The Way of St James (Patron Saint of Spain)
Modern reasons for walking the Camino Santiago de Compostela or the Way of St James vary from the tragic- personal loss to the Bucket List, to health, cultural, spiritual and of course to religious tradition. The Camino Frances is a pilgrimage extending from St Pied de Port France and terminating in Santiago Cathedral the resting place of the bones of St James 871 km distance to the west. The ¨Way¨ as its known historically owes its beginnings to the discovery of the tomb of Saint James the Great by a hermit in year circa 820.
The pilgrimage started at your front door travelling by pathways and Roman roads eventually leading to the moderate security of one of the established Camino routes. St James was also known as the Moor Slayer, referred to by Jesus as ¨ A Son of Thunder¨ and the brother of John the Apostle. The increasing flow of international Pilgrims travelling towards Galicia soon led to the construction of Castles, Abbeys, Monasteries, Churches ,Cathedrals and towns and its this same ancient infrastructure that glues the whole way together today.
The history of it warrants a visit on the internet. The Templar Knights (defenders of the Christian Pilgrims), the fabled warrior EL Cid and the Moorish occupation all contribute to the legend. However the final zero Km marker post is located beyond Santiago at Cape Finisterre the ¨End of the World¨ on the renowned ¨Coast of Death¨ with about five percent of pilgrims electing to continue on west for the last 91 km and unadvisedly burn what’s left of their boots and clothing in a sunset pagan ritual; often mildly poisoning themselves in the process due to modern un pagan like textiles.
My reasons for walking however were very basic. I had failed my eng 1 medical on grounds of high blood pressure and was grounded literally; and therefore unemployable and on the beach. I found myself in the August heat of Mallorca watching an afternoon movie named ¨The Way¨ starring Martin Sheen and James Nesbit which covered the journeys of four strangers who were independently walking a very long hike across northern Spain at their own pace for their own reasons, the simplicity was instantly appealing.
Many thousands of pilgrims (peregrinos) join the Camino at different stages as the whole journey represents a large time commitment. Most Pilgrims complete the journey over a period of years by walking for a week at a time and completing it stage by stage. The last 20 years have seen a large increase in traffic with the internet, various books and movies all contributing to popularize the Camino. Subsequently the infrastructure including pathways, accommodation and food outlets has expanded. The lucrative tourism product provides much income and employment across northern Spain with the Government continually increasing investment, restructuring and even re- routing parts of the Way for scenic impact.
Cape Finistere perhaps is better known by mariners as the nasty outcrop of rock which perilously juts out into the Atlantic. The Cape lays claim to many a south bound vessel from England unable to beat out of the Biscays tumultuous continental shelf, stoked up by the prevailing South Westerly Atlantic storms. Three and a half decades earlier having survived 19 days fighting the storms in my home built wooden boat I had weathered the Cape mostly thanks to the Finisterre light with its RDF radio beacon.
Coincidentally the Camino Frances; St James way pilgrimage ended here at the zero km marker post infront of the Finisterre lighthouse a place where I considered my sailing life began and hopefully could resume once more. Any religious beliefs I held derived from the cold terrifying weeks alone in those winter Biscay storms navigating on dead reckoning and a sliver of a Morse code signal broadcast from the Finisterre beacon. There were demons to lay to rest here and a rendezvous to attend on the zero km marker of the St James Way.
A visit to Decathlon, a few testing night treks to avoid the day heat of August in Mallorca and I found myself disembarking an internationally-hiker laden bus in St Jean Pied de Port deep in the mountainous Basque French countryside and the gateway to the Camino.
You soon work out less is best in distance-hiking and ditch the razors, shampoo and disco shoes. The guide book actually features perforated pages to tear out once read. Seeking any advice that may be relevant, only three pieces of information were on offer from the veterans; simply … ¨ its your camino, you do it for yourself, Go at your own speed and The Camino will provide¨. These few words were to ring loud and true continually over the next few weeks for myself and fellow pilgrims they represent the anthem of the walk. Solitude on the way is a respected commodity however the people we meet and re-encounter throughout the trek, the stories and trials really are the Camino. Much has been written about the Albergues.
These legendary institutions make the Camino possible financially although comfort and privacy can definitely be a little pilgrim style. The MCA coding surveyors weren’t around when the bunk beds where installed and space wise; a superyacht crew quarters in comparison becomes relatively luxurious. Alburgues are generally spaced about 12 km apart along the Way and can be Municipal or privately run. They are the backbone of the Camino and many of them are or were Chapels or monasteries dating back hundreds of years, each one possesses its own unique charm.
