From Astorga to Santiago

We’d walked over 500 kilometres by the time we could see Astorga, a town of 13,000 from the 1st century AD, on a hill, the spires of the Cathedral visible from several kilometres to the east. The Camino de Santiago took on a new phase after that. What it was for sure, I don’t know.

Astorga was a modern town, with a history of cocoa and a chocolate museum. A towering cathedral stood next to the Antonio Gaudí designed bishop’s palace, a unique place, bizarre by all but Gaudí standards, medieval, magicial. We’d arrived late in the day, 30 plus kilometres in the sun, so spent a morning relaxing, setting off in the afternoon.

Bishop\'s Palace, Astorga
Bishop’s Palace, Astorga

The walking seemed easier, we weren’t dog tired when we arrived at each destination. We left later in the mornings, deliberately getting out of step with the other pilgrims. It was far more relaxing, and there was plenty of daylight.

The landscape improved too, mountains appearing on the horizon. We started to see trees again, and knew we were finally off the meseta, the Montes of León visible, two patches of snow spread across a mountain still 2 days away.

We talked to a farmer herding sheep, his massive dogs rushing up to us as the sheep crossed the path. The mastiffs slept with the sheep, traditionally keeping them safe from wolves and still doing so, he told us, when they took the sheep into the Montes for the summer. Another farmer told me he was growing his small plantation of poplars despite other people in the area thinking he was poco loco. He explained they used to be used for house building and firewood. He figured there would be a use for them in another 9 years or so. I didn’t doubt him, and found it impressive that the local farmers were interested to talk to the pilgrims coming through when there were as many as 50,000 a year and four times that in a Holy Year. It didn’t seem to be reciprocal, many pilgrims like tourists blustering their way through, oblivious to the Spanish way of life. A buenos dias was often met with a bonjour or a guten morgen, a Spanish hello completely foreign to them.

The pilgrim in general was a curious thing. I couldn’t work out what they were there for. Not that I tried too hard, I wasn’t sure why I was. But the get-up-at-pre-dawn-rush to the next albergue and sleep for the afternoon, only to get up for a meal and go back to bed by 10pm, didn’t seem like much fun. And although the Catholic church apparently says you can sin as much as you like and walk the Camino in a Holy Year to obliterate the indiscretions, it didn’t seem the reason too many people were doing it either. It was curious alright. Fitness hardly the thing. The average age must have been sixty plus, overweight a prerequisite. It certainly wasn’t a classic hike. And any stroll in the Himalayas or the Andes, maybe a dip in the Ganges, was going to leave the mysticism of the Camino way back in the distance, as far as I could tell. But it had something. Yellow arrows lead the way to the next café con leche; there was no need to carry food or water, or not much; aldeas or hamlets lay, sometimes strewn, along the way every half hour; imposing architecture, intriguing history evident.

There were a few Spanish people walking but most pilgrims were Europeans on holidays, a primarily older crowd, perhaps looking for meaning as they aged.

People had decided that the Camino had something – someone had just forgotten to tell the Spanish locals.

Once we climbed the pass at O Cebrieiro at 1330 metres, encountering some day trippers singing down the path to where their bus waited for them and took them on to the next town in no doubt 5 star luxury, we went into Galicia, had 150 odd kilometres to go and the fields rolled green with brown Galician dairy cattle, like lush mushrooms on a bed of green salad, occassionally salt and peppered with large Fresians.

Galicia, a sparsely populated state of Spain, in the far northwest, had the lowest figures for tourism in the country that gets more tourists than anywhere else in Europe. So the lack of facilities should hardly have been surprising. We could stay however in municipal albergues, brand spanking new for €3 with disposable sheets and pillow cases, expansive ktichens, though no-one in charge realised that kitchens really need saucepans, fry pans, cutlery and plates. And maybe a nearby tienda that sold food.

But that of course was part of the charm. Maybe all the charm. Galicia was way back in the past, didn’t seem like Europe at all, had it’s own language, Celt based.

at the Galician border with Castilla-Leon

The weather had improved out of sight. We’d expected the faimed Galician weather to rain all over us, but it had been the worst rain in northern Spain in 37 years that got us in Navarro and Castilla-León. In Galicia we were luckier.

