The church of Santa María in the small town of Carrión de los Condes, on the Camino de Santiago in Palencia, Spain, is a crumbling, impressive twelfth-century romanesque wonder. It’s where I discovered that a non-believer doesn’t have to dislike churches.
With the big subjects, it’s hard to know where to start. If you can’t find a beginning, start in the middle.
Early evening, mid October 1996, Carrión de los Condes. It had been a wet day’s walking. Water dripped from the lime trees outside the refugio, the hostel for pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela, which adjoined the church. The plaza, which must have been normally dusty and sandy, was churning mud. The refugio’s occupants for that night were in the bar across the road, clustered round a bottle of red wine and a plate of chorizo slices. The old Swedish hippy, the Spanish bank manager, the Dutch psychiatrist, and me.
The refugio’s fifth occupant, the young French airline executive, the only practising Catholic among us, had gone to early evening mass and would join us soon for dinner. Here he was, in fact. The old hippy waved him expansively to the empty seat and moved to fill his glass. But the young man hovered in the doorway.
"The priest has sent me to fetch you all for a tour of the church", he said. Oh. We thought we’d made it clear before mass. No. Really. H, the young Frenchman gave me a rueful look: "He’ll be over here himself if you don’t come. I don’t think he takes no for an answer. He says all the pilgrims always…". He spoke in a mixture of Spanish and French, with me translating rapidly into English for the Swede and the Dutchman. We looked at one another and sighed. The priest and his sister were our hosts, a bed in the refugio free to anyone walking the Camino. We got to our weary feet, confided the wine and chorizo to the barman, who was smiling and nodding, filed out and across the square.
The priest was waiting, small in his black cassock and beret, dwarfed by the fine, ancient doorway. This, sharing his domain with the passing stream of strangers, was his joy. His quiet learning and love of every stone made it a very special tour. We ended beneath a small painted wooden Madonna in a high niche. He spoke of her age and history and of polychromatic technique. "I talk to her every day. She told me this morning that you would be coming", he beamed - almost, but not quite, self-mocking.
We were hooked. I was, certainly. I’d scarcely been inside a church since I left my Church of England primary school, where twice weekly attendance was compulsory. I loved romanesque architecture for its great age, its warm, enclosing curves, it’s vivid carved men and beasts from a time and mind-set so far off they might be from another planet. This had been one of the Camino’s attractions for me. I admired from outside, though, and never went in.
That day in Carrión gave me back the refuge of churches. Not the religion or the institution, but the spirit, the intimacy, the shades of those who built them and of all who’d prayed there down the ages. For the rest of the walk, I went into the churches and found there the same ineffable strength and mystery I found on the pilgrim path itself.
As for so many, so it was for me. The Camino began as a physical journey, but became a spiritual one; began as a journey of escape from myself and became a journey towards myself; began as a journey with a goal and became one whose purpose was in every moment of the way; began as a journey for a month and became a lifelong path. That is to say, it began as a journey and became a pilgrimage.
I’m not sure we ever know why, really. Perhaps it always goes deeper than the mind can stretch.
There’s my first ever visit to Spain, in 1973, when I was nineteen, with Z. We were two bright working-class girls, all at sea in Cambridge, which was much less cosmopolitan than it is now, but still most of our fellow students of modern languages had grown up in more than one country, while we had scarcely been out of England. We knew so little about anything, had no idea where we should go in our first long university summer vacation.
Z had been brought up Catholic and must have known about Santiago de Compostela. It must have been her idea, I think, to travel on the FEVE, the slow, extremely cheap narrow-gauge railway all along the north coast of Spain. I don’t remember much detail of that journey, having then none of the assumptions or reference points I look for now. We found extremes of picturesque and horrible in Franco’s Spain – fantastic kindness and closed minds, dusty poverty and smelly drains.
On the long, slow train journey we saw a few walker pilgrims, returning from Santiago. They were grimy and wind-burned, exotic. I can see them now. So it goes back as far as that.
More than twenty years later, the name of a much beloved novelist, David Lodge, as presenter made me watch a television documentary (he published soon after a novel featuring the Camino de Santiago, Therapy, wherein a successful but unhappy middle-aged man…). The Camino looked beautiful, interesting and in places intriguingly remote. I knew a lot of the world a little by then, and Spain quite well. But I’d never been back to the green, rural and industrial north.
But neither of these was the immediate reason. That was the commonest one: overwork, middle age and an inchoate longing for ‘something else’. I’d been working twelve years for the politicians. We all worked terribly hard and never took our full quota of annual leave. I was owed several months, so requesting one month was not unreasonable. “I’d like the whole of October off”, I was surprised to hear myself say.
