By NAVEED GILANI
‘The Way’ is a beautiful movie about an American father, played by Martin Sheen, making the pilgrimage to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela in memory of his son who died while attempting the same. The story is, of course, fictional but the pilgrimage is not. Known as the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), it is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming together at the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. This has been a trail for pilgrims since medieval times and it has no real starting point.
After I saw the movie I had to add it to my bucket list. Yes, the same bucket list that I keep complaining about – it keeps getting longer and longer as the time to check them off the list keeps getting shorter and shorter. C’est la vie.
In order of priority, ‘The Camino’ came after the ‘coast to coast’ (C2C) trip that also happens to be on my list. In terms of the length, C2C is circa 320 kms but the Camino Frances, the route trekked by Sheen, is nearly 800kms long. You can see why it ranked lower than C2C in my list. About a year and half ago, I was all set to go on this C2C but due to exigencies of work I had to abort at the last minute. I wasn’t a happy puppy. A year went by, as suddenly as time is wont to do, without a trekking trip and I was getting antsy, I had to go somewhere so, last October when a one-week window opened up I immediately decided to go for part of the Camino Frances – the last segment.
Working back from Santiago there is a village called Sarria, at about 120 kms distance, which is where I would start and where most other pilgrims also start their walk. Besides, it would make me eligible for a Compostela which is a document issued by the ecclesiastical authorities in Santiago, certifying the completion of at least 100 kilometers covered on foot or on horseback (200km if done by bike) of the Camino de Santiago. This was a perfect fit to my one-week window. I called my buddy Munir in Houston, Texas, and shared the plan and he immediately agreed. It would fit perfectly into his already planned trip across Europe and Asia.
As I was planning, Kim, my wife, who usually lurks in the background on these sorts of trips, was suddenly taking more than usual interest in the walk. She had also seen the movie with me and had liked it. Unbeknown to me she did her own research on the walk, its terrain, places to stay, etc. and finally announced that she is coming along. It wasn’t like an ask, rather a tell statement. You see, these treks that Munir and I go for are kinda ‘guy things’. But with little wriggle room for me to drop Kim out I had no choice but to agree.
The plan was made, the actual trek marked, we decided not to make any advance arrangement for night stay as it wasn’t the busy time of the year. We had to buy trekking gear for Kim – trekking boots, pants, shirts, jackets, the whole kit and caboodle. I had two backpacks, one daypack and another multiday. I would carry the multiday and she the daypack. Upon second thought, we did make the reservations for the first night at Sarria since we would arrive late in the evening and didn’t want to go about looking for a place in a small village in the West of Spain.
Off we went, arriving in Santiago de Compostela in the evening. Munir, who had arrived the day before, met us at the airport from where we were to go directly to Sarria. We took the last bus from the airport and through the back roads of the Spanish country, touching some of the same villages that we would be trekking through, arrived at Sarria late in the evening. It had been raining, nice and nippy but not very cold, though we were prepared for cold weather.
It was Kim’s first trekking trip, she was excited. It was my first one with her and as far as treks go this wasn’t a difficult one, so I was happy that she joined. In the morning we had early breakfast, ordered Spanish omelette, which, to our surprise is not the same that we had expected it to be. This was more like an egg pie stuffed with potatoes, so this was the last time I ordered Spanish omelette in Spain. Got our pilgrim passports stamped from the police station, which was next door to the hotel. By the way, these are not the regular passport that we use for travel, you buy these pilgrim’s passport for half a euro and you get them stamped at every stop you make all along the way, at least two stamps per day is the requirement. At the end of the journey the stamped passport will make you eligible to receive the Compostela. Kim, Munir, and I have our Compostelas.
The first day’s trek was to take us to Portomarin, about 24 kms away. It was a beautiful and easy terrain along small country roads and country paths, generally tree lined, providing good shade in the sun. There are hamlets every kilometer or so, it can seem like you have just left one village as you enter the next. Along the way, we enjoyed picking wild apples from the trees, and walnuts and Macedonian nuts off the ground. We took it easy and stopped at village cafes along the way. By the time we closed the day’s trek, Kim’s legs, particularly her knees, had started to hurt. We checked into a quaint little hotel along the main street in Portomarin. Overlooking the small lane by the hotel, our room had a nice little balcony with Bougainville shrubs hugging either end of the banister giving it that typical small-town-in-Europe feel. After checking in, we went out and walked through the village and visited the Church of San Xoán where most pilgrims go in. After dinner, we went around looking for some balm or medicine for Kim’s knees, found a balm. We hoped that it would calm the pain as she wasn’t sure if she would be able to continue the next day.
