The Way of St. James is one of the great pilgrimages of the world. The entire Route of Santiago de Compostela is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that, alone, inspires many to explore it on foot.
Beginning in PamplonaTraditionally, the pilgrimage would begin from your front stoop and it might take years before the pilgrim reached Santiago. These days, most pilgrims fly to France and begin their hike on one of the more popular routes, the Camino Francés.
The charming town of St. Jean Pied de Port, at the base of the Pyrénées, is the traditional starting point for the Camino Francés. Due to time constraints, my husband Scott and I began our pilgrimage in Pamplona, Spain, 40 miles from St. Jean.
An occasional hangout for the late Ernest Hemingway, Pamplona is dotted with signs proclaiming, “Hemingway wrote here” or “Hemingway slept here” along with random shops each simply called “The Hemingway.”
We would have loved to stay at the Gran Hotel La Perla, where Hemingway slept after he took in a bullfight at the municipal ring nearby, but rooms started at $500. However, if you travel on a budget, as we do, you won’t have to wait long before a friendly Spaniard will direct you to the nearest albergue, or refugio.
As we stood in La Perla’s lobby soaking in the ambiance, a hotel employee, noting our hiking apparel, asked, “Are you peregrinos (pilgrims)? You must stay at the refugio!” He walked us there pointing out places where Hemingway had a cigar or took a lover along the way.
Refugios, or albergues, are where most pilgrims on the Camino rest their heads each night. In Pamplona, for €6 (around $9) apiece, we were assigned a bunk in the beautifully designed 100-bed dormitory Municipal Albergue (Church of Jesus and Maria, C/ Compañía 4), located in what had previously been a 17th-century church.
At the credential office in Santiago your passport will be carefully examined before you are awarded your Compostela, a beautiful certificate that proclaims your accomplishment.
Most refugios on the Camino have between 10 and 30 beds in one room. “Sounds smelly!” you might be thinking, and in the old days you would have been right.
Hundreds of years ago, a monk or priest would walk through the refugio swinging a smoking incense ball to dull the odiferous funk of the pilgrims as they slept. Fortunately, modern-day refugios have hot showers, laundry machines, Internet access and kitchens. I had a hot shower on each of my 38 days on the Camino.
The search for simplicityIt is said that one’s pilgrimage on the Camino should be a spiritual journey, but there are as many reasons to do the Camino as there are people on it. It could be a cultural quest, a physical challenge, a meditative walk for nature lovers or a time to get to know your spouse or partner a little better.
More often than not, it is undertaken as a search for an answer to the age-old question, “Who am I?”
Whatever the reason for making the almost-500-mile trek (and they all are perfectly acceptable), it provides a rare opportunity to slow down life’s hectic pace to a rhythmic three kilometers per hour and ponder the basics of living simply.
For five weeks, the biggest decisions one has to make on the Camino each day are ‘Where will I eat,?’ ‘How far will I walk?’ and ‘Where will I sleep?’ Eat, walk, sleep. Simple. There is something revitalizing about embracing this simplicity.
Add to that what I call the blessings of the Camino — the people you meet from all walks of life and from all over the world — and you have an experience that is hard to duplicate anywhere else.
We began our trek on Easter Sunday in April of 2010 and had no difficulty obtaining a bed for all but one night out of 38. (We ended up that night up in a private room in an annex — it might have even been the albergue owner’s home — so it was fine by us that the dorm was full.)
To help keep pilgrims warm and cozy at night, there was often a stack of heavy wool blankets available. Usually, these were free of charge.
To save on carrying too much weight, some pilgrims forgo toting a sleeping bag and rely on there being blankets and pillows available at the refugios. I concluded this was too risky and was very glad I had brought my own down sleeping bag, camp pillow and earplugs. (Bring plenty of earplugs!)
Each year, more and more hotels are cropping up on the Camino, but 40 straight nights in hotels can get expensive. Besides, staying in an albergue is part of the peregrino experience — sharing the day’s events with new friends.
One rainy evening, Tia from Finland sat on a top bunk in a crowded dorm room tending to her many blisters. A Frenchman in the bunk across from her who seemed to know everything there was to know about blisters began offering advice. Then an Italian girl crossed the room, putting in her two cents while gesturing passionately toward Tia’s foot.
It was usually perfectly comfortable — and always entertaining — staying in what the Spanish call a dormitorio, but occasionally, if available, we asked for a matrimonio, the quaint term for a double room, or un cuarto con dos camas solamente, a small room with only two beds.
Is it difficult?Anyone can walk the Camino. Each pilgrim walks at his or her own pace, soon developing a unique rhythm. We discovered that our packs were too big and too heavy. (I had a 25-pound backpack and my husband carried 35 pounds.) Though we still managed to walk 12 to 15 miles each day, I would recommend much smaller packs. This can be achieved by taking efficient, lightweight clothing and a compressible sleeping bag.
It’s 778 kilometers from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago on the Camino Francés, so unless you are a speed walker it will take a month to six weeks to complete. You will never regret traveling as lightly as possible. Anything you have forgotten at home can be bought at shops along the way or done without.
One day we walked on a straight-as-an-arrow Roman road, the Vía Trajana, with not one tree in sight for 12 kilometers. Sometimes we had to walk on concrete next to a main road, and those were our least favorite days because, while it was flat, the pavement turned our feet to mush.
We moved from village to village on country roads, but more often we walked on muddy, rocky or cobbled footpaths, just the way pilgrims did 1,000 years ago — except we were powered more by café con leche and chocolate croissants than by gruel.
