The Pilgrim’s Way

For a thousand years, pilgrims have trekked across the hills and valleys of Northern Spain to the burial place of St. James

  • Puente la Reina, Navarra. Photograph by Donna Yawching
  • Portomarin, Galicia; photograph by Donna Yawching
  • Bierzo Mountains. Photograph by Donna Yawching
  • Castille- Leon; photograph by Donna Yawching
  • Santiago Cathedral; photograph by Donna Yawching
  • Photograph by Donna Yawching

On a dusty roadside in northern Spain: two journalists and a donkey. Pointed west, towards the setting sun.

The story actually begins more than a thousand years ago. Then, it was a tale of hardship and danger, of deep religious fervour and miraculous happenings. Today, it is more a tale of tourism, of curiosity — but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the continuity. The Camino de Santiago has endured for more than a thousand years, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t be around to see a thousand more.

Stretching across the north of Spain, winding through verdant valleys and over rugged mountain ranges, the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James) is one of the great pilgrim routes in the history of Christianity. Its popularity peaked around the 12th century when, historians believe, as many as 500,000 pilgrims made the gruelling journey each year, coming from as far away as Sweden and Hungary. Their goal: the city of Santiago de Compostela where, according to popular belief, the remains of St James the Apostle, “well-beloved of Christ”, lay at rest in the cathedral

It was a trip fraught with danger. Bandits preyed on the hapless pilgrims; infidel Moors lay in ambush along the way; wolves prowled their campsites by night. Nor was the Spanish geography any kinder; the Pyrenees at one end of the Camino and the mountains of Cebrero at the other proved formidable barriers, particularly when the snowstorms of winter howled down the mountain passes. In between, the tablelands of Castile must have seemed almost as difficult: bitterly cold for much of the year, hellishly hot for the rest.

But still they came, those multitudes of pilgrims, pouring across Europe, down through France and across the Pyrenees; rich and poor, on foot or on horseback; saints, scoundrels, even criminals — all bent on paying homage to a casket of mouldering bones whose claim to authenticity was, at best, dubious.

There is no objective evidence to prove that St James ever set foot in Spain; nevertheless, the Spaniards insist that it was he who brought Christianity to their country, and that later — after he was beheaded by Herod — his disciples transported his body by boat back to Spain, burying it in what is now the province of Galicia. A cult of the Apostle existed from early times in that region, but it was only in the 9th century that the saint gained national significance, as Christianity’s unifying symbol against the Moorish invaders.

The adoption of St James as the patron saint of Spain launched what was probably the most successful PR job in history. With the help of the powerful Benedictine and Cluny orders in France, the Catholic Church proceeded to promote the Santiago pilgrimage to the point where it came to represent the great religious experience for Europe’s faithful. Absolution for all sins was granted to those who visited the saint’s relics; hospices, monasteries and cathedrals were constructed along the way to minister to body and soul. Legends, shrines, miracles: the Camino de Santiago created a cultural legacy that, even today, distinguishes Spain from her European neighbors.

Growing religious scepticism and border-closing wars between France and Spain contributed to the decline of the Camino in the 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, the Way of St James was itself a relic: dusty, deserted and all but forgotten in an increasingly secular world.

But today, strangely enough, the Camino is enjoying something of a come–back. Thousands of travellers — the number grows each year — are retracing the ancient route, in whole or in part. Little yellow arrows painted on trees and rocks are the work of a web of associations known as the Friends of the Camino; they mark a route established as far back as 1140, when a young French monk named Aymeric de Picaud produced the first tourist guidebook ever, the Codex Calixtinus, to aid pilgrims in this alien land. The codex, in five hefty volumes, was not exactly light reading; its much more practical modern-day equivalent is a slim red volume published by Everest — indispensable to the would-be pilgrim.

Today’s pilgrims to Santiago are a mixed bunch, as were their medieval counterparts. Young backpackers filled with wanderlust rather than religion follow the route, mainly for the network of refugios which, following medieval tradition, offer pilgrims a free — though less than luxurious — resting-place for the night. At the other end of the spectrum are those, middle-aged or well beyond, who are fulfilling a lifelong desire to walk the Camino, often for reasons of faith.

