Last winter on a frosty night in London I suggested to my old university chum, Jane, that we set off like a two pronged version of Thelma and Louise and walk part of the famed Camino de Santiago in Spain, known as St James’s Way.
Over a warming bottle of rioja I waxed lyrical about the spirituality of the experience, the camaraderie en route, the opportunity to put aside the daily cares of life and to spend tranquil days absorbing the sounds of the forests and mountains and communing with nature. A date was enthusiastically set and both of us returned to our busy lives.
Fast forward to August when we revisited the idea. Was it just a dream, the wine babbling, or were we really going to do this? Both of us held firm and scored two weeks out of our diaries, investing €10 in the little pilgrim passports that would need to be stamped en route as proof of our trip. I proposed that we set off from Léon, walking between 25 and 30km each day.
They say all roads lead to Rome but when it comes to Santiago there are certainly more routes than you can shake a stick at – 12 as it happens – although 80 per cent of the 200,000 international pilgrims choose to walk the traditional Camino Francés which kicks off in the French Pyrenees at St Jean Pied de Port and ends 790km (490 miles) later in northern Spain in the blessed city that bears the saint’s name.
Carrying the bare minimum in shiny new rucksacks, we began our adventure on a rainy night in Léon but by morning the sky had brightened and with great gusto we strode off into the sunshine. To our shame it took us fifteen minutes to locate the very obvious yellow arrows and scallop shell signs leading us out of the city, not helped by mangled instructions from a waggish Spanish road sweeper.
Rain descended as we took the road for Villadangos, a mere 22km away. Nervously we looked about us and observed other bowed and lumpy turtles, bearing their load under enormous green tarpaulin covers. As we passed by them, the popular pilgrim refrain was offered of Buen Camino! (have a good walk).
Scallop shells seemed de rigueur, dangling from every walker’s rucksack, and serving as a powerful metaphor. Their grooves meet at a single point, representing the eventual convening of all pilgrims at the Tomb of St James’s in Santiago de Compostela.
Some miles later, on a lone stretch of woodland we got talking with Diane, a sprightly and graceful 78-year-old from Alaska, who having lost both her husband and 50-year-old son, decided to walk the Camino in their memory. Fearless and full of joy, she kept us entertained all the way to Villadangos, a one horse town, where even the horse had bolted.
Sitting on the edge of a motorway intersection amid warehouses and dreary pasture land, the town appeared to have been abandoned by most of its citizens. Scores of houses were boarded up, shops and restaurants gathered dust and as we fled the place at the crack of dawn, the only sound we could hear was that of our own breath. As it transpired Villadangos was just one of several small towns whose straightened times reflected Spain’s continuing economic woes.
Fortunately the scenery hotted up as we strode through lush countryside en route to beautiful Astorga, the bijoux village of Rabanal and picturesque Triacastela and Villafranca. In Molinaseca we had many a laugh with the welcoming and endearing owner of hostel, The Way and took the challenging climb to the icy hamlet of O’Cebreiro in our stride.
On the journey we became friendly with many pilgrims of all nationalities although there were surprisingly few Britons – only 4,400 last year – and yet many an American, largely due to the popularity of film, The Way. By night there was much conviviality as we shared personal anecdotes and experiences over €10 pilgrim menus and bottles of robust country wine.
After walking 311km (193 miles) we arrived in Santiago de Compostela, serenaded by a lone piper at the city’s gates. At the famed Friday pilgrim mass held in the spectacular cathedral, all of those who had shared our journey were there, tightly squeezed into the wooden pews, their faces filled with wonder as the swinging botafumeiro, an antique thurible weighing 80 kilos, filled the aisles with sweet incense.
A slight feeling of deflation followed the elation as we sat and contemplated a return to the bustle and strains of every day life. That was until we discussed a return in order to walk the 479km that would see us complete the entire St James’s Way. There were hugs, tears and laughter as, later, clutching our Compostela certificates, we uttered our fond farewells in the cool night air. Heady with goodwill and resolve we headed off across the dark square, the whisper of buen camino floating on the breeze.
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