Cheating on the first day
A good place to start, if you don’t have time to begin as far away as Le Puy or Vézelay in central France, is St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees. You walk on the first day over the mountains, crossing the frontier into Spain, and spend the first night at the monastery in a place of great historic and literary resonance, Roncesvalles.
I knew St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, having visited there while on a seaside camping holiday at nearby St-Jean-de-Luz. A pretty, familiar town, it felt like an easy place to start. It is the hardest place to start: day one, on unaccustomed legs, with an unaccustomed backpack, right over the Pyrenees, with nowhere to stop until you reach the other side.
The road begins to climb right outside the town, and the scenery is glorious: rocky peaks, lush mountain grass and clean air. It’s hard walking. Hours and hours, with still no sight of the summit and the pass into Spain. Painful breath and heavy legs. Oh god, I wasn’t going to make this – all a terrible mistake!
I was sitting at the roadside when up drew a shepherd and his dog in what had once been a car. It still went, with a bump and clang, but had no doors. Did I want a lift to the pass - it was all downhill from there? I did. This was 'not allowed' of course, the whole point being to do it on your own two feet. But it was that or giving up on the first day. No one saw me hop in and hang on tight, or scramble out again a few minutes later and squint upwards as he pointed out a clump of trees and rocks: "that’s the frontier; then it’s all down hill through the forest".
It was all down hill then, indeed, a long and mysterious walk through the oak forests to Roncesvalles, with the fear of not making it to the summit replaced by the fear of getting lost among the ghosts of Charlemagne's warrior, Roland, and his army.
Towards a stream that flowed amid that land
Sones fell Gue into perdition black
All his sinews were strained until they snapped
And all the limbs were from his body dragged
On the green grass his clear blood gushed and ran
The first sight of the monastery’s outline in the early evening. Oh! And then the shock of unisex dormitories. Cavernous and crowded with large, sweaty bodies, and some of these guys could snore for, well, for wherever they were from. I slept. It was fine. As much a rite of passage as reaching the mountain pass.
In retrospect, I don’t think it was cheating to take that lift on the first day, the only lift I took. I wasn’t going to make it, if he hadn’t come along. The Spanish bank manager told me later how he’d been laid up for a day with a bad knee and then accepted a lift for twenty miles to catch up with his new friend, the Dutch psychiatrist, so they could continue the walk together. I don’t think that, done for love, was cheating either.
The Pyrenees are a hard start, but a great one because once you’re over that (and over sleeping with twenty strange men), you pretty much know you’ll continue. A great start, too, because they are silent, grandiose and soaringly lovely, and you know there are more such wild, joyous landscapes to come… although not for a while. For the first few days in Spain the landscape was very varied: green foothills, pretty villages, not-at-all pretty villages, much time spent walking through prickly brush and along melting, roaring main roads in the endless peripheries of Pamplona, not to mention the afternoon spent skirting an isolated factory, where murky, viscous effluent trickled all around and across the path. Gulp. Spain in its endless variety, and many forcible reminders of what an extremely hard, rocky, prickly country it is!
I don’t drive a car and have always walked everywhere, in town and country. But the thing about a long, linear path is that it has to continue no matter what, so it takes you where you’d never normally choose to walk. And you keep going, no option. What a long walk has, though, is rhythm. It has joy and satisfaction, too, even on a bad day. A bad day is a good day when it’s over. So the good/bad duality, the impulse to instant evaluation, starts to be eroded.
When I summon sensory memories of the Camino, so much comes rushing back: sand, rock, rain and heat, prickly scrub and panting uphill… and the texture of cheap, slightly sticky nylon bedspreads. Walkers’ hostels that were free or extremely cheap, run by churches or local authorities, were sometimes furnished with loving care, more often a parade of the discarded and the tacky. They were sometimes not too clean, and you never knew who you might wake up next to. And they were palaces, cherished homes for a night, exquisite nests for exhausted bodies. Years later, I read in Buddhist texts about ‘choiceless awareness’ – just experiencing the stream of phenomena as they are, not rushing to classify and judge. It’s a tough concept for the children of consumer societies. A difficult concept, but not so difficult in reality. Here is the only available bed in a one-horse place and you need to lie down on it now, soft or lumpy, clean or grubby, alone in a cavernous dormitory or cramped in dubious company. You have no choice. And it’s fine. It’s a liberation.
I went walking on the Camino alone, over forty, and not especially fit. A daft, graceless enterprise, it was, with low expectations. Of course, I’d limp and sigh and linger while taller, fitter, younger more experienced walkers would keep passing me and disappearing over the horizon. They did. And that was a liberation too. Only this path, this time, these aims and obstacles, and a miraculous, relieved arrival somewhere every day.
