An unlikely pilgrim finds his way across Spain.
By John D. Spalding
"It is not a normal person who walks to Santiago," said the man behind the desk at the Accueil Saint-Jacques, the welcome center for those making the trek of more than 500 miles across northern Spain to the tomb of St. James, in Santiago de Compostela. The man was short and stocky, about 70 years old, tanned with a gray mustache. He was leafing through a register of names and didn’t look up as he spoke. It struck me as an odd greeting. Some of my friends and family, who knew me as a lapsed Protestant, thought it strange I was undertaking an ancient and rugged pilgrimage mostly attempted by Catholics in the way many of my generation took backpacking larks in Montana or Arizona. I’d never backpacked before and had no idea what to expect from the journey. Still, the last place I expected flak was at the pilgrim welcome center.
"Not normal?" I said.
"No," he said, looking up finally. "Not normal, I think." He offered me a seat and introduced himself as Albert—"Albert from Germany." He’d walked to Santiago twice, he said, most recently five years earlier, after retiring as an economist. Now he volunteered at the welcome center in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, a small town at the foot of the French Pyrenees, a popular starting point for the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, as the old route is called. At the height of its popularity in the Middle Ages, the camino drew a half million pilgrims each year. Today, the pilgrimage annually attracts tens of thousands of—apparently abnormal— seekers.
"I ask you," he said. "Does the normal person spend four to six weeks walking alone viz his thoughts, through the rain and mud, under the hot Spanish sun? No, the normal person goes to the beach to relax!" He laughed. I laughed. But for the first time it struck me that there might be an unsettling truth in his statement. I’d come to escape the routine of daily life. I was drawn by the mental and physical challenge of trudging long distances over a varied terrain that includes five passes above 3,300 feet and offers some of the most breathtaking and unspoiled scenery anywhere in Europe. I was lured by the promise of contact with an ancient world I’d encountered mostly through books—more than a thousand years of European religious art, architecture, and history.
But I was an odd candidate for the walk. For centuries, pilgrims have made the arduous journey to Santiago as an expression of devotion to St. James—a voluntary suffering, a sacrifice of pain, that mirrors Christ’s pain. Others sought penance for sins or miracle cures for themselves or loved ones. Famous early pilgrims include St. Godric of Norfolk, El Cid, St. Francis of Assisi, John of Gaunt, and Lorenzo de Medici. In the Jubilee Year of 2000, two years after I made the trek, Pope John Paul II granted a plenary indulgence for all who completed—on foot, bicycle, or horseback—the final 100-mile portion of the camino. My mental and physical preparations were rigorous. I spent six months getting ready for my pilgrimage—reading, running 10 miles a day, and studying. I took intensive Spanish courses at the Institute Cervantes in New York and a graduate seminar in medieval art at CUNY. But none of this settled my mind on the religious or spiritual aspects of the journey.
As dubious as my motives may have been, I took consolation in the fact that much about the camino itself is questionable. Murkiest perhaps is the very shrine of the road’s patron saint, the apostle James, whose bones are supposedly entombed in the cathedral at Santiago. One story goes that, after Jesus’ death, James went to Spain to convert the western end of the known world, and failed dismally. When he returned to the Holy Land, King Herod had him beheaded. James’s two disciples were instructed in a dream to return the apostle’s head and corpse to Spain, which they did, in a stone boat guided by the Virgin Mary. Some academics contend that a scribe translating the Acts of the Apostles may have confused the Latin word for Jerusalem, Hierosolyma, with the Latin word for Spain, Hispania.
For centuries, devotees would later maintain, the body of James lay hidden somewhere in the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula. Then, in 814 CE, a hermit named Pelayo saw a bright star appear in the sky above a hill accompanied by strange, celestial music. He reported his vision to the local bishop, who formed an excavation party that found, directly under the star, a tomb containing the saint, his head miraculously intact, and his two disciples. Word reached Rome, and the pope declared the spot an official pilgrimage site. Soon pilgrims from all over Europe were flocking to the town named Santiago de Compostela—St. James of the Field of the Star.