Some are run on a donation (donativo) basis on departure and others can vary from maybe 5 to 12 euro’s a night. The night noises are infamous and often by encapsulating a dozen open ended bunk beds end to end with a stone wall running snugly up one side and each end, the creation of a base woofer sound tube had been achieved. This would send the uninitiated running for the corridors clutching their sleeping bags in the early hours. With the bunk beds squashed side by side and actually touching each other you also could find your self effectively in a double bed with a complete stranger. Washing facilities and toilets where always good although basic.
Access to the Albergues is granted through a document issued by the Cathedral called the Credencial. This has to be declared and stamped as you progress westward and represents confirmation of the journey and qualification for the revered Compostela. Injuries were rife crossing the initial stages of the Pyrenees with blisters in the damp weather but often self inflicted due to haste and bad preparation.
Victims of the blisters and strains were predictably the brave statement emblazoned T shirt adorned ¨awesome dude¨ types with the sought after positive ¨can do¨ attitude; (oh dear I couldn’t).. the Camino eats this demographic up pretty quick. However, even respectful well prepped doctors and competent athletes alike fail simply due to some bad luck and unforeseeable circumstances. You need some simple luck.
Food consists of a basic Peregrino menu in the evening for about 9 euros which often certainly wouldn’t compete with a menu del dia in a poligono. I felt perhaps some entrepreneurs capitalized on the one way moving lucrative tourism product and I found myself searching out local cafes not advertising any peregrino special deals. Infact food become a Calorie ¨fuel binge¨, usually a few cans of tuna fish bananas and apples as and when required. The landmark towns of Pamplona, Burgos and Lyon; the sailor in me would inevitably set course to a junk food fest, initially to the shock of fellow foreign pilgrims experiencing the traditional local cuisine.
An average days walk would be around 26km although I surprisingly managed 52km after acquiring shin flints on top of some mountains necessitating a slalom road descent as the Camino path was to extreme… its not something I plan on doing again. Some elect to forward their ruck sacks by transport thus gaining a speed increase although its slightly frowned upon by the traditionalists.
The Pyrenees Mountains, Pamplona the red clay of the Rioja vineyards, the Navarra region were now fading into the distant eastern horizon as you discover your latent walking legs after about ten days. Interestingly, floating pains may start at the ankle, move to the knee, tour around a little, you walk through them and amazingly they seem to disappear or if they explode, you’re on the outbound train; there’s not much middle ground.
Now entering the shadeless flat and hot Meseta arable region which many had simply by passed, the straight senda (path) traversed the shimmering landscape from horizon to horizon. The Meseta to me was a golden Ocean, the path is level and predictable thus relaxing the concentration required to land 28000 footfalls a day safely and allowing the mind to soar in endorphin charged rhythmic walking; a new experience. I had undertaken two disappointing (although nudging in the right direction) blood pressure tests both resulting in concerned pharmacists almost insisting on doctors intervention with the best of good will in both Burgos and Lyon.
The disappointment sent me bursting onto the street in frustration and renewed determination at full speed ahead to the tuttering consternation of the staff. Something had to change, Santiago was only 200 km ahead. With some distance left I stepped up the pace. Now high in the Galician mountains the ethereal skyscape below is one of seemingly an archipelago of lush islands rising mystically through the fluffy white sky carpet. But with clear and infinite visibility from horizon to horizon a pirate ship traversing the clouds wouldn’t be out of place. Looking to the east and the distant path already trodden and not restricted by the few miles of a sea horizon, distance becomes finite. Glancing at my aching feet the mechanic in me is now in awe of the design of the human all terrain vehicles under utilized capability riding on a fragile pair of legs.
Having pounded the senda hard for 29 days, time and distance was running short; I now felt a new level of strength and fitness and tentatively entered yet another Pharmacy. With the now familiar BP procedure completed, the blood pressure machine operators demeanor remained deadpan; no pained concerned grimaces and insistant directions to a nearby doctor, she calmly and quietly handed me the printout. The BP had fallen off a cliff! Hijacking a passing Pilgrim we shared a celebratory beer of deliverance.
The Camino had provided!
Following the pavement inlaid bronze clam shells of the City of Santiago de Compostela I arrived at the Cathedral after 37 days loaded with stories and memories enough forever. Rendezvousing with the original travelers encountered in the Basque country we feasted on beef from Galicia, bread from the Meseta, wine from Navara and Rioja regions and somehow it tasted different. Although, heading back to the Hostal, once more I found myself intercepted by a Burger King, KFC and a street Pizza vendor as two worlds collided in another unpredictable but unstoppable cravings binge. Santiago is all about farewells to now good friends, the famous swinging of the Botafumiero and the claiming of the Compostela for the religious or Certificate of Distance for others.
