Between earth and asphalt: faith, hope and the modern world in the Camino pilgrimage

Heading for the same destination. Two roads to Santiago de Compostela, near Caldas de Reis, Galicia.

In the distant past, most pilgrims walked the Camino as an act of religious devotion, ritual penance or thanksgiving. Perhaps they were searching for remission of sins or paying off a moral debt. Maybe some believed that the travails of the walk tempered their souls in preparation for the rewards of a vividly imagined afterlife. Perhaps pilgrimage was a seasonal thing, something you did because winter had melted away and the restlessness of spring was tingling in your feet.

Today these rationales still propel some pilgrims. As Emmy and I walked the Via Portugues, we bobbed for a time in the wash from a group of earnest Spanish pilgrims. There were about a dozen of them: elderly women rolling along in black dresses and black stockings with snow-white Nike shoes; chattery, lip-sticked housewives; cheerful men with waistlines as lumpy as their backpacks; and several children making occasional watchful attempts at naughtiness. (One of the children was an African boy about 10 years old – probably a newly arrived orphan refugee – who couldn’t speak much Spanish and whose big eyes seemed filled with loneliness and bewilderment.) The party managed to combine solemnity with ebullience. They carried aloft a small cross on the end of a pole, and as they progressed they recited Hail Marys, sang hymns, thumbed their rosary beads, and knelt in roadside prayer.

But they were exceptions. In one way or another most of the pilgrims we met seemed to be… what is the right word… escapees? They kept their religious motivations (if they had any) to themselves but many walked with a kind of single-minded intensity, grunting and puffing with the clenched determination of marathon runners. Pre-Camino, they had probably been living a life that was regimented, stressed, noisy, cramped, fraught, compromised. They were hounded by a reality that grabbed them and bullied them, constricted their chests and glared relentlessly into their faces. On the Camino they were eager for an experience that would lift this weight of the everyday from them. To that extent they were “religious”.

In their book The Year We Seized the Day, Australian pilgrims Elizabeth Best and Colin Bowles report on their Camino experience. “It’s taken a week but – aware now of my solitary purpose – the urgency has finally left my feet. There are no bills to pay today, no calls to make, errands to run, traffic to battle, friends to meet or appointments to keep. But there is much work to be done. And it all revolves around the same four threads woven throughout every day: food, water, health and shelter. The life of a pilgrim is a life stripped bare, reduced to the essentials and nothing more.” [p.2]

Another Australian writes “Pilgrimage is about letting go of so many of the taken-for-granted props we have grown to depend on — cars and buses and trains to carry you from one place to another; the knowledge of where you will sleep this night; the ready availability of clothes and food. The journey of a pilgrim can depend on none of these. (“Strange encounters on the Spanish Camino” Tony Doherty Eureka Street 14/10/2009

Irreconcilable cultures? The Camino passes under a freeway between Ponte de Lima and Rubiaes in northern Portugal. (If you look closely you can see the yellow arrows of  the Camino roughly painted on the pillar at front right. Very symbolic!)

Jane Christmas, a Canadian, wrote “The idea of a pilgrimage – it has such a Chaucerian ring – was irresistable. It evokes a noble challenge, a test of one’s faith on a harsh, unknown, ancient path, the sort of pursuit that taps the primal urge to wander with intense curiosity. The Camino seemed a logical, albeit extreme, next step in my reconciliation with Mother Nature. All I needed was a backpack of belongings, strong legs and boundless enthusiasm. Check. Check. Check.” (What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim, p.7)

There is a kind of excited innocence, and sometimes a scarcely concealed yearning, in these observations. They communicate a vision of the Camino as a back-to-basics path of pre-modern simplicity, a bucolic idyll speckled with antique buildings and beaming companions. Certainly this image is right up front in John Brierly’s canonical guides to the Camino pilgrimage routes – little books that almost all English-speaking pilgrims seem to carry (certainly we did). For example, Brierly greets woodland paths and country roads lyrically and contrasts them with the harshness and danger of asphalt highways.

A truck passes over the Camino path. It is probably carrying the necessities of life that pilgrims must consume in order to keep walking.

“We now have our first glorious day where natural paths account for over half the route and there are no main roads at all.” (Camino Portugues p.132) “Most of this stage is along quiet country roads and woodland paths that follow the lovely Rio Louro valley. There is good shade and several drinking fonts along the way. The challenge today is the stretch of main road both entering and leaving the industrial town of Porrino and the slog through its industrial estates.” (Camino Portugues p.148)

For Brierly and, I suspect, for most pilgrims, walking the Camino is an exercise in the hope of redemption, a redemption that is beyond our grasp on the traffic-fraught highway of our ordinary lives. “We have a sacred contract, a divine function, and a reason why we came here. Perhaps your calling to go on pilgrimage will be the opportunity to find out what the purpose is and to provide the necessary space to re-orientate your life towards its fulfilment.” (Camino Portugues p.9) “And so, like a latter day Rip van Winkle we rise to dust off our boots and join the merry band of pilgrims making their way through the welcoming beauty and peace of northern Portugal to the city of St. James in neighbouring Galicia. You will meet other wayfarers and the native folk whose lands you pass over, but above all you may meet your Self, and that may make all the difference.” (Camino Portugues p.18)

Souvenir staves, shells and water gourds… just 11 euros per set in a souvenir shop in Tuy on the Spain-Portugal border.

Unfortunately for the integrity of this vision, the great python of the tourist industry has wound its coils around the Camino pilgrimage and is squeezing hard. Its jaws are already clamped over the city of Santiago de Compostela and it is sucking in the roads that lead to the city. Slowly the liminal innocence of the pilgrimage is being gulped down, helped along by peristaltic waves of seasonal enthusiasm generated by the tourist industry, the church, and supportive government policy. Tim Moore, an American who walked the Via Frances with a donkey, catches this half-ingested – half spiritual, half self indulgent – quality with sardonic accuracy. “… [walking the Camino] was the search for something beyond the typical tourist routine, an antidote to the vacuous consumerism of contemporary travel. A trip to the moral high ground – I hear the view’s excellent up there. A trip purged of the empty decadence that characterised most foreign trips, yet still demanded alcoholic indulgence in the name of historical authenticity. A holiday that wasn’t a holiday, even though it involved going to Spain. A journey of transcendental discovery that was also a stiff but sensible aerobic challenge, and whose inherent asceticism had the happy side benefit of economy. A medieval tale retold for our times but at 1350 prices.” (Spanish Steps 2005, p.5)

The fact is, the Camino cannot be disentangled from the lifestyle it is supposed to reproach. Its romanticised “otherness” is a delusion. The despised asphalt highway carries the food that pilgrims eat, the materials that build albergues and hotels, the buses that whisk staff to the airports that pilgrims use, the vans that run sherpa services for pilgrims, the trucks that deliver souvenirs to the shops of Santiago de Compostela. To be blunt, it is this “degraded” world of modern commerce that makes mass pilgrimage possible. There is no return to a medieval past, there is no genuine stripped-down simplicity, except in the imagination of pilgrims determined to shut out reality and romanticise their walk. Today the Camino pilgrimage is in a symbiotic embrace with the economy of northern Spain. The two infuse each other and give momentum to each other. They are Siamese twins with a single heart.

