The pilgrim experience: walking the 500 miles along Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela

07/12/2014 12:00 AM

07/10/2014 2:06 PM

Stepping quietly through the dimly lit 12th-century cathedral in the small Spanish town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, I looked up to the ornate mausoleum in the rear and caught sight of something you don’t usually — well, never — see in a church: two white chickens pecking around in a Plexiglas hen house.

Turns out chickens have been housed here for hundreds of years. The tradition is based on a local legend about a young German on a religious pilgrimage with his parents who was condemned to hang after a local girl falsely accused him of stealing a silver cup. According to the legend, Santo Domingo brought him back to life, but when the youth’s parents tried to convince the town’s mayor to cut him down from the gallows, the mayor — preparing to sit down to dinner — refused, insisting that the boy was as alive as the two chickens he was about to eat. But then the chickens miraculously sprang to life and began to crow, and to this day the town has the motto, “Santo Domingo of the Way, where the roosters crow after being roasted.”

The “church of the chickens” is only one of the homespun, non-touristy and somewhat otherworldly attractions found along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela , or the Way of St. James — an ancient pilgrim route supposedly traveled by the apostle to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ on the Iberian peninsula.

A network of paths, trails and paved roads snakes through Spain, France and Portugal — all leading to the northwest corner of Spain and the city of Santiago de Compostela where some believe St. James is buried in the crypt in the cathedral. The most popular route is the Camino Frances, or French Way, which originates in the small town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port, climbs the Pyrenees mountains, and covers almost the entire width of northern Spain for nearly 500 miles.

Walking “the Way” has soared in popularity in recent years — fueled in the United States by the 2010 movie of the same name starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez and the fact that 2010 was a Holy Year and elsewhere by several best-selling books. Last year, more than 272,000 people from all over the world hiked, biked, or rode horses and donkeys for all or parts of the route. Based on the throngs observed during my recent trip with my longtime friend Linda Luizza of Key West, it wouldn’t surprise me to see that number surpassed in 2014.

As a pharmacist in the town of Fromista told me: “This used to be a European route; now it’s the avenue of the world.”

The reasons people walk the Camino vary from person to person — religious pilgrimage, spiritual quest, outdoor exploration, exercise, cultural absorption. But those who commit to the entire Camino Frances — for whatever reason — are an especially dedicated subgroup. Traveling nearly 500 miles in unfamiliar, often rugged, terrain in weather that veers from sunny and warm to hail and fog — sometimes in a single day — is taxing and stressful, but ultimately fulfilling. Many lifelong friendships have been forged from chance encounters along the Camino.

For Luizza, an active member of a Catholic church in the Keys, hiking the Camino Frances represented a lesson in spiritual geography — walking in the steps of the Apostles and learning how the land shaped them and their teachings. For me, the trip was simply a chance to spend more than a month exploring the outdoors of a beautiful country that I had never visited.

But first we had to conquer the Pyrenees.

Definitely the most rigorous part of our five-week journey, crossing the mountain range that separates France and Spain so intimidates some would-be pilgrims that they simply skip it and start their hike on the Spanish side in the tiny burb of Roncesvalles.

Not us. We were determined to complete the 15-mile passage on foot in one day. The woman staffing the pilgrim office in St. Jean Pied-de-Port who gave us a credential to be stamped along the Camino warned us not to begin the crossing after 8 a.m. because it would probably take 8 to 10 hours. When we inquired about the weather forecast, she let out a short laugh and told us that if we paid any attention to it, we’d never start the trip.

After that ringing endorsement, we donned our backpacks and set out the following morning in a light drizzle, joined by another 100 or so pilgrims — all of us following the distinctive Camino way marks of a yellow scallop shell embedded in blue tile with an arrow pointing the way. Over the next five weeks, those markers — supplemented by yellow arrows painted on sidewalks, cinderblock walls and other structures — would be our sole navigational tool.

