It’s a bit ironic—and a testament to the power of popular culture—that a Hollywood flick with a major studio star could lead to the revival of an age-old pilgrimage. That’s exactly what ‘The Way,’—the 2010 Martin Sheen starrer—did for the Camino de Santiago, pulling it out of relative obscurity and back into popular consciousness.
Believed to have originated in the 12th century, the 780-km-walk (also called Camino Frances—the French Way), winds over the Pyrenees, and swathes of northern parts of Spain, finally culminating at the great Cathedral Santiago de Compostela in Santiago.
With a fascinating history steeped in medieval European tales of piety, magic, war and conspiracy, the pilgrimage got a fresh lease of life in the 1970s, when Sampedro—a monk with a PhD—re-marked the ancient path with the now ubiquitous yellow arrows, unwittingly laying the foundations for a new (and lucrative) tourist trail.
But even Sampedro couldn’t have possibly imagined the scene that this writer was confronted with on a summer day in Santiago: hundreds of walkers and cyclists from around the world roll into town: American Catholics seeking atonement; English retirees; the young and unemployed chasing cheap red wine; devout Filipino and Italians intent on absolution (securing their passage into heaven!)
As pilgrimages go, the Camino de Santiago is overwhelmingly cosmopolitan. In Germany the walk has suddenly become popular after a comedian cured himself of depression by making the pilgrimage. Even Koreans are arriving in droves after seeing Camino de Santiago spruiked on a popular television show. Heck, there were even lots of atheists, on what is arguably the holiest Christian pilgrimage.
But there’s no dearth of pilgrimages in India, and that’s possibly why this writer was the sole representative of her country for all the 40 days and 40 nights that it took her to walk the Camino.
Like many Hindu gods, Santiago is believed to have re-incarnated many times along the route. They say his body was brought in a stone boat to what is today Santiago Compostela (some 80 kms inland!) only to be lost to the faithful until it was rediscovered by a shepherd, who was guided by the stars to the apostle's grave. Fantastic as this story is, it gets more interesting when Santiago keeps re-appearing as the 'Moor slayer', astride a white horse, sword unsheathed throughout the Crusades in 12th and 13th century. The many great cathedrals along the way are replete with contradictory images of James the warrior and James the pilgrim with a staff, in beggar's clothing!
For pure amusement value you cannot beat the legend of Santo Domingo de la Calzada (name of both saint and the town which marks the sight of his greatest miracle). The historical Domingo was a great 12th-century engineer and many medieval roads and bridges in northern Spain are credited to him. The story goes that a couple with their son, on pilgrimage to Santiago stopped at a village inn. When the young man spurned the advances of the inn-keepers daughter, she falsely accused him of robbery and got him hung. But on their way back from the pilgrimage the parents found their son still alive after several weeks of hanging off a tree! The couple, now convinced that their son was innocent and therefore kept alive by the grace of the local holy man—Santo Domingo—rushed to the mayor to demand the release of their son. The disbelieving mayor pointed to chickens he was roasting saying 'if your son is alive, so is my dinner'. On cue, the chickens jumped off the pan singing, leaving the mayor with no option but to free the young man! That for two Euros you can still see descendants of the two born-again hens in a cage behind the cathedral is clearly a modern miracle. However, your money might be better spent at the local confectionary, which serves up, you guessed it, chocolate chickens!
If you’re a gastronome, then there’s no better way to prepare for the trip than by devouring the beautifully produced A Food Lover’s Pilgrimage to Camino Santiago. Catholics might walk the Camino to find the stairway to heaven, but the foodie is already in paradise. Every province has a gourmet speciality.
In the town of Burgos tapas bars dispense bite-size blessings for a Euro a serve are simply sinful. About 90 kilometres on, in Astorga, Churros, fried dough sticks dipped in dense dark chocolate, will cure all ills from crippling shin splits (speaking from experience!) to depression. And Just 80 kilometres from Santiago, Melide’s ‘pulpo’—octopus immersed in local olive oil and served with chunks of crusty bread is absolutely divine. In Galicia order your sea-food paella and wait two hours for nirvana on a hot-plate. And please eschew the fast-food versions.
Avoid, at all costs the Bar Elvis made famous by its appearance in The Way—unless you like grime, smoke, tarty locals and a smarmy barman. And much like this writer you’re likely to be put off by the inappropriately named Restaurante Gandhi in Pamplona—the only Indian restaurant in 800kms.
About a week into the walk, in the tiny town of Irache, two spouts on a winery wall invite walkers to fill their bottles – with red wine!
By the end of each day you’ll find yourself craving the ‘menu del dia’ (meal of the day)—a three-course-meal for 10 to 12 Euro. Always sumptuous, often delicious, this main meal taken at midday (or at night), comes with a bottle of local red or white which can be quaffed guilt free after seven hours of walking. A young Spanish couple explain that this is a legacy of the dictator Franco, who decreed that every worker should have the right to one good meal a day at a reasonable price. Not sure if the average Spaniard drinks a bottle of wine in the middle of the day. But since siesta remains a common practice here, Spain’s low productivity rate cannot be explained by the wine alone!
The awe-inspiring moment of this pilgrim’s arrival at the towering Santiago Cathedral is only partially explained by her sheer exhaustion: the grandeur will take your breath away. Don’t forget to head to the pilgrim’s office to register your arrival and get your certificate. They say the Camino provides all that a pilgrim needs—even a certificate designed for the non-believer, with no mention of gods or saints. As they say along The Way—Buen Camino.
Budgeting your Trip
Many companies will sell you a Camino package to minimise hassles for about US$ 4000. Of course you can go it alone and do it for less: backpackers would do well to consider the pilgrim hostels (albergue) that cost as little as five Euros a night (if you don’t mind sharing your dormitory with 20, or more, sweaty bodies, orchestral snoring, and the occasional outbreak of bed-bugs). More expensive and perfectly clean dormitories cost about 10 Euros. But apart from the first two nights in the mountains, it is easy to find quite serviceable en-suite double rooms for under 50 Euros (for two), a night. It is also easy to arrange baggage transport for under seven Euros a day.
You will be walking about 20 to 25 kilometres a day for over 35-40 days and it stands to reason that you need to start preparing for this with daily walks at least three months in advance. Better still throw in longer hikes on weekends.
Almost no one can complete an 800 kilometre hike without some aches and pains. So be prepared and carry your painkillers of choice. The tiny villages you walk through won't have chemists or anyone who speaks English. If you are not an experienced hiker, consider a shorter walk—there are many staging posts along the way. A large number of the real pilgrims actually start from Sarria—111 kilometres out of Santiago. The minimum walk necessary to get your pilgrim certificate is just 100 kilometres!
If you are carrying your own gear, pack light! Best advice is that women should carry no more than ten percent of their body weight on such a long hike; men can carry relatively more, but lighter is better. Don't be fooled by the apparent gentleness of the terrain. You will need light, comfortable, rainproof shoes (remember the song in My Fair Lady: It rains in Spain!). Gaiters or rain pants are advisable as is a good raincoat. A liner or cover for your bag is essential if you are carrying all your own gear—you’ll want something dry at the end of the day. Above all, shoes are a hiker's best friend, so don’t skimp on a good pair! Blisters and shin splits force many walkers to give up mid-way and that can be so disappointing!
Work out what you absolutely cannot do without and learn how to get it in Spanish. 'Cafe con leche, grande, por favor', that is, 'coffee with milk, large, please', laid the foundation for each day's walk for your truly!