Slouching Towards Santiago: A Journey of Discovery

by Chris Newens  |  Published May 2, 2016

The Camino de Santiago is the most trodden pilgrimage route in the Western world. Cutting from Southern France across most of North Spain, it should take a month to complete. But what should aspiring pilgrims do when they are short on time?

A typical Camino vista (Photo: Chris Newens)

A typical Camino vista (Photo: Chris Newens)

It took talking things through with another pilgrim for me to even approach an idea of what I hoped to achieve by walking just three days of the Camino.

I had not gone far from St Jean Pied a Porte, the postcard-perfect town deep in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, which is the pilgrimage route’s most common starting point. It was a bright spring day and fast moving clouds threw fast moving shadows across a dramatically rolling landscape: Alpine in every detail save that it was Pyrenean.

“Hey there!” a voice puffed from behind with Midwestern sprightliness. I turned to see a red faced young woman striding towards me like she was on a Stairmaster. From her open, friendly face it was clear that conversation was inescapable. It was an unappealing prospect, for the Camino has its own coda of small talk focused on the individual’s motivation for walking the route; the trouble was, I didn’t really know mine.

“Hi,” I said, then reached for a platitude to buy myself time: “Nice day!”

“Sure is!” the woman shot back with a grin which suggested that in the midst of a blizzard she would have said the same.

My problem was, that given the Camino’s history as the most important route of self-awakening in the Western world, I did not want to admit to others or myself that I was just here for a bit of a holiday.  But with only three days walking available to me, how could I say anything but?

“So,” I said, reckoning on the old adage that a good offence is a good defence, “what brings you on the Camino?”

“Oh, well, gee,” the Midwestern woman said, “I guess it’s kind of a journey of discovery.”

“I see,” I replied. “So what are you hoping to discover?”

“I dunno yet. I suppose I’ll figure that out as I go.”

It was an excellent answer. She was on a journey of discovery, the main purpose of which was to discover why she was on the journey. It wouldn’t work in day-to-day life, I admit, where journeys of discovery are frequently just journeys to discover where to buy milk on a Sunday, but for the sake of how I should approach the Camino from that point on, it was perfect. The woman soon Stairmastered past me, but her words remained.

As I ascended slowly out of France, the landscape became progressively more dramatic. Mountain scenery is so much about shadow and light. The sun’s white brightness gave the northern horizon an overexposed quality. A white-blue sky bled into white green-hills, dappled by pools of deep valley darkness.

The slopes nearby were carpeted in bare forest:  I had come from meadows already in the rich flush of early summer, but up here it was hardly Spring. And in the southern distance, into which I was walking, were black mountains with peaks painted in strips of glacial white. They looked liked killer whales.

Pilgrims approach a mountain shrine (Photo: Alice Selwyn Brace)

Pilgrims approach a mountain shrine (Photo: Alice Selwyn Brace)

A Path Through Europe’s History

At the Col d’Arnostéguy – which also represents the Franco-Spanish border – I decided to combine enjoying the views with enjoying a banana. I had just sat down and begun peeling when a middle-aged German pilgrim appeared next to me.

“It is a nice view, hey?” he said.

Naturally, I agreed. Then, another thought stuck me, about the Camino and its enduring role as a space of European solidarity. In these troubled, increasingly fractured times, maybe it was this sense of community that I was here to discover. I launched into a speech about how my fellow pilgrim was German and I was English, and how we were sitting on the border between France and Spain, and how this kind of meeting had characterised the Camino for almost a thousand years.

“Yes,” he said, “it is quite a summit!”

“Ha!” I grinned; now we were sharing jokes as well. “Good one!”

“What?” he frowned, and I realised that he was probably still just talking about the view.

The summit over, the next pilgrim I met was British. The path had just begun to descend, and the vast breadth of a new country was stretched out before me, when suddenly I heard a: “Mind out!” and a man on a mountain bike went skidding past, breaks applied, kicking up a trail of dust.

“Sorry about that,” the rider called once he’d come to a safe stop. “Nearly hit you there.”

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.”

“No, no, my fault,” the biker said. “You speak English?”

“I am English,” I said. “Sorry. Was I taking up to much of the path?”

After apologising at each other for another couple of minutes, we exchanged names – his was Steve – and established where in Britain we were both from. After that, Steve explained the “bloomin’ nightmare” he’d had driving from England to the South of France to start the Camino: “The traffic outside of Brighton on a Friday’s bloody murder.”

Neither of us made any mention of the fact that we’d just crossed the Pyrenees, or indeed asked each other why we were on the pilgrimage. With a sunset of fields and pine forest at our feet, the day’s journey nearly done, in that instant to mention either of those things was beyond the ability of words; so we talked about traffic instead.

Shortly after Steve peddled off, a patch of shadow swept over me, moving too fast to be a cloud. I looked up to see an eagle, improbably close and impossibly large. It banked and rose upwards, far above my head, circling its way back into France. I continued down the mountainside into Spain.

Roncevalles, a four-syllabled town of deliciously lisping sibilance, had all the exotic promise I could hope for in my first night in a new country. For though consisting of little more than a church and an abbey (which doubles as a pilgrim’s refuge), its name and location are one of the most romantic in all European history. It was here in 778 AD that Basque soldiers ambushed the rear-guard of Charlemagne’s army and inflicted on the Frankish King the only defeat he would ever know. This battle was immortalised in the Song of Roland, the earliest surviving work of French literature; recast as a conflict between Christians and Muslims, in which the poem’s eponymous hero, fighting with Durendal – the sharpest sword ever forged – laid down his life for the future of Christendom.