The cathedral of Santiago records the number of compostela certificates issued to pilgrims who complete the pilgrimage. The statistics show that pilgrim numbers have been rising steadily since the 1980s. Last year there were 272,000 arrivals at the cathedral, though 2010 was a Holy Year when higher numbers than usual walked the Way. The current year 2011 will probably see close to 200,000 arrivals, down from last year but still a very big number and well up on the 146,000 of 2009. These multitudes have to be sheltered and fed in the small towns and villages they pass through. As Tony Kevin says: “… the economic value of the pilgrimage in encouraging remote-area tourism and bringing more economic activity into isolated villages [has been] accepted. Of course, the pilgrimage has wider long-term benefits for Spanish tourism: walkers on the camino may not be big spenders, but they may return in later years with their families for more conventional holidays in Spain.” (Walking the Camino p.39)

Hungry pilgrims who like to eat well (like Emmy and me, for example) keep countless local restaurants alive.

And the commercial momentum of the Camino pilgrimage is flowing out across the borders of Spain. In scores of cities across the world young women in shiny high-heels, and young men wrapped in the fragrance of after-shave, are sitting in front of computers making money from the provision of services for sweaty, dusty pilgrims. Emmy and I were customers of Follow the Camino, a company based in Dublin. Working via the internet and email they organised our accommodation, arranged sherpa transport of our suitcases from stopping-point to stopping-point, and supplied information about the route. It was relatively expensive but for us it was money very well spent. [see:]

In Carlisle, northern England, we celebrated our completion of the Cumbria Way walk (see Footsore in Carlisle: We complete the Cumbria Way posted August 22, 2011) with a meal at Nando’s in Warwick Street, one of a world-wide chain of restaurants that specialise in fried chicken spiced with Portuguese peri-peri sauce. A Camino story was emblazoned in wavy lines of lettering on the wall behind us.

“This tale dates back to the 14th century and, like all legends, the details differ depending on who’s doing the telling. Here’s our version. A pilgrim was passing through the village of Barcelos in Portugal when he was wrongly accused of theft. This was a serious charge for which a guilty verdict meant death. The pilgrim was brought before the town’s judge who was about to eat a cockerel for dinner. Feeling vulnerable in a strange village, and knowing what his sorry fate might be, the pilgrim pleaded: “If I am innocent, may that cockerel get up and crow!” No sooner had he spoken than the cockerel got up and crowed heartily (well it is a legend!) With that, the pilgrim was pardoned and allowed to go on his way. Ever since, the Barcelos cockerel has been the symbol of Faith, Justice & Good Luck.”

… and – we should add – it is also the symbol of Nando’s peri-peri fried chicken.

A story from the Camino pilgrimage on the wall of Nando’s peri-peri chicken restaurant in Carlisle, northern England.

Thus does the power of a Camino narrative lend pseudo-religious authority to Nando’s corporate image, helping the company to filch money from the pockets of diners and boost profits even in the bleak streets of distant Carlisle.

For many pilgrims, walking the Camino is a “spiritual” experience they imagine (or hope?) is utterly different from stressing out on the highways of modern society…

… but the Camino depends absolutely on those highways, i.e. on the infrastructure of modern commerce, and can’t be disentangled from it. In Santiago de Compostela the earthen path and the asphalt highway merge in the city’s narrow lanes – packed with restaurants and souvenir shops – that lead to the cathedral.


Traditions, rituals and icons of the Camino

The Cross of St.James

Over the centuries traditions, rituals and unique icons have gathered like age lines on the face of the Camino. They lend the pilgrimage an endearing, antique charm. Pilgrims fresh from the hard streets of Warsaw, Seattle, Madrid, even Canberra, embrace them with enthusiasm. Some seem to believe very genuinely that the Camino’s rituals bring them religious illumination and merit. Others may be looking for some vague connection with the past. Quite a few, perhaps more than a few, are simply and sincerely hoping that, as they walk the Camino, they are “doing it right”, like tourists solemnly stumbling through an exotic local dance at their resort hotel.

Canberra writer Tony Kevin, who walked to Santiago over the Via de la Plata and wrote a fine book about it (Walking the Camino: A Modern Pilgrimage to Santiago, 2007), quotes part of a poem by sixteenth century adventurer Walter Raleigh:

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My scrip of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage (1604)

Many of these trappings are still to be seen in the Camino pilgrimage four hundred years later. The scallop shell, the staff (today more commonly a telescopic carbon-steel walking pole), the pilgrim’s menu (the quality of which sometimes threatens to deliver you more quickly than you expected to the realm of immortality), the calabash gourd bottle (today replaced by steel or plastic bottles, even by “camel-back rehydration bladders”)… all these and more still extend their offer of symbolic authority to the modern pilgrim. In their current incarnations they can connect us to the distant past, though there is no doubt that today their power as religious symbols has weakened.

Here are notes on some of these rituals and traditions as I experienced them on the Via Portugues in July 2011.

The yellow arrow

The yellow Camino arrow with (pointing in the opposite direction) the blue arrow of the pilgrimage to Fatima in Central Portugal.

