The bones of Saint James
A Chico couple treks Spain’s fabled Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route
Nancy’s pain began in the green rolling hills of Galicia, about 10 miles into a 14-mile trek between the towns of Sarria and Portomarín. The stabbing in her right hip was all-consuming. In the fields around us there was no one in sight—no one to ask for help—and there was nothing I could do to ease her pain.
Our first day on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela had begun with lighthearted chatting, but we were now grimly silent. But it wasn’t just physical pain that brought Nancy to tears. The sight of a little dog beside the path compounded her distress as she grieved for Millie, our 9-year-old dachshund, who had died suddenly the day before we left home. The distraction of catching planes and buses to get from Chico to the start of the Camino had delayed this outpouring of emotion.
Nancy could see in the distance where she could finally stop walking: the picturesque town of Portomarín on the far bank of the River Miño at the bottom of the valley before us. But in her state the four remaining miles seemed interminable. Nancy wrote later in her diary: “I tried to remember a time before this pain had existed, but there didn’t seem to be such a time. I tried to imagine a time when it would be gone, but that was impossible too.”
My dream of walking the Camino began in 1965, when I visited Santiago de Compostela by car with my parents at age 20. I was intrigued by the idea of following in the footsteps of the millions of pilgrims who had walked to the city for more than a thousand years.
This dream was heightened in 1968, when I read James Michener’s Iberia. “Santiago de Compostela” is the title of the book’s final chapter. It describes the pilgrimage that Michener calls the finest journey in Spain.
I was hooked on the Camino de Compostela for sure when David Gitlitz, a colleague at Indiana University, returned to Bloomington in the fall of 1975 after having walked the entire 500 miles across northern Spain. Although in the 11th and 12th centuries as many as 500,000 Europeans per year would visit Compostela, by 1975 this flood of pilgrims had become a trickle. David and the students who accompanied him did not encounter a single other pilgrim that year.
On his second trek four years later, in 1979, he and his group met only one—a Frenchman who had vowed during World War II to visit Compostela.
By 1989 the Camino had undergone a renaissance, with hostels having popped up along the entire route, and almost 6,000 “certified” pilgrims from all over the world making the journey. The road to Santiago was named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
After the turn of the millennium I began making concrete plans to walk the Camino. I carved a mahogany hiking staff, and in the spring of 2005 ordered two pilgrim’s “passports”—one for myself and one for a walking companion whom I hoped would be my wife, Nancy.
Although she had enjoyed the many previous trips we had made to Spain, she offered excuses (“I need to stay home with the dogs”) and encouraged me to invite a friend instead. But when the passports arrived in the mail and I showed Nancy the one with her name hand-printed on it, she knew in that instant that she would be my walking companion. She was not an experienced walker and had no gear and only a couple of weeks to get outfitted and arrange subs for her yoga classes, but her enthusiasm for the trek now equaled mine.
It is believed that the Apostle James the Great preached in Spain after the death of Jesus. Upon returning to Judea, he was beheaded, but his remains were miraculously transported to Galicia for burial. The site of his tomb was forgotten for some 800 years.
Early in the ninth century a hermit, Pelayo, was led by a vision to the spot. The tomb was rediscovered, and the relics authenticated as those of Saint James by the local bishop. Spain at this time sorely needed a new champion or focus to inspire Christians against the invading Moors. The rediscovery came therefore at a most propitious moment.
The simple illiterate man of the Middle Ages was indoctrinated with the urgency of obtaining divine forgiveness and the purification of his soul. The surest means of achieving this was by contact with the saints, who could intercede on his behalf. If the saints were martyrs, so much the better; if they were martyred apostles, then better still.
The Way of Saint James probably achieved its greatest popularity in the 12th century, when it came to rival Rome and Jerusalem as goals of Christian pilgrimage. Though it declined thereafter, it has never been entirely forgotten.
Medieval pilgrims braved bandits and wolves in their quest to revere the bones of Saint James. An 1140 guidebook warns pilgrims about drinking from the deadly Salt River in the kingdom of Navarra, and that if they let their horses drink from this stream, Navarrese would skin the horses on the spot as soon as they died.
The author of this guidebook condemns innkeepers who cheat pilgrims, and warns against the temptations of the flesh. “There are so many ways, my brothers, that the Devil throws out his cursed nets and opens the door to perdition for pilgrims, that it disgusts me to describe it all.”
Other than the risk of being hit by a vehicle while walking along the edge of a busy highway, nowadays the Camino is very safe. The Spanish rural police force, the Guardia Civil, keeps crime on the Camino to a minimum, and drinking from public fountains in town squares is perfectly safe.
