Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Front Page - SUZANNE K. BOYD

hat brings you joy?” asks Benny as we sat down to an­other pil­grim’s meal in the bar of a small Span­ish vil­lage. We shared red wine and fresh bread while wait­ing for a bowl of lentils and a choice of fish or meat — sim­ple but sat­is­fy­ing af­ter a long day’s walk.

We are modern-day pil­grims walk­ing the Camino de San­ti­ago (or The Way of St. James as it is called in English, the same ti­tle of the re­cent movie star­ring Martin Sheen) to the cathe­dral in San­ti­ago de Com­postela where it is be­lieved the body of the apos­tle St. James is buried — just as the first Chris­tian pil­grims had done more than 1,000 years ear­lier.

The Way is not a sin­gle trail — there is a col­lec­tion of old pil­grim­age routes cov­er­ing Europe, all hav­ing San­ti­ago de Com­postela in north­west Spain as their fi­nal desti­na­tion.

But the best known is the Camino Frances, start­ing in St Jean Pied de Port (near Biar­ritz) in France and fin­ish­ing nearly 800 kilo­me­tres later.

It was the route cho­sen by Charle­magne, El Cid, Roldan and Suero de Quinones; cross­ing the north of the Ibe­rian Penin­sula, through the rolling hills of the Basque Coun­try, the hot, flat, empty “meseta” of Navarra, La Rioja, and Castilla y Leon, and the green hills of Gali­cia.

In the Mid­dle Ages the route was highly trav­elled,

Q & A: An­other view of walk­ing The Way. but ref­or­ma­tion and un­rest in the 16th cen­tury re­sulted in a slow de­cline. The late 1980s, how­ever, saw a sud­den rise in in­ter­est in the Camino and since then a grow­ing num­ber of modern-day pil­grims from around the globe walk the route; look­ing per­haps for a road to a new type of spir­i­tu­al­ism or a path to per­sonal aware­ness and growth.

It takes roughly 30 days to walk the Camino Frances, at an av­er­age of 28 km a day with no de­tours or rest days and no mar­gin of er­ror for in­jury. Five weeks is a more grace­ful time al­lowance, but still leaves lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for ex­plo­ration.

Benny is pur­pose­ful in his pil­grim­age. He stud­ies and writes ev­ery day, shar­ing his thoughts and ask­ing oth­ers to share theirs. I, on the other hand, was walk­ing the Camino with no par­tic­u­lar agenda, but was open to what­ever may come along.

In fact, the idea to “do” the Camino was not mine at all, but that of my 26 year old daugh­ter, who like many young peo­ple we en­coun­tered along the way, was look­ing for a “jump start” in life.

We be­came known as the “Cana­dian mother and daugh­ter,” but there were other moth­ers and daugh­ters, fathers and sons, fathers and daugh­ters, and moth­ers and sons. There were friends, hus­bands and wives, and many walk­ing on there own.

But whether walk­ing solo or with some­one else, you meet your “self ” and find you are never alone — surely a pur­pose of pil­grim­age, per­haps of life it­self. Peo­ple choose to do the Camino for any num­ber of rea­sons — mid-life cri­sis, a need for a time to re­flect, to get “un­stuck,” to move for­ward af­ter a loss, or to con­tem­plate a new pur­pose. They are all ages, all re­li­gions, and all na­tion­al­i­ties.

It is hard to con­ceive a safer environmen­t within which to re­flect on life and its di­rec­tion. The peo­ple along the Camino have been wel­com­ing pil­grims for cen­turies (although one should al­ways take the usual pre­cau­tions).

We met many for whom this Camino was not their first. One South African wo­man was a self-pro­claimed “Camino junkie,” this be­ing her sev­enth jour­ney.

The French route in­cludes the ma­jor cities of Pam­plona, Bur­gos and León, the large towns of Logroño in the Rioja, As­torga, and Pon­fer­rada, and a host of small vil­lages that dot the land­scape.

The path it­self is as varied as the peo­ple who walk it. And don’t be fooled by the word “walk” — there is a lot of ver­ti­cal ter­rain.

The first day from St. Jean takes you through the Pyre­nees Moun­tains, climb­ing 1,400 me­tres over 28 kilo­me­tres.

It was the 10th day of what would be a 32-day jour­ney for me, and the rhythm and sim­plic­ity of Camino life was tak­ing hold — find a bed, have a shower, mas­sage your feet, wash your socks and en­joy a meal.