Along all the branches of the Camino you will find yellow arrows pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela. They appear on walls, trees, roadside milestones, footpaths and in formally painted signs. Mostly they have been put in place, and are re-painted from time to time, by pilgrim support organisations. In northern Portugal they appear every few hundred metres. Occasionally they are no more than a few metres apart, especially at intersections or in places where there might be doubt about the correct way forward. The yellow arrows are less frequent on the Spanish leg of the Via Portugues, but there are still plenty of way markers in the form of tiles with the scallop shell motif (see below). Like many traditions along the Camino, the yellow arrows are not as old as they are sometimes taken to be. In fact their use as way markers dates back no further than the 1980s, attributed to Don Elias Valina Sampedro (died 1989), a priest of O Cebreiro parish on the Via Frances to the east of Santiago de Compostela. He pioneered the restoration of the Camino pilgrimage in the 1970s and 1980s. In Portugal the now ubiquitous arrows first appeared no more than 10 years ago.

Don’t follow the asphalt road! Three arrows on tree trunks direct you down a side path in northern Portugal.

The scallop shell

A scallop shell tile on a wall approaching the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela.

Outside the massive front doors of the cathedral in Tuy a street vendor presses his wares on visitors. He is selling scallop shells harvested from beaches along the Iberian coast. They cost €1.50 (about Aust$2.00) each. They gleam in mat-white ivory with the characteristic fan-shaped pattern of grooves radiating over their gently arched outer surfaces. For reasons that are now hidden under the mildew of time the scallop shell has become the iconic symbol of the Camino pilgrimage. In stylised form it is seen everywhere, especially on tiles that – cemented to walls and milestones – point the way to Santiago. Many pilgrims display the shells on their clothes and gear, or dangle them from their walking staves. The symbol is old, and there are many stories about its origins. Here are two (quoted from Wikipedia):

Version 1: After James’ death, his disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, the body washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops.

Version 2: After James’ death his body was mysteriously transported by a ship with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. As James’ ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on the shore. The young bridegroom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse got spooked, and the horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells

Scallop shell in a city footpath (Tuy, north western Spain)

The scallop shell on my backpack identifies me as a Camino pilgrim.

Drinking fountains

At many points along the Way there are water spouts emptying into stone bowls where pilgrims can drink and refill their water bottles. Called fonte in Portuguese and fuente in Spanish, many are clearly very old. They make an appearance in Walter Raleigh’s poem where he dreams of what he will do for “peaceful pilgrims”…

I’ll take them first

To quench their thirst,

And taste of nectar suckets,

At those clear wells

Where sweetness dwells

Drawn up by saints in crystal buckets.

Exotic stories cling to some of them. At the very least, for some pilgrims they have powerful symbolic value. Triple spouts (of which there are many in Portugal and Spain) are taken to represent the triple refreshments of the Christian Trinity. As Raleigh put it 400 years ago:

There will I kiss

The bowl of bliss,

And drink mine everlasting fill;

Upon every milken hill:

My soul will be a-dry before;

But after, it will thirst no more.


A triple fuente in the centre of Pontevedra, Spain

I fill up at a wayside drinking fountain in northern Portugal. Note my still-fresh black eye (see “Fajozes to Barcelos: Disaster (almost)” posted July 19, 2011)

Stones of sorrow

A milestone heaped with pebbles of sorrow. Note the number below the tile… just 70 kilometres more to Santiago.

As I reported in an earlier post [The mystique and the shadows of the Camino, posted July 29th] some pilgrims believe you can pick up a stone, put your sorrow into it, and disburden yourself of that sorrow when you put the stone down. Some carry stones from their homes all the way to Santiago de Compostela cathedral, others abandon their stone in certain special places like the heights of Cruz de Farro on the Via Frances, still others do the ritual “in instalments”, picking up stones and relinquishing them as they walk. On the Via Portgues some waymarkers are piled high with stones, and stones litter the ground around many wayside crucifixes.

Emmy lets go of her sorrows (rather small ones).

A wayside cross littered with stones of sorrow at a high point in the Camino trail in northern Portugal.

Wayside crosses, shrines and chapels

A typical wayside cross with Christ above and a pilgrim below.

Like decorated letters that punctuate the lines of an illuminated manuscript, the tracks of the Camino are punctuated by exotic wayside crosses, tiny niche-in-a-wall shrines and small chapels that are filled with symbolic pith. Some seem to function like roadside guard houses – places where Jesus is thought to keep a protective watch over the passing current of pilgrims. Quite a few wayside crosses are carved with effigies of Christ on the cross. Below him, on the shaft of the cross, there may appear a weathered image of a pilgrim complete with walking staff, water gourd and scallop shell. Some crosses are festooned with paper prayers and messages left by passing pilgrims.

For the weary walker there are few sights more welcome than a wayside chapel. Inside you find quiet respite from the relentless unravelling of distance under your feet. The heat, noise and dirt of the road shrink away. For a short time at least, you can wonder at the stillness and allow it to refresh you before you step out again into the incessently moving world of the walk.

A small roadside chapel in Spain.

A small roadside chapel between Redondela and Pontevedra in Galicia, Spain.

Inside a wayside chapel, an image of “Christ of the Good Journey”.

A tiny makeshift shrine, stones of sorrow and paper prayers surround a wayside crucifix near O Porrino in Galicia, northern Spain.

The Camino greeting

It is a tradition for walkers on the Camino to greet one another, and to be greeted by non-walkers, with a special cheery phrase: Bom Caminho (pronounced /bong.ka.MEEN.yo/) in Portuguese, and Buen Camino (pronounced /b’ in Spanish. Translated into English the greeting means something like “Well may you fare!” I may be wrong, but I think I heard a Galician variant of the phrase in north-west Spain. It sounded like /b’wen.ka.MEEN.yo/, sort of halfway between the Portuguese and Spanish variants of the greeting.

Pilgrim accommodation and pilgrim food

A sign advertising dormitory accommodation for pilgrims, north-western Spain

On the Via Frances there is a well-developed chain of hostel-type lodgings especially for bona-fide pilgrims. Called albergues or refugios they offer toilets, showers, bunk beds in dormitories, and simple kitchen facilities, all at a very nominal cost. This network is not so well developed along the Via Portugues, but there too the number of albergues is growing rapidly. Being too attached to bourgois comforts and the old-fashioned notion of privacy, Emmy and I did not stay in albergues. Instead we pre-booked accommodation that included breakfast and an evening meal in small hotels and B&Bs. Without exception these turned out to be comfortable although far from luxurious, with an especially warm welcome for pilgrims.

