I have wanted to hike el Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James, ever since I read Pualo Cuelho´s book The Pilgrimage more than a decade ago. Now, with the publication of Walkabout Northern California: Hiking Inn to Inn this spring, I decided to give myself the gift of a 500 mile trek across northern Spain.
The legend of the Camino began in AD 813 when Pelayo, a religious hermit, heard the song of angels and followed a star to an ancient Roman mausoleum where he found the remains of St. James, one of Jesus´ apostles. His finding was confirmed by the local bishop and the Asturian King Alfonso the Chaste. Soon pilgrims flocked to the site as a form of penance and indulgence, a way to earn an entrance to heaven. The pilgrimage route flourished from the 11th to 13th centuries when towns, churches, monasteries, and services for pilgrims were established. As the centuries passed, many times there were very few pilgrims, but there was a rebirth in the second half of the 20th century, and the Camino was granted U.N. World Heritage status. Today, thousands of pilgrims hike the Camino each year.
A web of trails lead to Santiago. I chose Camino Frances, leaving from St. Jean Pied de Port in the very south of France and in the heart of Basque country. The hike on the first two days crosses the Pyrenese into Spain. The hike on the first day climbs 1,900 feet along a one-lane, rural road, passing little farms. Small herds of cattle, horses, and sheep graze on the grassy mountainsides. Dense clouds formed a low ceiling, but after a few hours, I walked into the cloud and was enshrouded by it - cool, moist, and quiet. Cows would suddenly appear on the road, emerging in the mist a few meters ahead.
There are over 300 albergues or refugios - pilgirim hostels along the Camino. Arriving at Albergue Orisson, I joined pilgrims from all over the world, mostly from Europe, but also from New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Australia, and a few from the U.S. It was easy to meet and get to know other pilgrims. We share a common quest.
The skies cleared on the second day, revealing vistas of green rolling mountains reaching to the horizon. Climbing another 2,600 feet, a gale force wind howled. There were no farms at this altitude. What a joy to hike in such wild country.
The Pyrenese have been an almost insurmountable barrier, historically protecting Spain and France from each other, but the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, lead his army on this same trail and invaded Spain around 800. Napoleon did the same 1,000 years later.
The trail passed into Spain and descended steeply into the Rio Urrobi valley where I joined 100 pilgims, spending the night at the Roncesvalles monastery.