Religion on Camino

When I came home from walking 500 miles across Spain, I was surprised by how many people asked me about religion on the Camino de Santiago. They seemed to ask for all sorts of reasons:

Some wanted to test whether I’d gone walking because of religion…

Others wanted to know if I’d come home “born again”…

And there were others who knew the camino had a religious history and wanted to know whether this influenced my daily walking in any way.

Sometimes, I felt the questions were inquisitive and open-ended. Other times, I felt there was a snide judgment ready and waiting. I tried to be open-minded about everything on camino, so I wasn’t happy with being labelled one thing or the other. Separately, I felt protective towards the various friends I’d met along the way and I didn’t want to give anyone an opportunity to pass fun at their beliefs. Whatever we might think about matters of faith, I’m not okay with sneering at someone else’s belief system.

Me? I happened to be reared a Catholic but I use the term with a certain affection and humour. I grew up attending weekly mass but was always at least 10 minutes late and never had a seat to sit on. In truth, going to Sunday mass was a good opportunity to stock up on the Sunday newspapers and chocolate. And attending mass was also a good way to see people (or be seen by them) and keep in touch with the local community. Altogether, none of these things are signs of devotion, are they?!

And yet, I learned some (perhaps simplistic) version of Catholicism – the bit that assured me I don’t need to be in a church to say prayers, and the bit that says what’s happening in my heart is more important than whether I arrive to mass on time.

Do I know when to sit, stand, kneel, and shake hands? Sure. Do I know all the prayers, Bible stories, and feast days? Not a chance.

Am I devoted Catholic?

I don’t really think so.

As an adult, I’m a bit uneasy with the “G” word and there’s a lot of the official doctrine I don’t agree with. I also know that a lot of indefensible things have been done in the name of religions, so I can’t defend (any) organized faith. At best, I’m an À-la-carte Catholic. I have a system that works quite well for me and I find the divine in all sorts of places – both church-y and not. All things considered, I don’t think I count myself as “devoted”.

But am I going to scoff at someone who *is*?

No.

I tried to keep an open mind with all things religious while I walked camino.

I didn’t choose to walk because of religious devotion. True, I had some rather divinely inspired reasons for walking, but were they exclusively Catholic or even Christian? I don’t think so.

I walked because some deep-rooted part of my heart/spirit called me to action. And truth told, I felt more akin to the (pagan) pilgrims who walked this ancient route long before the Catholic church took it over. I don’t know enough about *their* story but I’m intrigued by the force that propelled them to walk from all over Europe and travel to the end of the world, as they knew it.

That strikes me as a rather primal compulsion and I resonate with it more strongly than anything church-y.

But I knew that the camino had, and has, a lot of Catholic significance and that thousands of people treat it as a religious pilgrimage – just like they would treat a trip to Lourdes or Rome. I didn’t feel I was exactly one of them but I didn’t think it fair to want to avoid them either. Anyway, there are good people and bad people in life – irrespective of religion. When it came to camino, I decided I’d hang out with the people I liked and avoid the ones I didn’t – regardless of faith.

I made no plans to attend mass or avoid mass – I figured I would decide as I went along. I also felt amenable to having conversations about faith, spirituality, and religion if they came up. I reasoned that the odds were pretty high but I was neither seeking nor avoiding the topic. Plus, the camino route goes past dozens, if not hundreds of churches, all across northern Spain. It purposefully snakes through small towns and villages to make sure it goes by the door of the church – presumably so pilgrims can avail of /will avail of its services. Separate to religion, many of the churches date back to the 11th and 12th centuries, so they’re elaborate and ornate buildings – solid, stoic, and architecturally impressive.

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Some of them were as small as my living room, with wild flowers humbly gracing the altar. Some of them were spectacular cathedrals with lines of tourists waiting for a look at their famous stained glass.

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And some of them, when you least expect it, looked non-descript on the outside but reveal something like this inside:

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So, whatever your feelings on Catholicism (in particular) there is no getting away from the church on camino.