Next morning, she was still hurting but wanted to continue but sense prevailed, and we decided that it would be best if she didn’t. The beauty of this trek is that if you are not up to it, all you need to do is take a public transport or a cab to the next village. We got a cab for her to meet us at the next stop. Munir and I continued on foot. Added advantage for me was that I didn’t have to carry my big backpack instead I carried the daypack with day’s supplies – water, rain jacket and all. She carried mine in the cab.
This day’s destination was Palas de Rei, a town about 25 Kms away. Again, very beautiful and green farming communities all around the walking path. Gently up the rolling country side and gradual downhill on rural dirt roads, it was an easy walk of which 10 KM was on asphalted road. Every few kilometers was a town or village where we could fill up with water and have a dose of coffee or tea. We had already agreed on a rendezvous with Kim, a small café/bar in the main town which was well known to all. It was easy to find directions to it despite the language barrier. Google translator has made life in a foreign country so easy, be it Spanish or Chinese. Kim had already checked us into a hotel and was waiting for us at the café. Her leg was doing so much better.
The Camino is very well marked and every so often there is a bright yellow arrow marked along with the Camino symbol of direction which is a scallop shell pointing pilgrims towards Santiago. Pilgrims also wear this symbol themselves which further enhances the camaraderie along this great walking trail. Kim and I bought our scallop shells on the first day from one of the shops in one of the villages. The state of Galacia in Spain has done a very good job by installing a stone marker every two to three hundred meters.
Besides the direction, these markers also show the remaining distance to Santiago, which is a great help particularly when you are tired and want the walk to be over. For spending the night there are plenty of options; hotels, hostels, and albergues (meaning shelters). Some of the places are managed by the municipalities with prices friendly to every pocket. Another great thing about this walk is that the people en route cater to every need of the pilgrims and they keep cost of the services reasonably priced. For example, for ten Euros you can feed on a nice steak or fish along with soup or salad, wine, and desert. The entire ecosystem is Pilgrim friendly. You find Pilgrims of all ages, nationalities, and races with each one coming to the pilgrimage for their own reasons.
The third day was to take us to Arzua, which was about 29 Kms from Palas de Rei. Apart from the length of the route, it was also an easy walk. The Spanish call this section the “leg breaker” not due to the surface, but due to the length. In fact, we found the entire distance that we travelled on the Camino to be easy. Kim decided to walk halfway with us. We planned to stop for lunch in Melide, a town about 15 kms from our starting point. Today’s was an easy stroll too. I wonder if I would say the same if I was to do the entire 800 kilometers of the Camino Frances. I will let you know once I attempt the entire Camino sometime in the future.
As planned, we had a nice lunch break at the town of Melide where the Camino Primitivo joins with the Camino Frances. Kim called a cab and we parted to meet at Arzua where she would have found a place for us to stay. The walk after Melide took us through Oak and Eucalyptus forests with the wonderful smell of the trees and the plants.
Arriving in Arzua, it took us much longer in finding the rendezvous that we had agreed with Kim – today, our very little knowledge of Spanish was a handicap. She was waiting for us when we arrived and took us to the hotel where she had already checked in. The first thing I did was take off my boots and soak my feet in hot water. The new pair of boots that I had also bought for me when we bought boots for Kim, were not broken in. My feet were not very grateful for this rookie mistake. This is the first tip you learn in trekking 101 – always break-in the boots before setting out on a long trek. Munir also had the same issue with his new boots. Both of us have been trekking for some time but we still flouted this basic rule. Oh, well! We keep learning from our mistakes.
As per our original plan, the fourth day would have been the final one where we would be trekking almost 39 kilometers to reach Santiago. We realized into the third day that this would be very ambitious. There was nothing sacrosanct about the plan we had drawn on paper, so we split this last leg into two days. We would now stop at Arca, which is about 22 kms into our trek on the fourth day and finish the trek on the fifth day.
Arca had a lot of sleeping places and as it turned out most Pilgrims stop here before their final leg into Santiago. This way, you walk into Santiago still fresh and in good time. Kim decided to conserve her energies for the last day and took a cab to meet us at Arca.
