"The Way" Walking the "Camino de Santiago" from France to Spain
"The Camino de Santiago"
Martin Sheen's film "The Way" may inform Americans of this pilgrimage.
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a magical pilgrimage route from many parts of Europe to the Cathedral of St James in Santiago. Europeans and people from all around the world have been walking this pilgrimage for a thousand years. But we met very few Americans on the way. Now with the new film starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez many Americans may decide to walk "The Way."
Here are some photos of our adventure and stories of "The Way"
"The Camino de Santiago" is "The Way"
Martin Sheen's film tells North Americans about "The Way."
As I was flying to Europe from Vancouver, anxious about my ability to hike the "Camino de Santiago" from France into Spain. During the all night flight I was bleary eyed and flipping the flight entertainment screens. There was a newly released film "The Way" which was about the very pilgrimage walk I was about to start.
In this film Martin Sheen plays "Tom" a self centered golf obsessed doctor who is faced with the sudden death of his estranged son played by Emilio Estevez. In real life Estevez is Sheen's real son. Tom,the shocked father, flies to France remembering how he angrily told his son not to waste his time hiking in Europe. At "Pied de Port" France Tom sadly collects his son's body, his backpack and his notebook. Tom learns that his son died while crossing the Pyrenees mountains in a storm on the first day of the "Camino de Santiago" pilgrimage.
Tom had planned to return immediately to his busy US medical practice. Instead he asks that his son's body be cremated, ties the metal box containing his son's ashes to the outsideof his son's back pack and sets out to complete his son's pilgrimage himself.
The film could have been overly sentimentalhowever it is shot in an almost documentary style which gradually draws in the audience. It is subtle and moving as Tom alienates then connects with people he meets along "The Way": an angry American woman, a friendly fat Dutchman, a crazy Irish writer.The Camino is not just a hike but a road of life that changes all the characters Tom meets.
I was anxious about walking over 200 kilometers.
I walked with my partner Marie-Belle and two friends Jane and Linda.
Our plan was to start in southern France, walk 100 kilometers to "Pied de Port" and then cross the Pyrenees into Spain. In Spain we planned to descend the mountains to Pamplonaand continue on to the wine fountain past Estelle.
It was a long way for four older women, some of us with sore feet and heart problems. We had agreed that the four of us would stick together and go slowly to enjoy the way. This was a big compromise for Jane who was the fittest of our group, a marathon runner. On the first few days I started out happily enough singing and enjoying the villages and countryside.
But after an hour or two my shoulders started to cramp painfully from the weight of my new pack. I shifted the load around and fumbled with the straps but couldn't stop the pain. At rest stops I lay down on the ground and stretched. That felt much better.
We managed very well. Jane waited for us and she took training runs when she could since she was preparing for another marathon. At first we walked short distances-less than ten kilometers a day from hostel to hostel. We took a loy of breaks. And many pilgrims passed us since twenty kilometers or more is the suggested distance to cover each day.
After a few days I figured out a better way to strap on my pack and it stopped hurting me. After a few more days I could walk for a long time without needing to lie down on the road. We named ourselves the Snail or Escargot group because of our slow speed. But after a while people joined us, they liked our relaxed pace.
One pilgrim told us she went into a church one day and met four elderly British women eating their lunch. They told her they walked part of the Camino every year averaging about six kilometers a day. If they found a hostel or Bed and Breakfast they liked they would stop their for two days or more to rest and enjoy the local area. They loved the Camino and were in no hurry to finish it.
On the steep hike up over the Pyrenees we met a man and his wife. He was vomiting at the side of the road.
"Can we help? Do you need some water?" I asked
"No we are O.K. My husband has a migraine," she answered.
Later we learned they were from our province B.C. The husband had been a triathlete, injured seriously when rear ended in traffic. That night we met them at Orison Hostel part way up the Pyrenees. He was getting over his migraine and said he had tried every sort of Western and Alternative treatment to heal from his brain injury. "Now I would like a miracle," he said. We met him, again at dinner in Spain at Roncesvalles, but then lost track of him. I hope he got his miracle.
In the gigantic,spotless,modern hostel at Roncesvalles the young Austrian man from the bunk above mine gave us some containers of delicious yogurt. I asked him how it was going?
"Not good," he said.
"Difficult walking? Have you blisters?" I asked.
"No, the walking is fine," he said.
"Well what is the problem?" I asked.
"I an lonely, I walk all day with someone and really get to know them. And I like them but the next day they are gone," he said.
This was so true, some people we met again at a roadside cafe/bar or at dinner the next night and some we never saw again.
Some of the People we Met
Some of the people we met.
An American woman, Nancy had walked the Camino several times befire. She became our defacto guide since we met her often in bars, hostels and along the way. One day a new to the way pilgrim asked me:
"What are the piles of rocks along the road? Are they for dead people?"
I said "Not for dead people. Pilgrims leave rocks for memorials or for wishes or prayers-and sometimes notes. I stopped at a pile and there was a note among the rocks. we looked at it and were surprised. It was a note for us from Nancy!!!.
Nancy was an excellent source of information. She told us about what to expect up ahead, which hostels were very good, which ones to avoid.
