If you love hiking, the ultimate trek is along the Road to Santiago or el Camino in northern Spain. The pilgrimage trail stretches along approximately 800 kilometres from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in Southern France to the beautiful city of Santiago, northern Spain. You can hike alone, with a friend or in a group, which is what my wife Lyla and I did. It’s perfectly safe whichever way you choose.
This present day World Heritage Site has been in existence for well over a millennium. Santiago (St. James) was one of Jesus’ apostles. After he died some of his disciples took his bones and buried them in Spain. In the 8th century a Christian hermit was supposedly led by a vision to St. James’ bones, at a place called Compostela. The bishop of the area quickly identified them as Santiago’s bones. Within a few years, Alfonso II, King of Asturias, built a chapel to house the bones and declared Santiago to be the patron saint of Spain. By the 9th century pilgrims were coming to Santiago to pay homage to the apostle, and in 1189, Pope Alexander III declared Santiago a Holy City like Rome or Jerusalem. Hundreds and even thousands have been making a pilgrimage to the Holy City ever since.
We left St. John’s, Newfoundland, for France, on May 4, 2010, to begin our hike with 10 other pilgrims, or peregrinos in Spanish. Our first night was spent in the French town of Bayonne, where we enjoyed a three-course meal. When we had done eating, we were told the sweetbread, our tasty appetizer, was sheep testicles!
Next day, a train took us to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, where our adventure truly began. The first leg of our hike was a 26-km trek straight up into the Pyrenees Mountains – through rain, hail and snow – then down into the village of Roncavalles. From the 1,800 km summit that divides France and Spain, the scenery was spectacular. Far below, there were fields of heather blanketing farmland where sheep, cattle and horses lazily grazed, while from above, falcons of various colours constantly swooped down to check us out.
At Roncavalles we checked in to the only albergue in town. An albergue is an inexpensive hostel for pilgrims. Fees range from free to 8 euros (about $12 Cdn) for the use of a bed, showers and washrooms (sometime communal). Albergues may provide private rooms with one or two beds each, or as many as 190 beds in one huge room, as it was for us our first night. Before retiring that evening, we attended a Spanish mass where the priest gave us a blessing for a safe and enjoyable journey.
Morning comes too quickly when you are woken at 6 a.m. with the turning on of bright lights accompanied by a rousing, off key rendition of “Morning Has Broken.” I looked over at a young lady in the bed next to me and commented that this certainly isn’t a place for modesty. In her best English accent she said, “Certainly not, since I’m trying to get my bra and knickers on!”
Every day began with lubricating our feet before putting on our boots, to prevent blisters easily suffered by 20-km a day hikes while carrying a 20-lb packsack. During the hikes, everyone set the own pace and planned to meet up every couple of hours in a village bar for a coffee con leche. (There’s nowhere else in the world where coffee with steamed milk tastes so scrumptious as on the Camino when you’ve laid down your packsack and are ready to rest your feet.) We usually ordered toast, a croissant or the ever popular frittatas (a sort of potato and egg pie). At the next town, a lemonade or beer may be in order.
Each day ended by checking into an albergue for the night. Credentials or Camino passports, purchased in our home country, had to be presented and stamped before we could be assigned a bed. Hiking boots were left in the porch. Once we showered and changed into fresher clothes, we headed to the outdoor sinks to wash our dirty clothes by hand and hang them on clotheslines to dry. Clean, dry socks were essential for the next day’s hike. It was common to see hikers on the trail with damp socks, underwear and T-shirts pinned to their packsacks because they didn’t fully dry the night before.
After laundry, we’d head to the local restaurant for the menu del dia (of the day), followed by a tour of the town. Other pilgrims chose to cook their own suppers in the communal kitchen of the albergue. With people of varied nationalities hiking the trail, supper hour meant our senses were assailed by many delectable and often unfamiliar aromas. Evenings would wind down with casual chatting, sending emails to home, or recording the day in journals. One final thing often was plotting out the next day’s course by referring to the hiker’s bible, Walking the Camino, which mapped the distance between each town, the terrain of the hike and what facilities were there.
Each day was a new adventure. The flat terrain passed by quickly – but oh, the high hills! When the going got tough, I got singing. Specifically a line from a Bobby Evans Song, “Lord give me no more mountains to climb.” My wife Lyla would break into a religious rant, and just when her meditations reached a feverous pitch, I would take her packsack while she trudged up the steep incline to the next watering hole.
One day we found ourselves in a little bar in a tiny village, ravenous for the midday menu del dia. There was a lovely Spanish gal standing off to one side, and I said to the group, “Boys, I’ll try my fine-tuned Spanish on this waiter.”
I strolled over and tried to order my meal in the worse Spanish that possibly had ever been uttered on the Camino. She looked at me, with a smirk on her face and a twinkle in her eye, and said, “My son, I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about. Sure I’m from Petty Harbour, Newfoundland.”
Memorable encounters seemed to abound on the trail. One day a man approached us and offered us plums just picked in his orchard. In another town, a local man beckoned us into his place and fed us coffee, juice and the most delicious dates. The best ever, though, was when we walked in on a monk frantically waving his arms at fellow hiker Suzanne. Rather than using the outdoor sinks at the albergue, she was washing her underwear in the kitchen sink!
For Lyla and me, one of the highlights of the whole hike took place in a little village called La Faba, where 35 of us pilgrims were invited to take part in the evening service given by a local monk. He asked an American who was fluent in Spanish to translate for him, as most Europeans are versed in English.
He asked for five volunteers to come to the altar. An Australian, German, Frenchman, Swiss, Italian and I went up. The monk first washed one of my feet, kissed it, and then we all had to do the same to the person next to us. Next we each had to share a story of a special moment along the Camino. My tale was of a dog I’d witnessed racing out of a restaurant with a stolen loaf of French bread in his jaws, the owner tight on his heels. Lyla spoke about Cathy Foster, one of our fellow pilgrims. While in Pamplona and experiencing a bleeding heel from an overactive blister, she became aware of a woman reaching down and putting a soothing bandage on her heel. When she turned to thank her, she had disappeared. She felt it was her guardian angel and that we were all surrounded by guardian angels on the Camino. The service ended with everyone joining hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in their own language, followed by three rousing “Buen Caminos.”
Atop one hill near the end of our journey we found a giant statue of a pilgrim. All pilgrims carry a stone to place somewhere on the trail that is special to them, where they symbolically lay their burdens for Santiago’s blessing. We left stones at the statue’s sandaled feet for our son Andrew, his wife Jennifer, our granddaughter Lauren and ourselves.
After more than 800 km, we finally arrived at Santiago and walked the last steps to our final destination, the awe-inspiring cathedral that takes up four city blocks. We slowly and reverently crept inside the church, humbled by the surroundings – biblical scenes adorn the marble walls, the initials of architects etched into the pillars they laboured to erect. The giant incense burner used during services requires seven men to swing it, and the solid gold altar is worth a king’s ransom. Santiago’s bones are kept in a silver casket, guarded by massive angel statues.
Outside the cathedral, peddlers try to temp pilgrims with everything from samples of Santiago cakes to wines and miniature pilgrim figurines.
On our last evening in Santiago, we were walking through the town square after savouring our last menu del dia. A Russian trio was playing “Tales of the Vienna Woods,” and the melodious music of the balalaika was hauntingly beautiful. The melody engulfed my soul and covered my heart. Neither that music, nor the hike down the Road to el Camino, will I ever forget.