An article in a local newspaper some years back described an ancient pilgrim’s route, the Camino Francés in Spain. It grabbed my attention and was the onset of a number of pilgrimages walked by now and their positive effects on my life.
After purchasing the book ‘A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago’ written by John Brierley, a knee operation delayed further planning for a year but one day Uta, my wife, caught me fingering backpacks at Cape Union Mart at the Waterfront in Cape Town and she questioned my intentions. That was the end of my dallying, and real action was about to start; the Camino Francés Journey could finally begin. After researching the route and related circumstances, we concluded that I would fly to Madrid, take the train to Frómista and walk the 470 kilometres to Santiago de Compostela. I estimated that this would take me about twenty five days. Backpack, shoes, walking sticks, suitable clothes and other essentials were purchased and my pilgrim’s pass from the confraternity of St James in Cape Town was organised. In the meantime I crammed some fitness training into the short period that remained before my departure.
The plane from Cape Town to Madrid was packed and, although the flight was long and uncomfortable, the excitement and anxiety about things to come kept me going. In comparison the three-and-a-bit hour long train ride to Palencia, (I caught the slow train by mistake), followed by the regional train to Fromista, was simple, relaxing and at the same time exhilarating. Frómista is situated roughly halfway along the 800 km stretch of the Camino Francés, which starts in St Jean Pied de Port in France and ends in Santiago de Compostela, in the province of Galicia, close to the Atlantic Ocean in the north western corner of Spain. Similar to the English word ‘path’, the word ‘Camino’ in Spanish refers to a minor road, a trail or track – my pathway to follow for weeks to come.
In order not to starve while on the train I purchased rolls, salami and cheese at Chamartin Train Station, but, as it turned out, whatever I bought was too fatty, risky for new pants and shirt – and everybody knows the discomfort of greasy fingers while travelling. Consequently, although too much, I ate all of it and made a mental note to find less fatty provisions in future – perhaps hard cheese, hard salami-type sausages, fruit, tinned beans, (although I had no opener with me), and whatever else was available. My rolls were embarrassingly crumbly and I was concerned that other passengers would have to put up with the mess under my seat. The sling bag which I carry separately from my backpack, was reserved for items requiring easy access during walking. It was far too full; two spectacle cases cluttered up the limited space, so I dumped these and some other superfluous odds and ends and the bag became much more manageable. Reading glasses were now kept in my shirt pocket, dictionary in the trouser zip-up and sunglasses on top of my head – all within easy reach.
I had the feeling that some people were puzzled about my sling bag, which actually belongs to my wife. It was the most practical bag I could find to store water bottle, guidebook, diary, sun cream, and some provisions. This bag has a distinctly printed leopard pattern and was later admired by a number of female pilgrims on the way. No matter: the bag was well suited for the purpose and hopefully fat resistant.
My backpack was placed in the luggage rack above me and when I got thirsty I pulled out the water bottle but could only grip the nozzle. The result was that water leaked into the bag and onto the seat and this, as I found out later, had serious consequences.
Eight other backpacks were stored in luggage racks of my coach and I took this as a sign of the traffic to be expected on the Camino and in albergues. I wished the related backpackers would disembark in León and not in Palencia – for transfer to the regional train to Frómista, so that my bed for the night in the albergue would be secured. Despite the captain’s warnings on the plane I forgot to switch off my cell phone – and now the battery was flat; I hoped Uta had received my last SMS sent from the train, if not, she would have concerns about my whereabouts.
We passed through an industrial area of Valladolid, interspersed with 1950s houses and apartment blocks – nothing historic to observe along the railway line. However, a bit further on an ancient farmstead emerged, with its utility buildings forming part of a thick and high perimeter wall surrounding the large yard. Castle-like living quarters dominated the center. Otherwise the countryside was hardly interesting – history seemed to have bypassed this stretch.
I made use of the time to learn Spanish – thinking of words such as breakfast (desayuno) or lunch (almuerzo) and others. Who can remember words like these, and the pocket dictionary appeared to consist only of such impossible inventions! The sun was shining and the coach temperature display showed 31°C. This was no more than about one hundred kilometres from the start of my journey and it raised concern.
What is the fascination of the St James Camino, and especially the Camino Francés? Legend has it that a sarcophagus with the remains of the Apostle St James was found in the 9th century at the place where now the Cathedral of Santiago stands and where St James is still resting. Since this discovery pilgrims have converged onto this holy site, searching for forgiveness of their sins as well as for the healing of body and soul.
Going onto a pilgrimage is common practice in many religions and originally the two most dominant Christian destinations were Jerusalem and Rome. During the crusader wars to the Middle East in the 11th and 12th century, and while Rome was still in shambles after the ransacking by Germanic tribes in the 5th and 6th century, the tomb of St James became the most popular pilgrim’s destination and remained so for a long period.