We met several fit Italian cyclists who were speedily cycling the route. Many other cyclists from all over Europe sped past us on the flatter parts. The young Belgian man with a beautiful singing voice sang to us at dinner. The French pilgrims shared delicious pillgrim's dinners with us, and entertained us with their singing. We didn'y know enough French to understand their jokes.
We met Noam the young Israeli boy on the first day crossing the Pyrenees. He was standing on his head on a windy ridge near the spot in the movie where "Tom's" son died.
Just out of high school Noam was walking and camping out along the Camino. He was taking a break before he entered the Israeli army.Most young Israelis must go to the army for two or three years after hightschool. Noam's family were peacenicks, opposed to the fighting in israel and wanting the West bank returned to the Palestinians. So Noam's mother had got him to see a psychiatrist to excuse him from the army.
"But I plan to go to the army, to experience the army. Then i can use the psychiatrist's letter to get out if necessary. The Israeli army doesn't want soldiers who don't want to be there," he said.
Noam had a very heavy pack with tent,sleeping bag, three kilos of nuts and dried fruit from his mother. he had trouble carrying his heavy pack but he was strong and determined. He shared his nuts with us along the way and he found us at our hostels every night.
He often ate with us and then walked out of town to find a place to sleep in his sleeping bag under the stars or in his tent if it rained. He washed in the fountains and sometimes asked at the hostels for a shower and permission to do laundry.
Volunteers run most of the hostels in Spain. They are very friendly. Noam was resourceful. Because I am Jewish he got me to help him organise Shabbat and Rosh Hashana ceremonies and dinners with him. Lots of our fellow pilgrims joined in. It was fun.
Walking the Way of St James on the Camino de Santiago.
As we walked we got fit and enjoyed the counrtyside and the shrines.
As we walked each day we got more fit. we enjoyed the countryside and the shrines along the way.
We met Rene Madonna and before we learned her name we called her the "Movie Star" because she looked like a star.
Rene had long dark hair in the classic movie star style and bright red lipstick. Also eye makeup. I watched in fascination one morning at the hostel as she carefully made up her face. She put us grubby pilgrims to shame. And she continued to look good all day, kilometer after kilometer.
The first night we met Rene was at Orison hostel in the mountains. The staff at dinner asked us to stand, introduce ourselves and tell something about ourselves. Rene stood.
" This has been a special day for me. I am a travel writer from the U.S. and today while coming up the mountain a dog tried to go to the bathroom on my backpack. Then tonight at dinner I kissed a whole group of Italian bicyclists."
Though she looked like a fashion plate Rene was a strong and determined walker. We had planned to walk only 200 kilometers and last saw Rene at the free wine fountain near estelle. Rene later posted on Facebook that she had one day walked over 33 kilometers by accident. Happily she completed the whole Camino pilgrimage-over 700 kilometers.
That night after Rene had introduced herself the Italian cyclist stood up and introduced his group.
"We had wanted to go to the beer fest at Munich but our wives wouldn't let us. So they gave us permission to walk the Camino. And we instead of drinking beer, we have to drink wine."
He and his group took off the next day and we never saw them again.
At one hostel we met a tiny woman in her 70's who was walking alone.
"I am on my way home. I walked to Compestella-800 kilometers from my home in France. And now I am walking back to France," she said. I was amazed.
" Now I am on my way to Lourdes," she said.
She told me that she is a widow, originally from England who immigrated to France as a young woman. Now she walks the Camino and back every year. It takes her about three months. She says, "I carry a very small pack."
We were very happy walking along singing and stopping to rest every two hours at a roadside cafe or grassy hill.
The countryside in France and Spain is very beautiful in the fall. Cows watched us in the fields and goats and sheep in the hills and mountains. On hot days we swam in clear rivers. Often I was munching as I walked, picking up sweet walnuts from the road and figs and apples from the trees.
In some places the way was lined with ripe figs. every hour or two we would walk through a village with ancient churches and lovely cafes, bars and delicatessens. The food along the way was totally delicious.
One of the most interesting areas we passed through were the Basque provinces of Southern France and Northern Spain. The Basque people speak a language that is more ancient than Latin. They are stocky lively creative people who run great hostels and serve magnificent dinners. we particularly enjoyed Basque cream cake that was given to us at a neighbourhood party.
In one Basque hostel where we spent the night the father of the household got excited when he learned we were Canadian. He loved Canada. He told us his grandfather had gone to Canada in the 1930s to find his fortune.
He made a lot of money as a rum runner smuggling fine Canadian Whiskey from Ontario to the USA. Then he returned home with his money, bought property and established this lovely big home/hostel where we spent the night.
People say the Camino changes you in ways you don't expect.
I am not sure what transformations we four Canadians experienced. But we did become very happy and fit. By the last days Marie-Belle and I were easily walking over twenty kilometers per day, tired but pain free. We all got along very well with each other and with the people we met. We made some good friends and we want to return to walk the remaining 300 kilometers in France and the 700 kilometers in Spain.
Also when she got home to Vancouver Jane placed first in he age group in the marathon. Walking the Camino had improved her time.