by Denise Fainburg
“Hola!” cried the cyclists as they whizzed by. It is customary, on the Camino de Santiago, to greet fellow pilgrims with an “hola” or a “buen camino”, even if they are eating your dust. I liked that. “Hola,” I called back, as cheerily as I could. My feet hurt.
My friend Patrick and I had left Burgos four days earlier, to hike roughly half of the famed pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Two storks had wheeled over the city gate as we struck westward; it seemed propitious. And in fact, a few hours later we were welcomed out of the pouring rain into our first pilgrims’ refuge by Victoria, a most hospitable volunteer hostess, who showed us to our mattresses and instructed us in proper refugio etiquette (place boots on window ledge or outdoors; no smoking in the dorms; lights out at 10:30, checkout time 8:00 AM).
Pilgrims have converged on northwestern Spain since the ninth century, when the tomb of St. James the Apostle was purportedly discovered in a Roman-era mausoleum. How the remains were actually identified is not detailed in any of the accounts, but never mind. Local kings understandably encouraged devotion to the site, and the cult of St. James swept Europe.
The city of Santiago de Compostela-Santiago being a Spanish form of St. James-grew up around the shrine. Devotees beat paths from France, Scandinavia, even Poland. The most frequented and the principal route still extant is the Camino Francés, running from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees across all of northern Spain to Santiago, a distance of nearly five hundred miles.
Pilgrimage declined following the Reformation; but encouraged by the European Union and UNESCO, which declared the Camino de Santiago a European Cultural Route in the 1980s and a Cultural Heritage Route in 1993, numbers have soared. In 2001 sixty thousand hikers, cyclists and horseback riders made all or part of the pilgrimage. Some, like us, go to touch the spiritual heritage of the path itself and the myriad oratories, churches and cloisters along the way; some go because of life changes. For others the interest is recreational or cultural, a way to enjoy lovely countryside with many layers of history. Considering our time and physical frames, we decided to start at Burgos and allow ourselves a month to complete a 280-mile trek. This was laughably slow compared to the pace set by the Lonely Planet’s Walking in Spain, or indeed that maintained by the more determined and competitive hikers, who thought nothing of covering twenty or thirty miles a day. We were content with a daily average of twelve miles, which allowed time for an afternoon rest and a look around whatever village or town we wound up in.
Burgos sits on the northern rim of Spain’s central plateau. For days we walked on dirt roads through rolling wheat and hay fields, now, in mid-August, mostly cut. The imposing Picos de Europa bounded the horizon to the north, while on all other sides was nothing but an occasional tree or village. Griffon vultures with eight-foot wingspans soared startlingly overhead in the late afternoons. Every belfry on every church carried a stork’s nest, or two or three.
One hilltop stretch of road was lined with an astonishing mass of cairns, piles of stone built up into turrets and minarets over the eons by passers-by each depositing one rock as they passed-originally, it is thought, an offering to the gods of travel. On the fifth day out of Burgos we rested. This was because blisters the size of Susan B. Anthony dollars had appeared on my feet, abetted by a too-heavy pack and the remarkably stony paths. I presented myself at a walk-in clinic in the town of Frómista. (Even tiny villages along the Camino have a first-aid station, which should tell you something.)
When my turn came the doctor smiled wearily; incapacitated pilgrims are a not uncommon occurrence. She treated and bandaged my feet, and the receptionist regretfully informed me that since I did not have EU insurance, the office visit would cost me eight dollars. I calculated what a similar consultation would cost the hapless foreign visitor to my home town and felt better already.
None of the guidebooks tells you that walking the Camino is something of an extreme sport. It lacks the cachet of, say, sky-diving, but everyone has a tale to tell of pinched nerves, fractures, tendonitis, or the more prosaic blisters. Each evening in the refugios you will see walkers tenderly anointing and disinfecting their feet. (Later Annemarie, from Bavaria, advised my to put sanitary pads in my shoes, and presto! I could walk again.)
So we rested our battered soles in Carrión de los Condes. Bustling Carrión was a great city in medieval times, with numerous pilgrims’ hostelries; its central church is Santa María del Camino, whose Romanesque bulk sits up against the trail and shoulders aside an ancient town wall. The cool interior houses a modest masterpiece, the exquisite twelfth-century polychrome sculpture of Our Lady of the Camino. She seems on the point of turning to the visitor with a disarming smile.
