An interview with three pilgrims who walked the 500-mile Camino in 2013.
Interviewer: I am here with Tom and Sue Cross, who walked the Camino in May/June 2013, and Nancy Atherton who did the same pilgrimage in September/October 2013. What can you tell us about the pilgrimage?
Tom: Pilgrims have made the pilgrimage by foot from different parts of Europe to Santiago de Compostella for more than 1,000 years, but more recently the main pilgrim route is from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella on the Western coast of Spain.
The first pilgrims made the journey to pray at the relics of St. James, one of Christ’s apostles who carried Christ’s teachings to what is now Spain. He returned to Jerusalem only to fall afoul of King Herod, who had him beheaded. Disciples of James returned his remains to Galicia for burial, and in the 8th century A.D. a shepherd had a vision and discovered St. James’s remains. They are now enclosed in a silver casket at the Cathedral in Santiago.
Interviewer: The thought of walking 500 miles over steep hills and valleys in unpredictable weather to see a silver casket is unimaginable for most people, so what inspired you to do it?
Tom and Sue: About 6 months before we started the pilgrimage, over dinner some friends asked us if we had heard about the “Camino,” to which we replied “what’s that?” They described it to us and suggested that we watch the movie “The Way,” which is a fictitious story about one man’s pilgrimage. Well, after watching the movie and Googling the Camino, we became enthralled with the outrageous thought of walking the Camino. During the next 6 months we planned, booked airline tickets, bought hiking equipment, and started training, which was interrupted by Tom’s colon surgery in January 2013. We were advised to postpone our plans but decided to “go for it,” despite frequent thoughts such as “are we crazy,” but that was counteracted by other subliminal messages telling us that we needed to do it. We left Tucson on May 7, and after 24 hours of travel we arrived at St. Jean Pied de Port at 11:00 p.m. and after a good sleep we started our climb over the Pyrenees on May 9.
Nancy: In June 2012, I was having dinner with a friend of mine, Susan Jacobson. We were talking about places we’d like to travel to, and Susan mentioned the Camino. Like Tom and Sue, I had never heard of it, but had always wanted to go to Spain (I have been studying Spanish for several years), so after talking about it for a while, we looked at each other and said “let’s do it!” Within a few months, my sister and brother-in-law decided to join us for the first 2 weeks, and Susan’s husband for the last 2 weeks. As we didn’t start until September of 2013, we had a year to train, which I, at least, needed!
Interviewer: I would like to hear later about the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional moments of your pilgrimage, but to start can you tell us about the walk and the places and things that you saw?
Tom, Sue, and Nancy: Of course, Spain has many beautiful areas with historic buildings and a fascinating history. In fact, artifacts of the earliest known human, dating back over 900,000 years ago, are at Atapuerca, on the Camino. Many pilgrims have never experienced a 500-mile walk over mountainous country, so the first 150 miles is physical while the body adjusts to new demands. Starting at St. Jean Pied de Port, the first 45 miles to Pamplona includes the 4000-foot climb on the “Route de Napoleon” to the “Col de Lepoeder.” Pamplona, made famous by Ernest Hemingway and the “Running of the Bulls,” which takes place in July each year, was founded by the Romans in the first century B.C. As such, Pamplona is like an interesting museum of 2000-year history and culture. The next 120 miles to Burgos has perhaps the most varied countryside and Spanish culture on the Camino, with rolling hills, pastoral scenery,
hilltop villages and towns, medieval churches, and monasteries. There is even a wine fountain that dispenses free wine for pilgrims! The magnificent churches with gold-plated high altars and sculptures at Santa Domingo, Navarette, and Viana remain in our mind’s eye. Burgos, a city of over 175,000, and the birthplace of “El Cid,” the savior of Spain against the Moors, is well worth the 2 day “layover” to see all that it has to offer, including the magnificent 13th-century cathedral, many smaller churches and monasteries, museums, and excellent restaurants for food aficionados.
