We walk alone; we walk a path worn by millions; we walk for ourselves and perhaps for Santiago—Saint James; and we walk, as he did, in honor of his teacher.
This walking is the unifying force behind each and every pilgrim who takes the Way of Saint James. If you can trust the walking, you might just find what you’re looking for along the path to Santiago.
To walk is human. It is essential. It unifies all. We carry only what we need, because anything extra would be a burden and there are enough burdens on the road, with the weather, with health challenges, the wear and tear.
And we are open, we are open to the companions we’ve yet to meet, to the hospitality we’ve yet to receive and yes, open also to being rescued and knowing finally when we cannot do it on our own. At those times of need, we as pilgrims, will reach out, or cry out if necessary, and ask only for what is needed.
Each and all, we are pilgrims. We are seekers. We pay homage. We are atoning for the past. No matter what our purpose, it is our time. We have made it and now we are taking it, talking the walk across the north of Spain—the very route that Christianized Spain and prior, lead to the Roman silver mines.
We will not be saved, nor necessarily transported mystically. Our lives may not look much different from how they started. You might return and people will ask: “How did it change you?” And you will ask yourself just the same. And then you might remember that you took it upon yourself to get onto this path and that alone was a miracle and each step, like each breath, is the next step and you will get where you may if you know where you’re going, but just as much, it is this step when you choose once again to walk—to walk your way because you and only you can.
All this is prelude for a walk that my dear companion and I took over a period of 44 days in the late autumn of 2010. We walked 900 kilometers on the Camino Frances beginning in the Pyrenees Saint Jean Pied-de-Port and ending at the sea in Finisterre.
The following is a daily meditation on our walk, as I myself “re-walk” these paths, reflecting daily on that day’s events exactly a year later. Memory still plays a trick or two, but it is profound, when I open up my guidebook and examine the maps, how that day comes to life in all its fullness! And I remind myself that while indeed extraordinary, that each day in our lives holds such potential to humbly walk upon with each turn holding promise for new adventures, friendships and spiritual insights.
Amongst the days I’ve written about so far, the first day feels the most sparse. This is because this day deserves the most energy and will clearly bring insights that will infuse clarity into the walk as a whole. Permit me to leave these remarks and the ongoing days for the next installment.
Copyright © 2011 Christopher Staser. All Rights Reserved.
Camino Day 1: October 24, 2010
St. Jean Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles
A year ago today we began the Camino, passing through the Route de Napoleon. Much will be said about this first day and the adventures that followed in the forthcoming kilometers of our walk. Suffice it to say I am grateful, this day bowing to the sun, as I was a year ago, that I am alive.
We reached the top of Route de Napoleon in the midst of a major storm. Little did we know that people have actually died on the first day. The only warning we’d had was that if there was bad weather, one shouldn’t take this route. The weather started great. By this point, our ponchos were mostly ripped and destroyed by the high winds and we were drenched though all layers top to bottom.
Camino Day 2: October 25, 2010
Roncevalles to Puente de la Rabia
With nearly everything soaked from the day before and still not dry by the morning. I figured that I’d just have to ask and get it dried by the hotel. This morning, I got to sit in the little rustic cafe with all its warmth against the cold, misty rain outside while the clothes dried, wearing only my little running shorts.
Nearly wanting to give up the walk, or at least pursuing it the same day… Still with our ponchos destroyed, we wrapped our bags fully in plastic and headed out through forests and scattered towns, including the same paths Hemingway once ventured. As we proceeded, the sky cleared and the hopeful sunshine found its place in our day.
Camino Day 3: October 26, 2010
Puente de la Rabia to Pamplona
A beautiful October sky followed us along the pathway, mostly along rivers that emptied out towards the city of Pamplona—the city made famous by Hemingway and the yearly Running of the Bulls. Ascending to the gates up the city, where pilgrims have been welcomed for a millennia, I felt the excitement to be in an urban center and all that it would have to offer. A small city with a population of 190K, it was the first sign of a major population center since the beginning of our walk.
