The path of a pilgrim

2013-10-02 00:00

THE peace and tranquillity of being outdoors, far away from civilisation, is soul cleansing. Such is the case as you trek along the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St James.

The Camino is an ancient Catholic pilgrimage in the north of Spain. The main route is usually from the town of San Sebastian, nestled in the French Pyrenees in the south of France, to the awe-inspiring cathedral in the historic town of Santiago de Compostela, close to the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of Spain.

Nowadays, a variety of routes can lead you to the cathedral and some pegrenos opt to continue their voyage and go further, catching a glimpse of the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

Everyone’s Camino starts in a different place and everyone’s reason for walking it is as individual as the characters you stumble upon.

I met several people who had left their homes months before, all with the aim of landing up in Santiago de Compostela.

The most common way to tackle the Camino is the centuries-old tried and tested hike, but nowadays you can also cycle it or mount a trusty steed to carry you to Santiago. The frowned-upon version of driving it is also an option.

A couple had spent months cycling from Sweden, using different modes of transport to carry them and their hardy bicycles ever nearer, as had a retired wine grower from the north of Italy, and an Austrian I met in Santiago, having left in the midst of winter and pedalled the entire way.

You carry all your own gear, so packing intelligently and light are essential but stopping for food is a good way to meet people.

We descended on Leon as this was the vibrant hub of all the main transport stops, staying the night before our travels would begin.

Home of the most intricate stained-glass cathedral in the world, Leon had an inviting European old-town feel to it. Soaking up each dappled ray of light that fell from the magnificent centuries-old windows was breath taking and hours ticked by as we slowly circumnavigated the interior.

Cathedrals were the original albergues that housed pegrenos on their epic trail to Santiago. They used to travel from village to village, spending the nights in a house of God.

Nowadays it is a totally different experience with a variety of accommodation options in some villages, although the reason for forging onwards still remains the same.

We started at arguably the best spot, in the village of Astorga. We spent some time at the Catedral de Santa María de Astorga, admiring yet another feat of Spanish architecture.

Time marched on, encouraging us to hunt for the pilgrims’ friend, the yellow arrow or sign that would guide us to Santiago.

On departing, the horizon glistened with snow-capped peaks, but it was a gloriously warm spring day, the Europeans claiming this weather to be a heat wave.

When you are marching forward for long stretches you have only the chirping birds and sound of your pounding feet hitting the gravel as company.

Occasionally, you will hear a “Buen Camino” as a cyclist whizzes past. This greeting is an honoured code between pilgrims.

The landscape was ever changing. At one moment you are determinedly climbing Tour De France-like hills, and the next cruising through lavender-lined level dusty paths, or ambling down steep rocky inclines. All of it offered the most breathtaking scenery.

Each day, as I looked at the horizon, the dominating whiteness on the mountains decreased and in its place a palette of changing colours emerged, an artist’s dream. I would pause, imagining paths obstructed with easels, as painters captured the glorious spring colours as they emerged after their hibernation.

Each town or village had its own feel. Some were derelict with ancient stone buildings all slowly crumbling to the ground. Another, situated on a steep winding hill, had six inhabitants who had set up shop purely to support the passing pilgrims, offering food and liquid refreshments.

In one village we found two chaps up on a step ladder, weaving leaves together, creating shade high above us. They had a pole with a number of large towns being pointed to, the little pointers giving you a rough guide to the distance to each of these places, Paris 1 000 km, New York many more.

They were breathing life back into the place, which didn’t have any running water and was only recently connected up to electricity.

The highlight for me, however, was the monastery built in the sixth century.

A few days out from Sarria, I was travelling with Marc from Belgium and Gary from America. The latter insisted we stop in at the Benedictine Monastery of San Xuliam de Samos in the village of Samos. We managed to catch the tail-end of the service.

Sitting at the back, we followed all the prompts from the small congregation, standing or kneeling. The priest sang beautifully through a list of saints and then concluded the service.

What was really quirky was at the entrance to the town, a small single-pump petrol station rescued passing vehicles from dehydration. Towering over the petrol station was the enormous wall of the monastery, and as a car pulled into the bay, a monk wandered out to help.

Another memorable moment was the Iron Cross on the summit of Monte Irago. The cross soars high above a cairn of pebbles, each one laid by a pilgrim.

The mound of pebbles represents a wish, a dream, a problem, a failure or a secret, and it is Camino tradition to pause here, tossing your pebble onto the pile, releasing your burden.

The Camino charges your batteries in so many ways.

You find answers to the questions that were being asked at the beginning of the voyage, and you are invigorated by nature — some people having spent six weeks or longer having the honour of being a pegreno.

For the majority of pegrenos this is a solo trip and you have the joy of travelling at your own pace. Along the way you meet some truly humble people. The conversations are intense, without the flimsy small talk.

I caught a train to Santiago, dumped my bags and wandered across in search of the cathedral.

As I glided over cobbled small roads and entered the square, I was struck by the immense overpowering beauty of the cathedral. I sat for ages, gazing up at the church spirals, the windows, the guardians and statues looking down on the square, taking in as much of the detail as I could.

I then strolled to a nearby outdoor café, where I enjoyed a Spanish black-rice paella, before making my way back to the cathedral to see it in all its beauty, showered with lights at night.

The next day, I returned to soak up the atmosphere. I sat observing the pilgrims as they entered the square. Some punched the air in achievement, some collapsed in a heap sobbing, and others embraced new-found friends.

The air was charged with a mixture of emotion as a wonderful journey ended, and another began.

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