After our rest at Burgos we are now ready for the 120-mile mental phase from Burgos to Leon. Although we pass through many small and picturesque villages, the landscape is relatively flat with wheat fields and includes an area called Meseta, which according to Susan, Nancy’s walking partner, bears a startling resemblance to Kansas! The walk is not difficult but can be hot, particularly in the summer. Highlights on this section include ruins of the 14th-century convent of St. Anton, the Canal de Castilla and locks at Fromista, and the numerous church ruins at Sahagun resulting from Arab invasions. Throughout the Camino there is evidence of Roman, French, and Arab culture.
After walking about 300 miles, we arrive at Leon, named after the Roman VII legion. As with Burgos, even a 2-day lay over is hardly long enough to explore all the architecture, history, and culture of this beautiful city. The “centerpiece” of Leon is the magnificent 13th-century Gothic Cathedral, but there are many other churches that may be smaller but equally as impressive in architecture and perhaps more spiritual. Two of these are the 11th-century Basilica, San Isidoro in the Plaza Isidoro, and the Iglesia de Santa Maria del Camino by the Plaza S. Martin. Those who have seen “The Way” may recognize the Parador where Martin Sheen stayed with his three compadres. Not many pilgrims could afford a night at the Parador, and there are signs saying “Registered Guests Only” at the entrance. (NB: as the only way to see the really beautiful cloisters of St. Martin is through the Parador lobby, those of us unimpressed by signs went in anyway!)
Interviewer. You are almost two-thirds of the way to Santiago; does that mean that you are starting the Spiritual phase of the Camino?
Tom, Sue and Nancy. In a sense, yes, because we felt that we could complete the Camino and arrive at Santiago, but spiritual events started the moment we left St. Jean Pied de Port. Even though the weather was different in May and September, we all had that special feeling of elation and emotion as we reached the summit of the Pyrenees. Some spiritual things that we experienced included dinner with a man from France who said that he was walking the Camino with his wife who had died a year previously. At first he was very quiet but we felt that we had helped him as he opened his heart to us. We met a 70-year-old Englishwoman who was walking in the opposite direction because nobody could tell how slowly she was walking. She asked about Tom’s sling and
when she saw his infected finger, out of the blue this “Angel of the Camino” said that we should see a doctor immediately. That night we stayed at an albergue and the owner/chef, who was very busy, insisted on driving us to an urgent care facility at the next town — another “angel.” After a tiring day, we arrived at an albergue hoping for a quiet night with no snoring, but we were given a bunk bed in a large dormitory. We were not happy until a little boy called Tomas wanted to give us his bottle — his smile dissolved our self-exaggerated problems. Tomas was the youngest member of the family including Tomas, his father, Tomas his grandfather, and then me Thomas his new friend.
As we walked, we met other pilgrims from different parts of the world who inspired and encouraged us, and we like to think that we helped some of them. We are still in contact with many of them. One is Awilda, an opera singer who had great difficulty walking down hills due to sore knees. Two “angels” from Poland linked arms with her and she walked down a very steep hill backwards! As we walked we imagined what it must have been like for the early pilgrims with no hotels or B&Bs, no cell phones, no small coffee shops selling café con leche, emotionally lifting our spirits for the days ahead.
Interviewer. From what you have just told me, I am looking forward to hearing about the “spiritual phase” from Leon to Santiago.
Tom and Sue. Before leaving Leon we “looked in” at the basilica of San Isodoro just as an evening service had started, and we were about to leave but something told us to stay. Although we could follow the service, we couldn’t understand the liturgy, which was in Spanish, but we were captured by the atmosphere, the music, and the obvious piety of the congregation. It was a very spiritual moment.
Although we knew that the rest of the 200 miles would be difficult, with steep climbs and potentially bad weather, we felt that we could complete the journey. The scenery was varied and in general we had very good weather until we reached Galicia, when the moisture collected from the Atlantic hit the mountains. The path from Leon to Astorga was very pleasant, with a few small towns for us to indulge in a café con leche and a pleasant overnight at an albergue in Villa de Mazarife. As we walked to Astorga, we passed over a 13th-century bridge, Puente de Orbigo, built over an original Roman bridge. We arrived in Astorga to be greeted by the Cathedral and the relatively new Bishop’s Palace created by the Spanish Architect, Gaudi. Astorga was also fascinating because of the excavation of incredible Roman ruins under the city, a reminder of the varied history of this area.