The road brings us an Irish man today, who greets us with his gruff: “Hola, bonjour, hello, buen camino” while passing. It would be weeks later that we’d encounter him yet again as he was making his way back from the Camino.
He was the first actual pilgrim we’d encountered since the first day when we had passed a very relaxed German couple. I was so curious to walk with this man and soon learned of his athletic ambition—to complete the walk in about 14 days. It was my first brush with the non-contemplative approach to the Camino and it was provocative to think that someone would so rush through such an opportunity.
Camino Day 4: October 27, 2010
Pamplona Recovery Day
By the end of the third day, it was dusk and we arrived limping in the city of Pamplona. It was clear that we needed to rest a full day. Between my companion’s scattered blisters that had merged into one massive blister and my red spots on my legs we wore the proud ‘badges’ of our walk. I later learned that these marks were ‘cinches’ or bed bug bites. Suffice it to say our legs and hips and feet were feeling the pain. We spent the whole day leisurely walking the city in flip-flops, regardless of how ridiculous we looked in the Spanish streets—hey we’re pilgrims, ain’t it obvious?
Plus, Pamplona is a really beautiful place! And so were the tapas (read pinchos) and wine. We made the point to enjoy the plaza as much as we could.
Camino Day 5: October 28, 2010
Pamplona to Eunate
Leaving the big city behind us, we headed towards Eunate, which was not a city but an ancient church built in the 12th century by the Knight’s Templar in the Romanesque style. With the mountains and streams behind us, our path became dustier whilst ascending the hill to the windmills and the pilgrim sculptural exhibit. On this golden afternoon we looked up to the Pyrenees for the last time and headed westward down the hill towards new land and the upcoming vineyards.
The night in Eunate was one of the most memorable as we were received by our French hosts and accompanied by only one other pilgrim, our beautiful retired school teacher from Paris, who was walking for the second year in a row.
We arrived at dusk and were welcomed in to the stone home adjacent to the church. It was warmed with a blazing fire. We enjoyed the hospitality of a home cooked meal, over a conversation dominated by the French language. I found myself mysteriously understanding much more than I thought possible… The surprise came after desert, where we were invited into the church, over candlelight, to pray ceremoniously to the patron saint of the church and sit in sacred meditation, evoking an era so distant from the modern world. We slept in the cold home, maintaining the mysterious traces of our ceremony.
Camino Day 6: October 29, 2010
Eunate to Villatuerta
We left Eunate at the earliest time that we had left anywhere. We were operating on the Albergue rhythm, which had become our second clock. Breakfast was at seven and we were on the road by eight … not far from sunrise.
Our side diversion to Eunate put us on the other Camino, the camino aragoés, which joins with our camino frances here at Puente la Reina—where this beautiful Romanesque bridge takes us onward. This next land, with it chalky soil, is wine country!
We are told to target Casa Magica, the Magic House, for sleeping. It’s here, we are delighted to meet back up with our French pilgrim friend. Our Brazilian hosts tell us it’s the last day of operation of the season in this beautifully restored building. This night after dinner, we meet another pilgrim, Arial, from Argentina—”caminoing” by bicycle or bici. Arial with his full beard, skinny body, enthusiastic smile, becomes one of those fateful camino companions of the journey—he is also my same age. He spoke no English and enthusiastically reeled off his Spanish as if I got it all—and his confidence in me added to my own.
Oblivious to all pilgrim albergue protocol, we sat in the kitchen, with our wood stove keeping us warm while we did our first load of laundry since arriving in Spain. Here we shared wine, chocolate, beer and pieces of sundry food from our new Argentinian friend. A bottle of wine, several beers, and a bottle of laughs later, we tiptoed to the dorm room where we passed out and were awoken after nine. The proprietor shocked us out of bed, as he was completely shocked himself that we were still sleeping!
Little did we understand how regimented the pilgrim albergue routines could be. We all scampered to start the next day under laughs for what good times we’d created the night before.