After Carrión we walked gingerly onward. Each day the sun rose in a red ball at our backs. Our world was a sparse chain of villages: Calzadilla de la Cueza sported a bar, a tiny plaza and houses of adobe or simply clay and straw; Terradillos de los Templarios had a café but no public phone except a rotary in someone’s front closet; Boadilla’s refugio had Roman bric-a-brac in its manicured garden. From one to the next we wended our way to the region’s major city, León. Thousands of rooks roosted on Leon’s lacy, sparkling Gothic cathedral, constantly whirling about the pinnacles and resettling. As often happened, it was closed for siesta. Not far away we found spectacular 12th-century frescoes at the Colegiata de San Isidoro. Their vibrant earth tones- unrestored, according to the tour guide-depict scenes from the life of Christ. My favorite was a composition of shepherds in medieval Leonese dress, playing pipes and horns while their flocks cavort among blossoming shrubs. It is clearly not Christmastime, but angels are announcing the glad tidings anyway. Later we enjoyed the intense stained glass of the cathedral; but we were happy to return from the city’s buzz to our quiet cobblestoned plaza, with its humble chapel of Santa María del Camino (again) on one side and our refugio, the Benedictine convent of Las Madres Carvalajas, kitty-corner across.
This refugio was efficiently run by two lady volunteers who received pilgrims till late into the night and materialized again at six AM to serve breakfast. Everyone was invited to attend Mass and sung vespers in the community’s church; the nuns’ silver voices were soothing after the day’s efforts, and the dorm seemed quieter than most. The women’s showers didn’t work, but that was OK. Most refugios didn’t even have separate-sex showers.
You never can tell with refugios. As one hiker remarked, the end of each day was a surprise. Refugios may be small or large, old or new, spotless or grungy; some are magnificent stone halls, others are in college housing; most are bunk-bed dorms with the sexes promiscuously thrown together. One constant is that silence, though encouraged, is not much observed.
After Leon the path forked; as one fork followed the highway, we took the road less traveled. Soon we were walking over a heath of scrubby oak, brush and an occasional harvested field. Nobody seemed to live there. It was quiet-just the sound of one’s own feet and staff hitting the ground. Sometimes a few pilgrims would come up and pass me, because I was always the slowest, but that was OK too. Often we would smile and wave and compare notes, because we met repeatedly and our lives were now intertwined.
The next day brought us to Puente Orbigo, where a multiarched medieval bridge snakes across the bed of the Río Orbigo and small children on tricycles wished us “buen camino”. With uncharacteristic energy we marched on through the afternoon. The path wound picturesquely along pastures and woodlots, which could not obscure the fact that it now tended inexorably upward. Into the Leonese foothills we strode, stopping that night in Santibáñez de Valdeiglesias. Santibáñez was so small that it had neither shop nor bar nor restaurant (I advanced the hypothesis that the size of a Spanish town is inversely proportional to the length of its name). So the wardens at the parish refugio, a friendly middle-aged couple, prepared a dinner of salad, risotto and fruit, and all eight guests ate family-style, communicating in a mixture of German, Italian, Spanish and English. Our host waxed eloquent on the dishes of the Maragatería, the region we were entering: trout, cocido Maragato (chickpeas with eight meats) and something called botillo which sounded suspiciously like a Spanish haggis.
The Maragatería is a steep, hilly district extending from its market town, Astorga, southwest to Mt. Teleno, a long, deceptively gentle ridge rising to over seven thousand feet. The topography has kept the region fairly isolated, preserving local cuisine and traditions and a picturesque, feral landscape. As the elevation rose, so did our spirits: the brisk mountain air was a relief from the heat of the plains. Between infrequent villages purple heather carpeted the country, forming ground cover even in forest. The isolation and meticulous stonework, the modest but carefully kept houses and churches, put me in mind of New Mexico mountain villages; that is, until I stepped into the warmth of a tiny café which had just opened to provide pilgrims their café con leche, and bought a couple of magdalenas (madeleines) for breakfast. In the early afternoon we arrived at Rabanal del Camino.