The Camino had provided regarding my health and so confidently, I walked hard. I wanted now to put the last 91km to bed at the ¨End of the World¨ where I became a sailor so long ago and now thanks to the Camino could possibly once more. A final painful descent into a damp mist shrouded coastal sea level with the left shin tightening up, equipment soaked and heavy in the now sleeting torrent I could feel the old ghosts rallying. I found myself once more leaning into the teeth of the so familiar South West gale only this time fortunately on foot. Surely the weather had been waiting for another ambush as it wailed violently and dramatically into the foliage along the muddy desolate path. It was perfect, just as it should be and then as in a movie the fog parted revealing a dark North Atlantic Ocean on the Costa da Morte at Worlds End and there perched on a distant bleak cliff face shrouded by the murk stood the Finisterre Light House.
Arriving at the sea after 40 days of land walking and standing next to the zero km Camino marker I felt a powerful convergence of the present and the past as two significant eras of my life amalgamated at the ¨ End of The World ¨. From the high vantage point and now with the Capes lighthouse lazily slinging its powerful lume across the breakers and into the low clouds I envisaged a small wooden sloop hard on the wind beating southwards offshore.
An exhausted and blistered young man was intently searching the dirty south eastern horizon for that same light as darkness fell 34 years back in a cold bleak November. I had been 19 days alone in the treacherous Biscay navigating on guesses and a faint radio signal reaching into the freezing purgatory of endless and dangerous sail changes. The terror of my untested but faithful sloop plunging of the crests of tumultuous seas with tooth rattling landings was unnerving to say the least.
The inflatable dingy had long since been washed away in knockdowns and the freezing mayhem had taken its toll on us both. At last the favorable wind shift had arrived permitting an attempt to weather the unseen stormy Cape- hopefully near bye, hiding in the grey filth to the south east. The iconic light fired up as the night blackened; smashing its powerful beam through the howling squalls and seemingly punching its heartening message of good will into the low hanging ugly sky. Sailing as hard on the wind as I dared we must have skimmed the rocky headland in the boiling confused seas We managed to cling on to a southerly course and escape to ¨sea room¨ with a sailors eternal gratitude to our lone stalwart defender of the Costa da Mort (Coast of Death); the Finisterre light, because there was nothing left in the tank and no where to run to.
The tourist buses were departing as the irrepressible revolving light beam sliced through the black smoke plumes of burning walking equipment in the twilight of a mild autumn dusk. Pilgrim/ Pagans released there spiritual woes, tragedy, emotional baggage and prayers in ritualistic smoke and I wished them well. I paid my respect to the Ghosts of the deceased sailors of the pre satellite navigation era whom I admire so much and had so nearly joined. I paid homage to the engineers of the Grand Senor of lights world wide, my personal savior, defender of the Worlds End, Coast of Death and all the rest of it. My Camino was now done and so I hoped on a bus to the airport.
Collecting the walking poles and ruck sack from the luggage conveyor at Palma airport it seemed a good idea to walk home and try and make sense of the whirl wind unplanned adventure; maybe burn off some of the inexplicable ongoing fast food binges. Having embarked on the trek weeks earlier and wondering if the ¨distance¨ land crossing was similar to an Ocean crossing either alone or with crew it had become brazenly apparent that there is absolutely no similarity.
The Camino was a voyage of enlightening and insight. I had the privilege to share the journey of ups and downs with fellow pilgrims and humanitarians alike in a completely unexpected adventure of discovery; spiritually and physically. To understand and benefit from the Camino properly I’m adamant it’s necessary to undertake the whole Way in one shot, simply hiking single stages yearly is great but its an entirely different journey. I now understand and echo; ….you walk it for yourself, and at your own speed. If you don’t think you need to do it, you probably need to do it more than any one. Pounding past Porto Pi and ducking into the MCA Doctors office on the off chance of a retake Medical then and there, they kindly and enthusiastically obliged. I rejoined the street with a medical certificate dispensing the maximum time permitted and inevitably it was indeed ¨five o clock somewhere¨…. The Camino will provide!
By Keith Wray
Phil Riggs: Hiking the Spanish, Portugese and French Caminos (short stories available on Amazon)
The Way : Parable and Reality and the Beatitudes of the Pilgrim. Las Senoras de las Nieves . Donativo Albergue- Church of St Stephen, Zabaldika