Whatever the motivation, one thing is beyond question: the Camino de Santiago qualifies as one of the world’s great hikes. To complete it is to undergo a profound physical, cultural and — even for the un-religious — spiritual experience. I know this for a fact: that was me back there, with the donkey, facing west.

It’s not as easy as you might think, buying a donkey, when your Spanish is almost as limited as your knowledge of donkeys. Our search took us to gypsy stables and livestock dealers; eventually, we found ourselves the proud owners of an animal who, when she left the dealer’s, was only six years old, but who aged with astonishing rapidity over the next few hours, with the most extreme estimates putting her at 25.

Whatever the truth, Concha (we named her after the scallop-shell that is the age-old symbol of the pilgrimage) performed yeoman service, carrying our backpacks, camping-gear and food through forests and cities, up mountains and across rivers, with surprising equanimity.

She never complained, kicked or bit. Indeed, she grew as fond of us as we did of her — to the point, in fact, where she hated us to be out of her sight. Our absence was the signal for a heart-broken and ear-splitting braying; our return triggered a great wheeze of delight. A decision to lunch in a restaurant became a major event: by the time we had finished, half the town would be gathered around an aggrieved Concha, muttering words of sympathy, or imprecations against her heartless owners.

With no malice aforethought, Concha did give us a few sticky moments. Occasionally, she would take it into her head to run away, heading towards home: it’s amazing how fast a fat old donkey can gallop when she puts her mind to it. Once or twice, she tried to strangle herself with her halter-rope; and then there were the two occasions when she stepped, unsuspecting, into a water-meadow, and sank to her stomach in mud. Those were the most frightening moments of all; but we managed to extricate her without breaking any of our collective limbs.

Our trek began at the high mountain pass of Roncesvalles, in the Pyrenees: one of the two bottle-necks through which medieval pilgrims filtered from France into Spain.

At Roncesvalles, piety meets poetry in what must surely be the great chivalric myth of all time. It was here, in the high and windswept pass, that Roland, nephew of Charlemagne, was ambushed in 778 AD by enraged Navarrese patriots out to avenge his uncle’s invasion of their country. Cut off from the main army and hopelessly outnumbered, Roland and the gallant Peers of France fought valiantly, but in vain. In his last moments, Roland blew his ivory battle-horn for reinforcements — so loudly, legend has it, that the birds fell from the trees. Fifteen kilometres away, Charlemagne heard the summons and came rushing back — too late. The flower of French knighthood lay slaughtered to a man.

The Chanson de Roland became a great favourite among later pilgrims, who sang it as they scaled the perilous pass. Guided across the heights of Ibaneta by the clanging of an old bell which the monks rang night and day, pilgrims arriving in Roncesvalles found refuge in its massive hospice of grim grey stone. In a nice dovetailing of mythologies, those who died in the hospice were buried in a small chapel constructed upon the spot where, supposedly, a sorrowing Charlemagne interred the remains of his beloved nephew.

The spectres of Roland and a thousand years of nameless pilgrims were probably hovering overhead the morning we left Roncesvalles — it was, at any rate, the right weather for ghosts. Thick fog shrouded the valley, a drifting moisture that was not quite rain. Through the deep mountain silence could be heard the distant clanking of cow-bells; from a nearby village materialised the slow snaking line of a romería — a small local pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Roncesvalles. As the day wore on, the fog lifted to reveal tiny red-roofed villages snuggled cosily into lush green valleys. Cuckoos called in the treetops, and the fields were starred with wildflowers of every imaginable colour. Sheep were creamy smudges against the distant hillsides; in the foreground, a farmer pitched his hay by hand.

Despite this idyllic landscape, that first day on the road was sheer hell. Twenty kilometres when you’re not in shape is a lot of walking. But we soon fell into a routine, starting early to take advantage of the coolest part of the day. Lunchtime was siesta-time: armed with bread, cheese, sausage and fruit, we headed for the closest tree, relieved Concha of her load and set her free to graze while we did likewise. We resumed our walk in the late afternoon, when the ferocity of the Spanish sun had abated somewhat. At night we camped out, to the companionable sound of Concha’s contented munching; through the tent flaps, we could see her huge ears twitching in silhouette, like some strange pagan fetish.