On the road, and in many of our overnight lodgings, we were able to order meals from a “pilgrims’ menu”. Meals on the pilgrims’ menu are slightly cheaper than standard meals, but the food is generally good, no-nonsense fare. An average pilgrim meal might consist of a soup entree, a meat dish (usually pork) with vegetables (usually boiled), and a dessert of fruit. Prices range from €7.00 to €12.00 including local wine and a cup of coffee or tea. In short, it is a good deal.

Multi-lingual advertisement for hungry pilgrims. Tuy, north-western Spain.

A typical meal from a pilgrims' menu: cheese and olives (top), rice and fried chicken. Served at Casa Cecilia Restaurant near Vilarinho, Portugal. Eight fifty euros including soup entree and cinnamon apple dessert.

A typical meal from a pilgrims’ menu: cheese and olives (top), rice and fried chicken. Served at the Casa Cecilia Restaurant, near Vilarinho, Portugal. It cost eight fifty Euros per person, including a soup entree and a cinnamon apple dessert.

In Santiago de Compostela and in a few places beyond the city, you can buy a special Tarta de Santiago, “cake of St.James”. This is a round, almond flavoured cake, sprinkled with icing sugar and embossed with a stencilled cross of Santiago. The cross of Santiago is an ancient icon, probably derived from the age when Santiago was the celestial patron of the Christian armies that – for some 700 years – harried Iberia’s Moorish rulers. The shaft of the cross tapers into a piked point like the blade of a sword, while the arms and the head are split and peeled back into the triple curls of a stylised fleur de lis.

Tarta de Santiago.

The pilgrim credencial and the compostela

The Compostela certificate

A compostela is a certificate in Latin issued by the cathedral of Santiago to pilgrims who have completed the Camino pilgrimage “impelled by religious devotion” (pietatis causa). To meet the cathedral’s definition of satisfactory completion pilgrims must walk at least the last 100 kilometres to the cathedral end-point. Most pilgrims walk much further than the minimum. The Via Frances, for example, extends about 800 kilometres from the Pyrenees to Santiago, even further if you take Le Puy or Paris or Vezelay or Arles (all in the deep interior of France) as your starting point. Emmy and I walked 230 kilometres along the Via Portugues from our beginning point in Porto, northern Portugal. You are allowed to cut your walk into stages and complete them at different times with intervals between each stage.

In order to get a compostela you must provide the cathedral with evidence that you have properly completed the pilgrimage. This takes the form of a document called a credencial or “pilgrim passport” which you fill with rubber stamps collected from from churches, albergues, restaurants and other places along the Camino way. Some restaurants even advertise their stamps to lure pilgrims in for a meal. At a pinch, a credencial can be simply a piece of paper, but mostly it takes the form of a concertina of printed cardboard issued by a pilgrim support organisation, a travel company or an albergue. (For an example of what a credencial can look like see: The sequence of stamps in the credencial is carefully examined in the Pilgrim Affairs Office (Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos) at the cathedral, and if it fulfills conditions a compostela is issued on the spot (see Our last day on the Camino posted August 5th).

The credencial has other functions and benefits. To ensure that guests in an albergue are bona fide pilgrims and not freeloaders trying to chisel a cheap night’s accommodation, credencials are carefully examined when walkers check in. And as I discovered at Tuy General Hospital, other doors too can be opened upon production of a credencial (see I get medical attention in Tuy posted July 26th).

Part of my credencial, or pilgrim passport.

Part of my credencial, or pilgrim passport, with stamps from churches, hotels and restaurants.

The pilgrim mass and the botafumeira

A recently arrived pilgrim and a nun wait for the pilgrims’ mass to begin

Every day at 11.00 a.m. there is a special pilgrim mass in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It is an exotic experience. An hour before proceedings start the cathedral’s ranks of simple wooden pews are already filling up. Left and right, at intervals along the wall, anxious communicants kneel in hut-like wooden confessionals while priests lean solemnly towards them cocking their heads to take in tales of sin while gazing out at the ragged throngs eddying down the cathedral aisles. Newly arrived walkers mill in sweaty clusters, their swags and backpacks heaped on the flagstone floor. They quietly squeeze into seats beside nuns and primly dressed women with heads veiled in filmy lace. Every few minutes the buzz is quelled for a few seconds with a loud “SH-SH-sh-sh” that hisses from the public address system. By 10.30 it is standing room only.

Ten minutes before the start of the mass a nun appears on the raised apse and with grandiloquent gestures, portentiously rising on her tip-toes and solemnly descending, she leads the congregation through a rehearsal of the sung liturgy. Then a barricade of priests appears in white frocks and long red stoles hanging to the floor from their necks. The mass – conducted in Spanish with a few passages of German – gets under way. A waterfall of music tumbles over the congregation from organ pipes that project horizontally from the walls of the nave. The choir sends its criss-crossing lines of song up into the ornate ribs of the distant ceiling. The presiding priest reads out the number of pilgrim arrivals from the previous day and their countries of origin. Emmy and I strain to catch the echoing nuances of the Spanish, and yes, there we are: “two arrivals from Australia”.

The climax of the mass is the ritual burning of incense in an enormous bronze thurible, called the botafumeira. After lighting it, a squad of priests hoist it above the congregation and energetically swing it like a giant pendulum left and right across the transept. A bluish haze of smoke rolls up into planks of light that slant down from the dome far above the upturned faces of the congregation. Smiles break out. Children point. Cameras flash.

Pilgrims and their walking gear inside Santiago cathedral

A priest hears confession inside Santiago cathedral. The kneeling legs of a repentant sinner protrude at the left. According to the sign on the confessional the polyglot priest can hear confessions in Spanish, Italian, French, German and English.

The atmosphere in Santiago cathedral during the pilgrims’ mass. Note the ropes used to raise and swing the botafumeira thurible.

Santiago, killer of Muslims: food for thought from the Camino pilgrimage

There is a dramatic effigy in a niche in the Cathedral of St.James in Santiago de Compostela. It depicts St.James in medieval military garb astride a horse, brandishing a sword above his head. Legend has it that St.James – Santiago – appeared to Christian troops during the semi-legendary Battle of Clavijo in 844 in which Spanish Christians defeated a much bigger Muslim army. During the following seven centuries of conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian peninsula – from roughly 800 until 1492 – Santiago was adopted as the divine mentor of the Christian forces. He was given the name Matamoros, “Killer of Moors” i.e. killer of Muslims, and subsequently became the patron saint of Spain. “Santiago y cierra, España!” (St. James and attack, for Spain!) became the battle cry of Spanish armies as they slowly recovered the Iberian peninsula from its Moorish rulers. The cry persisted into modern times and was frequently used as a nationalistic slogan during Franco’s long years of Fascist rule.