Over the course of my 6 weeks, I met people who quoted scripture in my presence (and they knew it off by heart). In honesty, it felt a bit intense to me at the time because that’s not how I roll. But to be fair, they weren’t trying to ram it down my neck. They were saying grace at a dinner table in the way that felt most fitting for them. I’d be an ass to take offense to it.

And yet, I met people who did take offense when I told them about the quoting of scripture. For them, that was a leap waaaay too far and even though they hadn’t witnessed it in person, they were irate and argumentative about anyone having the gall to openly quote scripture. Clearly, it was a touchy subject.

I’m not sure it’s practical to get offended about religion on Camino because then you’re likely to get offended by accommodation like this:

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This was my hostel room in the town of Hospital de Órbigo and incidentally, I didn’t stay in a monastery but there’s no getting away from the big crucifix on the wall. I was so thrilled to have a quiet room and a non bunk-bed that I barely even noticed the crucifix!

I met people who planned their walking schedule and accommodation so they could avail of pilgrim masses in as many towns and villages as possible.

I met people who openly wore crucifixes on their person – and some of those crosses were the size of a coffee cup so there was no missing them!

I met people who had left churches, joined other churches, and knew about theology. I don’t know many people like that in my life and the bookish nerd in me was delighted to learn new information.

I met atheists and “lapsed” Catholics.

Conversely, I met people who weren’t Catholic at all but attended mass and received Holy Communion in their hands all the same.

I met two vicars, neither of whom wore collars, but both of whom shared very human experiences of their daily work at home.

I met people who’d done missionary work in developing countries and others who had an ongoing despair about their dwindling faith.

I met people who didn’t mention religion or faith from one end of the day to the other – and we talked about a million other things instead.

Religion didn’t dominate my camino but it played a big part nonetheless.

I attended some of the pilgrim masses along the way and in general, I managed to be late almost every time 🙂 I liked the sentiment of the pilgrim blessings and I came away from every one of them feeling fortified in my hopes to carry on.

There was one day, I happened to arrive into a tiny country village just as the bells were ringing out for Sunday morning mass. To the surprise of the locals (who expected me to go straight to the café bar) I went to the church, me covered in dust and sweat, and sat in the quiet darkness. I lit candles for loved ones at home. I said a few prayers of thanks. And even though I was the only pilgrim in the village that day, I didn’t stay for Mass and the pilgrim blessing I surely would have received. Somehow, the vibe wasn’t quite right for me that day and I felt like hitting the trail instead and finding my version of mass out there – so that’s what I did. As I descended the church steps, I met the locals on their way in, dressed in their Sunday best (literally) and ready for action. My departure might have been offensive to them at the time but I don’t believe in attending church just because of what the neighbours think! I felt no guilt or hesitation in my decision, and celebrated a great day of walking instead.

Surprisingly, by the end of my camino I was wearing a scauplar around my neck, neatly tucked in behind my sporty t-shirt. It came as a gift from Liz in a moment of spontaneity and I accepted it with gladness. I had an important decision to make and she felt an impulse to give it to me. She took it from around her own neck and she placed it gently around mine. I hadn’t even seen such a thing since I was a child and barely knew what it was called, but it felt right to accept the gift in that moment. I wore it as a sort of talisman for the remainder of my trip and I happily have it to this day.

Like I say, I tried to be open-minded about all things religious on camino.

My speciality was to wander in and out of churches as, and when, the mood struck me. I started it on my first evening in St. Jean Pied de Port, in France. It was bright out and the town was full of window boxes in full bloom, reds and yellows in the evening sunlight. I took a stroll around before dinner and came upon a church, and decided to pop in for a look. As it happened, there was a mass on (and wouldn’t you know it, I had arrived 10 minutes late!) so I sat down the back and admired the raw stonework and foot-long candles burning in front of the alter. And I couldn’t follow most of it because it was held in French and my high school French is long forgotten!