The first stage of the Camino, through the province of Navarra, abounds with charm. The little villages, dominated by disproportionately large churches, seem timeless; their manor-houses bear crests dating from the 1700s and earlier. The days (when fine) glow with a polychromatic purity of deep blues and greens. Young men fish for trout in sparkling streams shaded by splendid stone bridges; golden wheat fields are splashed with poppies, like brilliant drops of blood. The shepherd’s hoarse cry rings out across the meadows, counterpointed by the staccato bleating of his flock. The overall effect is almost unbearably cinematic.

It was in Navarra that we decided to get Concha’s hooves trimmed and shod, on the advice of a passing shepherd. She did not enjoy the experience, but it was for her own good. To the neat metallic clip-clop of her new footwear, we strode onward into Rioja.

This is the region where Spain’s best-known wines are produced; the vineyards stretch endlessly across a shallow basin of land, with the great granite shoulders of the Cantabrian Sierra rising rugged in the distance. It is here that one first gets an irresistible sense of Spain as a wide-angle country, a country of immense 180-degree vistas that mock every attempt to capture them with anything so inadequate as a camera. Towns, villages and even cities are dwarfed by this landscape.

It is a country custom-made for legends, and legends were an integral part of the ancient pilgrimage. One of the most engaging of these centres is the Riojan town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

Here, the story goes, a teenaged pilgrim antagonised a fine lady by rejecting her advances; in revenge, she had him framed for theft and hanged for a crime he did not commit. His grieving father and brothers, about to leave town, had a vision that the boy was still alive; agitated, they rushed back to the town’s mayor, who was just about to tuck into his dinner. “Ridiculous!” scoffed the mayor. “He’s as alive as these chickens on my plate!” Whereupon the two fowls — roasted, presumably — leapt up and started crowing lustily.

To this day, two live white chickens are kept in a gilded cage in the town’s cathedral, where they cluck and crow cheerfully as the priest celebrates Mass.

Nothing particularly miraculous happened to us in Santo Domingo de la Calzada — unless you count the bond of camaraderie which, we discovered, still exists between modern-day pilgrims en route to Santiago. We arrived at the refugio soaking wet and miserable; we had gotten lost, then drenched, along the way. It was not a night for camping. Left out in the yard, Concha showed her resentment by trying to kick down the back door.

Inside, a group of pilgrims — two middle-aged Belgians, a German psychologist, two Spanish housewives — were preparing a communal pot-luck. Dripping and exhausted, we had little to contribute to the feast; no matter — we were welcome. In the low-gabled kitchen that night, it was conversation by translation. There may have been moments of Babelesque confusion; but in the truest sense of the word we understood each other. Some of us would meet again along the way; others, travelling at a different pace, would disappear forever the next morning. It didn’t matter; the bond remained. That night, perhaps for the first time, I understood in some slight way what the pilgrimage must have meant to its medieval participants. Maybe that is as close as I will ever get to a miracle.

Burgos: ancient capital of Castile and headquarters of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The city was one of the principal way-stations along the ancient pilgrim route. Travellers gathered in awe — they still do — before the great Gothic pile that is its cathedral; inside, the Santo Cristo de Burgos — a gruesome little statue covered in buffalo hide and real hair — is steeped in miraculous legend. If nothing else, Burgos was a practical place for pilgrims to stop and rest, and to fortify themselves for what lay ahead. For on the other side of Burgos begins the Meseta.

Dante was wrong about Hell. Hell is the Castilian Meseta (Tableland) at the height of summer, when temperatures soar above 40°C and electrical storms crackle menacingly overhead. Hell is an endless bleached-silver wheat field, dead flat below a merciless sun, with not a tree in sight. Hell is stumbling across this mind-numbing landscape toward a village that shimmers in the distant heat-wave and never seems to get any closer. Hell is what you run into, about half-way along the Camino.