Santiago Matamoros as I photographed him in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, late July 2011.

In the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the saint’s horse rears from behind an arrangement of fresh leaves and flowers. As even the quickest search of the internet will confirm, behind this fragrant corsage Santiago’s horse is actually trampling over Moorish soldiers and his sword is meting out death. There is even a severed Muslim head on the ground below him.

The “unedited” image of Santiago Matamoros (Wikipedia open access image)

It is, I suppose, to the credit of the cathedral that it seems to be squeamish about the image. Perhaps the mangled limbs are camouflaged out of politically correct consideration for the feelings of Muslims. Perhaps (and I hope this is the case) the church has awakened to the realisation that nothing could be more contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ than this sympathetic, even admiring, representation of brutal murder. Whatever the case, the full barbarity of the image is something the Church no longer wants visitors to see. Someone on the cathedral’s staff regularly replaces the leaves and flowers, no doubt standing back each time to check that the true character of the image remains well hidden.

It is the purpose of a pilgrimage not just to present you with a challenge and deliver you to a destination but to set you thinking about life, faith and the practice of religion. In this spirit, the image of Santiago Matamoros triggered my curiosity about the intrusion of martial imagery into churches. Naively I wondered how widespread this was. So while walking through England I visited several cathedrals and churches. Without being systematic or obsessive about it, I kept an eye out for images of war and murder inscribed – as it were – inside these churches. I didn’t have to look very hard or very far. Every time I entered a church the images were immediately in my face. I found that – without exception – every one of the temples of Christian peace that I visited displayed eulogistic representations and commemorations of warriors and war. The churches, irrespective of denomination, seemed to be showcases for state-supported military mayhem.

Zulu spears and shields: stylised war trophies in Lichfield Cathedral.

It would be a consolation if I could report that the images I saw only commemorated those who died resisting aggression by the enemies of freedom and peace. But I was struck by the many images – probably a majority – that commemorate Britain’s wars of aggression in distant lands. One of the most shocking is to be seen in Lichfield Cathedral. In one corner of the cathedral there is a prominent memorial to those who died during Britain’s wars of conquest against the Zulu people of South Africa (1878-1879). The memorial takes the form of a palisade of Zulu spears and shields – stylised war trophies, in effect. The names of the soldiers who died are inscribed on the shields.

The names of British war dead triumphantly inscribed on Zulu shields in Lichfield Cathedral.

Also in Lichfield Cathedral there is a memorial to members of the local Staffordshire Regiment who died during the first Anglo-Sikh War (1845-1846) in India, also known as the Sutlej Campaign. The brutal Sutlej Campaign was the very first for which medals were issued with metal bars or clasps that could be attached to a medal’s ribbon. In a bizarre touch, some of this purely military memorabilia is displayed in the “holy” precincts of the cathedral.

Medals from the Sutlej Campaign on display in Lichfield Cathedral.

Beyond the unfeeling crassness of such memorials there are many more subtle and more powerful tributes to war. For example, in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon (where William Shakespeare is buried), there is a stained glass window depicting England’s national saint, St. George, providing succor to the Crusaders. There is also a stained glass image of medieval combat with soldiers clustered around a big crucifix.

St.George, patron saint of England, urges on the Crusaders (Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon).

Medieval battle scenes with soldiers clustered around the Cross (Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon)

St.Oswald in full battle dress with the halo of Christian piety (Carlisle Cathedral).

In Carlisle Cathedral, St.Oswald appears in full battle armour carrying an enormous sword with a halo of Christian piety crowning his head. In Lichfield Cathedral a colourful stained glass window is dedicated to the memory of a certain Sir Horiatio Page Vance who fought at the sieges of Sevastopol in the Crimea (1854-1855) and Lucknow in India (1857). It depicts British sappers, complete with a large shovel, undertaking a siege some time in the Middle Ages. In St.Mary’s Church, Painswick, a model sailing boat is attached to the wall. Beside it a plaque likens the Christian Church to a boat, then draws a parallel between the boat of Christianity and a battleship of sixteenth century England that saw action against the Spanish Armada.

Besieging the enemy under the protection of the Cross (Lichfield Cathedral)

The Christian church is likened to a battleship (St.Mary’s Church, Painswick)

It is possible to see these images as mere curiosities, toothless survivals from a cruel past preserved like exotic museum-pieces in the more enlightened times we now live in. But in the churches I visited, none of the images are presented as violations of Christian values. On the contrary, they seem tailor-made to normalise the uncritical depiction of violence within the precincts of the church. All of the images I saw – and no doubt countless more I have not seen – make a subtle but very powerful point: there is a hand-in-gauntlet alliance between the Christian church and the practice of war, and this alliance continues into the present.

The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount lie at the heart of Christian doctrine, and neither could be more forthright: Thou shalt not kill and Love your enemies… whosoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your other cheek as well. These are tough admonitions so it is not surprising that in everyday life and politics they are pretty comprehensively ignored. And theologians too, from St.Augustine to the padres of modern armies, have tried to water them down. But (to me at least) it is surprising that they also seem to be almost totally ignored, even trampled on, certainly compromised, in the iconography and worship of Christian churches where, of all places, they should be prominently and uncompromisingly affirmed.

In short, on the evidence of what I saw in Santiago de Compostela and in England, many Christian churches are little short of arsenals stuffed with iconographic weapons and iconographic flak jackets for use by the propagators of war and their apologists. 

Images of soldiers charging into battle “to the glory of God” (from a war memorial window in Lichfield Cathedral)


Our last day on the Camino

We spent our last night on the Camino – our twelfth – at the basic but very friendly Rosalia Hotel in Padron. The hotel is right beside the former residence of 19th century writer Rosalia de Castro who today is revered as one of the greatest writers in the Galician language of northwest Spain. Set in a beautiful garden, her small two-storey stone house is now a museum, beautifully maintained and dedicated to her memory.

A Galician bagpiper in the streets of Santiago

The Galician language is closely related to Spanish and Portuguese. It is given prominence in public signage, in local education and in the mass media of the region. But Galician culture also preserves traces of its primordial Celtic character, most prominently in its Irish-style folk music and in the Galician bagpipes which we first heard as we passed through Redondela during a festival celebrating Galicia’s national day.