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That evening, a couple were blessed in honour of their 50th wedding anniversary and later on the church steps, they invited everyone to join them for champagne and pizza. They even invited us pilgrims – knowing well we’d be gone the next day and they’d never see us again but our faces would appear in their photographs. I was too shy to join them but watched their delight as they splashed champagne into plastic cups and handed out slices of hot, cheesy pizza in the evening sun.

I loved their warm welcome and their playful abandon. I loved the sincerity of their kindness. I loved that the church space allowed them to be casual and convivial, instead of formal and stuffy. The tone was good.

All along the way, I was a bit of a pyromaniac and I lit candles as often as I could. I lit them for all sorts of reasons and all sorts of people. Living such a transient life on the trail, there was very little I could do for anyone in the world but somehow, lighting a candle felt like something I *could* do – so that’s what I did.

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I enjoyed the churches because they were cool and shady, and I relished the break from the sweltering sun.

I also enjoyed the churches because they were often the quietest places where I could take some time out. Sure, it may be a religious pilgrimage but the churches are quieter than the hostels, the café bars, and the restaurants. Think about that for a minute – it says a lot.

Towards the end of my journey, I walked for 2-3 days with a woman I’d just met. In the green countryside of Galicia, I gestured that I wanted to stop off in a small country church and light some candles.

“I’ll wait out here”, she replied.

I sensed that she was uncomfortable with the church thing and that she mistakenly took me for being somehow devout. It didn’t matter what she thought but I made a point of explaining my reasons for visiting the churches. I liked the shade. I liked the quiet time. I liked lighting candles. I even liked looking at how they were decorated and arranged.

She nodded in understanding but stayed outside the front door, patiently waiting for me to arrive out so we could resume our conversation about something entirely different.

We lost track of each other for a couple of days and when we reunited again on the trail she surprised me by saying:

“I’ve taken a leaf out of your book and I’ve started going into the churches!”

For years, I ran hard and fast away from all things church-y. The irony that I had influenced anyone to step foot in a church was….well…hilarious to me!

When people asked me about religion on Camino, it was hard to know what to say. Yes, if you want to have a formal religious experience, the framework is there and ready to go. There are monasteries, convents, priests, and nuns. There are blessings and masses, confessions, communions, and hymn-singing gatherings. There’s a rich history and it’s all there for the taking.

Equally, if you want to have an informal religious experience, as I suppose I did, it’s all there for the taking or ignoring. I dipped in and out of services, conversations, and religious accommodations. I accepted some of it, rejected some of it, and followed my own hearty impulses as best I could. Rightly or wrongly, that was my exploration of faith on camino.

And equally, I think it’s quite possible to walk camino and avoid the religion thing almost entirely. I met plenty of atheists who enjoyed the history, the cuisine, the countryside, and companionship, and bypassed the religious elements quite comfortably. They didn’t have anyone force religious agendas down their neck.

I tried to answer the “religion on camino” questions with delicacy and tact but really, the topic was multi-faceted and huge.

How would you answer such questions?

Good Night Grañón

Distance walked: 22.4km (from Azofra to Grañón)

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Crossing the main road to follow the trail to Santiago

I left Santo Domingo after finishing my cheesy, bread-y lunch, and walked on 6.2km to the small village of Grañón. You can see by the photos below that the day was another stellar, sunny, scorching hot day – I miss those!

I hoped to secure a place in the parish hostel adjoining the Church of St. John the Baptist, where they had room for 40 pilgrims between 2 rooms. I wanted to stay there because the hostel ran on donations (“donativo”). I learned, from staying with the nuns at Zabaldika, that the hostels financed by donations tend to have a different atmosphere and ethos to other types of accommodation on Camino. Thanks to the nuns, I’d enjoyed a communal meal with my fellow pilgrims and made new friends. I even enjoyed the hymn singing (although I cried my eyes out all the way through!). I appreciated their kindness and support, and their donation-based hostel gave me some much-needed tender care. Experience had taught me that donation-based hostels felt nurturing and kind. I wanted to stay in as many as I could, so I prayed for a space in Grañón.