At that point, the only thing that keeps you going is the fact that you are (almost) halfway; to turn back now would be inconceivable. So on you go, staggering along the loose, rubbly paths, bearing the weight of the sun on your back like a physical load. Underfoot, quartz crystals snap and crackle like diamonds in the hard light; overhead, hawks reel high in a cloudless sky. There is no birdsong; just the hum of insects. But the air is redolent with mint and wild thyme, and occasionally, as a kind of consolation prize, the edge of a mesa offers a stunning vista. In the end, though, it’s the boredom that gets to you, and the unbelievable heat. And the mosquitoes are some of the hungriest in the world.

But the people, as if in counterpoint to their environment, are extraordinarily kind. In this region of grain fields, where families of storks build large untidy nests on the top of church steeples, it proved impossible to buy barley for Concha (an energy supplement which she adored): villagers pressed it on us and refused payment. Everyone showered us with friendly counsel: we were warned against crossing the Meseta while the evening thunderstorms rumbled in the distance — donkeys, we were assured, were sure-fire lightning-rods in this pancake landscape.

It was a relief to put the tablelands behind us, after first spending a couple of days in the city of Leon, where the cathedral is a vast prism of soaring glass. The Marogato region unfolded in rolling green hills and stone villages, before swelling into the wild and beautiful heights of the Montes de Leon. Here, on slopes covered with heather, the traveller comes upon the sad ruins of abandoned villages, their thatched houses crumbling back to earth as Nature reclaims her own. Even the inhabited villages are marked by an uncanny sense of isolation, though the closest large town may be less than 10 kilometers away. Often, there is not even a bar or a café; itinerant grocery vans offer the only available shopping.

From the Marogato we passed — briefly— through the old Templar city of Ponferrada, its unsightly slag-heaps glowering on the outskirts; and on into the steamy fecund valleys of the Bierzo, where market vegetables burst exuberantly out of the ground, and the fruit trees were positively seductive in their largesse. The villages of the Bierzo are busy little commercial centres overflowing with goods and services — no isolation here. In the heat of the afternoon, children splashed in the clear rivers, jumping from the giddy heights of old stone bridges.

The highlands of the Bierzo region are positively mythic. Mountains resemble sleeping dinosaurs, motionless Leviathans with an underlying threat of animation, as if someday they might lumber clumsily to their feet, shrug off the puny villages and go stomping down toward the sea. In this prehistoric setting, the homes are appropriately primitive: crude stone structures roofed with the slate that litters the hillsides. Cows are yoked together to pull carts; grain is harvested completely by hand. Electricity and running water are rare.

But the richness of the landscape overrides the harshness of the life: valleys are green beyond belief, meadows are velvet-smooth, the air smells sweetly of mint and fresh-cut hay. Silvery streams bubble between the trees, their water ice-cold and pure on the palate. It is like stumbling upon Paradise Lost, or Shangri-la, or Brigadoon: one of those dreamlands that exist only in the far reaches of the imagination.

Except for the rain, which was all too real. We awoke one morning to the depressing fact of water in the tent. It was the kind of downpour that could (and did) last for days. That day remains a memory of mud and misery, as we slithered down one mountain and clambered up another. We sloshed through sodden villages, picturesque turned pathetic, pathways a mush of mud and manure. We envied the villagers their sturdy clogs, curious wooden affairs with thick heels at the back and the front, to keep feet from being perpetually soaked.

It was late afternoon when we finally began the long haul up through the mountains of Cebrero, through the windswept Pedrafita Pass and into Galicia, Spain’s westernmost province. It was the beginning of the end of our journey — and, as we fought against the driving rain, arguably the worst day of our trip.

Rain is what Galicia is all about, which is probably why it attracted the ancient Celts, whose taste seems to have favoured such damp lands as Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Indeed, much of Galicia is reminiscent of the Irish countryside — verdant and misty and pastoral almost to the point of parody. Little white houses stand etched against emerald hillsides; dry stone walls divide the pastures into a patchwork. The land oozes with richness: Galician cows — of which there are many — seem fatter than their compatriots.