We had seen leafy greens called berzas growing abundantly in household gardens along the Camino in Galicia. Berzas are an ingredient in a regional soup called caldo gallego, but since the typical recipe contains pork, and we’re vegetarians, we hadn’t expected to try it. When we stopped for lunch we discovered that the restaurant offered a vegetarian version made with berzas, potatoes and olive oil. We also tried the regional dessert, an almond cake called Tarta de Santiago. Little did we know that sitting there having lunch would be one of the last carefree moments of the day.
In high spirits after our tasty lunch, we resumed our walk through spectacular countryside, often across farms—right between farm buildings housing modern implements, but sometimes antique ones such as wooden plows. We saw lots of cows, picturesque black-and-white cows. Not so picturesque were the cow patties that we carefully avoided stepping in.
Walking mostly uphill all morning Nancy was pain free, but just before reaching the highest point of the day in the early afternoon, the pain began. To reach Portomarín, visible in the distance, we would be in for a steep descent, and Nancy’s pain was much worse going downhill.
Nancy later wrote in her diary: “As the hours passed, the front of my right hip became more and more painful. Tears began to pour down my cheeks, first from the physical pain, then from the realization that I would be letting Neal down. … On top of the physical pain and disappointment was grief at the loss of our precious little Millie. Every dog I passed reminded me of Millie and I cried for her.”
Nancy was trailing behind me on the path, and I couldn’t see that she was sobbing. Our once lighthearted chatter had dwindled to grim silence. We weren’t wasting energy on conversation any longer because there was no exit, no towns, no choice but to soldier on to Portomarín.
Pilgrims’ reasons for making the journey are myriad. The old religious motivation of seeking remission of sins is still there, but it has been superceded by New Age spirituality, a quest for adventure, a physical challenge, a desire to immerse oneself in Spanish history and culture, or an opportunity to sample the wines and foods of Spain’s northern provinces.
The Camino is very cosmopolitan, and one of its pleasures is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. More than half the pilgrims are Spaniards, and there are also many from France, so Nancy and I enjoyed speaking Spanish and French.
On our second trek along the Camino, starting in the Pyrenees in the fall, we had long conversations in Spanish with Ramón Jesús Macho, a fascinating gentleman from Santander. While his Japanese wife waited for him at home, he was walking alone as far as the city of León, over half the Camino’s total distance. A psychotherapist by profession, he called himself “something of a philosopher.”
It turned out that he had strong feelings about George W. Bush, but was hesitant to express them for fear of offending us as patriotic Americans. Once he found out that our patriotism was of a different sort than Bush’s, he expounded freely on his political philosophy.
Nancy and I are vegetarians. Spain does not cater to vegetarians. This meant that we seldom took advantage of the pilgrim menu available in bars or restaurants in every town along the Camino. This consists of three courses with wine and/or water. The price varies from about seven to 10 euros, or $10-$15. Fortunately, there are small grocery stores in villages, and most hostels have cooking facilities. It’s cheaper and more convivial to get together with other pilgrims and prepare a communal meal.
Breakfast is generally European-style, a roll with coffee, although we preferred hot chocolate. Prepared lunch items can be found in supermarkets: an excellent cold soup, gazpacho, and Spanish tortillas. Unlike the Mexican variety made of cornmeal and water, the Spanish tortilla of eggs and potatoes is a meal in itself. We also looked forward to the ever-changing regional cheeses and wines, as well as the fresh produce.
In the Rioja region, famous for its red wine, the pilgrimage road parallels the wall of a winery building. Few pilgrims fail to stop here because two taps protrude from this wall—one for unlimited free wine and the other for water. I heard one Dionysian pilgrim remark that, with Spanish wine being either free or very cheap, it’s possible to walk the whole route feeling no pain at all.
The surface of the Camino is constantly changing. You might start out walking along a paved street, then find yourself dodging cow patties on a dirt trail. You might follow stepping stones across a shallow stream, have to negotiate slippery mud, or walk miles down a sun-baked, treeless, dusty road. When the trail leads through the forests of the Pyrenees, your feet sink into soft leaves, just as they do when the trail approaches Santiago through fragrant eucalyptus groves.
The 14-mile section of the Camino where Nancy’s pain began is divided equally between quiet country roads and natural pathways. The absence of a main road meant that there were no vehicles that could take her to a resting place. Until the onset of her pain, she was enjoying the beautiful tree-lined roads, trails, and green fields enclosed by mossy stone walls.
