Camino de Santiago

(by Bill Hannon, from IMC Newsletter Winter 1998)
The path to Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route from the Pyrenees to Galicia.

The Camino is full of interest. It traverses the Basque country, Castile and Galicia; each with its own language, culture and cuisine. It descends from high in the Pyrenees, crosses the arid plains of Castile and climbs over the Montes de León and the Cordillera Cantábrica into the green countryside of Galicia.

In medieval times Irish pilgrims (peregrinos) met at St. James’s Gate in Dublin. Making first for Tours, or for Talmont on the Gironde, they joined the French pilgrim route to cross the Pyrenees at Roncevalles.

Today, most peregrinos begin in the Pyrenees from Roncevalles. Roncevalles resonates to two different worlds; the French epic tradition and the Santiago pilgrimage.

Here Charlemagne’s rearguard, under Roland, was ambushed and annihilated. The tragic story is told in the "Chanson de Roland".

Roncevalles is the site of one of the earliest pilgrim hostels, dating from the 10th century. The existing monastery dates from the 14th century. From here, Liam Convery and I set off down the widening valleys towards Pamplona, on our three weeks walk to Santiago. As the walk is 400 miles (700 kilometres) and normally takes at least 4 weeks we were resigned to some judicious use of bus or taxi.

South west of Pamplona, at Puenta La Reina, the Camino turns due west and continues in that direction until it reaches Santiago. Along this route there is a profusion of cathedrals, monasteries and cloisters, Roman and medieval bridges, memorable bars and friendly refugios – these latter often in historic buildings. Some of the towns – Pamplona, León, Astorga – date from Roman times, but most just grew along the Camino.

At Puenta La Reina we met Peter and Joyce from the Achille Ratti Climbing Club. We were well acquainted with this club from climbing at Langdale in the Lake District. The following day, in a steady downpour which turned the trail surface into yellow glutinous mud, we met them again. This time they were struggling to get back to the road with their mountain bikes hopelessly stalled by the mud. On foot the trail was manageable and by evening we arrived hungry and tired at Estella.

The next day, approaching the legendary town of Sto. Domingo de Calzado we met Tim. Tim was a retired SAS officer from Devon who had begun his walk from Chartres in France and by the time we met him he had walked 750 miles. Tim had lost the use of one eye, he had back injuries which compelled him either to stand or lie down, and impaired balance. The result – he could walk only on surfaced roads.

We stayed with Tim in an old monastery now run by nuns.

We entered Burgos through the 13th Century Puerto de San Juan to be confronted by the massive Cathedral built between 1221 and 1261. The interior was dark but full of interest. A dramatic equestrian statue of El Cid dominated the main plaza.

At Burgos we said goodbye to Tim who intended taking two days rest. We learned subsequently that he reached Santiago some days after us, but the morning after he arrived he collapsed in pain and woke up in the cardiac unit of the University Hospital. He had to have an angioplasty. Eventually he got back to Devon.

Seen off by Tim, we took a bus from Burgos to León. We needed to gain time. León’s Cathedral is a soaring gothic masterpiece. Many prefer it to Chartres for its stained glass windows. Pope John 23rd had said "León has more glass than stone, and more faith than glass". On Good Friday we watched a procession forming and moving from the main square. There was a series of large tableaux of the Passion, each carried on the shoulder of sixty to eighty people in penitential dress. The haunting music of horns and drum beat was interrupted from time to time by solo voices singing passionately of some aspect of the Passion story. The emotion was palpable. It was bitterly cold, there were occasional flurries of snow and to the north the snow-covered Picos de Europa were clearly visible.

At Villadangos we met two Australian girls who had walked from Roncevalles and intended spending the summer in Ireland. That Sunday evening we crossed the triple-arched footbridge – in continuous use since Roman times – to the city of Astorga. A rest day enabled us to explore it. As well as the Cathedral there is an Antonio Gaudí masterpiece. a neo-gothic Bishop’s Palace, now a museum. The museum is worth a visit for its fascinating insights in to Roman civilisation and life in Spain, and the history of the Camino.

"The Camino is the real E.U." Tim had said. Undoubtedly the shared values and common purpose of "peregrinos" creates a bond. There is a unique spirit along the way.

Beyond Astorga we left behind the fields of recently-pruned vines and soon we were gaining height on an ever-rising moorland. We arrived at Rabanal in snow and found a welcoming refugio. Next morning, after an anxious pooling of weather information with Germans, French and a Norwegian we set off in a blizzard for the top of the pass. Near the top is an old iron cross set on a massive cairn of stones – by now covered in snow. By tradition, passing peregrinos add a stone to the cairn. Beyond the pass we found a recently abandoned car which was being quickly swallowed in a snow drift. Some miles further down, in a tiny road-side refugio – the only habitation for many miles in either direction – we met the driver consoling himself with coffee laced with brandy.

Two days walking bought us to the beautiful town of Villa franca. Here we needed a rest day before the steep climb over the Cordillera Cantabrica to O Cebreiro, and on to the green fields of Galicia.

It was Sunday 20th April when we set off. Long before we reached the pass the track lay deep beneath snow and enveloped in mist. A providential meeting with a shepherd, and his dog, and later a reassuring trail of footsteps in the snow, directed us to the Hostel San Giraldo. We were barely seated when two steaming bowls of soup appeared in front of us. It was a hostel of great character set in a wild remote spot, but time was now pressing so we set off next morning. We found a road which had been cleared by snowploughs and made it to Tricastle on the 21st and next day to Sarria. A pleasant walk through small hamlets brought us to Portomarin where we had the company of French, Brazilian and Japanese Peregrinos. By Thursday we reached Palas de Rei. On Friday we got to Melide, very tired but with the end in sight. The countryside was reminiscent of Ireland, green fields divided by stone walls, hills and valleys curtained with rain showers.

Saturday saw us at Arzua by midday. Exhausted, we knew we could not make Santiago by evening. The solution – a taxi to "Mount del Gozo" (Hill of Joy because Santiago Cathedral can be seen from it). From there we walked the remaining four or five miles to the Cathedral. I was too tired to respond to the glories of the famous Cathedral, or to the magnificent Plaza del Obradoire in front of it. Enough to have experienced:

The cold and wet of the Pyrenees
That long trudge across the meseta
The deep green lanes of Galicia
And finally a cathedral whose granite does seem to shimmer with gold dust *

On Sunday morning spirits revived. There was a huge congregation for the very special mass for the peregrinos. Later in the Plaza, we encountered many of the friends we had met on the way. The mood was euphoric. We had celebratory drinks. It was a time for reflection. The Cathedral, the Plaza and the historic buildings all around seemed an abiding monument to the courage, endurance and faith of the countless Pilgrims who, for 900 years had walked before us.

"Travelling on with a trust in what was there,
They walked their faith, I walk their elegy". *

* Quotations from Santiago, poems by Neill Curry.

The walk was inspired by a book written by a past President of the Irish Mountaineering Club; Pilgrim’s footsteps by Bert Slader.