The steep road leading out of town gave way to an even steeper earthen path through vibrant green pastures where horses and sheep grazed. Camino guidebooks warn pilgrims not to make “baaahh” or “moo” noises at the livestock as this is considered extremely rude behavior by the Basque farmers. In fact, if a pilgrim seeks refuge from the weather in a lean-to in Basque country and finds it already occupied by a sheep, then it is the pilgrim’s duty to find someplace else to hide out.

Sometime after midday when I made it to the path’s highest point at more than 4,700 feet, the drizzle turned to snow and the wind increased to what felt like 30 miles per hour.

It took almost exactly eight hours to reach Roncesvalles, during which time the snow briefly became hail and so muddied the downhill forest path that numerous pilgrims — including me — lost their footing and fell. A Croatian woman grabbed me and set me on my feet, unhurt. Luizza showed up about an hour and a half later.

“As I was walking across the mountains, they were speaking to me,” she reported.

And what did they say, I asked.

“They said, ‘I am going to kick your butt,’ ” she deadpanned.

We secured a room in the Hostal La Posada, which served delicious, salt-rubbed, broiled trout for dinner. Many other pilgrims opted to stay at the 180-bed albergue next door, which charged only 10 euro (about $14) per night and awakened guests the following morning with a guitar serenade of Beatles songs.

Albergues, or pilgrim hostels, are the cheapest places to stay along the Camino. Ranging in price from donativo (whatever you want to donate) to about $15 per night, they usually offer rows of bunk beds, a couple bathrooms, and maybe a kitchen and laundry facilities. To stay there, you need to present the pilgrim credential obtained in St. Jean. Your credential is stamped wherever you spend the night or at a local church so that you can receive your Compostela, or certificate of completion, when (if) you reach Santiago. Other lodging options include small private hostels, rural inns or hotels — all of which will stamp your credential.

The weather improved as Luizza and I made our way westward to Pamplona (pop. 200,000), site of the summertime running of the bulls. We were about two months ahead of the bulls and stayed only one night in a small pension, then continued west toward the 2,600-foot Alto de Perdon, or Hill of Forgiveness.

The hill is a high, scenic spot decorated with metal sculptures of medieval pilgrims adjacent to a massive wind farm. The spinning blades hum like airplane propellers when you are close to them. When you get far enough away, the wind rushing across the grassy hillsides sounds almost like a Gregorian chant. When I first heard the natural melody, I kept quiet, fearing my companions would think I was losing it. But after Luizza said she heard the same sounds, I ’fessed up.

A must-stop on the Camino is the celebrated wine fountain behind the Bodegas Irache just outside the town of Estella. Here, pilgrims can drink free vino (documented by the watchful web cam) to fortify themselves for the next leg of their journey.

On the Camino, you meet all kinds of people who have come from more countries than make up the UN. For the most part, they are polite and kind, offering the standard, cheerful greeting of “ Buen camino !” when passing you on the path and offering assistance to fellow pilgrims suffering from blisters or orthopedic problems.

A nurse from California encountered a Spanish woman on the way to Burgos who was limping and staggering from painful blisters. Under the interested gaze of several other pilgrims, the nurse pulled off the woman’s shoes, dressed the blisters with medicated bandages and secured them with strong tape. The treatment must have worked because I saw the formerly ailing woman three weeks later walking to Finisterre — a three-day trek west from Santiago to Spain’s Atlantic coast.

Two of the stars on the road were a Frenchman named Olivier and a Hungarian named Christian. Olivier achieved Camino fame by vowing to walk 1,000 kilometers from his home in Marseilles to Santiago accompanied by his donkey Cadet. Christian was renowned for hiking from St. Jean with his two little dogs, resting them in a custom-made backpack when they got tired. Christian, young and a fast walker, reportedly reached Santiago safely with his pets. Olivier arrived afterward with Cadet, but according to the pilgrim grapevine, he was trying to sell the donkey in order to buy a car and drive back to France.

Besides colorful characters, the Camino is riddled with ancient, beautiful churches — so many that it is impossible to visit even a fraction of them in the one- to two-month time slot that most visitors have allotted themselves. One of the more outstanding edifices is the 13th-century Cathedral of Leon, renowned for its Gothic architecture and stained glass windows. Magnificent in the sunlight, it is even more overwhelming illuminated at night. Cathedrals like this took the lifetimes of legions of dedicated craftsmen to build, and this one required a significant shoring-up in the 19th century to prevent its collapse.