Such is the al­lure of the Camino — just you and your back­pack, cut off from the rest of life for a time, be­ing only in the mo­ment.

The weather was un­sea­son­ably warm (35C) for the sec­ond week of Septem­ber. We spent the day walk­ing through or­chards of olives, al­monds and f igs. A few days ear­lier it was f ields of grapevines and corn.

Walk­ing El Camino Frances you fol­low the sun dur­ing the day and The Milky Way at night. Of­ten we would start our day at 6 a.m., the moon still in the sky in front of us and the sun ris­ing to our back.

But I don’t want to ro­man­ti­cize it. It wasn’t easy. I re­mem­ber ev­ery mo­ment of the f irst 10 days — ev­ery hill, ev­ery bunkbed, and ev­ery in­ces­sant snorer (as you were most of­ten in large bunk rooms of 20 to 100 peo­ple). Those days of­ten ended com­mis­er­at­ing with oth­ers over a cerveza and ask­ing, “Why are we do­ing this?”

You learn pre­pared­ness, at­ten­tion to de­tail and to help your fel­low pil­grim. At f irst our packs felt heavy and cum­ber­some — as does any­thing un­fa­mil­iar. But you take time to make ad­just­ments and put one foot in front of the other, and your body ad­justs. By the time we reached Gali­cia, we were “one” with our packs and felt we could run up the hills.

The Gali­cia scal­lop shell, once proof of the an­cient pil­grim jour­ney, now iden­ti­fies the modern day trav­eller. The fa­mil­iar yel- low ar­row — painted on trees, rocks, poles and build­ings — guides pil­grims (pere­gri­nos as they are called in Span­ish) along the way.

To stay at pil­grim hos­tels (al­ber­gues) and to re­ceive a com­postela (cer­tifi­cate of com­ple­tion of pil­grim­age to San­ti­ago) you need a pil­grim pass­port cre­den­tial as proof you are a pil­grim and have walked the route. It is a cher­ished piece of pa­per, per­haps the sin­gle most im­por­tant keep­sake of the jour­ney.

“Buen Camino” is the fa­mil­iar greet­ing, from pil­grim to pil­grim or as you walk through vil­lages and farm­yards.

Some­times we walked by our­selves, other times with fel­low trav­ellers, ev­ery­one hav­ing their own pace, but of­ten ar­riv­ing at the same spot by night. We talked, laughed and some­times sang (par­tic­u­larly when the day be­came long).

Lit­tle mo­ments be­came huge mem­o­ries — the farmer toss­ing a cob of corn from the f ield, the old wo­man com­ing out of her hum­ble abode of­fer­ing fresh crepes.

That evening wait­ing for our pil­grim meal would be the last time I saw Benny, but I did con­tact him when I re­turned home with the an­swer to his ques­tion. “What brings me joy?” Well, Benny, when I walked into San­ti­ago de Com­postela with my daugh­ter on Oct. 5, 2011, her face full of pride from such an ac­com­plish­ment and a know­ing look that she was now stronger from her Camino ex­pe­ri­ence, my heart was truly f illed with joy.

There are prob­a­bly as many rea­sons to walk the Camino de San­ti­ago trail in north­ern Spain as there are peo­ple do­ing it.

Those numbers are grow­ing re­mark­ably: in 1985, 690 pil­grims ar­rived at the end-point cathe­dral in San­ti­ago; by 2010 the num­ber had grown to more than 270,000.

With the 2011 movie re­lease of The Way (cur­rently show­ing at Canyon Meadows) fo­cus­ing on the fa­mous walk, in­ter­est is sure to spike again.

For some in­sights into walk­ing the walk, we caught up with Ann Kirk­land, the owner of the learn­ing va­ca­tions com­pany Classical Pur­suits in Toronto.

For more, you can read her blog posts at clas­si­calpur­suits. com/ blog /2011 /01/11 / tak­ingmy-soul-for-a-strollmy-caminochro­n­i­cle.

Q: I un­der­stand you walked the Camino de San­ti­ago re­cently. When did you do it and why?

