Pil­grim’s pride:

Hik­ing com­pan­ion helps walker com­plete a long jour­ney.

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - UNWIND - By Ce­cily Bai­ley

Hik­ing the Camino de San­ti­ago trail in Spain has been on my bucket list for years. The Camino, also known as the Way of Saint James, tests the phys­i­cal en­durance of more than 500,000 hik­ers each year. Some pil­grims walk more than 400 miles from France or Por­tu­gal, or the nu­mer­ous trails me­an­der­ing through­out Spain to a fi­nal des­ti­na­tion in the coun­try’s north­west au­ton­o­mous prov­ince of Gali­cia.

The tra­di­tional cul­mi­na­tion for the hik­ers, known as pil­grims, is the San­ti­ago de Com­postela Cathe­dral, a World Her­itage Site, in San­ti­ago, Spain. The 1,000-year-old cathe­dral is home to the tomb of Saint James the El­der, an apos­tle of Je­sus Christ and pa­tron Saint of Spain. It is the world’s third-most pop­u­lar Chris­tian des­ti­na­tion af­ter Jerusalem and Rome.

There is a say­ing among pil­grims that “One does not choose to walk the Camino; the Camino chooses the pil­grim.” In early 2018, I knew the Camino was call­ing.

I quickly learned that walk­ing the full 400-plus miles was not go­ing to hap­pen. I at­tempted to en­list fam­ily or friends to no avail. A com­pro­mise was in or­der, and I spent weeks study­ing Camino books and maps, con­tact­ing Face­book groups and travel or­ga­ni­za­tions, search­ing for a so­lu­tion.

I had one more hope: an ac­quain­tance, Grace, who I knew shared this quest with me. She could not hike the en­tire length, but she had heard of a lo­cal church group that planned to walk about 100 miles of the trail in Au­gust.

Grace and I de­cided to part­ner up and started train­ing for the trip this past Jan­uary. I knew that no mat­ter how much train­ing, the trail would bring phys­i­cal and men­tal dis­com­fort. But I also be­lieved it would feed my soul.

Be­sides walk­ing to in­crease our en­durance, we fo­cused on find­ing proper footwear and socks, how to pre­vent blis­ters, buy­ing day­packs with ad­e­quate wa­ter blad­ders, and de­bat­ing whether to

carry one or two hik­ing poles. The de­tails can be end­less. With lug­gage shut­tled for us each day, all we had to carry was a day pack and put one foot in front of the other, for a to­tal of about 240,000 steps ac­cord­ing to our de­tailed es­ti­mates.

In Au­gust, af­ter a flight to Madrid and then a con­nect­ing flight, we made our way to Tui, Spain, at the Por­tuguese border. Here we stayed in a lovely ho­tel where we had time to en­joy a beau­ti­ful pool and walk to Por­tu­gal over the nearby in­ter­na­tional bridge to Va­lenca do Minho.

The next day, we made our of­fi­cial start from the Plaza de Fer­nando with a spe­cial pil­grim cre­den­tial/pass­port stamped at the im­pres­sive Cathe­dral de Tui, which dates back to the year 1225. In or­der to qual­ify for our of­fi­cial Camino cer­tifi­cate, we needed to col­lect two such stamps each day of hik­ing. This was easy be­cause all cafes, stores, even small stands along the route keep a stamp and are re­quired to pro­vide it free to pil­grims.

As we trav­eled north, we stayed nights in Por­rino, Re­dondela, Pon­teve­dra, Cal­das de Reis and Padron. Most of our lodg­ing was a step above some of the more ba­sic hos­tels, or al­berques, that pro­vide dor­mi­tory-like ac­com­mo­da­tions for hik­ers.

Our self-guided trek brought us through a com­bi­na­tion of an­cient paths, pic­turesque fields, forests, his­toric ham­lets, farm­land, grape ar­bors and cities.

As across much of the globe, 2018 pro­duced an un­usu­ally hot sum­mer in Spain. Of­ten, un­der mer­ci­less, scorch­ing sun, we passed hours with­out shade on hot pave­ment that made feet swell, shoes tight and legs heavy. Through our months of train­ing, Grace and I had de­vel­oped a bond that pro­vided mu­tual sup­port and lifted our spir­its at these most dif­fi­cult times.