. Many of the old churches — particularly in the mostly-flat Mezeta region — also serve another important function: Their belfries are used as nesting sites by large storks.

Ah, the Mezeta. Many pilgrims skip it because they’ve heard it’s a desert with little shade and not much to look at. But in springtime, the grain fields are splashed with multicolored blankets of wildflowers and, if that’s not enough reason to visit, the wheat farmers hot-rodding in their John Deeres add to the entertainment. This is also a good place to make up ground after hillier country.

Luizza and I avoided any rainfall for probably 2 1/2 weeks until we reached Astorga. From there on, it rained on and off till near the end of the journey.

During a gloomy, drizzly 13-mile walk to Rabanal, I came upon a man in a Roman soldier costume standing outside a tent and holding a raptor bird. He invited passing pilgrims to take photos with his bird, named Yuly, in exchange for an optional donation to a local children’s hospital. I think everyone who passed by went along with it — just another fun, goofy Camino happening.

After Rabanal, three of the steepest spots on the Camino loomed in the mountains ahead — La Cruz de Ferro at more than 4,900 feet followed by O’Cebreiro (4,300 feet) and then Alto de Poio (also about 4,300 feet).

Way before Rabanal, during a stopover near Leon, Luizza and I had become friendly with an Australian woman named Geraldine, about 70. Geraldine told us she had long wanted to walk the Camino but put it off for years. Then about 18 months ago, her adult daughter was killed in an accident. A friend approached her at the funeral and handed her a stone, telling her she should make the trip and deliver the stone — a piece of black obsidian — to the Cruz de Ferro. It’s a revered pilgrim monument, a cross topping a very tall pole where thousands of pilgrims leave stones and other personal tokens with their prayers and hopes.

At Cruz de Ferro, in the midst of a windy, swirly snowstorm, we caught up with Geraldine as she took the stone out of her coat pocket. She was nervous and shaking and she dropped it. It broke into four pieces, but she retrieved them all and placed them at the foot of the cross — more prayers to go around.

I needed a short day of walking after mounting O’Cebreiro, the gateway to Galicia — a lush, green agricultural region where the residents raise chickens, cattle, vegetables and some of the most beautiful roses I’ve ever seen. Stopping for the night at a small inn in rural Biduedo, I was sitting at the bar looking out the window at a couple of men driving cattle along the narrow road. The female bartender abruptly left the bar and went outside to assist with the cattle drive, leaving her foreign customers to gape in wonder and admiration.

Arriving the next day in Sarria, both Luizza and I felt a change in the atmosphere on the Camino. This modern town of about 13,000 is 100 kilometers from Santiago — about five days’ hike — and the minimum distance a pilgrim has to walk in order to pick up a Compostela. We noticed a lot more pilgrims staging here and many of them didn’t wear backpacks, opting instead to have delivery services carry their luggage from town to town.

Unlike previous sections of the Camino, we were never really alone on the 14-mile segment from Sarria to Portomarin, crowded with walkers and bicyclists.

For the next two days, it either drizzled or poured. But on the morning of the final 121/2-mile leg from O’Pedrouzo to the finish line, the unfamiliar sun lit the path. After about five hours of walking — the last two with a Swedish guy who had a peculiar talent as a dog and cat whisperer — I arrived in the Promised Land. I thought I’d feel some kind of emotion but mostly it was just the relief you feel after completing a very long-term, somewhat arduous project.

Luizza and I waited in line over an hour at the pilgrim office to obtain our Compostelas. Then we attended evening Mass at the cathedral along with what seemed like thousands of other pilgrims. The highlight of the service was when eight priests used heavy ropes on pulleys to sling a huge silver ball filled with smoking incense called the Botafumeiro across the chapel. Various legends say the custom was born of a need to disguise stinky pilgrim odor or to help prevent the spread of plague and other diseases among the masses.

I considered it a fitting graduation ceremony after the longest walk of my life.

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