I’m glad I set off alone, for so many reasons. You aren’t really alone, of course, on a path walked by so many. There were far fewer then than walk it now, but still I never went a day without meeting other pilgrims, walking and on bicycles. In October, outside the summer holiday season, some were young and unemployed; some, like the bank manager and the psychiatrist, had left their jobs and were unsure what came next; many were newly retired from work and free for the first time ever to leave home for many weeks, people like S and E, who left their house beside Lake Geneva on foot the day after E finished work on his sixtieth birthday. They set out accoutred with Swiss comfort and precision. By the time I met them several weeks later, they’d posted home their sleeping bags, all their books except the Spanish dictionary and most of their clothes. They each had one change of underwear and when it wore in holes they looked up the Spanish for knickers and bought another pair.
I could speak to most of the pilgrims in English, French or Spanish. Being much in demand as a translator made up for my slow pace and small daily distances. Fit, fast walkers could cover twenty-five or thirty miles in a day. I, on the hard, stony, uphill-downhill path, with my stuff on my back, could cover twelve or fifteen and more than once I had to stop for a day, my feet swollen, burning and leaden.
Quickly, though it was wonderful. New friends and new landscapes every day. Movement, achievement, variety sufficient unto themselves. Life reduced to the path, and the path as a metaphor for life. Just one foot in front of the other. Choiceless awareness.
As following a path inexorably becomes a metaphor for life, so, as in life, inexorably, bad stuff happens as well as good. My bad stuff happened one Sunday morning on a deserted path through scrubby woods not far from the city of Burgos .
I was humming happily, high on my detour to Silos, where landscape, church and the voices of the singing monks were golden, when a pale, meagre man, visibly high on something a lot nastier, appeared from behind a tree waving a big knife, took all my money and kept on wielding the knife for quite some time, while wildly threatening rape and violence. I was numb, paralysed by shock and unresponsive – boringly so, I think, as eventually he stopped raving, sheathed his knife and wandered off, leaving me to stomp onward to the next village and phone the guardia.
The guardias civiles, a lingering relic of pre-democratic Spain. In the 1990s still, though they must all be gone now, the older guardias were themselves left over from those times, as anomalous and as comic-but-menacing as their funny plastic tricornes. So I didn’t relish calling them out, but, miles from anywhere with no money (though my assailant hadn’t wanted my credit card – that would have meant the end of my trip), needing a lift to a cash machine and needing a crime report if I wanted to claim my lost money on my travel insurance, I had no choice.
So I marched – on automatic pilot still – to the next village and into the bar, and demanded their phone. The elderly guardia who came, accompanied by his wife, in an ancient jeep, was in a bad mood, having been called away from his family Sunday lunch. You can guess the burden of his discourse, I’m sure: a woman walking alone in the countryside was clearly ‘asking for it’. The following several hours in the isolated barracks were almost as nasty as the attack. The difference between cuchillo (kitchen knife) and navaja (hunting knife) is engraved for ever on my mind – rattled, I first used the wrong word. “A gitano, a gypsy, was he?” “No, definitely not a gitano!”, and much more such unhelpful discussion, along with the caricature of the rural policeman typing out his crime report very slowly with one finger. I was deeply grateful to the younger guardia who came on duty later, drove me back to Burgos to an ATM, and back again to the village and its refugio.
By unhappy chance, for the single time on my walk, I was the only pilgrim that night in the small, untended building with half a dozen beds. I locked the door and didn’t sleep and wondered if I would be able to go on.
I did go on, the next morning, stiffly, wretchedly, through a flat agricultural landscape, thankful to be in open fields and trying not to look constantly over my shoulder in fear. It’s extremely rare to be robbed on the Camino. I was unlucky, you might say. Well, as it turned out...
I began the next day alone, but wasn’t alone for long. Squatting on my backpack under a hedge, eating a late breakfast of salami sandwich, I was overtaken by the first walker striding out early from Burgos, an oldish, energetic man from Toulouse, so pleased to meet someone he could talk to in French that he didn’t mind slowing his pace to mine for a while.
We walked on, chatting, and the sun came out and somehow I didn’t tell him what had happened the day before. The Camino was smiling, reasserting its positive spirit. I never did tell another pilgrim I'd been robbed. Why cast a shadow on their positive impressions? I couldn’t. I told no one when I returned home either, and I’ve rarely spoken of it since.
But that didn’t mean I buried the bad thing, hardened my heart. Far from it. It completely changed, for the better, the rest of my journey. I was so grateful thereafter for the company and friendship of other walkers, for the good spirit of the path, the spirit of those who had walked before us for more than a thousand years. My heart opened then to all of it. Without the shock of fear, I don’t think that would have happened.
So we chatted along through flat, flourishing fields, and much later reached a straggling village whose pilgrim refugio, unusually, was offering lunch. As we slumped against the long table, waiting, other walkers came and the pile of backpacks in the corner grew. This was where I met the old hippy, the bank manager, the psychiatrist and others.
