El Camino de Santiago

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During the month of May 1999, I embarked on a pilgrimage to the City of Santiago de Compostela , Spain . Throughout that time, I experienced many sights and emotions. I will try to relay to you these experiences and the reasons for my journey.



History of the Camino


The history of the pilgrimage traces it's roots back to the death of St. James, the fourth apostle of Christ. Legend has it that James was sent to Spain to preach the gospel. Upon his return to Jerusalem , he was beheaded. James' body was transported to northwestern Spain where it was buried and left forgotten for almost eight hundred years when it was finally discovered by a hermit. The discovery was brought to the attention of the local Bishop who built a church on the site. It was soon after that when people from all over Europe started making pilgrimages to the holy site. Legend further states that during the Spanish reconquest of Spain , Santiago (St. James) appeared many times upon a white horse to lead the troops into battle against the Moors. It was then that Santiago appeared not as a pilgrim, but as Santiago Matamoros ( the Moorslayer). By 1492 all non-Christians were expelled from Spain . Thus begun the 1000 year history of the Camino.



My discovery of the Camino



A few years back, I was watching a travelogue on one of the travel channels on my local cable station. Part of it was about a man who was making a pilgrimage to someplace called Santiago in Northern Spain . This guy  traveled down these paths from village to village, staying in places called refugios overnight. To get into these refugios, he had to present what he called his credentials and have them stamped. Eventually, he was to make his way to the Cathedral where he should have been issued a compostela or certificate proclaiming him a pilgrim. Unfortunately, he didn't make the required distance and wasn't granted his compostela. At the time, I thought that this would be an interesting thing to do, but didn't give it much more consideration. Soon after I became aware of the camino, I came across a book called Off the Road by Jack Hitt. In it, he describes his 500 mile journey from France to the City of Santiago de Compostela . Not only did he describe his journey, but he added both the history of the various parts of the camino and  imparted the flavor of the route in detail adding some humor along the way. I soon went from mere interest to fascination.






In early March, 1999, I decided that I would walk the Camino sometime in the Spring. The decision to go in the spring was based on the fact that the Saint's birthday (July 25) fell on a Sunday and that made it a holy year. Not only was it a holy year, but it was the last one of the millennium. The crowds would be vast to say the least, and since I wanted it to be a solitary pilgrimage this seemed to be the best time to go. Also, I hoped, it would be cooler.


Later in March, I started looking for cheap airfares to Paris where I planned to take the TVG ( France 's bullet train) to the village of St. Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees Mountains . I found the airfare (which wasn't all that cheap), and then contacted the French National Railway for schedules and fares for that leg. My itinerary was then set. I would leave for Paris May 5th arriving the next morning, take the subway to the train station and board the train for the five hour trip to the town of Bayonne . From there, I would take a one car, very slow train to St. Jean . I would then set out on the Camino the next morning. The next step would be to purchase the equipment and start my training for the long walk.


For the equipment, I picked the local store of a large mountain and trekking chain. I told the salesman of my plans and put myself in his hands. With his help, I bought my backpack and hiking shoes (more on the shoes later) along with sundry other items. It was then on to my training. I've been a runner for the past sixteen years and made the decision to stop running and start walking longer distances. So I stopped running between three and five miles a day and started walking between six and ten. I decided that I should walk the towpath on the Delaware & Raritan canal for my long walks and one of the State parks about 45 minutes away for the shorter, hilly walks. Walking most days of the week early in the morning and through bad weather sometimes not seeing many people along the way, I was beginning to feel like a pilgrim already. In the meantime, my wife gathered petitions from her family and friends to be left at the Cathedral during Pilgrim's Mass. My daughter also bought a scallop shell for me to carry along the way. After walking more than 200 trouble free miles, I felt that I was ready to go.



The Pilgrimage


On the 5 th of May, I left Newark airport for Paris. Joan stayed with me for about an hour. After the all night flight, I arrived in Paris and caught the metro for the train station. After  a five hour ride on the high speed train, I arrived inBayonne and then the one car local train to St. Jean . I knew that I was on the right train, since it was filled with people carrying backpacks. Some of those people, I would see on and off for most of my journey. Upon arrival, I booked a room in a small hotel which gave a generous discount to pilgrims. A call to Joan and a quick dinner and off to bed for a restful sleep and an early departure in the morning, or so I thought. It thunder-stormed all night keeping me awake.

I awoke the next morning around 5:30 and was out the door around 6:00 . A quick walk down the hill into town and up onto the Camino. I have to admit that the first few steps on the Camino were a little bit scary. Especially when I realized that right from the beginning, I was heading uphill. I mean, I didn't even get out of town yet. There are two routes on the way to Roncesvalles , the lower (easier) road or the Route Napoleon which is the more spectacular and authentic. The Route Napoleon would be a 27 km walk over the Pyrenees . After a few minutes, I started to get into the rhythm and felt better. After all, the sun was up and shining and it felt like it was going to be a warm day. A little way further and the small road was getting more steep. Cars were beginning to pass me on their way to work. I had no idea where they were coming from since I didn't see many villages on the hillsides. I was even passed by a female runner (who didn't seem to have any trouble with the hills). After a couple of hours, I came upon a sign telling me that I had around another 5 hours 10 minute walk to Roncesvalles . A look back and I could see St. Jean in the distance. Behind me and downhill, the foothills, in front, ever rising mountains. It was indeed spectacular. It was near there that I saw my first pilgrims along the way. Robert and Sabastian met earlier at St. Jean and decided to walk together. Robert, a gardener, walked all the way from the Netherlands and Sebastian who was 18 years old had just finished high school in Germany where he lived. Sebastian missed the last train into St. Jean from Bayonne and decided to walk all last night to get into town. I walked with them on and off all the way to Puente la Reina. I also met a French couple, Claude and Nichole who I bumped into on and off all the way to Santiago . We quickly became friends and would meet for dinner at the end of the day. We started a correspondence after we parted for the last time. After another two or three hours, I finally made it to the top and started to head down (what a relief).About then, so as not to make it too easy on me, it started to rain. Not long after that, I finally reached  Spain .  After a long, steep decent down gullies and stream beds, I finally arrived in Roncesvalles .  It was still raining and I had to wait outside the Refugio with a few other Pilgrims for the doors to open. This Refugio has been run by Monks since the 12th century. After we were let in, I found a bunk (bottom), placed my gear on it, took a shower (cold) and went back outside to find a restaurant. A small meal, and right to sleep. It was then that I realized just how many people snore. It was also then that I placed my earplugs in. Believe it or not, no matter how far you have earplugs jammed in, when your surrounded by snorers, you can still hear them. After a fitful night, I left early for my next stop, Larrasoana. 

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