Posts Tagged ‘Santiago de Compostela’

Since I ended my Camino last year I was itching to get back to my pilgrimage. It did not disappoint. Exactly a year to the day, I boarded a bus to Astorga, the city where I finished last year. Four hours later, I arrived. I did not want to spend the night in a place that only had sad memories and heartbreak for me. So I walked to Murias, the first village out. It was a gorgeous evening walk on one of the longest days of the year. I passed by the obligatory tiny chapel and yellow arrows. The small Albergue was a repurposed, old, one classroom schoolhouse. Just about everyone inside was already dozing. But I walked to the local restaurant for a quiet dinner with a glass of wine. Then crawled into bed after a quick shower.

My Camino proper started, like last year, on my Dad’s birthday. It is a tiny, silly way for me to honor him and to celebrate with him, walking with his old walking stick. Right out of Murias there is a small detour to one of the prettiest villages in Spain: Castrillo de los Polvazares. An ancient, untouched stone village. Stone homes, stone streets, stone church, stone everything. I made the detour because I remember driving there with my father in his massive Mercedes and being so awestruck by the beauty of the village. My morning walk is always my favorite. The dew on my legs, the silence, loneliness, the cool.

The path was a slow but steady climb to the second highest peak of the route, past Rabanal del Camino, where I stopped to chat with a Benedictine Monk in his monastery, and Foncebadon, to Cruz de Fierro, the site of an ancient Roman temple. It is a tiny iron cross on a massive wooden post. Pilgrims are supposed to drop off a stone picked up at the base, but with the accumulation of stones, they are now suggesting leaving flowers. I had a pebble I had been carrying since Navarra.

After cresting for five odd km. the descent is very technical, putting a lot of pressure on feet, shins, and knees. I was out of the Maragateria area and into El Bierzo, a previously forgotten region of Spain that is now on the map since their wines became noticed some years ago. I eventually stopped at Acebo a lovely village of stone homes with slate roofs.

There are three basic types of albergues a pilgrim can stay in. The municipal or public ones, the parochial or church affiliated ones and private ones. I normally chose my albergues in this order. In Acebo the options were parochial or private, I stayed at the parochial, run by a wonderful American couple that had left the US because of President Trump (they can hardly be blamed).

My walk the next morning led me by a wonderful 18th C. altar in one of the tiny chapels along the way. I always stop and chat with the attendant, while I get my official stamp to prove my visit, which I will need in Santiago. Breakfast was at the gorgeous village of Molinaseca. And the walk continues past fields and vineyards to Cacabelos. The Albergue at Cacabelos is paradise for me. It is set up along the inside wall of an 18th C. neoclassical church, right up my alley! The next day I end up at Herrerias, the base of the third highest climb of the route. There is only a couple of private albergues and the one I choose is super cute. The bedroom only has 8 beds so it is very quiet. There is a neo-Hippy project next door called Project Brigid where they do music workshops, and they lend you their kitchen. I signed up for their yoga class in a small clearing, surrounded by high trees, next to a lovely stream. It was by far the best yoga session of my life.

The climb to Cebreiro is the third highest in the Camino, but in the early morning, it is a breeze. A stop at the great bar El Arbol in La Faba provides great fuel to keep climbing. The view of the hills of Galicia from the top is awesome and the town of Cebreiro is really cute, with a fantastic, intimate church where I spend some time. I keep walking downhill to Triacastelas. The albergue is in rooms of four. I room with a Mexican girl, a South African fellow and Go from Japan, who will become my new friend.

I walk to the Benedictine Monastery at Samos in one gorgeous chestnut tree forest crisscrossing  gurgling streams. At Sarria I enjoy a wonderful empanada, the local pie, stuffed with tuna. The Camino now is a bit more crowded with busses full of “pilgrims” who only walk the last 100 km. in order to earn the coveted Compostela, the traditional forgiveness of sins for doing the Camino. These mostly Spanish folks can afford to do the walk with only a day pack – or just some water – as their bus will carry their kit from village to village. I must confess it does distract from the purity of the Camino, but they must be equally accepted as they are also pilgrims, even if all they are wearing is a bikini and a water bottle, as I saw one girl doing.