Lunch was long and we all set off again together, on a path that now followed a country road, winding through woods, and out again across the fields. I found myself talking, first, to the Dutchman. He was friendly, but made me feel obscurely uncomfortable (I found out later that he was a psychiatrist. Ah.) So after a while I fell back and into step with another new arrival. He was another Frenchman, tall and loose-limbed, with a long, shy, clever face. H. He’d walked from the Pyrenees to Burgos back in the summer, with his girlfriend, then had to return to his work as a busy, globe-trotting engineer employed by the French airline. Now he was back to continue the path – his first day’s walking, still weary and stressed from work, and his feet hurt, so our strides were well matched.
We walked and talked all afternoon, and for the next week.
Blistering and despairing, he took off his boots and walked in his socks. I laughed at his very large, bright-blue feet tiptoeing on the stony road and he was indignant and indignation kept him going. My own trauma began to recede.
Castrojeriz was the next town we came to, and the next refugio. A quiet, dusty, rambling place, the road spiralling around a hill, and no sign of the hostel or by now of our fellow walkers, who had all left us behind. Finally, a woman with a shopping bag in the distance, and I pounded after her, panting under my backpack. "Señora, estamos perdidos – we’re lost! Where is the refugio?". I had to ask her to repeat her instructions. My brain was busy computing what I’d said. I’d just become 'we'.
In the hostel kitchen, H produced camomile teabags and offered me one. We sat down and eyed one another through the fragrant steam rising from our cups. This was not a stranger. I felt familiarity, ease and affection, as I had never felt with someone I’d just met.
A communal meal was cooked in the ramshackle kitchen, and while some of us fell early into bed in the dormitory upstairs, others were still down there talking until very late. Lying in bed, sleepy, with voices drifting up the stairs, I felt safe, like a child in bed and hearing the adults of the family still awake and talking. H was in the next bunk. That night and the following nights, our eyes met and smiled before we slept.
H was many years younger and about a foot taller than me. "You go ahead", I would say every morning, "You don’t want to walk at my pace". And off he would go, sometimes, but there he would be at the next village, the next crossroads, with a sight or a thought to share. So we shared the weather that rapidly changed from sun to rain and back, and the land that grew flatter and bleaker as we entered the meseta, and we shared conversations as long and as deep as I’ve ever known.
At Carrión, before the lovely tour of the church, we had sat on a bench overlooking a precipice, with misty ruins and tall trees and a river far below, and talked of how the city and work were hard, too hard, sometimes. And we grew silent, looking over the steep drop, and we knew we both were thinking it wouldn’t be a bad place to end all the busy-ness.
"I wish", H said one day, "that I could walk and walk until I stop thinking. I get so tired of the nagging, worried voice in my head". I stared, realising with amazement that I, who’d been walking longer, had actually found this state for brief periods. Thus the seed of meditation was planted.
It wasn’t all taking ourselves so seriously. There was the bad-tempered, toad-faced hostel keeper who barked at the pilgrims and cooked us peculiar food. When we left next morning, his cross face loomed up in the window and he silently, grimly, waved. Bizarre. We looked at a each other and doubled up, giggling helplessly, floating away down the path on a cloud of incredulity and silliness.
But H’s time was limited and he wanted to get to Santiago. One day, as I struggled to keep up with him and the old Swedish hippy, who was also tall and robust, resolve and generosity seized me. "That’s it. I’m staying the night in the next town. You go on. Yes! Go!" And they went. And I checked into a cheap hotel, for there was no refugio, and cried, as I hadn’t cried when I was robbed and threatened and frightened.
I don’t know quite how I believe this, how I conceptualize it. But I do believe, on some level, that H was my guardian angel who came because I needed him.
At the spanking new refugio in Burgo Ranero a note was pinned to the noticeboard from the sweet Spanish woman with whom I'd walked for a while back at the beginning. "Jim" [sic], she had written, passing through a day or two earlier, "I hope it goes well with you and you're loving the Camino as much as I am." Yes, I thought. Yes, in spite...
In Burgo Ranero I bumped into S and E again and their breezy wit swept me along towards León. We arrived there together. A lovely, cultured city, we thought, blinking a little, surprised to be in busy streets. In the cathedral we sat beneath the high rainbow windows and let the warm light fall through us. It felt good.
I was tired, though, tired from walking three hundred miles, but tired mostly from fear and then from love. Most of my month off work had passed, and I was barely two-thirds of the way to Santiago. As we were returning to the hostel that night after dinner, the cathedral's silhouette bent over us, it came to me that León could be, for now, my Santiago. I wasn't going to walk any further.
After spending a day or two there, I caught a bus to Madrid, which was hot still, at the beginning of November, and surprising and felt like another country.