A: I went in the fall of 2010 as a 65th birth­day present to my­self. I had f irst learned about the Camino in 2007 when I took a Classical Pur­suits group to Gali­cia, the part of Spain where the Camino con­cludes. One of the books we read was Off the Road by Jack Hitt. It was an ir­rev­er­ent ac­count of the Camino by a cyn­i­cal jour­nal­ist who was paid by Harpers to walk and write about his ex­pe­ri­ence. The book cer­tainly did not in­spire me to try it my­self, but see­ing the many pil­grims ar­rive on foot in San­ti­ago de Com­postela, dirty, tanned and glow­ing, did.

Q: What route did you fol­low and how long did it take?

A: I walked the most com­mon route, the Camino Frances, start­ing in Saint-jean-pieddu-port in the Basque part of south­west France. I was gone a to­tal of six weeks and walked for f ive, tak­ing two pre-planned rest days along the way. Q: What sur­prised you? A: What sur­prised me was how easy it was. I was anx­ious that I would f ind it too ar­du­ous, that I would get in­jured, that the gain would be in the pain. In fact, com­pared with my life at home, walk­ing the Camino was about the most men­tally re­laxed time I can re­mem­ber since child­hood. I had no idea how much en­ergy I ex­pend try­ing to jug­gle the many strands of daily life, the end­less big and lit­tle de­ci­sions, to-do lists, lurch­ing from one task to an­other, and how lib­er­at­ing it was to be freed from all that. Com­pared with what I left be­hind, the phys­i­cal de­mands of the Camino were not hard. Q: What was the hard­est part? A: The hard­est part in the be­gin­ning was gain­ing con­fi­dence. The day be­fore I started walk­ing, I looked up at the Pyre­nees, doubt­ing my abil­ity to get up and over them on my own steam. Af­ter I did that, I thought of some­thing the next day that ap­peared to be an even big­ger chal­lenge. It took me a lit­tle time to gain conf idence that I would be f ine and just re­lax and en­joy the va­ri­ety each day brought. Q: Where did you sleep? A: Un­like most who walk the Camino, I chose to stay in pri­vate rooms with my own bath. There is a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of dirt-cheap al­ber­gues (hos­tels) that of­fer ba­sic shared ac­com­mo­da­tion and, of­ten, com­mu­nal meals and great con­vivi­al­ity.

Q: Why didn’t you stay at these hos­tels?

A: Alas, I am a bet­ter walker than I am a sleeper. If earplugs were suf­fi­cient to al­low me to sleep among snor­ers, I would have made that choice. I was eas­ily able, through an out­fit­ter in Glas­gow, to book pri­vate rooms in ad­vance. Lots of oth­ers did the same thing. I think the best op­tion, if money and sleep­ing were not de­ter­mi­na­tive, would be to gen­er­ally use al­ber­gues and opt for a ho­tel or pri­vate room when-

Cever one felt so in­clined.

Q: Would you rec­om­mend the jour­ney?

A: For many, yes. The Camino is apt to be most re­ward­ing to those who do like to walk, are rea­son­ably f it, en­joy the coun­try­side and are pretty non-judg­men­tal. The more open you are to the dif­fer­ent peo­ple and ideas you en­counter, es­pe­cially your­self, the richer the ex­pe­ri­ence.

While be­ing a con­ven­tional Catholic is by no means a pre­req­ui­site, an open­ness to a non­ma­te­rial di­men­sion of life is a def­i­nite bonus.

Q: What are some top tips for peo­ple con­sid­er­ing do­ing the Camino on their own.

A: Read a few rec­om­mended ac­counts of those who have walked the Camino, but only a few. Way too many pil­grims have writ­ten not very good books. And your ex­pe­ri­ence will be dif­fer­ent from all of them.

Do train and pack light. There is tons of in­for­ma­tion on the In­ter­net and online dis­cus­sion groups. It is also very help­ful to gather up all your ques­tions and pose them to sev­eral peo­ple who have walked.

There will be mixed and some­times con­flict­ing ad­vice (water bot­tle ver­sus camel­back or var­i­ous tips about foot care). Take in a rea­son­able amount of in­for­ma­tion, then de­cide for your­self. Good gear mat­ters.

Don’t worry. Go with an open mind and an open heart.

Miguel Riopa, Afp-getty Im­ages

Two pil­grims rest on the stairs of the San­ti­ago de Com­postela Cathe­dral at end of the Way of Saint James. The Way of St. James pil­grim­age route, which ends in the me­dieval Span­ish city of San­ti­ago de Com­postela, is at­tract­ing record numbers.

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