A pilgrim's progress along Spain's Camino de Santiago

New film, 'The Way' celebrates Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, Murray Stewart walks the classic path and a quieter alternative

5 mins

Would we mind posing for a photo with Molly?

As we stood on crowded Monte Gozo, gazing down on Santiago de Compostela, the two young Galician girls made their request. A photo would help their university project, they explained. They clutched important-looking clipboards. Near the end of our pilgrimage after five weeks of walking, full of pilgrim spirit, Cristian and I readily agreed. But who was Molly?

Wherever that photo is now, I know that only two of its three subjects are saying ‘cheese’. Facing the camera, my arm tight around Molly, I couldn’t help wonder what type of university project was based on pilgrims posing for photos with a Cabbage Patch Kid.

But I wasn’t truly surprised. After 800km of walking, I could conjure up bizarre images from a rich gallery of places, anecdotes and characters I had encountered along the way. The camino (way or path) had thrown me together with Balkan war veterans, fully robed Brazilian monks, families with donkeys, accordion-playing Bavarians in lederhosen, and contented babies being trundled along the route in pushchairs.

Deb had pushed her injured friend Cati for 45km along the camino in a ‘borrowed’ wheelbarrow. Molly the Cabbage Patch Kid was hardly the queen of quirk among that diverse collection.

Community on legs

For around 1,000 years, since the bones of St James the Apostle were supposed to have been discovered nearby, pilgrims have been heading to Santiago de Compostela. In medieval times the city became a major Christian pilgrimage site, along with Rome and Jerusalem. The various paths taken became known as the Caminos de Santiago (the Ways of St James) and their popularity ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Currently the volume of walkers, cyclists and horseriders is booming. For Santiago, the Galicia region as a whole, and the towns and villages along the various caminos leading into it, the pilgrimage is big business.

Although Spain has many routes to Santiago, the most popular is the Camino Frances. Stretching from the Pyrenees, this is The Way in the title of Emilio Estevez’s new film, due on UK screens in April. Played by Martin Sheen, the film’s main character comes to terms with the death of his pilgrim son by walking the route himself.

Whichever camino you choose, you’ll meet ‘pilgrims’ whose motivations vary from devoutly religious through therapeutic to purely adventurous. Strictly speaking, you should have some spiritual element to your journey, but even if you’re without one when you start, you may find one on the way.

For years, since I’d bought it on a whim, a print of an ancient camino map had stared down at me accusingly from my bedroom wall. Eventually I accepted the map’s challenge, setting off to walk the Camino Frances. Curiosity was my motivation, but I was certain it was going to be good, even if I didn’t know why.

That first pilgrimage was a revelation. One evening along the route, I sat in a bar and watched the Eurovision Song Contest in the company of a German, two Spaniards, a Croatian and a Finn. Never before had I felt so European. Next day, after a deep discussion about death with a bearded Brazilian, and dinner with a gold-toothed man from Benin, I realised that the whole world – not just Europe – was on this camino. It was a cosmopolitan community-on-legs, and I was part of it.

Walk, eat, sleep

From the starting point at St Jean Pied de Port, the route took me from French Basque country, over the Pyrenees to Spanish Navarra and La Rioja. Across the burning plain, we stood in the shadows of the mighty cathedrals of Burgos and León, then beneath the towering eucalyptus trees of Galicia. One Spain became many different Spains, changing cultures and landscapes, even languages. Momentum gathered with each day’s walking, pilgrim numbers swelled until we all swept into Santiago like a torrential river. As soon as I arrived, I knew I’d be back.

The simple walk-eat-sleep regime empties the mind of the stresses of non-pilgrim life. The Spartan contents of a backpack offer no material distractions, leaving pilgrims to commune and converse with each other. Alternatively, you can simply walk alone and reflect on how much deep thought is suppressed by the trivia of everyday life.

After my camino was over, and curious to see if it had passed the test, I checked the meaning of ‘spiritual’: “Relating to the human spirit or soul, as opposed to material or physical things.” It had.

A few years later I was back, my second Camino Frances. But after a week, I wasn’t enjoying myself. Something had changed.

It was 2010, a ‘Holy Year’ in which St James’s Day fell on a Sunday, bringing a huge increase in the numbers bound for Santiago: more pilgrims, but less chance to get to know them. Where was the camaraderie? Where was the solitude? So at Logroño, I abandoned my beloved Frances and took the train north-west to Oviedo, the starting-point of the Camino Primitivo – the ‘original route’.

A different way

Before resuming the pilgrim life, I gave in meekly to the twin temptations of a raucous evening on Oviedo’s boulevard of cider, the Calle Gascona, and a night in a hotel. Saturday morning’s bagpipes, an aural signature of this Celtic-flavoured town, were unwelcome music to my throbbing head.