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Only 560km to go!

When I arrived, I was thrilled to learn that there was free space for me!

And I was even more thrilled to bump into American Fred and his friends, sitting out on the grassy lawn out front. We first met in Roncesvalles, on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. He stood out because of his John Deere hat, but they were each smiling, friendly, mischievious men. I enjoyed getting to know them. We’d lost track of each other in the intervening days, but bumped into each other the previous evening in Azofra. I happily joined them for dinner and drinks there, but once we left the hostel the next morning I never knew if, or when, I would see them again. Life on Camino is like that.

So it was a real delight to find them again in Granon, and to have some time to sit in the sun, chatting, laughing, and to catch up on our walking. A few days on Camino can feel like a few months or even years in “real life”, and there is always so much to catch up on.

I was thrilled to see them, and thrilled to have a free space in the hostel.

There was only one small snag with the hostel. I knew it in advance but the thing was:

They didn’t provide beds.

They didn’t have beds of any sort.

Instead, they offered mats on the floor, with woollen blankets and cushions too. The blankets and cushions weren’t exactly clean but I took them anyway to provide a little extra padding beneath me.

What’s it like to sleep on a mat on the floor? Something like this:

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You’ll see that the mats are tightly packed in there, with only 2-3 inches between them. Sometimes, there’s no space between them at all, so you can find yourself sleeping very close to someone you’ve never met before! As a woman travelling alone, this could have been weird in a thousand and one ways. Honestly, it wasn’t weird at all. I’d never met the guy sleeping right beside me but we exchanged hellos and then politely avoided eye contact for the rest of the evening. When you sleep that close to a stranger, you need to create boundaries any way you can, and that’s what we did to create ours.

But that afternoon, I sat out on the grassy front lawn with Fred and friends, chatting, giggling, and enjoying their company. That evening, I went to mass in the church next door. In keeping with a long-held family tradition, I was very, very late. To my credit, I was on a call to Handsome Husband so I figured I had the very best of reasons for being late, right?

But I was so late that I arrived in towards the end of the mass, during Holy Communion, and just about in time to receive a pilgrim blessing at the very end. In the photo below you’ll see that the priest gathered all the pilgrims together in front of the alter, before saying the blessing in Spanish. I wrote a little bit about the blessings in an earlier post, which you can read here: Pilgrim Blessings on Camino de Santiago.

You’ll also notice from the angle with which the picture was taken, that I was outside the group. I had arrived in so late that I didn’t want to stomp my way up to the front *just for the blessing* – that would have made me quite the “à la carte Catholic”! Instead, I snapped this brief photo from behind, said “Amen” when necessary, and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. It might have worked except for the fact that when mass ended, some older Spanish women stopped to chat with me at the front door of the church. They looked like women who attended mass every day, at least once a day, and maybe twice on a Sunday. I very obviously stood out as a pilgrim in my quick-drying outdoor gear, but one of them tried to engage me in conversation nonetheless.

I hadn’t a clue what she said to me, but I tried to explain that I was very sorry but I didn’t speak Spanish.

She kind of laughed, as if to say:

Ah of course you speak Spanish! Don’t be pulling my leg!

I insisted:

No, really I don’t speak Spanish. I am very sorry. But I hope you have a lovely evening.

Again she looked at me with merriment in her sparkling eyes, as though I were playing the world’s biggest practical joke – and she were in on it! And again, I insisted that even though I spoke just enough Spanish to explain that I didn’t, in fact, speak any Spanish…I knew how to say very little else!

She didn’t believe a word.