* * *
For the church, the discovery of St. James’s remains was a godsend, so to speak. In the ninth century, the Moors had conquered all of Spain except the northern part, through which the camino winds. Not only did the Moorish armies outnumber the Christians but they had Muhammad. Their prophet, whose arm was said to be enshrined in southern Spain, appeared in the sky on horseback, leading the Moors into combat. Christendom desperately needed the relics and patronage of a saint to rally the troops. In James, Spain found not only its war cry—Santiago!—but a formidable match for Muhammad. According to another legend, James made his military debut at the Battle of Clavijo in 834, where he slew 60,000 Moors. Statues in churches across the camino pay tribute to Santiago Matamoros —St. James the Moorslayer—depicting the apostle as a warrior mounted on a charging horse, brandishing a sword, and trampling piles of flailing infidels.
Who knows whose bones really rest in Santiago? In 1884 the Holy See studied the enshrined remains, and five years later Pope Leo XIII issued an apostolic letter asserting they belonged to St. James and his disciples. But there’s no evidence, biblical or historical, that James ever went anywhere near Spain.
Albert from Germany spread a map of the camino across the desk. Routes from Paris, Vézelay, and Le Puy pass through St. Jean, while a road from Aries enters Spain through Somport. From St. Jean, the camino crosses the Pyrenees and travels south along the rocky hills of Spanish Basque country. Soon after passing Pamplona the road turns west—a long, jagged line through the wine valleys of La Rioja, across the sunbaked plains of Castile and Leon, over the lush, green mountains of Galicia, and finally down into the cathedral city of Santiago. "This is not a promenade, my friend," Albert said, running a finger across the map. "This is hard work. Sometimes very hard work!"
He laid out the rules of the road. Pilgrims who produce a valid credencial, or pilgrim’s passport, may use the free (or extremely cheap) refugios, or hostels. (I was ahead of the game: I’d ordered a credencial by mail through the Confraternity of St. James, an organization of camino devotees based in London.) Refugios are simple, coed shelters with bunk beds (bare mattresses on which to toss a sleeping bag), bathrooms, and a kitchen. Many, but not all, have hot water. "You are allowed one night at a refugio, and one night only," Albert pronounced, pounding the desk with Teutonic authority. "Then, you must move—unless you are sick." He urged me to get my credencial stamped and dated at each place I stayed. When I reached Santiago, I could present it at the Office of Pilgrims, near the cathedral, and receive a "Compostela," a medieval pilgrimage certificate of completion.
Against Albert’s advice, I got a late start my first day. He said that the hike, which involved crossing the Pyrenees into Spain, would be hard—"a baptism of fire." It wasn’t so much the distance, he said, some 15 miles, but the elevation, which ascends to 4,700 feet above sea level. He suggested I give myself seven hours to reach my destination, Roncesvalles, a small village consisting of a few houses, a restaurant, and a bar, and the Augustinian monastery I’d stay at. "You’d be wise," he cautioned, "to leave viz ze other pilgrims before 8." Eager to explore St. Jean’s charming cobbled side streets and medieval fortress, I didn’t hit the road till after 10.
The first few hours made for exhilarating, solitary hiking. The sky was clear, the air mild, the views of the valleys below and the rolling hills beyond spectacular. I photographed horses, cows, and flocks of sheep. A beret-topped Basque farmer escorting chickens along the road stopped to let me pass, waving and wishing me a safe trip. But as I climbed higher, dark clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped. The mountainside became rocky and barren.
As I neared the summit, it suddenly poured. The wind grew so fierce I couldn’t hear my own voice. I dug out of my backpack my light hooded jacket, the one I’d almost left home, wondering if I’d really need one crossing Spain in the summer. Even with the jacket, I was soon soaked to the bone. My teeth chattering from the cold, I barreled on as fast as I could. There wasn’t another soul in sight. Occasionally I’d pass a stone marker adorned with flowers and inscribed with a person’s name. One name was followed by "Le Puy—Santiago, 1990." As the weather didn’t subside, I became increasingly worried by these memorials for pilgrims who hadn’t made it.
Shortly after I passed the Spanish border, the rain stopped, the grass route turned to asphalt, and I entered a forest of beech trees. It was here, in a valley on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, that the army of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman emperor, fought the Arabs, a story immortalized in the medieval epic the “Chanson de Roland.” On the descent to Roncesvalles, I caught up with a church group from Pamplona out for a scenic stroll. One of the men explained to me that a bus had deposited them a short ways back. I must have looked like a mess, because he gazed at me and laughed. "Why would we walk up a mountain?" he said.