Next morning, we started early, when it was still dark. A couple of hours later we stopped for breakfast in this little quaint place in a small hamlet. We had been lucky that it had not rained at all since we started our trek. When we first arrived in Santiago we drove into Sarria in rain, no thunder, just nice steady wintery drizzle. The weather forecast showed sunny days ahead and we were happy that the forecast turned out to be accurate; it was sunny all the way through. This morning we encountered a slight sprinkling, which actually felt nice in the cool of the morning.
As you walk these well-trodden pilgrim’s paths you meet a lot of pilgrims who have been walking for the past 30 plus days for the love of this Apostle of Jesus Christ, St. James (Santiago). By this time in the walk the approaching final destination brings an emotional reverie to the Pilgrims. I realized this when I had an intercourse with a group who had come all the way from the middle of USA. I did not have the heart to tell them that mine was not a religiously motivated walk rather in appreciation of the bounties of nature.
We arrived in Arca early afternoon, went for lunch after dropping our backpacks at the Pension B&B. It was a Sunday and the town was quiet and mellow, not much traffic other than the few pilgrims walking about looking for an eating place. Arca is also a satellite town of Santiago and some visitors, a lot many in summer, travel to it by bus, taxi, or tours to join the last part of the Camino Frances and walk back into Santiago.
The next day was to be our final day and I could feel the onset of delight that attends to the completion of treks, be it one day or two week long – I haven’t gone for anything longer than two weeks.
We walked leisurely on our last day. It was an easy walk and part of it was close to the highway that leads to Santiago, the sight of which was a downer after four days of seeing the wonderful green scapes.
Monte do Gozo or Mount of Joy is a place about 1 hour from the Cathedral de Santiago and is probably the last point of silence and peacefulness before you reach the bustle of the modern-day Santiago. A number of miracles are associated with the Mount of Joy. The most well-known is:
“about a group of 30 pilgrims that set out from Alsace-Lorraine. Twenty nine of the thirty swore they would help each other along the route. One refused to take the oath. In Gascony one of the twenty-nine fell ill and he was carried by horse for 15 days by his companions until he could go no further at Pyrenean Puerto de Ciza. He was abandoned here by all except the one who refused to take the oath.
After praying all night, he tried to help the sick pilgrim across the pass, however that evening the sick pilgrim died on the freezing heights. A passing knight offered to help and took the dead pilgrim in his arms and the one who stayed on the back of his horse. The three of them rode all night and as dawn broke they found themselves on Monte do Gozo. The dead pilgrim was buried in Santiago and the friend finished his pilgrimage with the help of Santiago”.
We stopped on the mount for a bit, had a fill, and walked downhill, all the way into Santiago. The Camino Frances enters into the modern part of town before getting to the old part where the cathedral is located. We walked along the city traffic and stopped at a café to have lunch at the edge of the old part of town. I always find the old towns effusing a certain character, this here Santiago gave me a feeling of piety. We walked through the Pórtico de la Gloria (Door of Glory) arriving in the large square facing the final destination, The Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. In the middle of the square is the spot where all Caminos end, and which is where all pilgrims ending their walks congregate. The display of uninhibited and earnest emotions by the pilgrims arriving in front of the cathedral is a sight to behold. The religious ones hug each other and cry, others stand there and thank God for bringing them there, and still others just take off their backpacks and lie on the cobblestone on their backs and gaze at the magnificent building in front, which is what I did. Pilgrims start arriving by mid-day and continue to arrive all day. There is a festive feel to the crowd that has gathered in this square which is bounded by these grand old buildings, hotel Parador Santiago de Compostela on one end and Catedral Metropolitana De Santiago De Compostela, a university, on the other.
We went to check-in at the hotel and after stretching a bit returned back to the cathedral to enjoy the sights and the sounds of this spiritual place. We stopped to listen to the bagpipes playing ‘amazing grace’ under the door of glory and other performers elsewhere, one group was playing a digeridoo ensemble – the Australian aboriginal wind instrument in the form of a long wooden tube. Whenever I talk of digeridoo it puts a smile on my face, thinking of Danny, my youngest son, who had at one time decided to learn the instrument and had it brought in from Australia. After he tried blowing into it for a couple of days his lungs would have none of it. He dropped the learning of digeridoo which is still lying somewhere in the old house.
The next day we took a tour of the city and enjoyed it thoroughly.
I had read online that back in 1974 it took a lengthy interview by the ecclesiastical authorities to get certification as a walking pilgrim. It took us only minutes to get our Compostelas – a short wait in a queue and the showing of our stamped pilgrim passports.
After getting their Compostelas, all pilgrims – be they religious or nature lovers, transform into tourists. So, did we.