Approaching Padron that morning we came across a kind of checkpoint manned by two men from a volunteer organisation that helps Camino pilgrims. They were wearing bright orange shirts and police-style boots. Besides providing first aid and pamphlets full of good advice on the perils of long-distance walking, they were also recording statistics on the passing parade of pilgrims. At 11.00 a.m. that day Emmy and I were the 48th and 49th pilgrims to be counted. Their clipboard showed that Spanish pilgrims were easily the majority, followed by Portuguese, Germans, Poles and Italians. We were the only non-Europeans to pass through the checkpoint that day.

With fellow pilgrims and pilgrim assistance volunteers (in orange) at a “checkpoint” near Padron

Padron’s famous green peppers, a delicious appetiser with olives and a glass of wine at the Rosalia Hotel

After a delicious dinner at the Rosalia Hotel that featured a deservedly famous local delicacy, small green pimientos peppers fried in olive oil and served with a touch of salt, we slept so soundly behind the shutters of our room that we almost missed the beauty of the dawn that crept limpid and cool over the shady green park in the centre of town.

At 8 o’clock we were standing confused on the edge of town, trying to locate the yellow arrows of the Camino and shading our eyes against a lazily rising sun. We zig-zagged through narrow walled lanes. In one of them a nun, clad in a traditional black habit and white wimple, knelt on the threshold of a street-side door scrubbing the stone step with soap and water. Several times we crossed, and re-crossed, a busy highway and twice darted nervously over a railway line. As we moved slowly north towards Santiago the houses became more prosperous-looking, sitting comfortably in neatly maintained flower gardens with bags of bread hanging freshly baked and freshly delivered on gates and doorknobs.

An early morning delivery of freshly baked bread hanging from the knob of a streetside door

The day warmed and we walked into quiet, eucalyptus-tinted woodland. Our boots crunched on fine gravel with tiny grasshoppers jumping among the stones. We tuned in to the thin zing of a forest fly, the ripple of leaves in the wind and the muffled tolling of a distant bell.

Five young men on bicycles came powering up a slope behind us, bent low and standing up on their pedals, jamming their legs down hard, yanking their bikes left and right, revelling in their youth and strength. They had signs fixed to the handlebars of their bikes, Camino de Santiago, and they puffed an exultant “Buen Camino!” as they overtook us at the crest of the hill and disappeared. The quietly rustling stillness came back and wrapped its peace around us.

We got our first glimpse of the ancient pilgrim city from a bridge across a four-lane freeway. In the distance the suburban houses of Santiago de Compostela clambered across hills and fell sharply into valleys. From our vantage point there was no sign of the spires of the cathedral that, tradition says, have always beckoned pilgrims into the city in the final stage of their walk.

Slowly the suburbs lapped around us and we pushed into the city centre along wide streets filled with busy traffic and modern buildings. Like most of the towns we had passed through Santiago de Compostela has a well-preserved historic heart. Its narrow streets were crammed with tourists wandering among the restaurants and souvenir shops. When we looked up we saw only slivers of the afternoon, warm and blue above us.

And suddenly we were there, standing in the spacious square before the ornate entrance to the Cathedral of St James. I felt no special emotion apart from an intense curiosity. Emmy and I rested gratefully among the clumps of walkers standing, sitting and lolling – many of them exhausted – across the square. There was no feeling of relief or exultation, but also no feeling of letdown. We had arrived, and there was much to see.

An exhausted young walker recovers on the flagstones in the square in front of the Cathedral

After checking in to our small hotel (not far from the cathedral) we set out to explore. We went first to the cathedral. Over the centuries the interior has been embellished and ornamented beyond what the eye can take in. The pipes of the cathedral organ lie horizontal, extending from left and right over the pews.

The dramatic and ornate interior of Santiago’s cathedral with its horizontal organ pipes.

Above the altar St James presides. A doorway at one side of his image gives access to a cramped stone staircase that leads up to a suffocatingly close space behind the image of the saint. Here, under the supervision of a priest, a shuffling queue of pilgrims squeezes up against the saint’s back. One by one they put their arms around him and press their cheeks against the ornately embossed silver cape that covers his shoulders. They hug him and say a prayer.

Reader, I did this too… although as I released St James from my embrace I caught a quizzical glint – perhaps a gleam of scepticism – in the eye of the priest. Another narrow stair-tunnel took us beneath the floor of the cathedral and into the saint’s burial chamber. There, protected by a big pane of glass, lay St James’ shining silver coffin. In front of the window supplicants were kneeling, their hands clasped together and their eyes tightly shut. In a nearby alcove others lit candles. The reverent hush was disturbed only by the ching of coins dropping into donation boxes.

Scrunching our eyes against the evening sun we went in search of the Office of Pilgrim Affairs. Through an unassuming archway and up a flight of stairs we arrived at a counter something like a Medicare office. A large illuminated sign hung above us directing us to one of several free places at a long counter in a neighbouring room. The office was quiet when we called and we were served immediately. We handed over our pilgrim passports – our credencial – to a church canon who examined them carefully and stamped them with the culminating stamp, that of the Cathedral of Santiago. He then recorded our details in a ledger and a few minutes later he handed us our compostelas.

Hmmm, looks like I passed. Georgium Quinn’s compostela.

A compostela is a certificate in Latin declaring that the holder has completed the pilgrimage to the most holy temple of Santiago “in a pious and devoted fashion”. My compostela was made out to Georgium Quinn, and I accepted it with a stirring of pleasure garnished with a hint of pride. The officiating canon congratulated me on my faith.

[Posted from the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in the UK’s Lake District National Park.

Next post: “I misjudge the Cumbria Way and pay a heavy price on our first day of walking”]

Between Tuy and Arcade: The daily depths and shallows of walking the Camino

In the cool of early morning on July 22nd Emmy and I walked through the historic centre of Tuy on the Spanish side of the Miño River. The alleys were deserted. Our voices and footfalls bounced back at us off high stone walls. The fortress-like cathedral stood hard and square against the pale blue of the dawn sky. A ginger cat slinking low across the flagstones froze mid-step to stare.

