forty days in the wilderness.
this is just to let you know that I completed the spanish portion of the camino de santiago on 16 july. I walked 826 kilometers in forty days, from roncesvalles to finisterre. amazingly, the worst things I experienced (on a physical level) were tired feet and the occasional cold shower when the hostels ran out of hot water. I am full of gratitude for having arrived safely, of sound mind and body, in santiago and then in finisterre.
briefly, the camino de santiago, or way of st. james, is a pilgrimage route dating from the eleventh century that leads to what was once one of the most popular holy sites in christendom: the cathedral of santiago de compostela, or 'saint james of the field of stars.' legend holds that the bones of st. james, one of the original apostles of jesus, are housed in a tomb beneath the cathedral. santiago (the name of the city as well as the saint) once rivaled jerusalem and rome as a pilgrim destination. throughout the middle ages, pilgrims would walk, ride or sail from all over europe to pay tribute to the saint's relics.
the camino all but died out in recent centuries, but inexplicably began to regain its popularity in the mid-twentieth century. it is now enjoying an international revival as people from all over the world re-enact the ancient pilgrimage to the cathedral. as church attendance continues to drop, more and more pilgrims swell the ranks, walking and searching for spiritual meaning that they have not found in the pews. although reasons for undertaking the camino are many, most pilgrims state 'spiritual, religious and other' as their motivation to walk hundreds and hundreds of kilometers.
as for myself, I heard about the camino ten years ago and have wanted to do it ever since. part physical challenge, part fantastic sightseeing trip, part intensive spanish course, and part spiritual journey, it did not disappoint.
I am in holland at the moment and fly to sweden this friday. holland is way too full of museums, parks, canals and other sights for me to be spending daytime hours blogging, but here are some pictures from the camino to start off with.
first day of the camino, in roncesvalles. roncesvalles is located a few miles from the french-spanish border and is a common place for pilgrims to start their journey. the camino can be started from hundreds, if not thousands, of places all over europe -- I met pilgrims who had started walking in germany and the netherlands.
a sign points the way for peregrinos (pilgrims). yellow arrows and scallop shells are typical symbols of the camino.
words of encouragement for the pilgrim. the word 'ultreia' (barely readable under the arrow) is roughly translated as 'onward!'
many peregrinos attach actual scallop shells to their packs, in order to distinguish them from regular trekkers and tourists. I have heard that the shells were originally used for drinking water. the T-shaped cross was given to me by the mayor of larrasoana, a former pilgrim himself, and is a symbol associated with the order of st. anton, a group of monks that provided medical assistance to medieval pilgrims.
a typical sight along the camino, usually at cafes where peregrinos stop for the first coffee of the day. the walking stick, called a palo
in spanish, is a pilgrim's best friend. it can be used not only to add balance and stability on uneven ground, but to instill more confidence when faced down by village dogs.
along the camino, hospitality and lodging are provided by a network of albergues (pilgrim shelters). they typically cost less than ten euros for night (sometimes only a small donation is required) and can be used for one night's stay only. preference is usually given to pilgrims traveling on foot as opposed to on bicycle.
one of the most common sights at albergues, where pilgrims hang their daily washing. many albergues are equipped with basic facilities, such as a communal kitchen, a large sink for washing, internet and bicycle racks.
and this is how the clothes get washed at places without running water.
I spent six to seven hours a day doing just this: walking.
the spanish countryside is stunning, especially when seen on foot. cloud formations, wildflowers in bloom, insects and field mice running across the path, birds of prey circling overhead, and fields of ripening wheat cannot be fully appreciated from behind the windshield of a car.
along the camino, conversations can lead to friendships as pilgrims fall into step alongside each other. here I am with a 72-year-old retired philosophy professor from milan. it's never too late to undertake the camino.
this elderly gentleman, seen here walking next to my friend leslie in the city of logrono, told us that he had done the camino fifty times. local citizens would often encourage us with a buen camino!
(good pilgrimage!) or offer advice on places to stay further down the road.
an old stone wall on the meseta
, or highlands, that cover much of north-central spain.
a cozy communal dinner in one of the albergues, prepared by the hostel staff for the pilgrims and costing only whatever donation you would like to make.
with two new camino friends, leslie and sofia from sweden.
every tiny village in spain is as well-equipped with a local church as the larger cities. the churches are often a thousand years old and still hold a daily mass for the faithful.
the church in viana, a lovely town where we took an extra day to rest our weary feet.
the altarpieces of even the smallest churches are a riot of intricate carving and kilos and kilos of gold leaf.
a welcome sight after hours of walking: the next village.
the kindness of strangers is sometimes manifested in a free coffee stand for pilgrims. this one is maintained by a former pilgrim couple that asked themselves, 'what would we have wanted when we were walking?' and then set up a stand containing just those things -- coffee, tea, energy bars, and fruit.
more words of encouragement along the way.
a local shepherd and his flock.
a medieval bridge, still very much in use, in the town of puente la reina.
a tiny church in the middle of nowhere, originally associated with the order of the knights templar. the knights, before they were disbanded by the catholic church, protected and escorted pilgrims through the wolf- and bandit-infested countryside.
a fountain providing not only drinking water, but red wine, generously donated by a local winegrowing cooperative.
spain is not as homogenous as I had thought. in the northeastern parts, basque is as common as castilian spanish. it bears no relation whatsoever to any other european language.
I have tons of other photos and journal entries to sort through before posting. hope you enjoyed these in the meantime.