I made good time, reaching the monastery by 3. Dozens of tired and dirty pilgrims were milling around outside the dormitory. I hand-washed my clothes and secured an upper bunk in the dorm, a long, open room with 50 beds. That evening I joined my fellow pilgrims for a Mass in Spanish at the thirteenth-century Collegiate Church, during which the priest read an 800- year-old pilgrim’s blessing. After dinner at the restaurant (delicious fresh trout served with french fries topped with mayonnaise), I was reluctant to head back to the dorm, which was packed to capacity, so I walked the quiet, landscaped grounds. When I returned at 10, the door was closed, the lights were off, and most people were already in bed.
Predictably, after a brief overture of shifting bodies and whispers in various languages, the room began to shake with a loud chorus of deep, rattling snores. The loudest issued from the heavy Italian in the bunk next to mine. Occasionally, his pattern was broken by a bout of reflux I could actually hear rush into his throat. He’d choke, swallow, roll over, and resume snoring. On top of all this, the monastery bells chimed every 15 minutes, ringing once at quarter past, twice at half past, and three times at quarter till. That night, I asked myself, What I am doing here?
When I had signed in earlier, the monk at the desk asked me to check my motivation for undertaking the pilgrimage. The options provided were religious, spiritual, cultural, recreational, and other. I marked "other," beside which I wrote "all of the above." But as I lay in bed I began to wonder whether my reasons for doing this pilgrimage were good enough.
* * *
In my waking hours, my doubts lessened, and my concerns about my worthiness as a pilgrim faded the more of my fellow pilgrims I met. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about the worthiness issue, but that they cared so much. Debates raged in refugio kitchens about who is and who isn’t a true pilgrim. Some maintained that only walkers— and not cyclists—are authentic. Foot pilgrims, they said, had tradition on their side, and part of that tradition involved hardship and suffering, which cyclists compromised by sailing all the way to Santiago on paved and clearly marked roads. Cyclists countered that they covered the same distance as those on foot, and endured plenty of hardships, from flat tires to trucks on the highways.
Some insisted that true pilgrims stayed only in refugios, with other pilgrims, where they belonged. Those who lodged in hotels were tainted. Most pilgrims I met agreed on one thing—a pilgrim should never travel any part of the camino by transportation. A few pilgrims, however, took buses into and out of cities like Logroño and León. What, they argued, could possibly be authentic about hiking across urban outer limits clotted with traffic, commercial sprawl, factories, and slums? The key didn’t seem to be asceticism. From Villadangos del Páramo, just outside León, to the outskirts of Santiago, I traveled with a group of young Spaniards, ferocious partyers by night, who attended Mass every day. They had no qualms about staying at a local fiesta well beyond a refugio’s 10 or 11 PM curfew and jimmying a window if they returned to find the door locked. But as Arturo, their chainsmoking ringleader with Enrique Iglesias looks, explained to me, "If we skip a Mass, our journey is pointless."
Some pilgrims stumble upon the reason for their journey as they undertake it. After roughly two weeks, I caught up with a middle-aged German pilgrim named Josef, a physician from a small town near Worms. We walked a segment typical of that part of the camino—long stretches of scrub forests and steep ridges set between tiny stone villages that feel like ghost towns, the nearest city days away. The refugios aren’t crowded there, and I hadn’t walked with anyone that week, so I welcomed Josef’s company. He didn’t yet know, he told me, why he was walking to Santiago. His reason, he said, would reveal itself to him as he crossed the Castilian meseta, a few days ahead. The meseta is an austere landscape "as flat as your Texas," with nothing to see in any direction but wheat. Beginning just past the city of Burgos, it takes roughly a week to cross. "Under the blazing sun," he said, in a soft, grave voice, "your imagination plays tricks on you, and you see things. Some people have lost their minds there. Gone crazy. My spiritual adviser said that is where God will tell me my motivation."
I never saw Josef again, but I was curious about what he experienced on the plains. I loved the silence and serenity of the meseta, the open spaces and hypnotic waves of wheat. But I was not struck by any revelations.