Galicia is a magical region of Spain, it’s ancient hills covered with chestnut and eucalyptus forests, streams and tiny agricultural plots. The food is delicious and the people are wonderful. My last two days’ walk is in the company of awesome Aussie Bec and our Japanese friend Go. After a good night’s sleep at a gorgeous little hotel, the walk into Santiago is an easy 9 km, just in time for the Pilgrim’s mass with the fabled Botafumeiro incense burner that somehow uncorks all my emotions as it swings across the naves of the cathedral. I only have time to get my Compostela before jumping on a train home, I’ve got a busy summer ahead!

Up until I was ten, we used to vacation in Galicia in the North West coast of Spain, the little corner above Portugal. During those holidays we would go on some excursions, and I remember when we went to Santiago de Compostela being really impressed with the Peregrinos, the pilgrims that had walked for miles to get there. It has taken me many years, but at last I am going on the Camino this summer.

Saint James (the Greater, the Great) was charged by Jesus to preach to the end of the earth. That would be the westernmost coast of Europe at that time. There is a Finisterre (Finis Terrae in Latin), where hippies from all over gather to see the sunset (just like there is a Land’s End in Cornwall). At any rate, James did his job and returned to Jerusalem, only to be beheaded by King Herod Agrippa. This is where it gets interesting: within a week James’ body and head appeared on the shore of Galicia (must have had some awesome sailing winds…) where he last preached. So the locals built a shrine and buried him. With time that shrine became too small, so he was moved further inland to current day Santiago de Compostela (was the city known in latin for compost or for stellae (stars) is another debating point – I prefer the “field of stars” campos-stellae option). At any rate the church became this massive cathedral finished in a massive, dizzying baroque explosion, but you can still kiss the remains of St. James. Word got out and people started trekking to see the Saint. Then about 800 years later in 834 (or 844, on this there are different opinions), during the Reconquista, the Christians where kicking the Moors out of Spain, and in the Battle of Clavijo (this battle really occurring, is also a bit dubious) Saint James showed up on his white horse and started slaying Moors left and right, leading the undermanned Christians to victory. After this, Santiago started showing up at battles all over Spain doing his thing and putting the Moors to his sword. So Saint James became the patron saint of Spain and thus even more people went to visit his remains at Santiago. People never stopped going to visit the Saint. Since the Middle-Ages, people from all over Europe walked to Santiago. Making the pilgrimage the third most important in Christianity after Jerusalem and Rome, but with the distinction that one must walk this pilgrimage – at least the last 100km in order to gain pardon for your sins.

With such a rich history, there are many ways to Santiago. Traditionally the pilgrimage started at your doorstep, but with time different main ways appeared: there is the Portuguese way from Lisbon, the Ruta de la Plata from Sevilla, the North Coastal way, and others, but the most famous one has become the French way, el Camino francés, which I should have started by the time you read this. From the little village in the Pyrenees of Saint Jean de Pied-de-Port, and going through towns like Pamplona (fortunately not during the running of the bulls), Burgos (home of El Cid), Leon, and many small villages.

Enough excuses, enough see sawing, one must commit, push oneself. While my family will be in my beloved Mallorca swimming in crystal clear blue waters I will be carrying a backpack through the hot, dusty plains of Castile.

My approach, as it is to most things in life, is a bit of a hybrid: part old school, I have tried not to see too many YouTube clips nor Interweb blogs, part High Tech, I did buy new shoes and a new backpack (mostly because my old one had a decomposed lining). But the intention is to just walk, trying not be dependent on the phone and its connection to the outside world. Medieval pilgrims did not have Gore Tex nor moisture wicking textiles, nor iPhones to make hostal reservations and write blogs…

A train will take me to Pamplona, and a bus will carry me over the Pyrenees to begin my next adventure, I will try to keep you posted…