We went back and forth like this for about 5 minutes. By that time, her friends had joined her and they all circled around me at the doors of the church. I had no idea why they’d earmarked me, when there were dozens of other pilgrims walking right past them. I wanted to get back to the hostel to avail of the communal meal there, but I didn’t want to be rude and break away from the ladies either. And anyway, they seemed so sweet and warm – they reminded me of all the nice grandmothers I’d ever known! With their long, knitted cardigans, their mid-length polyester blend skirts, and their sturdy shoes, they reminded me of women I knew in my childhood and I felt a natural affinity with them. I felt they might even have sweets in their pockets, or have a stash of knitting wool hidden somewhere behind a statue!

She looked at me with a warm gaze and quickly spoke to her 5-6 friends standing beside her. I, of course, have no idea what she really said, but her tone and clucking noises made me feel she was saying something like this:

Doesn’t she look just like Manuel’s daughter, Isabella? Look at that hair, and she has the very same eyes! I’d swear it was her!

With all her friends saying:

Ooooh yes, you’re right! She looks just like her. And you know who else she looks like?

Who?

Carlos’s neice….the one that moved to Madrid….what’s her name again?

Maria.

Yes! Maria. She looks like her too. But they’re related anyhow, so that would make sense. Their mothers are second cousins.

Ah yes, I’d forgotten that. And their related to José in the shop, too. You’d swear she was one of them.

Pity she doesn’t speak any Spanish though.

And she’s a bit pale…

Poor thing has no sense of fashion…

But she looks just like that side of the family!

I stood on, like a village idiot, smiling without understanding what they really said. But they were endlessly kind and welcoming to me, and I glowed with the warmth of it all.

If I had any grasp of the language I would have stayed to chat because she was a warm, mischievous gem of a woman. I know she and I would have laughed together. Instead, I gave her my arm as I escorted her down the steps of the church, to the safety of the level footpath below. I had an albergue to return to, and a dinner to eat. And hopefully she had a family and feast of her own to return to too, that evening.

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Look at all that gold! With Dave and Barb in the blue and pink, to the left.

Pilgrim Blessings on Camino de Santiago

In Viana, I bumped into Kevin and Liz outside the cathedral. The warm evening sunlight turned the building a golden brown, and we delighted in seeing each other again. As ever, they enquired about my feet and how I was getting on with the sandals. I confirmed that I’d just bought new hiking shoes that very day, and the sandals were getting the heave-ho and would be sent home in the mail.  They looked relieved and glad that I’d finally come to my senses in deciding to walk in shoes!

Though we’d chosen to stay in different hostels, we attended 8pm mass that evening and availed of the special blessing for pilgrims afterwards. By then, I felt enormously grateful to have survived those early days of the Camino – the Pyrenees, the issues with beds, and the distance I had already walked. I’d resigned from my job to walk the Camino and I really wanted to walk the 800km to Santiago.

Ego didn’t want for me to get so injured that we’d have to go home early, and face an audience who might judge me, and call me foolish and reckless.

Left a permanent job to walk the Camino, only to come home after just a week?

Fail!

In  reaching Viana intact, and in sourcing a new pair of walking shoes, I felt I was really making progress. I felt renewed.

The very least I could do was attend mass, give thanks, and avail of the pilgrim blessing. I’ve been reared a Catholic but by my own admission, I’m not a poster child for organised faith of any kind. Still, I’ve been reared to say “Thank You” and I felt strongly about doing that – even if the world disagrees about who, or what, to thank. I was delighted to have made it that far but there was still over 600km to go and I would need all the help I could get. I didn’t expect to do it all on my own.

Back in St. Jean Pied de Port, I attended a mass and gladly received the pilgrim blessing before I ever started walking. There, it was spoken in French, and I managed to understand only bits of it. Crossing over the Pyrenees meant we had all arrived into Spain, so the blessings from there on were spoken in Spanish. I hadn’t a clue what was being said, and some online research reveals that there several versions of the blessing. There may not be one exact prayer that’s said in all instances but this is one below is at least one version, and I’m presuming the sentiment is the same across all versions – even if the translation varies a bit:

O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, protecting him in
his wanderings, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, we ask that you watch over us,
your servants, as we walk in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela.

Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.

So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and enriched
with grace and virtue we return safely to our homes filled with joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Apostle Santiago, pray for us.
Santa Maria, pray for us.

I popped in and out of churches a lot in my time walking the Camino. I do this in “real-life” too, and leave a trail of burning candles in my wake. On Camino, I liked the cool shade of the churches and they were a welcome reprieve from the heat. Conversely (given the Camino’s Christian tradition), the churches were often the quietest places to sit and take stock. I found the albergues loud and busy, and the café bars were equally packed. Thankfully, the churches offered some breathing space and an opportunity for quiet reflection, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs.

I attended mass in a sporadic fashion, and availed of pilgrim blessings whenever they were offered. Some priests rattled through the blessing with perfunctory speed and little heart. I had no problem with that – sometimes priests are men who need to get home and eat some dinner, like the rest of us. I don’t expect them to infuse every day with divine significance! Still, I was glad to receive whatever blessings they offered – regardless of their delivery.

Of all the pilgrim blessings I received along the way, this one in Viana was truly tear-jerking and I came away from it feeling choked up. Whoever he was, the priest that evening brought a tender humanity to the proceedings, and caught a few of us off guard with his warm humour. At the end of the mass, he gathered all the pilgrims together to the front of the church. We stood in a semi-circle in front of the alter, in our dusty shoes and hi-tech clothing. We were a mixture of young and old; women and men; Catholic and not, but we stood there united in our pilgrim status.

We all hoped to walk to Santiago.

We all intended to give it our best shot.

We all hoped to make it safe and sound.

Usually, we were blessed in a group and as a group.

This particular evening, the priest took the time to bless each of us individually. He asked each of us where we were from, and found something small and encouraging to say to each of us – whether it was about the football teams, the weather, or the music from our home countries. That small gesture was profoundly powerful. Of a sudden, we weren’t just a random scattering of alien pilgrims. Instead, we were people with homes, lives, and loves – all acknowledged by a simple question and warm comment.

Magic!

With each of us, he gently placed his hands on our shoulders and, looking straight into our eyes, said a blessing. He spoke softly. The whole thing was over in seconds. I want to say that he made the sign of the cross on my forehead but I don’t know if this is a real memory or an imagined one. Either way, the ceremony of blessing us was deeply moving. It took only a few minutes to make it personal, and I came away with tears in my eyes.

Total wuss!

I’m not sure what exactly brought me close to tears:

Was it because he spoke to each of us individually?

Or that he placed his hands on my shoulders?

Was it because he joked about football and made each of us smile?

I have no idea.

All I know was the pilgrim blessing gave me a few moments of gentle, mindful, connection. In that exchange I felt welcomed and acknowledged. Here I was, entirely human:

Sore

Floundering

Emotional

Stubborn

Grateful

Proud

Pilgrim

I was doing my best, but I was less and less sure what my “best” actually was, or what that even meant.

Without any flash dramatics, this priest had gently gathered us all together and shown us a few moments of gentle compassion and humour. With that, he infused our hearts with a little bit of hope for the days ahead, so even if our feet failed us, we felt blessed. That counted for something. I came away from the church feeling that my Camino was bigger than me, and stronger than my sore feet. Some deeper part of myself had just been fortified.

The woman who’d walked with me over the previous 2 days was not Catholic but admitted that something special had just happened. Even she felt the sincerity of the blessing and took it to heart, with renewed hope.

Pilgrim blessings – I’m a fan 🙂

 

 

The Road to Roncesvalles

 

John Brierley‘s guide and maps plot the route between Orisson and Roncesvalles as (more or less) like this:

Distance: 15km

Elevation Gain: 750m

Descent: 500m

When I woke in the hostel at Orisson in the very early a.m. I knew that all of this lay ahead of me for the day. It was still dark outside (and inside) so my roommates got good use out of their headtorches while they packed up their sleeping bags and got ready to go.

