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As you trek through the lush Galician farmlands, thick woodlands, linear villages and rolling mountain ranges in Northwestern Spain, you are always on the lookout for the yellow arrows of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The arrows show up on official Camino signs with the iconic St. James’ scallop shell, and on random rocks, trees, tarmac, stone walls, churches, hostels, bars, sidewalks and fences. They mark the way.
Along with two friends, three Brits and an Australian couple, I set out to walk one of the most historic trails in Christendom (the other two—Rome and Jerusalem). Although there are many routes across Spain and Western Europe to reach Santiago, we chose the most popular and well-marked French Road.
The Camino is named after St. James, the patron saint of Spain. Legend tells us that after martyrdom, his decapitated body was transported from the Holy Land to Galicia by boat and delivered to Santiago. St. James is said to also miraculously have appeared later to defeat the Moors and return Spain to Christianity.
The French Road begins in the French Pyrenees in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and ends approximately 800 km later at the splendid Cathedral of Santiago. We began our walk outside Leon at Stage 22 and finished at Stage 31, nine days and 140 km later. Like other modern pilgrims, we turned in our Camino passports, complete with stamps from locations along the trail, to the Office of Pereginos at the Cathedral. There I received my “compostela”, certificate of completion of the last 100 km of the Camino de Santiago, with my name handwritten in Latin!
A pilgrimage is not like a race. It is more like life, a daily walk through many emotions and situations, through rough and rocky terrain, in sun and rain, with both physical discomfort and surges of energy, over mountain ranges and down steep declines, with compatriots and strangers sharing the road and parts of their lives. I met people from all over the world, walking the same path that had been described in the 12th century guide, the Liber Sancti Iacobi. A 37 year old Japanese Catholic, admittedly a slow walker, was overcome with tears on his arrival in Santiago. A Canadian travel agent was celebrating her 65th birthday with a solo walk in 40 days. A busload of Guatemalans broke out into spontaneous song at one of our rest stops.
It is easy to spot pilgrims with their walking sticks and rucksacks, shells and gourds. I feel like part of that worldwide community now. We began the Camino at Cruz de Hierro, a five meter tall bare trunk, crowned with an iron cross. I had brought my pebble from the beach at Martha’s Vineyard and placed it on the heap of stones at the base of the cross. Thus began the venture. At the end, as a tribute to the Camino, I tossed a scallop shell from my own beach into the Atlantic waves crashing against the craggy peninsula of Finisterre west of Santiago. I had completed a journey that a modern wanderer can experience on many levels. The Camino is a spiritual pilgrimage, adventure travel, heritage trail, a gastronomic tour of regional cuisine and wine, and, as one writer recently wrote, an extreme sport!
As we followed the yellow arrows and passed others on our walk, the mutual greeting was always “Buen Camino.” And with a little practice I could add, “y tu a Dios gracias”.
Submitted by Susan Hunter, Atlanta, GA
On Saturday November 3, we met our guide and the rest of the group of 12 for our week-long hiking tour called Secrets of Andalucia. The American tour company is Breakaway Adventures. We were very pleased, both with the guide and with the accommodations. We stayed in a restored olive mill (La Finca de Cerrillo) about 90 minutes from Malaga, up in the hills with views of several small white Andalucian villages (all the buildings are white, with red roofs – very picturesque).
The streets in the towns – and sometimes in cities – are often VERY narrow, so that if you are walking along and a car comes, you need to find a doorway to jump into so you don’t get bumped. In general, motorists were patient and courteous.
Some of the streets were so steep that there were ridges built into the concrete, mostly so that mules would have better traction when hauling goods up or down.
People who live there don’t need to go hiking; just living there gives them enough exercise. We saw lots of motor scooters, and also several road bicyclists who appeared to be in training for the Tour de France. The roads in the countryside are really steep, and well paved since they don’t get frost. I could never ride there, either going uphill or downhill.
The owners of the Finca are British ex-pats, as was our hiking guide Andrew. He was fabulous, being very familiar with the language, history and customs, and seemingly knowing every person we ever bumped into (including goat herders, health workers, store owners and other hikers). One of the best things about the hiking tour was that they figured out a way to make each of us happy with the actual walking. Most of the other guests were in our general age bracket, but there were two young ladies who run marathons.
On two of the days we were offered a ride to meet up with the group after the first hour of climbing. The walking was sometimes on dirt roads and sometimes on hiking paths (and occasionally on barely imperceptible goat or mule trails). I was really glad that I had brought along my trekking poles, since there was NO flat terrain, and often we had to contend with loose rock, which made the downhills especially challenging.
John and I were glad we’d brought sturdy hiking boots too. There was only one other American; the rest were from England, Australia and New Zealand.
One day we took a tour bus to Granada to visit the Alhambra.
Otherwise we went on all-day hikes in the area surrounding the inn. A few times we were transported to a trailhead by cars, or picked up at the end of the hike. Sometimes we carried our lunches in our packs and stopped at some scenic viewpoint to eat. Other times we would gather for a tapas lunch at a local restaurant. Everything was included during the week of the tour; we never took our wallets out.
The scenery was lovely, with views of vast valleys and the surrounding mountains. There were palm trees and cactus, but most of the area was covered with trees that produced olives (Spain produces 1/3 of the world’s olives!), avocados, pomegranates, oranges, persimmons, apples, etc. We also saw lots of irrigation channels, some left from Roman times. Part of the time we were in a “Parque Natural” called Sierra de Almijara, hiking along the ancient mule tracks that were used to transport silk or salt to northern parts of Spain.
One day we spotted a large group of Iberian ibex – a wild mountain goat. Later that day we were invited into the home of a goat herder named Pepe to sample some of his homemade sangria. Our visit was clearly the highlight of his week!
Submitted by Lois Goldstein, Williamsburg, MI