The 80-mile stage from Astorga to Sarria embraced a great variety of scenery, mountains, weather changes, charming villages, and castles. The Galician mountains are challenging and include Cruz de Ferro, at 1,505 metres (almost 5,000 ft.) and O’Cebreiro (almost 4,500 ft.). The churches at Rabanal and O’Cebreiro, both presided over by Benedictine monks, held very simple but highly spiritual pilgrims’ services, probably not much changed for centuries, and as such, created a connection to the pilgrims that went before us. In between the two peaks is the impressive town of Ponferrada, with its magnificent 12th-century Knights Templar castle. We experienced a special moment while we were in the Throne Room at the Castle with our friend, Awilda, who is a professional opera singer. It was as though the walls came alive with beautiful music as she started to sing one of her favorite Spanish songs.
Walking the Camino is first and foremost a spiritual pilgrimage, but one cannot help but be impressed and amazed at the towns, churches, cathedrals, and castles that have stood the test of time, weather, and wars for almost 1,000 years. Although we spent time admiring all these things, we also took time to make crosses ourselves and to pray at many of the crosses in memory of pilgrims who had perhaps died on the Camino.
As we mentioned at the beginning, there are many ways to Santiago, but they all link up close to Sarria, so there are many more pilgrims walking the last 72 miles to Santiago; hence, certainly in June through September, accommodation becomes scarce. Our friend Awilda, who is originally from Puerto Rica, speaks Spanish so helped us to make reservations in advance; otherwise it would have presented some anxiety since we were always behind the “main pack.”
Interviewer: After you had walked more than 400 miles, how did you feel about these “newbies” who had just joined the Camino?
Tom, Sue, and Nancy: Well, of course, many had also traveled long distances by different routes and others wanted to experience the Camino but were not physically able to walk long distances. At first it was a little disturbing, but as we walked we reminded ourselves as we were passed by fitter people and cyclists that it is “Your Camino” and do what pleases you. Many of the pilgrims were retired people from different parts of the world, but we also met families who only had 2–3 weeks available so walked the Camino in stages, 100 to 200 miles each year. There seemed to be as many cyclists as walkers, as they could complete the Camino in about 2 weeks. Also we saw some dogs and horses who did the Camino with their owners. Santiago has been there for more than 1,000 years and it will still be there whenever you arrive, but let’s move now to our final stages of the Camino.
Knowing that we had only 70 miles to go lifted our spirits with the thought that we would be in Santiago in 5 days. After walking about 14 miles from Sarria we arrived at Portomarin to be faced with a steep climb up steps to the town center, but the view was worth it. Portmarin is a picturesque town above a manmade reservoir. The Romanesque church of San Juan was moved brick by brick and rebuilt on higher ground before the reservoir was flooded.
From Portomarin, we continued through beautiful countryside and enchanting villages, including Palais De Rei, Ribadaso with its medieval bridge, Arzua, and Arca before arriving at Monte de Gozo, from where we could see Santiago. During this last stage we were blessed with good weather, which made the walk even more pleasant.
Interviewer: Now that you have arrived at Santiago please tell us about the “Pilgrim’s Passport” and the “Compostella.”
Tom, Sue, and Nancy: Yes, that would be a good idea that we should have mentioned before we started, but now is an appropriate time. Before starting the Pilgrimage, pilgrims obtain the passport either before leaving their homeland or at the start of the Camino. At each stopping place, whether for lunch, sightseeing, or overnight, there is always somewhere to stamp the passport to show where you have been. Our passports quickly filled up so we had to obtain new ones. When we arrived at Santiago, we first went to the cathedral to have our
passports stamped, then visited the cathedral, including the casket containing the remains of St. James. We then went to the “Pilgrim’s Office” to obtain our “Compostellas,” a certificate in Latin confirming that we had completed the pilgrimage, but only after we swore that we had walked the Camino for religious and/or spiritual reasons. Those who admitted to walking the Camino for tourist or cultural reasons receive a more “secular” Compostella. The next day we attended the Pilgrims’ Mass which concluded with the swinging of the giant incense burner “Botafumeiro,” originally used to physically and spiritually purify the pilgrims, while a Nun sang a very beautiful hymn.
