Spain: Many motivations draw walkers to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

French hiker Olivier prepares his donkey, Cadet, in May 2014 in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, before they continue their walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The popularity of walking "The Way," as the 500-mile trail is called, has soared in recent years.


By SUE COCKING | Camino de Santiago de Compostela | Published: July 31, 2014

Stepping quietly through the dimly lit 12th-century cathedral in the small Spanish town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, I looked up to the ornate mausoleum in the rear and caught sight of something unusual in a church: two white chickens pecking around in a Plexiglas hen house.

Turns out chickens have been housed here for hundreds of years. The tradition is based on a local legend about a young German on a religious pilgrimage with his parents who was condemned to hang after a local girl falsely accused him of stealing a silver cup. According to the legend, Santo Domingo brought him back to life, but when the youth’s parents tried to persuade the town’s mayor to cut him down from the gallows, the mayor — preparing to sit down to dinner — refused, insisting that the boy was as alive as the two chickens he was about to eat. But then the chickens miraculously sprang to life and began to crow, and to this day the town has the motto, “Santo Domingo of the Way, where the roosters crow after being roasted.”

The “church of the chickens” is only one of the homespun, non-touristy and somewhat otherworldly attractions found along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or the Way of St. James — an ancient pilgrim route supposedly traveled by the apostle to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ on the Iberian peninsula.

A network of paths, trails and paved roads snakes through Spain, France and Portugal — all leading to the northwest corner of Spain and the city of Santiago de Compostela, where some believe St. James is buried in the crypt in the cathedral. The most popular route is the Camino Frances, or French Way, which originates in the small town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port, climbs the Pyrenees mountains and covers almost the entire width of northern Spain for nearly 500 miles.

Walking “the Way” has soared in popularity in recent years — fueled in the United States by the 2010 movie of the same name starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, and elsewhere by several best-selling books. Last year, more than 272,000 people from all over the world hiked, biked or rode horses and donkeys on all or parts of the route. Based on the throngs observed during my recent trip with my longtime friend Linda Luizza of Key West, Fla., it wouldn’t surprise me to see that number surpassed in 2014.

As a pharmacist in the town of Fromista told me: “This used to be a European route; now it’s the avenue of the world.”

The reasons people walk the Camino vary from person to person — religious pilgrimage, spiritual quest, outdoor exploration, exercise, cultural absorption. But those who commit to the entire Camino Frances are an especially dedicated subgroup. Traveling nearly 500 miles in unfamiliar, often rugged, terrain in weather that veers from sunny and warm to hail and fog sometimes in a single day is taxing and stressful, but ultimately fulfilling.

For Luizza, an active member of a Catholic church, hiking the Camino Frances represented a lesson in spiritual geography. For me, the trip was simply a chance to spend more than a month exploring the outdoors of a beautiful country that I had never visited.

But first we had to conquer the Pyrenees.

Definitely the most rigorous part of our five-week journey, crossing the mountain range that separates France and Spain so intimidates some would-be pilgrims that they skip it and start their hike on the Spanish side in the tiny burb of Roncesvalles.

Not us. We were determined to complete the 15-mile passage on foot in one day.

We donned our backpacks and set out in the morning in a light drizzle, joined by another 100 or so walkers — all of us following the distinctive Camino marks of a yellow scallop shell embedded in blue tile with an arrow pointing the way. Over the next five weeks, those markers, supplemented by yellow arrows painted on sidewalks, cinderblock walls and other structures, would be our sole navigational tool.

The steep road leading out of town gave way to an even steeper earthen path through vibrant green pastures where horses and sheep grazed. Sometime after midday when I made it to the path’s highest point at more than 4,700 feet, the drizzle turned to snow and the wind increased to what felt like 30 miles per hour.

It took almost exactly eight hours to reach Roncesvalles, during which time the snow briefly became hail and so muddied the downhill forest path that numerous pilgrims — including me — lost their footing and fell. A Croatian woman grabbed me and set me on my feet, unhurt. Luizza showed up about an hour and a half later.

“As I was walking across the mountains, they were speaking to me,” she reported.

And what did they say, I asked.

“They said, ‘I am going to kick your butt,’ ’’ she deadpanned.

We secured a room in the Hostal La Posada, which served delicious, salt-rubbed, broiled trout for dinner. Many other pilgrims opted to stay at the 180-bed pilgrim hostel next door, which charged only 10 euros (about $14) per night and awakened guests the following morning with a guitar serenade of Beatles songs.

The weather improved as Luizza and I made our way westward to Pamplona. We stayed only one night in a small pension, then continued west toward the 2,600-foot Alto de Perdon, or Hill of Forgiveness.

The hill is a high, scenic spot decorated with metal sculptures of medieval pilgrims adjacent to a massive wind farm. The spinning blades hum like airplane propellers when you are close to them. When you get far enough away, the wind rushing across the grassy hillsides sounds almost like a Gregorian chant.

A must-stop on the Camino is the celebrated wine fountain behind the Bodegas Irache just outside the town of Estella. Here, pilgrims can drink free vino (documented by the watchful web cam) to fortify themselves for the next leg of their journey.

On the Camino, you meet all kinds of people who have come from more countries than make up the U.N. For the most part, they are polite and kind, offering the standard, cheerful greeting of “Buen camino!” when passing you on the path and offering assistance to fellow pilgrims suffering from blisters or orthopedic problems.

Besides colorful characters, the Camino is riddled with ancient, beautiful churches — so many that it’s impossible to visit even a fraction of them in the one to two months that most walkers allot themselves. One of the more outstanding edifices is the 13th-century Cathedral of Leon, renowned for its Gothic architecture and stained glass windows. Magnificent in the sunlight, it is even more overwhelming illuminated at night.

Many of the old churches, particularly in the mostly flat 62 miles from Santiago — about a five-day hike — and the minimum distance a pilgrim has to walk in order to pick up a Compostela, or certificate of completion. We noticed many more pilgrims staging here, and many didn’t wear backpacks, opting instead to have delivery services carry their luggage from town to town.

Unlike previous sections of the Camino, we were never alone on the 14-mile segment from Sarria to Portomarin, crowded with walkers and bicyclists.

For the next two days, it either drizzled or poured. But on the morning of the final 12 ½-mile leg from O’Pedrouzo to the finish line, sun lit the path. After about five hours of walking, I arrived in the Promised Land. I thought I’d feel some kind of emotion, but mostly it was just the relief you feel after completing a very long, somewhat arduous project.

Luizza and I waited in line for more than an hour at the pilgrim office to obtain our Compostelas. Then we attended evening Mass at the cathedral along with what seemed like thousands of other pilgrims. The highlight of the service was when eight priests used heavy ropes on pulleys to sling a huge silver ball filled with smoking incense called the Botafumeiro across the chapel. Various legends say the custom was born of a need to disguise stinky pilgrim odor or to help prevent the spread of plague and other diseases among the masses.

I considered it a fitting graduation ceremony after the longest walk of my life.


Many motivations draw walkers to Spain’s Camino de Compostela

Linda Luizza takes a free glass at the wine fountain near the Bodegas Irache, just outside of town of Estella, Spain, in May 2014 while hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compastala.

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