Forgive me, this blog is called ‘zenpolitics’, and there’s not too much that’s political about what follows (though if you read through to the very end…). But if you want a taste of what it’s like walking the Camino, then read on.
Up at 6.30, it’s early October, and sunrise isn’t till 8.45 (the clocks haven’t changed and Spain is one hour ahead of the UK), so even if you hang around a bit and have a croissant (standard Spanish breakfast) and tea and a glass of freshly-squeezed jumo de naranja, even if you delay your start, you’re still out on the path by 8 at the latest.
Most mornings, happily, the sky is clear, and there’s a pre-dawn glow behind you. Always behind you. One feature of the Camino is that you’re always going west… There can be a gentle pinkish glow in the west mirroring the burgeoning glow behind you but it’s as nothing compared to the deep reds that run along the eastern horizon, silhouetting the mountains you’ve left behind on previous days.
Early October, and we have a remarkable morning sky: a last-quarter moon, receding to a crescent, and one morning no longer there (full moon by the time I reach Santiago almost three weeks later), and Venus as a morning star, and Jupiter, all together, within a degree or two of each other. Venus so bright that it only finally disappears with the first rays of the sun.
The way is marked, all the way to Santiago, by yellow arrows. At 8am you need your head torch to light your path, and you’re sometimes searching hard for that arrow, and taking the wrong route – and finding others are following you…. Like sheep we follow!
An hour passes, and you’re lost in an empty mind, or lost in thought, or simply measuring your footsteps, or listening to the first birds calling, or listening to silence. You’re singing a favourite song – for me it’s Autumn Leaves this time, as sung by Eva Cassidy, and much earlier by Nat King Cole. Appropriate, and a touch melancholic, but gentle and reflective, and so timely as weeks later I shuffle up the leaves walking through the wonderful oak and chestnut woodlands of Galicia.
Or try a hymn… a Methodist upbringing works wonder. One line, ‘the king of glory passes on his way’, stayed in my mind. God normally stays in one place, but maybe he’s a pilgrim too. That’s good for a few minutes speculation!
Another hour, and it’s a stop for a café con leche, and a cake of some sort. Or if you’ve missed out earlier, for breakfast. (Some albergues, the overnight hostels that put us up in bunk beds for 10 euros or less per night, don’t do breakfast and there may be nowhere else, so you walk on an empty stomach.) That’s a beautiful time. You’ve maybe six, seven or eight kilometres behind you, maybe already one-third of your day’s journey, and you chill out, savour the moment, feel good about yourself, maybe catch up with friends, have your first laugh of the morning.
Then it’s the toughest time of your day. Putting in some real distance. And the sun will be climbing higher, and if you’re back east, it’s still the early stages, and the summer’s not letting go just yet, then you’re hot, and your shirt is sticking to your back, and the straps of your rucksack which weren’t troubling you earlier are troubling you now.
The meseta, that high and wondrous plateau land beyond Burgos, is mysterious in the early light, under the moon, but in the heat of the day it’s a brown and long-ago harvested expanse of stubbled or ploughed (despite all the stones, some ‘sacred’, why, I’ve yet to discover!) and horizon-stretching field, without break of hedge or wall, undulating vast distances. It’s almost hypnotic, and when, as it was for me, it’s blowing a mighty gale into your face (Caribbean hurricanes even stretch their lower limbs into northern Spain) you’ve a battle on your hands. Clouds build and race in the wind across the sky. All you can hear is the wind in your ears. Try and pick up the sound of the wind in the long grass and thistles and thorns along the side of the path, but no way. Tumbleweed, sharp and looking rather lethal, comes careering past me.
Further west, you’re up at 3000 feet and there’s a ground frost, and equipped for a late Spanish summer you’re wearing every last item of clothing. But only for an hour or so, you warm up, and the sky is a pure blue, and the sun does get to work and warms you. But beware, after 5 in the evening, it may still be shining, but it’s lost its warmth, and the chill over the land seeps into you, and those clothes you left optimistically to dry in the sun on the albergue’s washing line stay resolutely wet.
Mornings are chill but beautiful. But not always. And one afternoon is memorably dreich. Climbing up to O’Cebreiro, at 4000ft, into the rain and mist and wind, it’s a wild and surreal version of winter up there. I decide I’ll take a room in a small and very cheap hotel. The sheets are damp, and it’s back to my sleeping bag. Night comes early, but a few yards up the road there a glow of light: the door is open, and there’s a Pilgrim Mass, and the church is warm and full, and a cocoon of wisdom and good feeling in a chill landscape. It dates back to the 10th century, and that makes more than a thousand years as a place of refuge.
The following morning is a nightmare, a slippery five-hour descent in the heavy rain. I dry out, just, and the following day, down in my river valley, the sun breaks through at 9.30, and then it’s four days of magic and bright-sky walking through the green and hidden landscapes of Galicia, cattle and corn cobs and big views, and every half-kilometre a way-marker telling me that I’m half a kilometre closer to Santiago.
Santiago now only a morning’s walk away… There’s a change in the weather, but the rain has stopped and I walk avoiding drips (they catch the head torch beam) from the chestnuts and eucalyptus above me through a dark dark wood until I exit into a faltering dawn. There’s an old church, with its open tower and two bells and locked door, and the path diverts round the airport, past the TV headquarters, and endless roads frustrate, and there’s rising excitement, but it keeps being dashed as you turn into yet another road. Then finally, into the old city, and I trek round to the Plaza Obradeiro… only to find scaffolding hiding the Portico de Gloria, every pilgrim’s ultimate destination for 800 years, and a loud political, anti-government demonstration underway. Much drumming, and chanting ‘un pueblo unido jamas sera vencido’ (‘one people united will never be defeated). I almost join in: we chanted that in the 1970s. But it wasn’t quiet, and it wasn’t holy, and it wasn’t spiritual.
Later, later, I told myself, and with a thousand pilgrims alongside me and the singing nun leading us in the Jubilate Deo at the Saturday evening mass, and again at the Pilgrim Mass Sunday lunchtime, I knew I’d arrived – heart and soul as well as feet. And the great censer, the thurible, the botafumeiro, began its long arcing swing as the Sunday service ended, a pendulum to end all pendulums. I’m told it was intended originally to defumigate newly-arrived pilgrims. I can’t speak for our clothes, but all the albergues have showers, and we all make a beeline for them on our arrival. So we’re a pretty clean lot in the externals.
We’ve also cleaned out a lot of mental and emotional junk by the time we arrive.
The rest of the day we’re all of us meeting old friends and saying our goodbyes. The rain has relented and the sun, briefly, is brilliant, and Santiago is every bit as inspirational as I anticipated. If not a little bit more so.
Some head off to the coast, and Finisterre, finis terrae, the end of the world. For me it’s a plane home. The end of the world will have to wait.
(I said no politics, but as I left the old city I looked back and there was a walker struggling his last steps into the city, as I’d done two days before, and on the back of his shirt three words – END AUSTERITY NOW.)