Samos Monastery
Samos Monastery

While we were walking in the afternoon, trying to avoid the crowds, I think it was a collectiveness vibe that people were into, looking for goals, solutions, hoping that others who were doing the same might rub off some magic. For us, that wasn’t it. I just wanted to go for a walk, the idea of walking for weeks the appealing thing. A bit of solitude. And you can do that lots of places in the world and not have a pilgrim wake you from a doze in cow field to take a photo of him and his wife. There was something we clearly didn’t get. But one thing was for sure, I wasn’t going to be doing it again. I met people who’d done it 5 times in 5 years. I told others that. They shook their heads. I wasn’t that alone in my thoughts.

And then suddenly we were in the low figures to Santiago. Suddenly we realised we didn’t know what we were going to do when we didn’t have to walk from dusk to dawn. Suddenly it all seemed about to end before I knew what I was doing.

We walked into Santiago. Seven hundred and seventy seven kilometres later, 34 days. Did I feel good? Yes. Different? Fitter. Worth it? If you have nothing better to do. Do it again? Not the same route. But walking around one and a half million steps in five weeks can change you.

Santiago de Compostela is an impressive city. The cathedral has a Baroque facade, faces onto the Praza de Obradoiro, a grand square, where people mingle noticabley placidly. Inside, the apparent bones of Saint James the Apostle lie in a crypt below an ornate altar.

We’d walked there from practically the French border, saw faces we’d seen along the way, people we’d talked to, others we’d just smiled a hello. There was a camaraderie that gathered around the cathedral. It made me feel like an imposter, but we went to mass, watched the Botafumiero, a 50kg silver-plated incense burner, get swung through the immese building, originally to mask the smell of the pilgrims. I saw people we knew taking communion. Maybe many were more religous than we’d known. Then I talked to someone who’d gone from religious to agnostic to atheist in the space of 30 days. The camino was about people finding themselves, the process of walking promoting thought, awareness of self, consciousness, the pounding footsteps a form of meditation.

We walked on, another 90 kilometres to Finisterre, where pilgrims believed the earth ended beyond the sunset over the Atlantic. We spent one last night in an albergue. We’d stayed in churches, a monastery and even an horreo, the stone Galician grain stores common throughout the region.

Some people burnt their clothes on the beach before they watched the sunset, the next day all about a new beginning.

It was a hike for us, and an achievement for sure. But I’d always associated hiking with solitude, nature, individualism. Not the Camino de Santiago. There were just too many peopIe. Possibly that’s what a pilgrimmage was; a quest from within the throng, despite the crowd, oblivious to the masses. Maybe I had at least discovered that.

June 2008

Galician horreo
Cathderal at Santiago de Compostela

~ by Drifting, Rambling on July 8, 2008.

3 Responses to “From Astorga to Santiago”

  1. The average age must have been sixty plus .

    Whaaat!!! Actually….Ages 26 – 35 = 24 885: 36 – 45 = 18 458: 46 – 55 = 21 285: 56 – 55 = 18888
    (Perhaps, because you started later you only saw the older peregrinos…like me!!

    Any stroll in the Himalayas or the Andes, maybe a dip in the Ganges, was going to leave the mysticism of the Camino way back in the distance……….

    Pshew!! You really didn’t get it did you?

    There were a few Spanish people walking but most pilgrims were Europeans:

    Huh! 55 326 from Spain and the next highest – from Germany 13 837, Italy 10 275 and France 6982 only amounted to 31 094.

    Galicia was way back in the past, didn’t seem like Europe at all, had it’s own language, Celt based.

    Nah!! Galician and Portuguese were, in medieval times, a single language which linguists call Galician-Portuguese, Medieval Galician, or Old Portuguese, spoken in the territories initially ruled by the medieval Kingdom of Galicia.

    There was something we clearly didn’t get.

    I’ll say!

    Worth it? If you have nothing better to do.

    Poor things – you really just skated the surface.

    From an atheist, camino peregrino!!

  2. Tim – it doesn’t matter if you didn’t ‘get it’ – you were only wanting a nice long hike and that is what you got. Some people are spiritual ‘seekers’ many aren’t. Some feel the souls of pilgrims past through the soles of their shoes – others don’t. Viva la difference! The camino was much busier in the 12th & 13th C. The main thing, for you, is that you walked the way and enjoyed it.
    Buen camino

  3. I guess if you go to something empty, you leave empty. If you go to something with perjudice you most likely will come away more or less vindicated in your prejudice. Try to leave the baggage behind next time you head out, Pilgrim !

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