Weather aside, Galicia is one of Spain’s prettiest provinces: a fitting end to a pilgrimage. As we neared Santiago, the Camino suddenly became crowded with new faces: “pilgrims” who had begun their walk in the neighbouring province, within (relatively) easy reach of their goal.

It was nearing July 25, the feast of St James; with only two days to go, Concha came perilously close to not finishing the journey. This was the day she sank up to her stomach in a water-meadow, disappearing into the mud before our horrified eyes.

How we hauled her out, I’ll never know. It was a group effort, with Concha drawing on superhuman (or superdonkey) reserves of strength to heave and lurch onto harder terrain, as we pushed, pulled and shouted encouragement. It was the most terrifying moment of the trip.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Concha decided that evening that she’d had enough. She wanted out. As we set up camp in a fragrant eucalyptus grove, an old peasant passed by with a bundle of brushwood on his shoulders. As promptly as if she had recognised her long-lost father, Concha trotted after him. My companion pursued her and brought her back; but no sooner had they regained the camp-site than she lit out again in the opposite direction. This time, she led him a merry chase; I could see them skipping to and fro across the distant meadows.

As we finally turned in for the night, all we could say was “Thank God, it’ll be over tomorrow.” Concha’s wheeze could probably have been translated as “Amen”.

After 700 kilometres on the road, almost any arrival is bound to be a bit of an anti-climax. For medieval pilgrims of course, getting to Santiago was only half the battle; there was still the journey back.

But to have completed the pilgrimage was in itself a triumph, and their exultation knew no bounds when they found themselves at the foot of Monxoi (literally, Mount of Joy) on the outskirts of the city. Traditionally, they charged to the summit in a mad foot-race, the first to arrive at the top earning himself the title King of the Pilgrims, and the legal right to change his name to Le Roi, meaning “king”.

Then, washing ritualistically in the waters of the Río Lavacolla, they descended reverently to Santiago and directed their weary footsteps to the cathedral. As each pilgrim entered the magnificent portal, he leaned briefly against the central pillar, in token of having arrived safely. So many have repeated this gesture that, today, there are fingerprints engraved upon the granite.

We arrived in Santiago without ritual, having neither raced nor washed, nor even leaned thankfully into the fingerprints of a millenium. The city was in the throes of holiday fever: marching bands, brightly-dressed folk dancers, wandering musicians — and hundreds of pilgrims with euphoria in their eyes, many of whom, by this time, we knew quite well.

The centre of all activity was the cathedral: an immense architectural achievement that has grown more elaborate with each passing century. On the spot where once a humble chapel was built to house the relics of the saint there now stands an imposing Romanesque masterpiece wearing a facade that is the ultimate in fanciful baroque. That night — the eve of the feast — the already exuberant facade exploded in a fireworks extravaganza; in the cobbled square below, the packed and awestruck pilgrims felt strangely dwarfed.

The next day, the High Mass marking the feast-day was no less dramatic, featuring as it did the Santiago botafumeiro, a veritable monster of an incense burner that is only brought forth on very special occasions. So large is this contraption that two men are needed to carry it around; six tug on ropes to get it swinging. At the height of its swing, it comes close to touching the ceiling of the cathedral; flames spew wildly from its open sides. It is quite a show. Legend has it that once the chain broke and the botafumeiro flew clear out of the cathedral; one can only hope that neither man nor beast lay in its path.

And so our journey had ended, leaving the rather flat taste of “Now what?” in our mouths.

In fact, we knew the answer only too well. How do you part with someone who has become part of your life, someone who has claimed a place in your heart? Even worse, how do you sell her? For that, of course, was what we had to do with Concha.

We rested on the coast for a week or two, feeling that we owed her at least that much. Then, with heavy hearts, we sold our dear old donkey to a young Galician farmer. He seemed a kind man; we could only hope that he was.

One evening, as the sun bled its last rays across the lurid Spanish sky, Concha was led away at a brisk trot. We never saw her again.

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