Buen Camino

By Aviva, Elyn | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Buen Camino


Aviva, Elyn, The World and I


A FORTY-DAY WALK ACROSS NORTHERN SPAIN'S ANCIENT PILGRIMAGE ROUTE PRODUCES TRANSIENT FRIENDSHIPS BUT LASTING MEMORIES.

We waited eagerly while Philip, the volunteer in the French Friends of the Camino office in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, filled out our pilgrimage credentials. Name, address, occupation, date, means of transportation. "Walking or bicycle?" he asked. Walking. No doubt about it. Our heavily laden backpacks rested ominously on the floor beside us. As soon as we got our credentials, we were going to start walking the 500-mile-long Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route that stretches from the French side of the Pyrenees across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Santiago is the supposed burial place of Saint James the Greater, the first martyred apostle, and pilgrims have traveled from all over Europe to visit his tomb for over a thousand years.

Before giving us our credentials, which would allow us access to the free (or nearly free) pilgrimage albergues or hostels, Philip handed us a questionnaire. Age? I was 50, my husband, Gary, 60. Religion: Catholic, Protestant, other, none? Reason: religious, spiritual, cultural, sportive, other? Last year, Gary had seen the Camino for the first time when we drove across northern Spain. He had been fascinated by the pilgrims we met. "I want to know what it is that I see in their eyes. We've got to walk the Camino]" he had exclaimed. I was repeating a journey I had made fifteen years ago, when I did research on the modern-day pilgrimage for my Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. But were those reasons enough for two middle-aged, sedentary people to embark on a grueling, cross-country hike? I wondered.

Philip told us to get our credentials stamped at every place we stay, validating our pilgrimage. Then he gave us a final word of caution. "Beware of the `McDonaldization' of the Camino. These may be its last few good years." He shook his head sadly. "They're changing the Camino into a tourist attraction." We wondered what he was talking about but were too excited to pay much attention.

August 1, 1997. First day on the Camino. The journey up to the top of the pass is awesome--a narrow road that winds its way up the Pyrenees like a corkscrew, past farmhouses and shepherds' huts, up into the low-hanging clouds--and then a forest trail that leads down through a beautiful, shady chestnut forest. We walk slowly, our legs hurting from the effort. At last we reach Roncesvalles, too tired to visit the church and surrounding chapels. We're surprised by a poster advertising the Camino, showing a brightly colored cartoon pilgrim. Is this what Philip meant about the "McDonaldization" of the Camino?

August 2. The Camino is overflowing with pilgrims who have just one month to walk across Spain. Fortunately, we have six weeks. We had planned to stay in the albergue in Larrasoana, but there is "no room in the inn"--all sixty beds are full--although there is room on the floor of the church. The Camino has become very popular-too popular?--perhaps because it's been named a European Cultural Itinerary, perhaps because of all the publicity: books, TV shows, videos, road signs.

The mayor, who is in charge of the albergue, shows us books filled with notes and drawings left by pilgrims who have stayed there. We read messages from pilgrims from many nations: Japan, Austria, Tunisia, Germany, Brazil, and the United States. A Dutch family with two children, five and seven years old, who have walked from Holland. A Belgian couple who started walking in Brussels.

We beg the mayor to find us somewhere else to stay. He does: a private home, whose owners give us their own bedroom and invite us to sit with them on the terrace and eat fresh, juicy melon.

August 3. Yellow arrows painted on the sides of trees, on fence posts, on stones, form a dotted line leading us to Santiago. They lead us off the highway and onto animal paths (we step aside to avoid a herd of cows), rocky creek beds, forest trails, country roads, and newly constructed packed-earth Camino.

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