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The Road to Compostela—Keeping Company in Pursuit of God

COMPOSTELLA Victor Nuno

Victor Nuno CC

Greg Daly - published on 09/10/14

Part 1 of A Pilgrimage Journal

(Journal Entry OneTwoThreeFourFive)

There's no room for pride on the Camino de Santiago.  

I learned that lesson quickly, little more than half an hour into the steep climb from St Jean Pied de Port to Orisson, the Pyrenean auberge that held the promise of a mid-morning coffee.  Heavy rain quickly forced me to unpack my lurid orange poncho, which I’d tested before leaving Dublin to ensure it fitted not merely me, but my rucksack.  It turned out that it only covered both man and bag when I was stationary. The moment I moved the cape rode up, inching its way up the bag to my shoulders, exposing both rucksack and flanks to the elements.

Miguel Ángel García
 Miguel Ángel García 
Starting to panic, with the rain getting heavier, I looked around through waterlogged glasses to see a Korean girl gesturing at me. From a pocket of her bag she produced some clothes-pegs, and with the help of Tony, the Australian with whom I was walking, she clipped my poncho into position. I have no idea if I ever saw her again – I could barely see her then – but her solution, and her clothes-pegs, would get me over the Pyrenees and eventually even past Santiago de Compostela to Fisterra on Spain’s Atlantic coast, the medieval end of the earth.

Leaving Orisson with Leah, a German girl I’d met at breakfast, I paused just outside and asked for help in attaching my cape, a blushing request that became the hallmark of the first and last weeks on the Camino; she was happy to help, and indeed, had a request of her own – could I retrieve the water bottle she had jammed at the side of her rucksack? Fortuntely, we walked at the same pace, and one handing over a water botle, the other a clothes pen, we traded favors over the Pyrenees.

The climb after Orisson was much gentler than before, but the weather was, if anything, worse, with the thunder getting louder and the lightning more frequent, the rain followed by hail, sleet, and snow. The wind rose too, though it never equaled the terrifying velocity of the previous day, when a Canadian lady had been blown from the path and had her collarbone broken. Eventually, after the halfway point, struggling on despite the four people once up ahead who turned back to Orisson, things began to clear, and we began to chat, revelling in in the beautiful landscape despite trudging ankle-deep through mud and fallen leaves as we crossed the border from France into Spain.

Jesús Pérez Pacheco
Jesús Pérez Pacheco

A second storm started as I was working my way down the sharp wooded slope to the monastery at Roncesvalles, famous in French folklore as the place where in 778 Charlemagne’s nephew Roland died heroically in battle against the Moors. That's the story known, at least, from The Song of Roland, although the earliest historical reference to the episode makes it clear that "Basque treachery" was to blame for the defeat. Not that I cared in the least about this as I picked my way downwards over slippery rocks amidst flashes of lightning, working my way through the rain with another new set of companions, a Colorado couple, Dave and Christa, who were as worn out as I was but better prepared, sharing energy bars and fruit without a second thought.

I was exhausted and barely able to walk by the time I reached Roncesvalles.  Still, once I found my bed in the enormous monastery I moved quickly: arranging for dinner, showering, washing clothes, eating with Leah, and a Dutch couple that I’d meet almost every day for the next week in one albergue after another.  

Then we celebrated the first of many pilgrim Masses, fortifying us for the journey.

Afterwards I sat talking with a new friend Tony before heading to bed. I was delighted to have walked further and higher than I’d ever walked in my life, but I had no idea whether I’d be able to do it again the next day.

I needn’t have worried, because the next day, though far from easy–culminating in a treacherous downhill section leading to the village of Zubiri–was nowhere near as tough as the first day.  In Tony and Leah's company,  I always had people to wait when I was lagging and gently chivvy me along when I was struggling. We stopped for lunch in Zubiri with the Coloradans Dave and Christa, wondering whether to carry on to Larrasoaña, only for the heavens to open, making our decision for us.

We ducked for cover into the bar across the street, before booking into an albergue where after Mass we had dinner with the rest of our dorm mates, including a Brazilian couple who had taken a lost Korean girl under their wing the previous day, much to Christa’s relief as she hadn’t been sure how best to help her.  We were joined by a couple from Nevada who had somehow stayed out on the mountain a couple of nights earlier, having left St Jean far too late to make it to Roncesvalles before dark. Huddled together through the night, they’d made sure to keep each other awake, staving off hypothermia. 