Pilgrims gathered from many parts of Europe along a network of Caminos, or chemins as they are called in France, all leading to Spain. Most converge at St Jean Pied de Port; some cross the Pyrenees over the Somport Pass further to the east and join the Camino Francés at Puente la Reina. Pilgrims’ routes which are still very active today start in Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy en Velay and Arles. Further afield paths lead from countries such as the Benelux states, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and Poland and feed into the four chemins in France. Even from Scandinavia and the Balkan States paths join the network. All of these, as well as Caminos from southern Spain and Portugal, finally reach Santiago de Compostela.
In medieval days pilgrims walked predominantly for religious reasons and on arrival they earned a plenary indulgence from the Catholic Church, promising forgiveness of sins. There appears to have been no count of the number of pilgrims who walked then, but, judging from the number of hostels and hospitals listed in historic documents, there must have been tens of thousands, probably even hundreds of thousands of pilgrims on the road to Santiago every year. Nowadays 150,000 and more modern pilgrims converge annually on Santiago. In addition, many walk stretches of the Camino without reaching Santiago, and thus are not counted.
As indicated, I commenced my journey in Frómista which was and still is an important place on the historical Camino and the outline of my planned walk was as follows:
Journey: Camino walk from Frómista to
Santiago de Compostela
Distance: 450 km (I might cheat on some of these
kilometres by taking a bus)
Days to walk: I estimated taking 24 days to cover the distance.
Where to sleep: In albergues (hostels)
for approximately 24 nights
Weight of backpack and sling bag: approximately 11 kg
Before leaving, my wife and I planned that she would follow me at a later stage. On arrival in Madrid she would take the train to León for an overnight stay and continue her journey to Santiago. She then would walk every day as far as she could and for the remaining distance take a bus or taxi until after three days she would reach Finisterre on the west coast of Spain. This place was known in medieval times as ‘the end of the world’. Once she had visited the famous and almost sacred lighthouse, she would catch a return bus to Santiago for our reunion at the end of my journey.
I disembarked from the train in the middle of a scorching hot day and made my way to the city center of Fromista where I booked into hotel San Martin, almost next door to the famous and picture-perfect Romanesque church of the same name with its more than 300 faces of demons carved and moulded onto eaves and ends of roof beams. The church is most harmonious in its shape and perfect in the purity of its style. Unfortunately it was converted into a museum, and this rather spoiled the atmosphere within.
The Church of San Pedro, on the other hand, is still a functioning church, not far from San Martin. It was built in the 15th century and exhibits various architectural styles, including late Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. It nevertheless has an inviting and warm atmosphere, further enhanced for me by the church choir practising on the balcony at the back of the nave, accompanied by an organ.
Music, especially when performed live, attracts me like a magnet. I find it fascinating when instruments are played and the mere fact that musicians strike a chord is sufficient for me to be in awe without expecting perfection. There is no way that I can pass by any tune, whether it is performed by an orchestra, a lay group, or an individual. It may even just be chords, scales or capriccios flowing anywhere out of a window. We are so used to perfect music emanating from loudspeakers; in contrast the singing of the choir on the balcony was repeatedly interrupted and instructions were given. To me this made the music and its performance far more authentic and confirmed that perfection is only gained through repetition and dedication.
For quite some time I sat in the pew, contemplating the adventure that lay ahead and wondering how I would cope with the rigours of the walk. I was content and ready for the task – with peace in my heart. I made San Pedro the personal starting point of this journey and I have the stamp to prove it.
Later on I explored Frómista and then continued my walk to the famous irrigation and shipping canal, Canal de Castilla, just outside the town. Work on this project commenced in 1750 and it became the chief facility from the 18th century to transport agricultural goods to markets. It thus had a major influence on the region’s economic growth. To overcome the 150m difference in water levels over its 207 km long path, 70 shipping locks were built along the way, of which four locks are near Frómista, with water cascading from one lock into the other to bridge the 15 m height difference at this point.
My feet were already grumbling from the short three kilometre stroll. I was probably wearing the wrong socks – thin, instead of the thick walking socks which the salesman for outdoor activities gear had recommended. After changing the culprits my feet were much happier!
It was still early evening when I ordered a plate del dia, or dish of the day, which consisted of pasta and veal with ham, salad, chocolate ice cream as dessert and a beer, and all this for just €9.50. It was the first of many more delicious meals to follow.
At nine in the evening, with full daylight, it was still warm, but I was tired from the eleven hour flight from Cape Town to Madrid and wanted to snooze early in my bed in Hotel St Martin. I was not sleeping in the hostel next door, following my notion that, in order to have the honour of sleeping in an albergue like a pilgrim, one had to be sweaty and exhausted from walking, and I looked forward to resting in my first albergue the next day.
When rearranging my backpack I discovered that my cell-phone was not functioning at all. The water leaking into my backpack was most likely the cause. This meant no easy communication with Uta at home and no alarm clock to wake me for an early rise the next day!
My camera stopped functioning and this sign is the last picture taken during the Summer Walk.