The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Spiritual deserts in Northern Spain

The cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain is believed to be the final resting place of the apostle Saint James. After being beheaded by Herod in 42 AD for spending too much time with Jesus he was immediately martyred, and his followers brought his body back to western Spain from Jerusalem. The final leg of this route has now become the most popular Christian pilgrimage in the world. 74,000 people walk it on average a year and numbers have gone up ten fold since 1987 when the route and it's 1,800+ historical buildings was recognised as the first European Cultural Itinerary. We decided to try and use this route as part of our trip as it seemed a great way of seeing rural Spain and heading further west. We would be following a simple and well marked route that was made all the more intriguing having been trodden by hundreds of thousands of men and women in past centuries as they sought forgiveness, enlightenment or something along those lines.

The common route (Camino Frances) is 31 days or so of solid walking and around 800km long. We only had a week due to commitments with the boat, but we set off to equipped with our Practical and Mystical guide to the Camino braced for faith. What we found was a little different.
The most common start-point for the Camino Frances is in St Jean Pied de Port. Hol and I went to register as péregrinos and were not that surprised to find the mix of people in the pilgrim welcome office a touch eclectic. Registration involves getting a passport for the journey which allows you to take advantage of pilgrim hospitality along the way. At first we felt a little uneasy as the volunteer behind the desk described the criteria for acceptance. As a relatively assured atheist, signing a document saying the walk would be done as a Christian pilgrimage seemed wrong. In my head I justified it as a journey of potential discovery. If there was a God then this was the time for him to pipe up and get in touch with me. I would be all reflective and open to it for the walk and maybe it would change me.
This hope was dispelled pretty quickly when the day to day nature of the Camino kicked in. The pilgrim hostels avoid over-crowding of the very cheap accommodation (between €3 and €7 a night) by having a 10pm 'in bed, lights out, silence' rule and an 'everyone out by 8am the next morning' rule. In principle I agreed with this as a way of stripping away too many freeloaders and providing some kind of routine for prayer/reflection etc. However, the effect this had was just to spill everyone onto the path at almost exactly the same time each day. Instead of sweeping beautiful spaces and empty plains to free your mind, you find yourself with sandwiched in with the same group of people all day every day.
Our group involved a French female ex-body builder who often wore the remains of the breakfast margarine smeared across her face from hastening to beat the morning rush. Then there was the bald headed and side burned female monk, the silent y-front sporting Jesus look-a-like and a coke snorting, skateboarding Italian student. At dinner Peter the art therapist kept us informed of pay disputes in the German care community whilst various Dutch men scouted around for ladies, and there was the omnipresent trio of Gallic hikers who steamed up the hills tripping at your heels only to stop at the top blocking your path to down some 'rescue remedy' (brandy), remove 8 layers of clothing or adjust their suede cowboy hats. How different my memory of the Camino would have been had we walked just a day later or earlier. The 2nd day was the hardest because we weren't prepared for weaving in and out of this menagerie of fellow walkers. The previous day's incredible solitude over the mountain passes of the Pyrenees, afforded by a late start from our hotel, had vanished as we were swept along by the other pilgrims. Instead of being able to creep within 10m or so of magnificent Griffon vultures we were 10cm from the sweating ass crack of the person in front.

Whilst our fellow pilgrims did provide entertainment for the long days, we hatched a plan for later in the week which involved sitting in the town squares drinking coffees and strapping up blisters for a couple of hours after hostel kick out time. This way the masses were ahead of us and we could take in the land in its deserted form. It also meant we got to indulge in breakfast every day which was not too tricky since Spanish pastries are arguably equals to their French cousins. My favourite became known as the 'chocolate butt trumpet' (i'm not sure if this is the correct translation). It is basically a pain au chocolat in the shape of a horn with about two dairy milks worth of chocolate in the middle and then one end dipped in more chocolate. Amazing.
This shift in timing meant that after three days of nursing blisters, aches and claustrophobia we did begin to find a rhythm to the days. With clear tracks and acclimatising bodies we started to take in the land we were passing through.

The main thing that struck us was the speed with which it felt very Spanish after crossing the mountains. The classic dry and dusty colours of the plains quickly took over from the autumnal high mountain greens, and as the steepness fell the hills began to roll out for miles in front of us. It strikes you how open and deserted this part of Spain is. Sometimes the views we took in when turning into a valley or looking out from the top of a ridge could have been those of 1,000 years ago. Ruined old farm shacks, power cables faded in the haze and roman roads lined with citrus and olive trees stretching ut to a distant church spire. It is these extraordinary moments as you stop and soak it up with chorizo and cheese sandwich in hand that make the Camino special.
Maybe we should have expected something altogether more secular when we signed up. The latest figures show the number of practicing Catholics in Spain (one of the more devout countries in Europe) to be at just 20% and declining. The fact that the number of 'pilgrims' has shot up so much would seem to be at odds with this and would suggest that people are no longer doing the walk for religious reasons. But nonetheless others we spoke to also seemed disillusioned about the lack of spirituality along the route. The majority of people seem to do the walk to partake in something of another age. It represents a different speed and challenges their lives and priorities a little.
Hearing this from others began to make me understand a bit more why it is so popular. The history is the appeal for many when instead I had looked for space for contemplation. The numbers of people even in the quieter months such as October mean it rarely feels like a time for reflection. You are jostled and hustled in the hostels, you are wedged next to strangers at dinnertimes and the route is laid in front of you like tram tracks you can't stray from. I feel the mystical awakening promised in our 'guide' would be more easily achieved by carving out your own walking route somewhere in the world. But what the Camino has is history. Although we did only the first quarter of the route we felt glimpses of what the Camino really is and also what it once may have been. Something pulls you to the Camino and I can't deny that I don't want to finish it one day. The scenery is breathtaking at times and the fatigue of walking 7 hours a day means you begin to feel just a glimpse of what it must have been like for these people who walked with nothing but a gourd, cape and their belief a thousand years ago.

There was a strange sense of leaving unfinished business with everyone else having 24 days still to go, but it isn't something I envy them doing. In the middle ages the rich would pay their servants to walk the Camino for them in order to buy their way into heaven. I didn't see a single person pray in the week we walked yet all were happy to sleep in the hostels and take advantage of the Christian charity. I fear those claiming the resurgence in the Camino signals a spiritual awakening may be deceiving themselves, but it remains a spectacular route if you don't mind a couple of extra coffees and pastries in the morning.

Camino facts:
6-7 hours a day on the road
160km walked in total
Fuel: chorizo 3 meals a day with occasional pastries, chocolate and red wine on the side
Ailments: 5 blisters, 10 aching muscles and 90,000 bed bug bites
Drink of the stage: Draught vermouth

We are now in Lisbon with Hol's mum and sister awaiting the arrival of Lista light in a couple of hours. Wet weather gear and lifejackets are laid out for the next leg down to Morocco, Canaries, Cape Verde and CARRIBBEAN!!! We spent yesterday in Lisbon's Santa Maria hospital waiting 3 hours for Hol to be diagnosed with an allergic reaction to bed bugs. This is apparently not surprising as there is an infestation that is currently afflicting the Camino, which the Spanish government is trying to sort out. Funnily enough there was no warning on the route at all. Biblical plague probably not, but it could be enough to bring the Camino back to hardcore pilgrims if it is not controlled. Tiny hostels are one thing, but a guaranteed bed bug attack is in a different league. Hmmm, maybe a sign from God...?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am covered in loads of little bites, literally hundreds. From, I assume, the four hours sleep I had in the horrible bug-infested Logrono dorm...