Gradually, I formed my own rules. I vowed to walk the entire way to Santiago. No buses, cars, or trains. But I caved on staying in hotels—occasionally. I wanted to visit as many historic sites as possible, and in some cities that demanded an extra day’s stay. In Burgos, I spent an afternoon exploring the magnificent thirteenth-century Gothic cathedral, the third largest in Spain. It houses the tomb of El Cid and, in the Capilla del Santo Cristo, one of the camino’s innumerable must-see curiosities: On an eerily lifelike medieval crucifix, Jesus’ flesh is made of buffalo skin and his hair and beard are human; according to legend, they miraculously grow. Once a month someone comes to cut it, said my guide, adding that it’s foolish to ask who cuts the statue’s hair: If you return a month later you’ll find Jesus’ hair is the same length. Obviously, someone has snipped it. His matter-of-fact delivery made it difficult to read his take on this bit of medieval logic. He also said that in days of old Jesus’ wounded side bled, a miracle made possible, he admitted, by a mechanism in the Lord’s chest from which a dark liquid was squeezed like catsup from a bottle.
León was another city whose attractions convinced me to tarry. In his twelfth-century Pilgrim’s Guide, the Benedictine monk Aymeric Picaud recommends a stop at León’s Real Basilica de San Isidoro—a Romanesque church so named because it holds the relics of San Isidoro, one of the four saints’ bodies pilgrims should visit. The basilica’s crypt also has the remarkable ceiling frescoes that have made it the "Sistine Chapel of Spanish Romanesque Art." In a village outside Ponferrada, a night in a plush double that cost less than $20 gave me a day to roam the ruins of an enormous medieval fort built by the Knights Templar. A secretive and much-feared order of mercenaries enlisted by the church during the Crusades, the Templars, legend says, buried the Holy Grail somewhere on the grounds of their castle.
* * *
Weeks earlier, however, in Pamplona, I had checked into the Hotel La Perla, overlooking the Plaza del Castillo, to make a pilgrimage of another kind. Ernest Hemingway, of whom there’s a statue at the city’s bullfight stadium, frequently stayed at La Perla, and I scored his favorite room—number 217.
But staying in hotels often made me glum. It halted the rhythm and continuous forward motion established by the camino. There’s comfort and purpose to the cycle of rising early, hitting the road, and stopping for lunch at a village bar, of arriving at a refugio, claiming a bunk, scrubbing laundry, improvising a potluck dinner and sharing a bottle of wine and the day’s gossip with fellow pilgrims. To disengage from this routine for just a day, however refreshing, means that a wave of familiar faces, friends, and foes, will press on the following day without you—and that you may not see them again. To retreat back to the nonpilgrim world, in which people go about their own business, preoccupied with office politics and the six o’clock news, can be disorienting. And as depressing, I imagine, as it is for some of those losers on “Survivor” after they’ve been voted off the island.
Sitting alone in a hotel one night I considered the allure of cults in a way I hadn’t since I broke from the evangelical Christian church of my youth. By and large, I adhered to the camino’s rituals and traditions, if sometimes in the same spirit I mumble "Happy Birthday" at parties—not really wanting to sing but not wanting to spoil the fun. Not far past the deserted village of Foncebadón, about three weeks into the camino, there’s a pass, more than 5,000 feet above sea level, which is crowned by la Cruz de Ferro. It’s a small iron cross attached to a 20-foot-tall oak beam that stands on a massive pile of rocks. According to legend, all passing pilgrims should add a stone, representing a sin or a burden they bear, at the base of the cross. The group of 20-something Spaniards I was with had, to my surprise, each packed a stone from home and solemnly placed it at the cross. All eyes turned to me. I showed them my rock, which I’d picked up off the ground when no one was looking, and tossed it on the heap.
For two weeks I dutifully wore a large scallop shell, the traditional pilgrim’s badge, around my neck. According to legend, St. James’s first miracle occurred upon the arrival of his remains at the shores of Galicia. A man who had just drowned suddenly rose from the surf, alive and covered with scallop shells. Pilgrims still proudly display their shells—stringing them into a necklace, as I did, or affixing them to their hats or packs—and consider them sources of luck. I respected the shell’s symbolism but found it a nuisance to wear, so I tucked it away in my bag.
Friendships are easily formed on the camino, as the shared joys and trials of the road unite people who might otherwise have nothing in common. For several days I walked with a real-estate agent from the French Riviera, then a young Canadian who professed a hatred toward all Americans. I spent two days on the camino talking theology with a Jesuit priest from Madrid. For almost two weeks I was in and out of the company of a stubborn, 73-year-old Swiss ex-businessman named Werner who spoke little English. He was in terrible shape—he hobbled rather than walked, and puffed red-faced with each step. Yet he was undertaking his third camino in three straight years. He fiercely defended his authenticity as a pilgrim, despite the fact that he rode buses, stayed in hotels, and kept a list of housewives in villages from Pamplona to Santiago whom he paid to wash his clothes. "My wife does my laundry at home," Werner insisted, "and I refuse to do it myself on the camino!”"