It was time to be a pilgrim once more

The Camino Primitivo sets out through unpromising suburbs, but soon leads up into rural Asturias. On narrow roads, cars were less frequent than cows; the farmers wore madrilènes (wooden clogs); a donkey watched me indifferently from a field. The peace and contentment I had craved returned, the throngs on the Frances forgotten. That evening, little groups of pilgrims trickled into the modest hostel of San Juan, perched halfway up a mountain. There were only 12 of us. I shared the cooking with Mika and Rainer, two Germans. Domingo, the hospitalero (hostel manager) lectured us on the weather. The Primitivo would soon take us above 1,000m and snow was possible. He stamped our pilgrim passports – issued by the cathedral authorities as proof of bona fide pilgrim status, and a necessity to get into the hostels – before hanging a washing-line low over the dinner table as we ate.

We dutifully ducked our heads beneath steaming socks to make conversation.

At the end of the second day’s walk, Alejandro, the young hospitalero at the Bodenaya hostel, poured each of us a shot of local fire-water. A young man, he had renovated this old building himself, choosing like many hospitaleros to join his life to the camino. “My life is tranquillo,” he smiled.

The next morning, our little pilgrim-band set off in the rain, the clouds sitting almost on our shoulders. Asturias is one of Spain’s ‘green provinces’ and green means rain, which can visit any time of year. We took shelter and lunch in Tineo. I tucked into a hearty fabada, an Asturian pork-and-bean stew, heavily laden with parts of a pig that would never grace a British table. Delicious. To solve the mystery of vegetarian Germans, the perplexed waiter added ham to their plain omelettes.

Later, deep in the forest, Rainer found a shivering, abandoned puppy. Showing true pilgrim spirit, he carried it the 5km to Campiello. The restaurant owner told us it was the second one that day. Opposite the restaurant, we watched a game of bolo celta, a curious sort of macho outdoor skittles. It’s tough country here.

Joining the crowd

The rain departed reluctantly. When it finally cleared, it gave way to four days of pure sunshine, unveiling scenery that drew smiles from us all. Ahead, the camino stretched away across the heather and down the sunlit mountainside. Scotland? Ireland? No, just another Spain. Soon, the path would lead us up to cross the high pass of Puerto del Acebo and into Galicia.

After days of rural simplicity, the relative sophistication of Lugo and its imposing Roman walls was an urban change and a chance to escape the hostels. Despite my earplugs – a lesson learned from my first camino – the lawnmower-like snoring of Jaime from Tenerife was beginning to penetrate. Ignoring some gentle ribbing (“Call yourself a pilgrim?”), I found a hotel.

Shortly after Lugo the Primitivo joins up with the hordes on the Frances for the final stretch to Santiago. Tranquillity was replaced by an end-of-term party atmosphere in Melide, the self-styled capital of pulpo gallego, Galician-style octopus spiced with paprika and cooked up by grinning grannies. Strange, as Melide is hours from the coast. We sat and pondered this at the long, communal dining-tables of the Pulperia Ezequiel.

“Pah! All this pulpo comes from Andalusía!” The machine-gun voice belonged to my latest walking-companion, Claudia – from Andalusía. A high-energy Julie Walters, she stopped talking only to smoke, and stopped smoking only to talk.

“If I walk as fast as I talk… I am in Santiago weeks ago!” she screeched.

The end –  or another beginning?

Two days after Melide, I stood for the second time in front of the cathedral in Santiago, marvelling at its size and envious of the faith that inspires such grand-scale construction. Later, I would attend the pilgrim mass and watch the giant, smoking botafumeiro incense-burner being swung to ceiling height in the cathedral.

A sense of ceremony would overwhelm me.

At the pilgrim office, I resisted the temptation to tell the staff there that Claudia had hitched in a passing police car to Grandas de Salime to escape the rain. Pilgrims shouldn’t snitch. Instead, I simply answered their questions: “Did you take the bus?” “Did you hitchhike?”

Satisfied with my answers, they scribed my name on the Compostela, the certificate confirming that I had completed the camino: my second camino – but not my last. Days before, high on a wet mountain pass, I had already started to think about my next Camino de Santiago. But which way would I choose?

And which way will you choose? The scenery, the food, the history will all contribute, but it’s those you’ll meet, the conversations you’ll have with them and the thoughts you keep to yourself that will truly shape your own experience.

An old pilgrim poem claims, “You’ll sing with the Basques, drink wine in Rioja / Castilian sun will burn you, while Galicia awaits / And when, alone – yet still among others – you see from afar / The cathedral of our apostle, you’ll never forget the camino.”

And, indeed, you may sing with the Basques, or drink rioja wine. You may even pose for a photo with Molly. But you’ll be alone among others. And you’ll certainly never forget the camino – whichever one you choose.

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