We sipped the warm wa­ter from our packs and looked for­ward to the end of the day when we might gain ac­cess to a cold drink. Le­mon­ade was most on our minds, and es­pe­cially with ice, which seems hard to come by in Spain.

Ar­riv­ing in San­ti­ago was a cel­e­bra­tion of ac­com­plish­ment and com­radery. Pil­grims ar­riv­ing in the fa­mous Obradoiro Square re­act with screams of ex­cite­ment, hugs, sing­ing, laugh­ing or fall­ing to the ground from re­lief and ex­haus­tion.

From this square rises the huge cathe­dral ded­i­cated to St. James, who was mar­tyred for his Chris­tian teach­ings. Like the phoenix ris­ing from ashes, the struc­ture soars above the city in a tri­umphant awe-in­spir­ing mix of spires and in­cred­i­bly de­tailed sculp­ture. Built piece­meal mostly be­tween 1075 and 1211, its beauty is a mix of the orig­i­nal Ro­manesque struc­ture and later gothic and baroque flour­ishes.

The tomb of St. James in a crypt be­neath the main al­tar is a mag­net for all who come here. This was my first ob­jec­tive and I ar­rived with a bag of hand-writ­ten in­ten­tions from many friends and ac­quain­tances that I laid at the foot of the tomb.

For most pil­grims, whether re­li­gious or not, the pin­na­cle of ar­riv­ing is the pil­grim Mass in the cathe­dral. At the be­gin­ning of the Mass, a list is read of the num­ber of pil­grims who have been re­ceived in the Pil­grims’ Of­fice in the past 24 hours, where they come from and where they started their pil­grim­age.

On cer­tain dates, an enor­mous 117-pound in­cense burner makes a dra­matic ap­pear­ance at the end of Mass. The in­cense was orig­i­nally used in the mid­dle ages to re­move the stench from the air when throngs of pil­grims crowded into the cathe­dral. It takes eight men to op­er­ate it and once set in mo­tion, it swings in a 200-foot tra­jec­tory through the arches and reaches a speed of 42 miles per hour with smoke waft­ing out over its trail. In­deed, we were for­tu­nate to see and hear this spec­ta­cle ac­com­pa­nied by dra­matic gothic mu­sic from a huge pipe or­gan.

Our ho­tel, the Parador de San­ti­ago, com­bines a blend of his­tory, art and tra­di­tion. It is lo­cated on Obradoiro Square near the cathe­dral. In­side the Parador Mu­seum there are four beau­ti­ful clois­ters, el­e­gant sit­ting rooms, din­ing rooms and cafes. To stay at such an ex­clu­sive lo­ca­tion was a real lux­ury for our fi­nal two nights. We had a full day to re­lax, shop, drink ex­cel­lent café con leche and wine while sam­pling San­ti­ago al­mond cake, pulpa a la Gal­lega (oc­to­pus), and Tor­tilla Es­pañola (potato and eggs).

As we made our re­turn trip, I was ea­ger for the com­forts of home and fam­ily. I felt ful­filled and ac­com­plished, like an ex­plorer. In­deed, my soul was fed un­til next time, when I again hear the Camino call.

▶ Ce­cily Bai­ley is a free­lance writer who oc­ca­sion­ally writes for the Times Union.

Pho­tos by Ce­cily Bai­ley

At, left, a youth group gath­ers and cel­e­brates upon ar­riv­ing at the plaza in front of the Cathe­dral of San­ti­ago de Com­postela. Be­low, a Ro­man bridge in the prov­ince of Pon­teverda. The bridge is open to both walk­ers and cars.

A stop along the Camino pro­vides signs with dis­tances to many and var­ied lo­ca­tions.

Photo by Ce­cily Bai­ley

the tomb of St. James the el­der, who was mar­tyred for his Chris­tian teach­ings, are lo­cated in a crypt be­low the high al­tar of Cathe­dral of San­ti­ago de Com­postela.

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