It’s known as the Camino de Santiago. Or sometimes as the Compostela de Santiago. Good on you if you’ve heard of it.
“What the hell is a Camino,” was the reaction of most of my friend when the subject came up.
It’s been around for more than a thousand years. Shortly into our trek my feet were so blistered I feared it would take me at least that long to finish it. But a new pair of sandals, Neutrogena foot cream and my daughter’s e-mails pulled me through. That, and the fear of being called a wussy by my friends. And of course there was an abundant flow of Riojan red wine.
Tens of thousands now walk the Way every year. It sees all types. Bryan was a portly priest from England who dropped an astounding twenty five pounds in his first three weeks of walking. “It’s a Catholic fat farm,” he told me. And he was only one in a cast of, well, not thousands, but dozens, who kept my wife Brenda and me company, encouraged and entertained us as we trekked the 800 kilometres in 37 days. Chaucer himself could not have invented a more delightful snatch of characters than those with whom we walked, broke bread, drank wine and ministered to not so much our souls, but at least to our feet. From France to the endpoint in Santiago in northwestern Spain. Brenda and I will always remember Sarah and Sofia, two twenty-somethings from Copenhagen, Peter the English professor teaching at a university in Qatar and Sven the German who I always called Fritz. I told him that Sven was a Swedish name and that his parents must have been confused. Then there was the real Swede named Anders who was a military- reservist and a cousin to Johan Frantzen of the Detroit Red Wings, Helene the French nurse, Martin the Estonian Interpol agent, Jorge the Spaniard and Linda the Quebecoise nurse. All with their own reasons for walking, and everyone of them there when we needed them the most: angels on our shoulders.
It would be impossible in a short article to trace the trek. What follows can only be a few telling vignettes.
The starting point for the original and most-used route is the French Basque town of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, nestled in the French Pyrennees within a good day’s walking of Spain. It is here that one can pick up the ‘Credential del Peregrino’, the Camino passport that should be stamped at the end of every day’s walking at your albergue (hostel) or hotel of choice. Miss a day or two and all is forgiven; miss a week and the official Camino-granting bureaucrats in Santiago will accuse you of being a bus-riding poseur. A map is handed out in Santiago, which for the most part is unnecessary. If all Dorothy had to do to find the Wizard in Emerald City was to follow the Yellow Brick Road, then our route was not much more difficult; just follow the yellow arrow. Of course even this well-marked route was sometimes too much for your hero, who can occasionally get lost on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Several times I lost sight of my guide and leader (my wife) through tarrying too long at a bar or café, and then promptly took a wrong turn. Several extra kilometres were added before my pidgin Spanish and the kindly locals set me again on the straight-and-narrow. Speaking of Spanish, it is recommended to arrive with at least a smattering of El-Cid’s mother tongue when walking across the Iberian Peninsula. Brenda arranged for us to complete both Spanish I and II, from January through to June, sessions given through the Ottawa-Carleton Board at night and taken at Glebe Collegiate. Course content and instructors were both of a high calibre; it’s just too bad that yours’ truly was not. I often fell asleep in class, much to Brenda’s embarrassment, and only awoke when called upon to read out loud, which I imagined myself to do with suave aplomb. And of course these days failure is not an option in Ontario education, so I was handed a certificate at the end, probably for attendance. It was only after at least a couple of weeks on the road that I felt comfortable with asking for directions and ordering in restaurants. Thank goodness that most Europeans are better able than I to stay awake during foreign language instruction.
The first day is arguably the most difficult, a 25 kilometre (32 kms when adjusted for climb) mostly-uphill trek through the Pyrenees to the Spanish town of Roncesvalles, ending with a steep 4 km. descent. The alpine vistas and architecture are both wonderful and you will probably be held up at least once while farmers guide their sheep across the road. A little taste of home is provided after 10 kms. of the uphill climb when we encountered a fleur-de-lis flag waving in the wind at the first albergue one encounters en route. (The albergues are the hostels of the Camino, usually-municipally-owned and often costing only 5 Euros a night. A three-course meal including a bottle of wine is provided on premises for usually 9 Euros, or a restaurant with the same prices is always nearby. On the Camino the hiking can be hard, but the eating and drinking are always easy.)
I wondered what Quebec separatists were doing in Spain and besides, I needed a break.
“What’s up with that flag,” I inquired of the waitress as she served up my café-con-leche.
“The owner of this place always takes off the month of March and goes skiing in Quebec,” she explained. “And so he became a lover of all things Quebecois.” She wasn’t that busy and so had some time to chat. “And did you know that Martin Sheen stayed here a couple of nights while he was filming ‘The Way?
I had never heard of The Way, but noted that Martin’s son Charlie had had rather a rough time of it lately and could probably use a spirit-cleansing pilgrimage himself. I picked up my sandwich and made my way to the sunny balcony, where Brenda was in conversation with an Irish lass named Fiona. She was the first of many Irish we would meet in the next five weeks. It was later explained to us by another Irishman named Paddy (I’m not making this up !) that hardly anyone in Ireland had a job right now, and that hiking the Camino was as worthwhile and as cheap a holiday as any good Catholic could dream of.
The first day we opted for the the arduous ‘Route de Napoleon’ which travels up and over the Pyrenees. I thought that it might be so-named because Bonaparte had done a spiritual pilgrimage during which he concluded that God wanted him to conquer all of Europe, but Bryan the priest and Ph.D historian from Oxford informed me that Napoleon had used the exact same route on his way to conquering Spain.
Napoleon’s name is not the only celebrity moniker that one encounters. Ernest Hemingway’s favourite haunt was waiting for us in Burguete, a traditional Navarese village that he favoured for the beautiful countryside and the trout-fishing. And just a few days hence would be Pamplona, renowned of course for the Running of the Bulls. Highlights of the Pamplona event would be served up every morning on t.v., in cafes where we would take a break every morning accompanied with croissants and café-con-leche. Casualties one particular morning had been particularly numerous, with more than a few of the unfortunates trampled and a good half-dozen more gored by horns as the frightened bulls charged by. I had just finished remarking to my Irish table-mate that there had been a lot of Spanish peregrinos (pilgrims) that we had encountered earlier on, but for the past couple of days their ranks had seemed to be depleted. “Where have all the Spanish Camino walkers gone,” I wondered aloud. Rory the Irishman had the answer. “They’re all in the hospital,” he concluded.
Our mates came and went throughout, some tarrying more than one night in a particularly interesting town, or else tending to strains and blisters. Most of us met for a final time in Santiago, where we made our way to the famous cathedral and lined up to receive our certificate. Brenda and I decided to rent a car for four days and make our way out to the coastal towns of Muxia and Finisterre, so-named because it was once thought to be the end of the world. Bryan the now-svelte priest had had the same idea, but after almost six weeks of the medieval method of self-locomotion, driving a car seemed almost too-daunting a task. As he backed up the rented vehicle he was nearly obliterated by a tour bus. “How will I ever get used to these damn horseless carriages ?,” he shouted as he waved goodbye.
I had to wonder as well. Life is satisfying when the goals are simple. One step-at-a-time. Eat. Drink. Sleep well. (I sound like Hemingway here !) The best trips are always the simplest ones. Man (or Woman) vs. The Way. Adventures guaranteed.