I don’t remember my reaction but I imagine it was a shock to my system: I am not a morning person and being woken by bright, bobbing LED torches in such a small space is not my ideal way to wake up. It doesn’t exactly bring out the best in me. It’s part of the Camino culture that people are out the door by 6am, so nocturnal people like me are at a bit of a disadvantage. I lay in bed for another few minutes, trying to mentally prepare for the day ahead.

I’m not in the habit of walking 15km on a given day but I know I can do it. I’m also not in the habit of climbing up 750m and/or down 500m but again, I know it’s within my physical capability – I’ve done it before and know I’m able.

In some ways, the prospect of climbing up and over the Pyrenees was less daunting to me when I crunched the numbers re: distance, elevation gain, and descent. I realised it wasn’t impossible. But I had to factor in the gradient on the way up and down (very steep), which adds strain to the body and tires out the legs more quickly. The gradient can determine whether the 15km feel like only 8km or more like 37km, and even in the early morning half-light I realised that these 15km weren’t going to be the breeziest of my life.

Like many pilgrims, I carried too much weight in my backpack despite my best efforts to keep it to a minimum. I had about 7kg worth of ‘stuff’ but carried another 2L of water, which added an additional 2kg to my load. 9-10kg is not a lot by regular everyday standards but carrying it up the side of a steep mountain, over distance, in mid-30-something-degree heat made it a lot more “challenging”. It was too much but I didn’t know that then.

My breakfast in Orisson was brief and consisted of strong, bitter coffee in a bowl (first time I’d ever done that) and baguette with butter and jam. I was half asleep while I ate it but realised my body would need the sustenance later, so I ate and drank as much as I could comfortably manage.

All around me, the bustle of pilgrims filling up their water bottles and lacing up their boots added noise, laughter, and an excited tension to the room. Today would be a big day – today was crossing the Pyrenees and making our way across the border from France into Spain. It was important to get on the road early so we could beat the heat of the sun.

Added to that, I’d heard that the hostels didn’t /don’t allow pilgrims to stay later than 8am so there was no option of sleeping in and starting the day later: I simply had to get out the door.

On top of that, the people around me had some concern about “getting a bed” in our destination later. Many of the hostels run on a first-come, first-serve basis so once the beds are taken, any late-arriving pilgrims have to make alternative arrangements.

At the beginning of the trip, the fear of being without a bed was real and regularly spoken about. While I’m not an early-morning lark, I realised that the sooner I left Orisson then the sooner I’d arrive in Roncesvalles, and the better chance I’d have of getting a bed. I felt I couldn’t walk further, so going on to the next town or village wasn’t an option that day.

I was also on a budget for the whole trip, and foregoing the hostel for a more pricey hotel was beyond my price point for that stage of the trip. There was no where else to stop off en route and I didn’t feel like sleeping outdoors that night. So, I felt I simply had to make it to Roncesvalles in time to get a bed.

Whether we ever admit it, that means walking to a set pace instead of having a leisurely stroll, and it changed the emotional energy of the hostel in the half-light at Orisson.

The Pyrenees were far more grassy and open than I had expected. For hours, I pottered along putting one foot in front of the other, with a chorus of bells sounding on the wind. They sounded like Swiss cow bells but all I could see were horses and sheep – dozens and dozens of them, munching the grass and running across the open landscape. It was one big advert for “Black Beauty” with cowbells, and it was a romantic bliss.

The early morning light cast golden shadows across the hills and to this day I remember the expansiveness – so much horizon, so much sky.

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I found the walking steep that day, but the incline and decline were both managable. They weren’t easy breezy but with the weather, the good company, and some strategic breaks, I’m happy to report that I managed just fine.

