Camino de Santiago  (St James Way)

Guided Walks across Northern Spain

Feet of endurance

VERONICA MATHESON, The West Australian April 3, 2010

We are walking the rocky road to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain following a path taken by pilgrims since the Middle Ages. And while we have started this 800km walk in the French Pyrenees and are walking enough track on foot each day to be on blister-alert, we are not seen as the "real deal".

We are taking another tack to the thousands of weary pilgrims who carry heavy backpacks with food and belongings and check in nightly to refugios (cheap hostels) to share dormitories with scores of other "snoring" pilgrims.

For us luggage is transported from town to town, we are booked into comfortable hotels en route, and our private bus is on call should our bodies cry out for mercy.

We want the best of all worlds. As a rite of passage we did the backpacking caper years ago, and now we want a little more comfort in our travels.

Yet we see ourselves as pilgrims with physical, mental and spiritual challenges while walking the fabled path taken by travellers since the Middle Ages. The Camino has called to each of us and we journey to the Cathedral de Santiago where St James, one of Jesus' 12 apostles is said to be buried. We may not all want to worship at the feet of Santiago (St James) but we respect those who do.

Like "real" pilgrims, we've climbed steep inclines, headed down steep declines, walked stony tracks and even muddier tracks and have all feared we do not have enough puff left to reach the next ridge. But somehow, with encouragement and support from travelling companions, we get there.

Our fitness level increases as we walk through an ever-changing landscape of farming hamlets, lush green foothills, cool forests, and flat tablelands.

Along the way we learn that everyone may travel the same road but in a different way and that there is plenty of room for all of us. Pilgrims are a veritable league of nations and somehow we manage to understand each other in brief daily encounters.

We wish "buen camino" (wishing you a good journey) to those who overtake us, and to the "lycra set" who whizz past us on machines as lean as their toned bodies. Sometimes we pass a pilgrim on crutches, or a lone traveller with his dog, or someone collapsed by the trail to rest a while.

Thankfully we are not as rushed as "real" pilgrims. With accommodation and a meal waiting at the end of the day, we have time on our side. We have a nourishing breakfast (more like a banquet) before we leave our hotel, and take coffee and bar breaks in remote villages where we are welcomed by locals as they celebrate a local fiesta, or stage a low-key bullfight. We are having a truly close-up encounter with warm-hearted rural Spain.

There is also time to explore, stop for a picnic lunch prepared by our wonderful tour crew who are caring, considerate, always full of fun, and with a deep knowledge of the Camino.

Very soon scallop shells and yellow arrows take on new meaning, whether walking in cities, country lanes, or along Roman carriage ways some 2000 years old. The shells and yellow arrows are official symbols that mark the Camino route and reassure pilgrims they are taking the right path. In medieval days the scallop shells were gathered on beaches out of Santiago by pilgrims to prove they had completed the journey.

Along remote mountain tracks we discover that shepherds still herd flocks of sheep and goats as cows with tinkling bells bring music to the rolling pastures.

There is no doubt pilgrims have breathed life into dying villages along the Camino with pedestrian traffic increasing yearly and creating a huge demand for accommodation and food. Last year some 140,000 pilgrims from around the world walked the Camino and double that number are expected this year which is designated a Holy Year.

Santiago is one of Christianity's most revered sites alongside St Peter's (Rome) and Jerusalem (Middle East).

While there are many routes into Santiago de Compostela, we take the most popular, the Camino Frances from the French Pyrenees village of St Jean-Pied-de-Port where pilgrims cross into Spain and head towards Pamplona, Burgos, Leon and on to Santiago.

The path we follow was taken by Romans and Celts, and notable historical figures such as the Spanish hero El Cid, Charlemagne and Napoleon, the Knights Templar, the Moors, St Francis Assisi. And in modern times the likes of actress Shirley MacLaine who wrote a book about how this journey can become a metaphor for life.

Our group enjoy walking and would love to have the time to do the entire track on foot. But that can take five weeks, and we have only 15 days to spare, plus time tacked on at either end for long- haul flights. But we do not miss out on Camino highlights such as a tour of Pamplona where we walk the street where the annual running of the bulls fiesta is held; meditate in the massive Gothic cathedral in Burgos that is a World Heritage site and the burial place of El Cid; and explore Leon and its ancient cathedral with remarkable stained-glass windows.

Many of us carry stones from our homeland to place on the Crux de Ferro, a simple iron cross that is an important Camino monument. We climb rocks to the base of the cross and place our stones, representing our burdens and worries, on the pile.

To avoid tedious walks through congested suburban areas our private bus drops us off in the picturesque countryside.

Often we pinch ourselves to make sure we are still in Spain as the scenery is so like the Austrian Alps, right down to wooden chalet homes with steep roofs and window boxes spilling over with bright red geraniums.

The sun is shining in Santiago as pilgrims - some hobbling with pain, others from exhaustion - celebrate the end of a remarkable journey by dropping prostrate in the huge square facing the remarkable Romanesque Cathedral de Santiago.

In the evening there will be a pilgrims' Mass, and the surreal sight of the giant incense burner that swings high through the cathedral, guided by six men holding sturdy ropes. In days of old, or so the story goes, the incense drowned out the foul smell of pilgrims who did not have the luxury of showers to refresh themselves en route to Santiago.


Walkers' World takes care of all arrangements along the Camino from accommodation in historic hotels and monasteries, to food, transport, English speaking guides and touring en route. See www.walkersworld.com.

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