Flower-bedecked Rabanal immediately became my favorite stop on the Camino. Like most towns that grew up along the pilgrim route, it stretched ribbon-like along its main street-an early form of strip development. Golden-gray stone houses tumbled along the hillside; several were posadas or restaurants, and I noticed a number of cars with out-of-state plates. Was Rabanal a tourist trap? No; it is certainly appreciated by outsiders for its fresh air and mountain scenery, and even has two pilgrim refugios; but Rabanal has received transients for nearly a thousand years and is not about to be overwhelmed by them now. An evening stroll about the village reminded me of nothing so much as the west of Ireland before tourism.
We checked into the Refugio Gaucelmo, created in 1991 from a deteriorating parish hall, lovingly restored in wood and stone and meticulously clean. (After a couple of hours and some tinkering, the hot water came on, too.) A tiny Benedictine monastery adjoins it, and the small Romanesque church of Santa María de la Asunción was two steps away. The three monks keep the church open and available all day (paradoxically rare along the Camino), chanting Lauds, Mass and Vespers. Their mission is to offer spiritual support to the many seekers on the road, and in fact they have created a little haven of profound peace. We were inordinately grateful. After enjoying the sanctuary’s repose, we splurged on a maragata meal at Mesón el Refugio: vegetable soup, local trout, flan and wine, at E 7.50 per person. Thus our physical and spiritual needs were met.
Rabanal is the last “homely house” before crossing the high pass of Monte Irago, which lends it something of a frontier character. Onward and upward! Or, as they say on the Camino, ultreya! We ascended next morning through the ghost town of Foncebadón, which has a view all the way back to the plains of León; and through heather and broom to Cruz de Ferro at the top of the pass (about 4900 feet). The pass is marked by another huge heap of traveler-deposited stones, topped by a tall pole and cross. This is supposed to be a high point, literally and figuratively, of the journey. To me it was a slight let-down: pilgrims had deposited not only stones, but hiking accoutrements such as T-shirts, hats, plastic bottles and even shoes, covering the pole to a height of eight feet. A sort of shrine, I supposed.
But the trail continued along such beautiful flower-strewn ridges, with views of Mt. Teleno and beige Spanish cows, that I was mollified. Unfortunately, Patrick contracted gastroenteritis from a contaminated fountain beyond the pass, and we marched slowly but bravely out of the hills. The next day he was well enough to eat tomatoes that farmers eagerly brought us from the fields (people are very kind to pilgrims). We slept in the euphoniously-named town of Cacabelos, then set off for the next mountain range.
A few miles through vineyards brought us to jewel-like Villafranca del Bierzo, set in emerald hills with its own intact castle. In the old days, pilgrims too sick or weak to go on received credit for the entire pilgrimage here at the simple stone Church of Santiago (still operational and graciously open for prayer and reflection). I briefly considered this-Villafranca is a designated national monument and looked worth an extended visit-but we bought supplies for a picnic lunch and continued on.
From Villafranca one can take the low road-a highway–or follow a trail over a mountain. Although the highway actually follows the historical path, we naturally chose the mountain, ignoring a hand-painted sign warning that the trail was “very difficult”. It was. After nine hours’ hard labor and seventeen steep miles (our guidebook had indicated twelve) we collapsed into the refugio at Vega de Valcarce. But we had wandered through ancient chestnut groves and had an eagle’s view of the entire district. The following day’s ascent to the mountaintop village of O Cebreiro was even more strenuous. It rose interminably–each hairpin bend had to be the last, yet it was not. Also, the combined odors of cow, horse and sheep dung were making me curiously nauseous. Halfway up we were relieved to find a café. I downed a lemon soda and a couple of Aleves, which unobligingly popped right back up. It seemed I had also drunk from a contaminated fountain. “Estoy mal,” I explained unnecessarily to the proprietress. She called a taxi and I spent the afternoon wandering in a daze the few stone streets of Cebreiro. O Cebreiro has been there forever.
Its round, thatched stone houses are a holdover from the Neolithic. On all sides the land swoops away, making it a natural pilgrim’s rest from the earliest days and seemingly a portal to another realm. Which it is: all the mountains of Galicia are spread out before you. You have left León, and inland Spain, behind.
Cebreiro acquired even more appeal in the fifteenth century, when it was reported that at Mass one day the consecrated bread and wine visibly became the Body and Blood of Christ. One couldn’t choose a more appropriate spot for this impossibly Arthurian miracle-a high place in the Celtic corner of Spain. The sturdy pre-Romanesque church of the event still stands, but was unfortunately undergoing repairs during our visit.