Camino Day 7: October 30, 2010
Villatuerta to Los Arcos
While leaving late, this was also a very long day as we needed to get to Los Arcos and there was a great distance between the villages. Add to that, the amazing generosity of the Irache Bodegas where they offer wine to the pilgrims. We emptied one of our water bottles and filled it with wine. The placard on the wall reads:
Pilgrim! If you want to arrive to Santiago with force and vitality, take a drink of this great wine that offers happiness. The fountain of Irache, fountain of wine.
This is not the Mormon attitude towards wine that I grew up in!
Camino Day 8: October 31, 2010
Los Arcos to Viana
Up until this point, we’d seen very few pilgrims. I can count them:
There were three that we had passed the first day, who must have stopped before the weather turned. There was a couple we saw in Roncevalles who left while our clothes were still drying. That day we ran into a Swiss-German couple who had walked from their home -exceptional. The speedy Irishman. An English couple in Pamplona who had also walked the French camino (Chemin de Vézelay) and ended where we met them. Our French retired schoolteacher and Arial. We met our first American in the restaurant of Los Arcos, who had also walked from the French Camino. A French couple who passed us quickly the day before. Today, as we were leaving on a somewhat regular schedule, we ran into half of dozen pilgrims where we were actually sharing in the walk for the very first time. This was new. There was the pair of Polish, a Spaniard from Sevilla and the American from last night’s dinner. Then we saw our first Korean group of three.
All had their own ambitions, the American wanted to return for Thanksgiving, having promised his wife as such. He needed to cover much territory, and planned 40 kilometers a day to make it back in time. We knew when he passed that that would be the last time … as it was for all folks.
But for the Spaniard, the first we’d met, who appeared quite shy with all of these “foreigners” walking the camino around him, became very gregarious as I opened up our conversation. We tailed each other throughout the walk to Viana, which was really the mid-point for the day according to our guide.
Upon arriving in charming Viana, where mass had finished and the whole town appeared to be in the adjacent bar, Antonio invited us in where he treated us to Beer and Calimari and lively conversation. It was a breakthrough for my confidence in Spanish as it was 100% Spanish, but much, much easier than my last conversation with Arial.
Walking out of that bar, we decided then and there to stop for the day rather than heading for Longrono. After a siesta, we headed for dinner where a lovely group of children had gathered after their trick and treating. We were taken aback to see such a sight and not being shy, we started talking. Here we remained for the next twenty minutes enjoying the most magical of exchanges of culture and generations you could imagine—if I’d only had my camera on me!
Camino Day 9: November 1, 2010
Viana to Navarette
Logrono was to originally be our destination and you can easily see why the majority of pilgrims stay here. It is chock full of great culture. We were given suggestions as to where to go for tapas bars. Originally planning on hitting them at night, it was no matter, as November 1st is a major holiday in Spain, All Saints Day.
The signs of change started early.
Stepping into the province of Rioja was itself marked with it’s crest, it’s camino scallop logo, the vines abundant.
The outskirts where we entered, brought us immediately upon its cemetery. It was a surprise to see that this was really the equivalent to our memorial day. Thousands were dressed up in their finest and the graves were decorated abundantly with flowers.
Thus, when we came into the city, it was as lively as any Sunday afternoon, and the place we choose to try out the famous Logrono tapas was vibrant with large, beautiful looking families.
This year was an extra sacred year for pilgrims, as this is the Jubilee or Holy Year. This would mean that many more pilgrims would journey to Santiago with the chance to walk through the Portal de Perdon or Forgiveness Door in Santiago, which is only open on these rare years. The next not being until 2021.
The sign on the cathedral read:
HOLY YEAR: Journey towards the light on the tracks left by other pilgrims.
Navarette would be our target as we left the city and into yet more vineyards. Rioja is of course the most famous region of wine in Spain. The abundance rubs off on the city image of what has become a global brand.