The fortress-like profile of Tuy’s old cathedral

We picked up the Camino and followed it down a narrow staircase through a roofed passage known as the “Nuns Tunnel” into a small maze of lanes that twisted among the town’s oldest residences. After half an hour we emerged into woodland and followed a sandy path that unrolled upwards into low hills. The walking was easy.

Ahead of us we saw a wiry figure with a big camera bumping against his chest. He was wearing a kind of cap with an enormous crescent-shaped visor shadowing his face, but with no crown to cover an explosion of black hair on the top of his head. He kept stopping to cup the long lens of his camera in his hand and aim it left and right snapping pictures. This was Mr Chang, a Korean. He told us that he had been on the Camino for 41 days. Several years earlier he had walked the Via Frances with his wife, but this time she had refused to come with him (wise lady). Alone, and speaking no Spanish at all (“just Hola”), he had walked the long ribbon of the Via de la Plata, the branch of the Camino that starts in Seville in the far south and winds north to Santiago de Compostela through the arid and often hot Mozarabe and Merida regions of central Spain. When he reached Santiago he had walked through the city and on to Finisterre, 90 kilometres away on the Atlantic coast. Then he had doubled back to start yet another walk, this time with Tuy as his beginning point.

“I am making a DVD for Korean pilgrims,” he explained. “Can I interview you?”
“About what?”
“Well, why are you walking the Camino?”
In a lonely spot amid pine trees, as I crouched drinking deeply from my water bottle, a gentleman from Korea had suddenly asked me a question that I had not yet asked myself, at least not seriously. It was a surreal moment.
“I’m doing it as a personal challenge.”

Mr Chang was delighted. This was the perfect answer for the purchasers of his DVD. But I was left musing. I’m not much given to hard physical challenges – especially of the sporting kind – and I am not a big fan of “adventure” tourism. After falling over and injuring myself in Barcelos I’m no longer convinced that long-distance walking is necessarily good for the health of old people. Nor was I walking the path as a religious exercise (readers of this blog will know I am trying to be a hard-line atheist). But I was curious about the motivations of other pilgrims, and I did enjoy the exotic ambience of Portugal and Spain.

I hadn’t finished browsing these thoughts when the Camino took a sudden dip and tipped us into the industrial suburbs of Porriño. For around six kilometres we had grit in our eyes and on our teeth as we plodded past a car assembly plant, a seafood cannery, a cardboard packaging factory, an industrial chemicals refinery, a rank-smelling recycling plant, a vast yard stacked with pre-fabricated building materials, and much more. Smears of signage flashed by on the sides of trucks, smoke rolled across the road, the howl of compression braking preceded long fog-horn blasts.

Pilgrims (right) compete with trucks and cars in the dusty industrial estates of Porrino.

In his Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Portugues, John Brierly describes this portion of the walk as “a long and soulless trek”, but in truth it has a kind of gripping energy that is the very opposite of “soulless”. If nothing else Porriño is a healthy antidote to the escapist romanticism that clings like a cheap perfume to so much of Camino rhetoric.

After checking in to our hotel in the functional and rather ugly centre of Porriño, Emmy and I took a stroll down the main street. At six o’clock in the evening the townspeople had not yet thrown off the blanket of their daily siesta. The sun was still streaming across the central plaza but the streets were largely empty. We went into a church – the Igreja Santa Maria – and sat in the dim stillness. A solidly built man, about 30 years old, dressed in black and carrying a Bible, was patrolling the aisles. When I tried to take a photograph he apologised for the poor lighting in the church and hurried up past the altar to flick some switches.

We got into conversation (his English was slow but very correct). He was deacon of the church. He had completed six years of study (two years of general philosophy and four years of Catholic theology) in preparation for the priesthood and was hoping to be ordained by the end of the year. I told him we were walking the Camino. He congratulated me on my faith and asked how old I was. I told him it happened to be my 68th birthday on that day. He shook my hand hard and disappeared into a side room returning a moment later with a birthday gift: a small book in Spanish, Evangelio 2011. It contained Bible readings and commentaries for every day of the year. With a practised flip of the hand he turned to July 22nd and translated the Spanish text for me.

“Amazing,” he said. “Today’s reading is from Matthew Chapter 13 verses 18 to 23. And see… this line… it mentions the Camino!”
He read out verse 19 in halting but excited English. “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the Evil One comes and snatches away what has been sown in the heart; such words are like seeds that are sown on a much-walked path (camino). They will not grow.”
“Perhaps,” I said, testing him, “this verse suggests that faith should not be based on the shallow rewards of the Camino.”
“You are right. You are right. The Camino only goes so far. Real faith has no final destination. Truly it is refreshing to meet someone with your depth of insight.”
He threw his arms around me and gave me a big bear hug.

As I stepped out into the sun-struck brilliance of late afternoon I looked back at his dark figure standing beside the altar in the dim interior of the church. I was sorry to leave his company. I felt a pang of shame that I had not matched his sincerity with an equal measure of sincerity. I should have told him I was not a Catholic, in fact not even a Christian. I should have told him I did not have any insight and certainly no faith. But my courage had failed me. I had simply tried to make a trite debating point. When he asked me to pray for him in Santiago I enthusiastically agreed to do so.

“The sea! The sea!” The Camino approaches Arcade on an inlet between Redondela and Pontevedra.

I was still turning this incident over in my mind the following day, walking despondently and berating myself for my small-mindedness, when the Camino led us out of the hills north of Redondela and opened up a view of the sea. I was reminded of the famous cry of relief raised by Xenophon’s troops as they emerged from the hills of Turkey 2,500 years ago.
“The sea! The sea!”

Instantly I felt refreshed and my stride lengthened. I was on a high as we headed for our night’s accommodation in the seaside town of Arcade.

The mystique and the shadows of the Camino

The Camino Portugues is no ordinary walk. Sure, there is much that is “ordinary” about the mundane succession of villages, factories, shops, woodlands (sometimes tragically degraded woodlands), farms, churches, urban streets, barking dogs and suburban houses that pass by you as you walk. There is nothing natural and uniquely unsullied about the Camino. The tarnishing, despoiling hand of humankind lies over every inch. And yet… somehow the mystique of the Way transforms its ordinariness into something special. It is the essence of religion, and of religious experience, that the authority of symbols, language, history and art can make the ordinary seem extraordinary to those that have faith.

The Camino runs through the “Nuns Tunnel” in the old centre of Tuy.

A segment of bush track in Galicia, with cobblestones and eucalyptus trees.