I arrived in Roncevalles in the gathering dusk, having left the sun behind the mountains. The abbey gates loomed dank and cool beneath the now distant blue sky, and I slunk through them, literally a footsore pilgrim in search of a place to rest. After a three-course dinner plus a bottle of wine for little more than ten euros (talk about a spiritual experience!) I found a bed in a dormitory, itself filled with the sounds of snoring and the smell of tired feet. I thought back on the day, and wondered if I’d worked out my purpose for being on the Camino. Not yet, I decided, but I was certainly getting closer.

Roncesvalles Abbey at dusk (Photo: A. Rendle via Flickr)

Roncesvalles Abbey at dusk (Photo: A. Rendle via Flickr)

Pilgrims: Their Own Attraction

The next day, now out of the Pyrenees, I witnessed the slow change from a world of wild grasses, rock, and rolling horizons to a more authored countryside of churches and villages, and fields of rapeseed and young corn. And now I was out of the more dramatic landscape, the aesthetics of the Camino began to assert themselves: that is to say almost every vista I looked upon could have been a photograph from my guidebook. This was in part because there is no single sight that sums up the Camino better than the road, and the road suddenly seemed everywhere.

Completing the scene were the other pilgrims. For while vistas of the road worked just fine in terms of looking exactly like the Camino, their Camino-ness was accentuated even further by the sight of those walking along them: Day-Glo ramblers tottering under heavy backpacks, clawing hiking poles at the dust, their floppy hats shielding them from the sun; the scallop shells of Saint James that dangled from their synthetic equipment were the proverbial cherry on the cake.

As I walked, I contemplated this further (even doing just a short stretch of the Camino offers plenty of time for contemplation). It was a kind of tourism, I thought, where the tourists themselves were one of the main tourist attractions. But wasn’t this just an exaggeration of the tourist’s ordinary state? It is the point of holiday snaps to focus the rest of the world around the holidaymaker. While everyone’s seen a picture of the Taj Mahal, they haven’t necessarily seen a picture of themselves standing in front of the Taj Mahal. What the Camino allowed people to do was a step better. While on their pilgrimage, the pilgrims became the Taj Mahal, or the Eiffel Tower, or wherever. There was no need to go taking invasive pictures of the natives, because they were the most native element of the road they were already on.

I ended my second day in Zubiri, a riverside village that had sprung up around a bridge: in Basque its name means “village with a bridge”. The sun was still hot and high, and I sat in a cool street just off the town’s main square, at a bar that was also a butcher’s. I drank a cold beer and ate freshly sheered Basque ham; any questions as to the ultimate point of my journey were soon far from my mind.

The interior of the Cafe Iruna in Pamplona (Photo: Juan Tiagues via Flickr)

The interior of the Cafe Iruna in Pamplona (Photo: Juan Tiagues via Flickr)

The Camino de Pamplona

“The urban setting is not the natural environment of the pilgrim,” announced my somewhat smug guidebook. “While the promise of tapas and wine may be tempting, towns are expensive and over-indulgence is not conducive to a successful pilgrimage.”

There was to be only one truly urban environment on my journey to not-Santiago, and it was my final stop: Pamplona. The guidebook suggested I spend the night in its suburbs. But what pilgrimage ever ended in suburbs, I thought, even a fraction of one?

Though I had only been walking through the countryside for three days, Pamplona’s sudden urban-ness was a shock, and my arrival felt a pleasingly medieval one. Here was “The City”, possessed of a scale and intensity sure to inspire wonder in those who had travelled far to see it. Cars and trains have shrunk distances, so that today inhabitants of the villages I had just walked through would hardly think twice about popping into Pamplona to go shopping, or for a night out. But by approaching on foot, I felt I was experiencing the town as people in those same villages may have done a hundred years ago, when it was over a day’s journey away and when ordinary villagers would scarcely have visited more than once a year.

The walled old town of Pamplona is built on a hill, rising like an enormous stage set above the suburbs. It bristles with church spires made falsely tall because I could not see to their foundations. Up close, the walls were fantasy novel huge. It was easy to imagine, in years gone by, pilgrims camped outside them, waiting at the whim of guardsmen to be let into the city. Today, the gate was unwatched, and I slipped in unannounced to get lost among the crowds.

My guidebook, it turned out, was correct; with every hour I spent in Pamplona, I felt my pilgrim-ness diminish. I shed my walking clothes, stashing them in a pension, and was able to disappear into the backdrop of the town.

Sat on the terrace of the café Iruna (beautifully baroque, cavernous, and phenomenally cheap, it’s quite possibly the best café in the world), watching a group of pilgrims do battle with their hiking equipment, it occurred to me how the Camino is in some respects the inverse of traditional tourism. It is a continuous river of foreign invasion that scalps the North of Spain, and which locals can gawp at: an international tourist attraction that comes to them. When you are on the Camino, it is almost impossible to hide who you are.

Shorn of my walking gear, however, I had become ordinary. And being ordinary, freed of the expectations of the Camino, the purpose of my journey became suddenly clear. It was, of course, the same purpose that I always have when I leave my front door: I may not hope for salvation, but I do look to imbibe, enjoy and learn. I hadn’t made it to Santiago, no, I hadn’t even got close, but I realised then that the true destination of the Camino was there already in the word we use to refer to it. In Spanish, Camino means road.