Interviewer: Now that you have completed the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage, what advice would you give to others who might contemplate walking the Camino?
Tom, Sue, and Nancy: Well, of course we knew that question would come and we could “take the Fifth,” but for ourselves and future pilgrims we think that it is important to talk about some of our personal feelings and experiences and perhaps a few do’s and don’t’s. Before leaving Tucson, we started a blog and diligently described our activities to keep in touch with friends and relatives. We wrote a description of our day’s activity each evening and read the responses, which were a great form of encouragement, the following morning. Even now you can follow our blogs at crosscamino.wordpress.com and nancysuecamino.wordpress.com. For different reasons our training essentially started on the climb over the Pyrenees, so it is important to remember that there is a big difference between a 5-mile hike once a week and walking 12–15 miles every day for 5 weeks, so get fit early. It is essential to research the right clothing for the time of year, use hiking poles and most importantly buy the right shoes or boots and wear them over several hikes. A good-fitting backpack is also essential. For those who want to use albergues and hostels, be prepared to “rough it” and deal with a shortage of facilities and an abundance of snoring. The alternative is to use a tourist company that makes hotel reservations at specific stopping places and arranges for suitcases/bags to be forwarded to your next stop. Less flexibility, but you are assured of a bed and a shower! Tom had problems with knees and lost toenails but the overall spiritual, physical experience and camaraderie with other pilgrims far outweighed any difficulties. If your time permits, try to avoid a tight schedule and add a few days so that you don’t have the pressure of arriving at Santiago at a specific time. If you arrive earlier than you anticipated, relax and perhaps take a bus tour to Finisterre. One other piece of advice — if you feel like throwing your hiking poles down in frustration, make sure nobody is in the flight path!
Interviewer: That all sounds like pretty good advice, particularly the bit about hiking poles — it almost equates to golf clubs ending up in a tree. How do you feel now that you have completed the pilgrimage in one piece and what impact do you think it will have on you in the future?
Tom, Sue, and Nancy: Certainly there was a wonderful feeling of achievement and relief as we arrived at Santiago. We were anxious to see the Cathedral, pray at the relics of St. James, and thank God for being with us and bringing us safely to our destination. We were moved emotionally at the Pilgrim’s Mass and thrilled to meet up with other pilgrims whom we had met on the Camino. We hardly recognized each other now dressed in respectable clothes that were waiting for us at our (pre-booked) hotels. In another sense, after walking 500 miles, making new friends, seeing the incredible country, churches, cathedrals and monuments, we felt a slight sense of emptiness as to how can we be the same as when we started? Fortunately, we continued our journeys, saw new things in other parts of Europe, and eventually arrived back at our homes and our everyday lives and shared our spiritual journey with relatives and friends. The Camino is now a distant but very much alive memory and we keep in contact with other pilgrims in different parts of the world, including a family from Tucson. It is not easy to describe the impact on our day-to-day lives, but perhaps we have a better appreciation of other cultures and customs, have a better balance of priorities, and are thankful that we are blessed with the opportunity to have experienced this wonderful journey.
Interviewer: Thank you for sharing your Camino with us and I have one final question. Will you do it again?
Tom, Sue, and Nancy: One of the nice things about life is that in our memories the bad things (such as blisters, infections, lost toenails) work themselves to the back of our minds and the good things stand out as vivid memories. To answer your question, yes, mentally we would think about doing it again, but not just yet, and subject to our bodies’ physical condition. Buen Camino.
There are still tickets available for the Pilgrim’s Dinner and Reflections on Sunday, March 30, 2014, where you can hear inspirational stories from pilgrims who made recent pilgrimages to England, France, the Holy Land, Scotland, and Spain while you enjoy “pilgrim style” food and beverage from these countries. All proceeds will benefit future J2A pilgrimages.
Photos by Tom and Sue Cross and Nancy Atherton