Tales of the Camino

Jonathan Harris | April 2019

The refugio (hostal) at Villafranca del Bierzo was bustling as the pilgrims climbed out of their bunks and packed their bags for the long day of walking ahead. Most of the Germans had left before 8am, in characteristic style, eager to hit the road and arrive at the next town before everyone else. A group of Frenchmen had come in late and a little drunk, making a racket as they dug through plastic bags before going to bed. Once asleep, they broke into a cacophony of snores. I sleeplessly tossed and turned, quietly contemplating a midnight murder spree. I’d probably get a medal from the other pilgrims!

The bright morning light and the excitement of a new day on the Camino de Santiago cleared any homicidal thoughts from my head. My wife Stacey was packing her things and getting ready for a new adventure. I looked around the beautiful new stone pilgrim’s hostal with large clean bathrooms and sturdy bunks. The last time I stopped in this village, called Villafranca del Bierzo, over seven years earlier, the refugio/hostal was mostly made of tarps and plastic sheeting separated into haphazard spaces. The shower consisted of a solar heated plastic bag. Somehow, I missed those more rustic accommodations.

The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, also called The Way of Saint James, has grown immensely in popularity over the last few decades. It originated in the years after the discovery of the apostle St. James’s remains in the year 812. Legend has it that after James’s death, his remains were sent in a stone ship to the Iberian Peninsula. The ship sank in a storm and the body was lost in the sea. Miraculously the body washed ashore, covered in scallop shells. Eight centuries later the remains were discovered, and they are housed in a crypt in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to this day.

In the years after the Moors conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula, St. James became the rallying figure of the resistance, with Spanish warriors shouting ‘Santiago!’ as they charged into battle. Once most of northern Spain was firmly back in Christian hands, the faithful flocked from across Europe to visit the holy site. The Camino de Santiago became one of three major pilgrimage destinations, along with Rome and Jerusalem, and those who completed the journey were granted Indulgences, or forgiveness for all sins.

Throughout the Middle Ages the Camino was highly travelled, with towns springing up along the way where pilgrims could rest and eat. By the 16th century, it declined because of the Black Plague, Protestant Reformation and wars. By the 1900s, the stream of pilgrims had become a trickle. Then, in 1987, the Camino de Santiago was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spain opened up after the Franco years and the world awoke to this remarkable path across Spain. 

Just a few weeks after our wedding in 2000, my new bride and I had decided to spend our honeymoon walking from León to Santiago de Compostela, about a third of the popular Camino Frances route. We carried no cell phones and by necessity had a minimum of supplies in our packs. As we arrived in a new village, we washed our socks and other clothes in the sink at the refugio and let them dry in the afternoon as we explored the cobblestone streets and looked for a place to eat. I must admit that we splurged on a hotel a few times along the way, but we tried to keep it simple.

On the third day of our journey we climbed through the mountains to the beautiful city of Astorga. We were tired, dusty and sore. A local farmer approached us on the dirt path, his gnarled hands holding a pitch fork. We were holding hands and he asked “Están casados?” (are you married?). I replied, groaning from exhaustion, “Si, muuy casados!”, mixing up the word ‘married’ for the word ‘tired’ (cansado). We all shared a chuckle at my mistake.

Astorga is an attractive small walled city with a neo-medieval episcopal palace designed by Antoni Gaudí. Traditionally this was a place where pilgrims would gather before a particularly mountainous part of the Camino. They would set off in groups to protect against brigands who victimized travelers in the rugged terrain. The path was indeed steep for the next couple of days, over starkly beautiful hills covered with heather and rosemary. Past the village of Foncebadon, we approached the Cruz de Hierro, a cross mounted on a tall pole, marking the highest point on the Camino Frances. Some say this was originally a roman shrine and has guided pilgrims since the 11th century. We both dug out small stones from our packs that we had picked up at the beginning of our journey and added them to the impressive pile of rocks that pilgrims had deposited there for centuries.

This tradition was one of many that tied us to the millions of pilgrims who walked before us. People set out on The Way for many reasons: spiritual growth, deep religious devotion, cultural adventure or simply the pure physical challenge. Over the two weeks we hiked the trail, as we dealt with fatigue, twisted ankles, rainstorms and blazing sun, I felt the presence of all of those who had walked before and shared this deeply meaningful experience. We saw it in the sculptures of Santiago Peregrino in local churches, showing Saint James with a staff and scallop shell, the embodiment of the traditional pilgrim. Bright yellow painted shells paired with arrows mark the dirt paths through the mountains as well as the busy streets of Burgos or León, showing the way forward that so many others have followed.

When we finally approached the granite city of Santiago de Compostela, the darkened clouds of a rainstorm loomed and the tall eucalyptus trees swayed in the wind, releasing their signature aroma. We hiked for several hours more and finally approached the magnificent cathedral, the final destination for all pilgrims. Inside the massive doors we were greeted by the sublime Pórtico da Gloria, the arched entrance to the cathedral. We left our staffs and packs and walked behind the massive ornate altar where we waited our turn to hug the gilded statue of Santiago Peregrino and visit the tomb below to see the resting place of his remains. While we are not Catholic, it was a profound experience. Whether it was the magic of completing such a challenging journey, or the spiritual presence of all of those who had arrived here before, we both experienced an electricity and elation special to that moment.

After arriving we checked in to the glorious Parador hotel across from the cathedral. Known as the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, it was built by Queen Isabella in 1499 to serve pilgrims arriving in the city. A gem of Gothic and Baroque architecture, it is now a stunning hotel overlooking the cathedral square. For two weeks, Stacey and I had walked 200 miles, stayed in rustic refujios, washed our clothes in sinks and streams and eaten simple picnics in the countryside – it was time for us to end our honeymoon in style!

Our friends thought us a little crazy to spend our first time together as a married couple on such a challenging and uncomfortable trip. I usually joke that if our relationship could survive the Camino de Santiago, it can survive anything! Truthfully it was a wonderful way for us to know each other even more deeply and share an experience of a lifetime. In this hyperconnected, overstimulating world, slowing down, disconnecting and walking together through the stunning landscape of northern Spain was just what we needed. No wonder the Way of Saint James has emerged from obscurity and is again one of the most popular journeys in the world.