We were barely two days in, and already it was clear that far from the Camino being the solitary experience I’d expected, this was going to be a huge team effort, with everybody helping everyone else along.

Telling my god-daughter about this afterwards, she asked me whether I found all the company distracting; it was a good question, especially given how I’d expected and even wanted to spend my time in Spain walking and thinking and praying in silence, but I had to answer that no, I didn’t. There was plenty of space for privacy, that was clear, but the company was largely unavoidable, incredibly helpful, and in truth probably how pilgrimages had always been. Chaucer wouldn’t have written his Canterbury Tales, after all, if medieval pilgrimages had been solemn, solitary affairs.



The third day saw me making much better time than either of the previous ones, and it wasn’t until we reached the outskirts of Pamplona that our large group fragmented, the hard asphalt taking a toll on the less fit among us. Trailing the others, Leah and I stayed at her suggestion in a small albergue run by a German confraternity. Once settled in, we headed to the main albergue to meet Dave and Christa and to find Tony so we could have dinner on our last night together; having tackled the three toughest days of the French Way in response to a challenge from his daughter, Tony was heading off by bus the next day to Oviedo, there to make his way to Santiago by the so-called Primitive Route.

It was strange walking without Tony the next day, as both Leah and I felt we’d lost a mentor, but we made decent time, sharing our stories and secrets as we went, making our way across the fields and gently uphill, stopping for lunch in the little village of Zariquiegui, where we bumped into Dave and Christa again. A steeper stretch took us to the top of Alto del Perdón, the Mount of Forgiveness, where we posed for photographs beside the rusted iron silhouettes of all manner of medieval pilgrims.  Looking back, we realized just how far we’d walked, and forward, we plotted where to go.

After following a pebbled path down to a plane where we worked our way through a succession of seemingly deserted villages at siesta time, we eventually reached the beautiful medieval town of Puenta la Reina.  Over dinner that evening we chatted with James and Alicia, a couple from England whom I’d first met in my St Jean auberge, observing how Camino lives are disconnected from Spanish ones, with us going to bed just as the typical Spaniard starts his dinner.   Only mad dogs and pilgrims go out in the Basque country’s midday sun.

The next day was no less beautiful, as we headed over the bridge after which Puenta la Reina is named and wove our way through hilltop villages and past poppy-strewn fields under endless skies until eventually we strolled into Estella; my first blister aside, it had been a wonderful day, and one that suggested I was starting to get the hang of the Camino, as I ended the day without being exhausted.

Aherrero
 Aherrero

The following morning, unfortunately, smashed any illusions I had that the Camino was getting easier; Leah and I left our albergue in pouring rain, and after indulging for a few photogenic minutes at the famous Bodegas Irache "wine fountain,"’ we separated as we trekked through a hilly wood. A couple of hours later, exposed to the rain in the treeless plain, I trudged on, observing to Anne, a Danish lady with whom I was walking, that with dozens of poncho-and-rucksack-bearing pilgrims visible for the best part of a mile ahead of us, that we must make a very odd picture: a straggling dotted line of Technicolor hunchbacks. Eventually, after a succession of dashed hopes, Los Arcos came into sight and I squelched through its waterlogged streets until I reached the first albergue I saw. Sodden, sapped, and sore, I was just glad to stop.

It’s funny how we frame days in our minds. I constantly think of this sixth day as a gruelling ordeal, and it was that, but it wasn’t just that. Walking with Anne was fun, after all, and I enjoyed a hilarious episode in Los Arcos when I gratefully suffered the indignity of having a waitress take pity on my shivering self and give me a sleeved blanket to wear while I was having an early dinner in the square beside the church. And, of course, it was in the albergue there where I met Jeanne, a New Zealander who’d I’d photographed at the wine fountain that morning and who would turn out to be the first person I met in the "Camino Family" we would both become part over the following weeks. But despite all this, I keep thinking of the Los Arcos day as one of the most miserable on the Camino.

The next day would prove very different.

Join Greg Daly for Part 2 tomorrow and discover the surprising turns in the road.  

(Journal Entry OneTwoThreeFourFive)

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