The Camino Portugues has immense variety, palpable history and, of course, moral-religious stature. It takes you through densely built urban streetscapes, rural flatlands, and rolling hills. One stretch, between Ponte de Lima and Rubiaes in northern Portugal, is “mountainous”, though the ascents and descents are only moderately hostile and the highest peak is just 470 metres above sea level.

You walk asphalt streets and highways as well as cobbled lanes, cobbled village roads and cobbled urban footpaths. Sometimes, on narrow roads, you have to walk on rough verges and even in roadside gutters. The cobbled surfaces are especially challenging to walk on. They are (literally) rock hard, they are uneven, and they often extend for kilometres at a time. They delivered a hard pounding to my feet and my feet replied with blisters yelling their protest. You also walk on dirt and gravel paths and occasionally (but never for long) on tracks luxuriously carpeted with pine needles or eucalyptus leaf litter. In a few places the Camino shrinks to an unkempt track: the dry bed of a rock-strewn stream or a metre-wide trench amid jostling shrubs and blackberries that grab at you as you pass.

Around you, the built landscape changes from dark grey medieval stone walls and bar-code city townhouses, to bland suburbs, to country lodges and farmsteads, to industrial estates: factories, warehouses, refineries, parking lots and vast yards full of manufactured litter. The farmland is very beautiful and very intensively cultivated, mostly in corn and grapes. There are no extensive grasslands. Nor is there any untouched wilderness left at any point along 230 km of the Camino Portugues. The path passes through many areas of cool woodland, but these are all secondary growth forests. In fact the most common forest trees along the Camino – especially in northern Portugal – are Australian eucalypts. We saw no signs of any wildlife, not even many birds. The silence of the landscape is a welcome balm for ears (and spirits) crushed by the din of highway traffic. But it is also an eerie warning. Behind the riveting beauty of the rural landscape in northern Portugal and on the approaches to Santiago in Spanish Galicia there is a environment hushed by its fatigue.

The timeworn flagstones of Highway XIX north of Tuy.

Everywhere the shadow of distant history haunts your steps. Through northern Portugal and across northwest Spain you walk large lengths of Highway 19. That’s not Highway 19 of Portugal or Spain, but Highway XIX of the Roman Empire. In places you cross bridges that the Romans built, and you walk over flagstones they (or rather, their plentiful local slaves) put in place around 2,000 years ago. There are many wayside stone crucifixes that bear witness to the antiquity of the pilgrim impulse. Some of them date from the middle ages when pilgrimage to Santiago was at its height. On them you see – in addition to the crucified Christ keeping watch over pilgrims – weather-beaten images of the pilgrims themselves dressed in long robes and carrying staves with water gourds attached to them.

A wayside image of a pilgrim probably erected in the 15th or 16th century, with staff and (just visible at the top of the staff) a water gourd.

You fill your water bottle at fuentes, or freshwater spouts, that refreshed pilgrims a thousand years before you stopped there. You pass through the largely unchanged ancient centres of town after town: Porto, Barcelos, Ponte de Lima, Valenca (you step off the Camino momentarily to explore Valenca’s beautifully preserved medieval walled town, the Fortuleza), Tuy, Pontevedra, Padron and Santiago itself. You stop at the doors of churches that have changed little in 500 years. You sit in the cool of tiny wayside chapels, breathing in the same calm that stilled the weariness of pilgrims 25 generations ago.

Above all, perhaps, you feel your scepticism start to weaken as you digest the story of St. James (known as Santiago or Jacob). It is a story that every common-sense instinct tells you is pure man-made fantasy, and yet you start re-telling it to yourself, half accepting that holy stones, giant incense burners and scallop shells (on sale at 1.50 euros each) are proof of its truth. You hear that St James was an apostle of Joshua (better known as Jesus Christ, son of God) who was so ignited by the fire of faith that he took it to the ends of the earth – literally. At the time, northwest Spain was regarded as the westernmost extremity of the world, the last outpost of land before the endless western seas that extended to the edge of existence. After performing prodigies of missionary labour there, he returned to Palestine where he was arrested and executed by Rome’s local satrap, King Agrippa I. His disciples transported his remains back to Spain in a stone boat. Yes, a stone boat. And the stone mooring post where this boat berthed is still visible on the banks of the shallow river that runs through the town of Padron. Eventually his bones were interred in the place that now carries his name, Santiago, and atop his tomb a massive stone cathedral threw its spires high into the sky.

Journey’s end. The many branches of the Camino converge on this square with Santiago (St.James) looking down from high between the twin spires of his Cathedral.

This is what draws pilgrims. In the plaza before the cathedral they stare upwards with tears in their eyes, or they stretch out on the flagstones and sleep, or they hug each other and take photographs, or they fall into a frenzy of souvenir shopping, or they raise rah-rah sports chants, or they simply sit silent, silent, silent around the perimeters of the square.

For every one of them the end of the journey has a message beyond simply arriving at a destination. The Camino seems to speak. Somehow its diverse beauties and its history give it a transformative authority. Even closed-minded cynics like me can feel it. My feet are aching not because I’ve hammered them on cobblestone anvils, my blisters are jabbing me not because of dermatological chafing, my rib-cage is sore not because I hurt it in a fall, my mouth is dry not because I haven’t adequately regulated my fluid intake to adjust to the ambient temperature. All these physical rebukes are moral rebukes. They are lessons that I deserve. If only I could read their messages I would solve my problems and be a better person.

At a wayside snack-bar between Arcade and Caldas de Reis I exchanged a few words with a German walker, a young woman who had started her walk in Tuy.
“What on earth have you got in there?” I asked pointing at her huge backpack.
“Stones,” she answered with a slightly forced laugh.
I thought she was joking so she felt compelled to explain.
“I am carrying stones of sorrow. I packed them in Germany and I will carry them to Santiago. In Santiago I will let them go.”
“You have many sorrows?”
“Me? No, I have none at all.” She pointed out the window at three girls squatting on the kerbside beside their much smaller backpacks. “I am carrying these stones for my friends. They have big problems and deep sorrows. You know… boyfriends and all that stuff.”
She staggered slightly as she heaved the backpack on to her shoulders. For a very fleeting moment something medieval, something deeply moral, something mysterious, something irrational but far more human than I am, passed across my line of sight.

I guess it was the spirit of the Camino.