In advance of my Camino I’d read forums with countless people wondering and worrying about how bad it would be, and always wondering whether they’d be able for it. I wondered the same thing – after all, some people say that it’s truly terrible but are they the exception or the norm?

It’s hard to tell.

I went into it knowing that my body, while generally unprepared, was strong.

I also went into it knowing that I really, really wanted to cross the mountains and see the views from a height, so my mental and emotional fortitude was strong too.

I knew the weather would be dry so I wouldn’t have slippery paths underfoot or any dangerous winds to contend with, but I’d have to be careful to stay hydrated and not get sunburned.

My body was only sort of prepared and I knew there was no going back and there was no way out – there was only one option and that was to go forward. Lack of choice in the matter was a great motivator!

My highlights included “banana man in a van”, whom appeared like a mirage on the side of the road and provided timely sustenance to weary pilgrims like myself. This enterprising man drives up into the mountains each day, parks his little van on the side of the road, and sells coffee and fruit juice to passing pilgrims. He was a pure delight to our day.

He also sold Lidl-brand chocolate at a highly-profitable price, bananas, hard-boiled eggs, and locally-made cheese. The bananas were welcome freshness.

Even in those very early days of the trip I felt I was deprived of fresh fruit and veg compared to my usual routine, and I was thrilled to eat something fresh, other than bread. The eggs in particular, struck me as a mark of genius!

I was impressed by his insight – boiled eggs are very portable so it’s easy for pilgrims to buy a few and eat them later.

They don’t even need refrigeration, which was a “win” for everyone in that heat.

They’re packed with protein (handy for long-distance endurance), and they’re cheap and quick to prepare.

From a business perspective, he was on to a definite win-win, and even had salt and pepper to hand for flavour.

I toasted his business excellence with coffee, bananas, and chocolate, (but no eggs) and sat on the grass to take off my socks and air out my feet.

Big thanks to Canadians Barb and Dave, who kindly collected my socks after they blew across the grass in the breeze – it wouldn’t have been fun to lose them down the side of a mountain so early in the trip!

Crossing from France into Spain was also a highlight, though I’m not sure exactly when it happened that day. We crossed under a makeshift-looking iron archway of sorts, with plastic flag-like bits attached to it. It wasn’t fancy or formal but rumour had that it was the official border line between the two countries.

Some non-EU pilgrims around me wondered if they’d be asked to show their passports but there was no one there to show them to, and I didn’t see any marker to confirm that this was indeed the boundary line.

I took a photo of it but I might have taken a close-up if I’d known for certain that it was the boundary line. Maybe someone more knowledgable can confirm either way?

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Banana Man in a Van (but I’m sure he has a real name)

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Is that the border up ahead?

I enjoyed the decline to Roncesvalles through the woods and relished the cool shade. I walked in hiking sandals and didn’t relish the steep gradient, so I walked slowly, mindfully, and with a lot of weight on my walking poles to help me keep my balance and stability. Thankfully the preceeding days had been equally dry and bright, so the ground underneath was stable (though my calf muscles still had some complaints to make).

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Shady Woodlands

In the end, I made it to Roncesvalles in enough time to secure a bed in the hostel, wash my dusty clothes in the sink, hang them out to dry, and find new friends for a glass of vino and dinner.

I was sore and spent, but delighted that I’d covered the distance without breaking any bones, and was still intact.

For the second time in three days, I wasn’t in time for the full pilgrim mass but I heard afterwards that it was emotional and moving. I’d managed to attend a bit of a mass in St. Jean (by happy accident rather than any pre-planning) so I didn’t feel so bad that I had missed one in Roncesvalles. I hadn’t thought about attending mass at every stop,  or even at all. I had only planned to walk my best each day and let the rest unfold. Sometimes, that meant being open to a mass. Other times, it meant spending my time differently.

Roncesvalles gave me a hot shower, great laundry facilities, a safe, secure bed, and friendly people with whom to share wine and food. As days go, it had been a good one.

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These boots were made for walkin’…