I found my soul mate, pilgrimwise, in Erika. A 19-year-old German girl who’d just graduated high school—she graduated one day and was on a train to St. Jean the next—Erika did the whole thing on a whim, after a family friend had recommended the camino a month earlier. She didn’t wear a watch or have a guidebook. She hiked in sneakers and flip-flops. Her interest in the camino was simple—fresh air. Yet we covered half the province of Navarra together, solely because we were always the last to leave the refugio and we walked at the same brisk clip.
Marco was a 38-year-old Frenchman and devout Catholic who confessed to me after we were on the road together an hour that he was a sex addict. Marco was convinced he’d conquer his demons by the time he reached Santiago. After that, he would travel to Finisterre, a coastal town 50 miles west of Santiago. There, he said, he would jump naked into the ocean—"and I will come out a new man! It will be a miracle!" Then he’d burn his clothes and return home to settle down with his current girlfriend. (I hope this miracle worked out better for Marco than another he expected with unshakable faith—a universal harmonic convergence in the year 2000.)
This is part of the otherworldliness of the camino, the startling candor of pilgrims who, like strangers at a bar, open up in a way they can’t with others in their everyday lives. A Dutch pilgrim in his mid-fifties, whom I talked to over coffee at a restaurant and never saw again, told me, out of the blue, that in the past year he’d been fired in disgrace from his job as a school principal and that within months his parents, four siblings, and closest friend had all died. He described the various illnesses and accidents that had claimed his loved ones (Continued on next page) and told me, without a trace of emotion, that he had no idea what he was going to do next. Even in some of the most lighthearted encounters, I often knew more about a fellow sojourner after a day’s walk than I did about many colleagues I’d worked with for years.
I picked up the pace my last five days. The refugios grew increasingly crowded, often teeming with loud Spanish school groups. Sometimes I’d stagger into a refugio only to find that a busload of kids had just arrived and taken all the bunks. I’d either sleep on the floor or hoist my pack and press on to the next town, in search of a smaller refugio or a hotel. I became edgy and withdrawn. Whereas I used to be amused by the petty pilgrim melodramas that would erupt, like bad reality TV, in the refugios I now had little patience for them. I walked solo, determined to reach my destination, which felt almost tangible. In a two-day burst I covered 55 miles, ripping over gentle rustic hills and along damp eucalyptus footpaths, with no thought of pit stops for history and architecture.
Late in the afternoon of my 35th day, I reached the Monte del Gozo, the Mount of Joy, a summit offering my first glimpse of the Holy City of Santiago, the cathedral’s three gray steeples rising above a sea of red-tile roofs. From where I stood, the rest of the journey was an easy six-mile downhill stroll. All I had left to do was enter the cathedral’s Portico de la Gloria, join the line to give the statue of the mysterious St. James a hug, and collect my Compostela. Reluctant, perhaps unprepared, to make the final push, I decided to stop and savor one last night on the camino. The refugio at Monte del Gozo is a dreary complex of military-style barracks designed to accommodate 800 pilgrims. But it was strangely empty when I arrived. I was given a room, with four bunks, all to myself, a first for me at a pilgrims lodging. I went to a large bar adjoining the cafeteria. The only other patron was a woman in her fifties, badly sunburned with her blistered and bandaged feet propped up on a chair, sitting alone in the corner, sobbing.
So why did I walk to Santiago? In the end, I’m not sure I know. I can no better explain the purpose of the camino than I can the purpose of life. Its meaning is irreducible. If I wanted religion, I could have joined a church. If I’d been looking for exercise, I would have gone to the gym. If it was self-improvement I was after, I’m sure I could have found an adult-ed course. The squabbles back in the refugio about true pilgrimhood struck me the most absurd when I was busy doing what pilgrims do—walking the camino. The very act of undertaking the pilgrimage—in all its hardships and weirdness, its thrills and unexpected pleasures—may well be the only justification for it there is. And maybe that’s plenty.
That night I sat alone with a bottle of red wine on the grassy edge of the Mount of Joy. The air was crisp, and the starry heavens glittered above and the city lights flickered below. I felt like a true pilgrim.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Going Dutch.
From "A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City, by John D. Spalding, published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, in 2003. Reprinted with permission of the author.
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