Stars studded the sky and fog filled all the valleys like fjords at seven the next morning when I caught the bus (it would have been unwise to be more than fifty feet from a bathroom). What a blessing the internal combustion engine was. It transported me effortlessly down the mountain to Triacastela, where I lay gratefully in the sun till Patrick appeared. Happily, the following day I was fit to walk again.
This district resembled Tolkien’s Shire. Bosky paths threaded from one hamlet to the next past burbling rivulets and bee-loud glades. We drifted along picking blackberries from the hedgerows. In the middle of it all a valley opened up to reveal the massive monastery of Samos. Founded in the sixth century, it has been much enlarged, so that the present complex is mostly a Renaissance and Baroque affair. It must have housed hundreds of monks at its height. Its basement refugio was rather gloomy; but the German host was celebrating his birthday and offered all pilgrims cookies and champagne that evening. An Iraqi pilgrim sang “Happy Birthday” in Arabic. After we had sung several other celebratory choruses, it was pointed out that the monks just above were trying to pray, so we regretfully called it a night.
The rest of the walk was practically a romp through Galicia’s green and pleasant land. All right, there were hills, but they were covered in majestic chestnut and oak, and dotted with little hamlets: tiny Leboreiro, where the cows filed into town at midday and stopped right at their own front doors; and Eirexe where, less bucolically, we were directed to a cattle trough to wash our clothes. And then it was the last day, and before dawn we were advancing through thick eucalyptus groves. (Introduced eucalyptus is taking over western Galicia, pushing out the venerable oak forests and giving them a spindly, Australian look.) The trail adroitly circumambulates Santiago’s airport-you can hear it, but not see it. At Monte do Gozo, where pilgrims traditionally have their first glimpse of Santiago, we chatted with a group of students from the former East Germany. Then it was but a four-kilometer walk into the great city. Santiago itself is a whole other story. Pilgrims and tourists mill about the great Obradoiro Plaza and fill every street, café and restaurant. The noon pilgrims’ Mass was standing-room only. But it didn’t matter. The famous botafumeiro swung in great arcs across the transepts, billowing clouds of incense and displaying its fiery insides; and we met many of our Camino friends, the East Germans and the Iraqi and Annemarie who had saved my feet; it was like meeting your loved ones in Heaven after life’s long journey.
How to Be a Pilgrim
Food and Shelter: For access to the refugio system you must have a credencial, which is obtainable free at the pilgrims’ office or refugio in major towns along the route. This will be stamped at each refugio, and upon arrival in Santiago you may present it at the Oficina de Peregrinos (1 Rua de Vilar) to receive your Compostela, or certificate of completion of the pilgrimage.
Refugios are pilgrims’ hostels and are located every ten miles, on average, along the Camino. A bunk bed for the night costs $3-4; slightly more in the few private refugios. Reservations are not accepted. In summer refugios are crowded and it’s advisable to arrive early in the afternoon. Usually only a one-night stay is permitted, but exceptions are made in case of illness. Most towns and villages also have inexpensive hostales or pensiones. Many refugios have kitchens, and some offer breakfast or even supper. Buy picnic supplies before noon; not all villages have shops or restaurants, which may close for siesta in any case. Most restaurants en route offer a satisfactory pilgrims’ menu for $6-8, a ba rgain for two courses, bread, dessert, and wine. In Santiago the historic Hostal dos Reis Catolicos offers a free meal to the first ten pilgrims who show up, Compostela in hand, at mealtimes. Packing: Necessary: flexible but sturdy hiking shoes (my $35 Lands End Lightweight Hikers did fine); a comfortable backpack; a wide-brimmed hat; walking stick; sunscreen; sunglasses; light-weight sleeping bag; change of clothes; minimal toiletries; a small first-aid kit; towel; sweater; raincoat. Nice to have: sandals or flip-flops for after hiking; flashlight; guidebook. Keep it light. Every ounce counts.
Training: You don’t have to be an athlete-we met hikers ranging in age from seven to eighty–but it helps to practice some rigorous hiking prior to the trip, preferably with pack. Caveats: Sanitation in rural Spain lags behind western European standards. This can affect the public fountains on which pilgrims depend. We found the fountains between Burgos and Leon reliable, but many became sick from those between Astorga and Ponferrada. Tap water at refugios and cafés was safe. Also, there are no public rest rooms. Many travelers seem to relieve themselves trailside and have apparently not been educated in burial of wastes.