A typical dayWhen staying in an albergue, it is considerate to follow Camino etiquette. There is an understanding that everyone must clear out of the albergue by 8 a.m. There is also an informal “no stirring before 6 a.m.” rule, which is routinely ignored. Most of the early birds — those walking 30 kilometers or more a day — are chomping at the bit to be out the door by 5:30 each morning, so rustling usually begins well before dawn.
At 7 a.m., those still asleep (an incredible feat!) are jolted into consciousness with a recording of Gregorian chants, traditional pilgrim songs or, in one case, Bob Marley tunes. Soon the room is vibrating with steady conversation.
Occasionally, the albergue will offer a breakfast of bread, jam and coffee or orange juice, and sometimes a pilgrim meal will be provided at night. In the teeny village of San Juan de Ortega, the community served us surprisingly delicious garlic soup after evening Mass.
If the refugio hasn’t provided breakfast and you don’t have your own supply of bananas or yogurt, you’ll start the trail on an empty stomach. Cafés are few and far between and they don’t open before 9:30 a.m., so it is a good idea to have purchased something the day before for the morning.
As you walk out of the albergue, look for the yellow arrow, usually painted on the road or on a building, which indicates the way to go. Kilometer after kilometer, you follow the symbols of the Camino: scallop shells, which are imbedded in the walkways like crumbs dropped by Hansel, or yellow arrows that appear on trees, benches, stop signs, buildings, overpasses or dedicated Camino steles.
By 10 a.m. it was time for a croissant or a coffee break with new friends.
If lucky, the first town you come to might have a shop where you can buy supplies for a picnic lunch. Everything closes in the middle of the day, so you have to time this carefully or you can go the day without eating.
The daily walk was broken every three, six or 13 kilometers by another village with a church — always a church — and a bar or café. Bars serve coffee, croissants, beer and sandwiches in smoke-filled environments, but they’re the best places for a cup of coffee in the morning or a cold San Miguel for an afternoon pick-me-up.
In almost every town, an enormous stork nest or two topped the towers of tall churches. Long before we could see them, we could hear the storks clacking their beaks as they built their nests. This became our favorite symbol of the Camino.
Some days, frogs serenaded us, sounding just like the tribbles from “Star Trek,” and it seemed there was never a single moment without birdsong. We loved that part.
An advantage of a springtime trek over a summer one was that there was more color in nature. Sometimes the scenery was so vivid, it felt as if we were walking through an image that had been enhanced in Photoshop.
We drank lots of water throughout the day. Refills were available from spouts in the villages’ main plazas or we could always refill at a café. A few peregrinos experienced diarrhea from suspect water sources, but the tap water in the albergues was always reliable.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon we were ready to stop for the day — our feet were killing us and I was ready to throw my pack into a ditch — but usually there wasn’t a church steeple in sight, so we would have to keep going.
This was the time of day that I became most “spiritual.” I would pray for soft soil and no steep ascents (or any change in elevation at all) before getting to our destination for the day. It didn’t matter if we walked 13 kilometers or 22, the last four kilometers were always the hardest.
Finally, we would reach a village and follow the yellow arrows to the albergue.
Cruz de FerroAbout 200 kilometers from Santiago we climbed to the highest elevation on the route. Here, a major milestone on the Camino, La Cruz de Ferro, a small iron cross, is affixed to the top of a tall wooden pole.
It is tradition to bring a stone or pebble from home and carry it with you on your pilgrimage as a symbol of any heaviness in your heart. Into the stone you put all your sorrows, disappointments and regrets. When you get to Cruz de Ferro, you are supposed to leave the stone — and all your sorrows — behind. For some, the time there is even more meaningful than arriving at Santiago.
I didn’t know about the custom of bringing a rock from home. A German woman told me, “Just pick one up along the way!” I did but promptly lost it down a sink drain while doing laundry one night. On Cruz de Ferro day, I found a small red rock and laid it at the base of the cross as a prayer for Africa.
The journey is the goalAfter 38 days and almost 500 miles we arrived at Santiago de Compostela. My one desire was that the sun would be shining when we arrived at the cathedral. I got my wish. After a week of hiking in dreary rain, heavy fog and even snow, the sun shone brightly.
There was a conspicuous sense of urgency amongst our fellow pilgrims. Few stopped for a break on the way to the goal line that day.
When we finally arrived in the city of Santiago, the route to the cathedral was perfect, winding up and down and around, the cathedral spires hidden from view until we were practically standing beneath them.
Historically, the Botafumeiro, which hangs from ropes and an elaborate pulley system near the ceiling 150 feet above, was used to exterminate the aromas produced by all the heavily clothed pilgrims, some of whom had taken a year to reach Santiago. Seeing the incense burner in action and feeling it as it flew by moved me to tears.
At the pilgrims’ office adjoining the cathedral, one of 10 officials checked our credentials, carefully examining the many stamps we received along the way, and issued us Compostela certificates. Our certificates are different. My husband, a history buff, had decided to earn a “cultural” certificate. No indulgence for him!
“How was your journey?” asked the church official as she filled in my name in Latin. “It was wonderful,” I replied, wiping my tears, “and we arrived at the cathedral in time to see the Botafumeiro fly.
“You are very fortunate!” she said. “The Botafumeiro only makes an appearance during special Feast Days or if a group has made a large donation.”
I walked out feeling like one lucky pilgrim.
Online forum: www.caminodesantiago.me
|Animals along the way.|
|One day, we hiked in snow.|
|Blessings along the Camino.|
|Always enough to share.|