Out in the countryside, we put on our ponchos on for the first time since we had purchased replacements for what was left of our cheap yellow ones of the first day. Purchased at El Corte Inglés, the major department store in Spain, we bought what they had, the last two ponchos remaining. They were designed for hunters.
Along the way, we had our first brush with Galacia, the last and final province of this journey, with a Gallego, who was on bike, but walked with us a distance due to the rains. He spoke an Irish-sounding perfect English, one of thousands who was forced to migrate to the UK in order to find work over twenty years prior. He spoke poorly of Rioja and looked forward to the inexpensive drinks, tapas and food of Galacia—and much more delicious food. We’d have to see.
Camino Day 10: November 2, 2010
Navarette to Najera
Today would be a short walking day. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d be eating from the vines and my companion likely ate a few unwashed grapes and started getting a sour stomach that turned progressively worse. I would be scouting for medicines at the farmacia in Najera, a beautiful town on a lush river with a cathedral connected to sacred caves.
This was also the day, a day I anticipated as I was writing yesterday, that we’d encounter the first of the camino friends that would “stick.” The ones you just didn’t share a few minutes of path, or even neighboring bunk, but rather, friends with the affinity that magnetizes you back to them time and time again.
It was today, as we stepped into the cafe in Ventosa (Population 150) for an early lunch and a respite from the cold, that we encountered Isabel and Sebastian, a couple in their fifties.
I was first taken with the delightful awakened eyes of Isabel—clearly not from around these parts. She had a vivid sensuality, a curiosity that was stunning. Her husband sat reading the paper, while she read her camino guidebook. They were the most relaxed of the pilgrims we’d met so far. I opened up the conversation on our way out just as a lone American woman came walking in, with whom we had spent a few minutes with.
Little did we know, after we’d found our hotel and rested up a bit, that we would venture into Najera center to the exact restaurant where the majority of pilgrims were dining. We sat at our own table, but introduced ourselves to the Scottsman, a couple of Germans and a few others. Halfway through our meal, this same couple showed up and were seated beside us—the first meal of many that might come.
Their English was excellent. They’d chosen to walk the Camino as a kind of cultural vacation since retiring. They were pilgrims who wore jeans, which is one of the reasons I’d mistook them at first. Jeans give you the camouflage to enjoy an evening without being immediately associated as a pilgrim … a contrast to me, with my trekking pants and hunter orange jacket.
Camino Day 11: November 3, 2010
Najera Recovery Day
How lucky we were to be traveling with open tickets. Our destination was Santiago and as an extension, Finisterre … but as to the day, we knew not when. In fact, we’d made a point to read only the guidebook for the day as we finished the current one or in the morning over coffee. We could not anticipate what great finds we just might encounter in the days down. We didn’t know the names of the major cities we’d find. All that as we lived still in a kind of social isolation, staying mostly in hotels. When we did stay where other pilgrims might be, we shared only glimpses of each other as we lacked a common language.
Today would be a day of relaxation and sightseeing.
What a magical place to be, in Najera with its extraordinary Monasterio Santa Maria de la Real(1156) with its Royal Pantheon which housed the burial place of many of the illustrious kings, queens and knights of the kingdom of Navarre. This included the legendary statue of the Virgin Mary whom the son of Sancho the Great, Don Garcia, discovered upon following his hunting falcon into a cave. The Sarcophaguses on display were extraordinary and gave one a glimpse into the far off world of chivalry and also clearly expressed the mortality/immortality of all reigns.
Other highlights included eating pulpo, or octopus for the first time. We’d heard the legend of how good it could be in Spain. Of course being an exotic treat in this region, I paid doubly for it. Najera was a small town of 7000 people and despite its legendary founding, it was the first immigrant town we’d come upon. With the many Arab cultures apparent, I had to reflect on just how much things are changing around the world …
About the author: Christopher Staser has assisted in the creation and launch of over 40 brands and several national award-winning films, videos and websites with his 15 year creative career in film, video, and branding. He is currently producing and writing a series of feature films inspired by his journeys in Spain. He is also actively developing a foreign language speaking system for wide market release.