The scenically varied Camino can be divided into three main sections: the Pyrenees and the rolling hills of Basque Navarra; the hot, flat, empty central section of the Castilian plateau; and the green hills of Galicia. Pilgrims with only a couple of weeks to spend on the Camino often choose the more scenic first or third sections, skipping the Castilian Meseta or covering its long miles on bicycle.
On our second 2005 trip, in the fall, we followed the easternmost section of the pilgrimage route, which crosses the Pyrenees and is one of the Camino’s most dramatic, climbing steeply and soared over by eagles, buzzards and kestrels. The lofty peaks of the Pyrenees attract storms from the Bay of Biscay. The resulting high winds can bring snow almost any time of the year.
Luck was with us when we crossed because the weather was fine and the views were fantastic. The mountains’ harsh reputation seemed exaggerated. The Pyrenees recede gradually as the pilgrim heads west into pretty, undulating countryside with wooded hillsides and farmed valleys.
It was in this countryside, two days later, just before Pamplona, that we did encounter a wind so strong that it could have blown us off the mountain if it had changed direction. Later that day Nancy wrote in her diary: “I don’t cope with heights very well under the best of circumstances, so a narrow, loose-stone path with a steep drop, no guardrail, and a force-4 gale buffeting my backpack made me wonder how many pilgrims had been lost there. Although, had I dared look down, I probably wouldn’t have seen the bones of dead pilgrims at the foot of the mountain.”
We were on the westernmost section of the Camino during our first trip, in the spring, and were very fortunate that the misery of Nancy’s hip pain was not made worse by a driving rain. In an average year Galicia gets rain one day out of three. The landscape is one of rolling hills, lush vegetation and steep river valleys eroded by eons of rainfall. It looks very much like the wilder parts of Ireland.
Although pilgrims can be found on the Camino any month of the year, it is most crowded (and hot) in July and August. November through April is too cold and wet. The ideal months are May/June and September/October. It was during these months that we made our treks, and the weather, except for the high winds that one day, was ideal.
The scallop shell is the traditional emblem of Saint James. The grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes medieval pilgrims traveled, eventually arriving at a single destination: the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.
There are different accounts of the mythical origin of the symbol. A popular one says that after James’ death in the Holy Land his body was mysteriously transported by a flying stone boat with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried where Compostela is now located. As James’ boat approached land, a wedding was taking place on the shore. The young bridegroom was on horseback, and on seeing the boat approaching, his horse panicked, and the horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through the miraculous intervention of Saint James, the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.
A strictly contemporary symbol of the Camino is the yellow arrow. Wilderness backpackers sometimes have the help of blazed trails, but on the Camino markers abound. The Way is so obsessively marked with hand-painted yellow arrows that it’s almost impossible to get lost. You’re likely to see them anywhere—on sides of buildings, streets, sidewalks, utility poles, rocks, trees.
Nancy would have appreciated Saint James’ intervention, miraculously making her hip pain go away. But, alas, this was not to be. She had no recourse but to keep going. She was oblivious to the good views of the boxy fortified church that dominates Portomarín as she walked painfully downhill, turned left at the bottom of the hill, and then turned right soon afterward, always following the yellow arrows, to cross the bridge into town.
As we walked over the bridge, I took a moment to peer over the rails into the gloomy waters below to spot walled lanes leading out from the submerged old town. In 1956 construction began on a dam downriver. As the reservoir grew, it flooded the old town, whose major monuments were removed, block by numbered block, and reassembled in the new town of Portomarín created on the west side of the Miño gorge. In an attempt to breathe life into the region, Franco’s regime constructed here a tourist parador, or luxury government-run inn.
Walking on level ground now, Nancy ’s pace increased as she followed signs indicating the way to the inn. I had paused again at the end of the modern bridge to look at the rebuilt Iglesia de Santa María, the small chapel, thought by local folk to protect them from drowning, that once stood in the middle of the ancient bridge.
At this point Nancy was ahead of me, but as she wrote in her diary: “Neal had caught up with me by the time I limped to the door of the former national parador, now privately owned. We had started out in Sarria before 8 a.m. and it was after 5 p.m. when I landed on the bed in Portomarín and fell instantly asleep.”
Although the pain had amazingly disappeared by the following morning, we decided it would be wise not to continue walking that day, since the guidebook said the next section was even longer and steeper than the one we had almost not completed. After several days of traveling by bus to other paradores in the region, we resumed walking, pain free, and did reach the cathedral at Compostela. But what we learned was that it is not essential to reach the traditional goal of the tomb of the Apostle; the real goal of the Camino is the journey itself.