in the cen­tral re­gions and then through the high moun­tain ranges in Gali­cia, ex­poses one to the im­mense di­ver­sity of flora, fauna, scenery, ter­rain, cul­ture and cui­sine of North­ern Spain. An early high point of the jour­ney was the as­cent to Alto del Per­don, at an al­ti­tude of about 2,400 feet, in Navarre. A sculp­ture ded­i­cated to the pil­grims at the peak reads, “where the path of the wind crosses that of the stars.” The panoramic view from this van­tage point was stun­ning and on a clear day it could ex­tend all the way to the Pyre­nees. No less stun­ning was the de­scent. The en­tire down­hill walk un­til we reached the ground was laden with val­leys of pop­pies, rape­seed flow­ers and wheat plants. In one par­tic­u­lar spot, the clouds, the un­du­lat­ing rape­seed fields and the green wheat plants seemed to be in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with each other, as if in a joy­ous cel­e­bra­tion. This pic­ture stayed with me dur­ing the rest of my walk and gave me much in­spi­ra­tion to fin­ish my jour­ney to San­ti­ago, es­pe­cially dur­ing the pe­ri­ods of self-doubt that many pil­grims go through. Cul­tural con­nec­tion or dis­con­nect: The Camino was a melt­ing pot of pil­grims of di­verse na­tion­al­i­ties and back­grounds hail­ing from all cor­ners of the world. Along the jour­ney, ev­ery­one greeted each other with the phrase “buen camino,” which lit­er­ally means “good way” but is used to wish a happy and ful­fill­ing jour­ney. The ca­ma­raderie among the pil­grims was very strong. When­ever any­one needed any­thing, there were about five peo­ple ex­tend­ing their hands. Among the peo­ple we be­friended were two Korean house­wives from Seoul, an Ital­ian doc­tor from Verona, an IT pro­fes­sional from Poland, a writer from D.C., a New Age guru from North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and a young Nor­we­gian lady who had come on the jour­ney in mem­ory of her hus­band, who had died four years ago. Big­gest laugh or cry: I’m nei­ther a Catholic nor a very re­li­gious per­son. Yet, watch­ing the swing­ing Bota­fumeiro dis­pens­ing clouds of in­cense against beau­ti­ful mu­sic at the Pil­grims’ Mass at the cathe­dral in San­ti­ago was a par­tic­u­larly mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for me. There were few pil­grims who were not teary-eyed at this event. Per­haps the emo­tion of hav­ing com­pleted the jour­ney was as over­pow­er­ing, as was the re­al­iza­tion that it was about time to say good­bye to new­found friends. At the be­gin­ning of the Mass, a list of names of the pil­grims who have qual­i­fied for the Com­postela — or cer­tifi­cate of com­ple­tion of the jour­ney (a min­i­mum of the last 63 miles on foot) — in the last 24 hours was read out along with the names of places where they came from and where they started their pil­grim­age. How un­ex­pected: See­ing peo­ple of all ages and phys­i­cal con­di­tions mak­ing the trip took me by sur­prise. It gave me a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for hu­man en­durance and re­siliency. We saw chil­dren ac­com­pa­ny­ing par­ents on this long trip. We also saw one pil­grim mak­ing the trip with his golden re­triever. We saw a Bel­gian man in­tent on mak­ing the en­tire walk bare­foot. We also saw a cou­ple from Aus­tralia do­ing the trek to cel­e­brate the hus­band’s 80th birth­day. We saw how peo­ple sim­ply car­ried on to reach their next des­ti­na­tion de­spite bleed­ing knees, blis­tered feet or var­i­ous other phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions. Fa­vorite me­mento or mem­ory: My great­est gift from the walk was the re­al­iza­tion that de­spite our out­ward dif­fer­ences, we are so much alike. We walked, con­versed, con­fided, wined and dined daily with peo­ple of ev­ery con­ceiv­able ori­gin and back­ground, al­ways feel­ing like we had known each other for a long time. This spirit of in­ti­macy and con­vivi­al­ity per­me­ated our en­tire trip. We felt at home ev­ery­where. To tell us about your own trip, go to wash­ing­ton­post.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your fond­est mem­o­ries, finest mo­ments and fa­vorite pho­tos.



TOP: The view from Fin­is­terre, Spain. ABOVE: The au­thor pauses near sil­hou­ette sculp­tures of pil­grims on Alto del Per­don.

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