In not-so-hot pursuit of the Way of St. James

Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela
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All roads lead to Rome, goes the saying. But for me, they lead to the Way of St. James and its endpoint, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The funny thing is that although I’ve traversed this road many times, only once was it by design.

My first encounter with the camino, as it is often called, was by bus to visit the cathedral with fellow American students in 1980. I had never heard of the Way of St. James, which is not a road but a whole network throughout Europe that guides pilgrims to their destination.

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People in the Middle Ages did pilgrimages to atone for their sins. Making this particular trek in a special Año Compostelano year earns you brownie points, erasing even more sins. The year 2021 was one such year, which has been extended to 2022, because of the pandemic. So this would be a good year to do that dastardly deed you’ve been fantasizing about, then take a vacation in northern Spainand be forgiven.

But pilgrims nowadays make the trip mostly for fun, often as a way to escape modern life. You can choose any random starting point, according to your ability and how much time you have.

Fast forward to 2022, which finds me touring northern Spain with my friend Renee. Driving along yet another empty road in Navarre in search of our small hotel, we keep passing people with backpacks and walking sticks. Pilgrims. We have stumbled upon the Way of St. James, and our hotel turns out to be a pilgrims’ hostel. Feeling somewhat decadent, we whiz by them in our car, while they patiently trudge along the road.

Pilgrims may have to contend with dust, fatigue, and blisters, but we have our own challenges to face. Our hostel is in Cirauqui, a perfect medieval town, but that also means its roads were built for people, horses, and donkeys. Since even the largest horse is dwarfed by a Renault Clio hatchback, we have a problem.

Renee reads off the directions from her smartphone. I am the designated driver since uninitiated Americans tremble in terror at the prospect of maneuvering a car through Europe’s serpentine streets.

“Turn left here.”

“Are you sure? Is that even a road?”

“It’s fine. Google maps says you can go there.”

I obediently turn left. It is a road, albeit a narrow one, but I manage to squeeze through without scraping the walls with the car.

“Now turn right.”

“Now that is not a road; it’s just an alley. I’m not doing it!”

I pull up to what looks like the mouth of a tunnel. I stop the car, imagining explaining to the car rental agency how we managed to crush it in a medieval alleyway.

“Well, you see Sir, given the nature of medieval architecture, I thought it looked like a road,” I would plead, and how was I to know that it was really a specially designed car trap for unsuspecting tourists. And how would you say “trap” in Spanish, I wonder.

But salvation is at hand. One feature of small-town Spain is old men sitting at random corners. They sit, talk, and observe whatever events happen to come their way, enjoying the serendipity of any moment that gives them more material for earnest discussion. Two such men are here, just beyond the mouth of the tunnel, waiting for action.

And today, it seems that we are the action.

Recognizing that I have no experience driving cars through keyholes (they are hard to find in the suburb of Chesterland, Ohio, where I got my license), they jump up from their perches. Like air traffic controllers, they wave me into the alley, nodding vigorous reassurance as I inch my way into a small plaza right in front of our hostel. I nod and smile my thanks.

The men smile at me enthusiastically, then settle back down into their posts. Victory is sweet.

As we check into our hostel, my navigational Jedi Knight triumphant glow vanishes at the sight of real pilgrims coming through the door. Covered with dust, their backs are soaked in sweat from walking with heavy backpacks. I step aside reverently to let them pass. How many kilometers did they walk today, I wonder. And how about yesterday?  

I join people on the terrace and crack open my laptop, then suddenly realize mine is the only one. At least they have smartphones.

“Anybody know the wifi code?” I ask timidly.

An Asian woman gives it to me and continues staring.

“Do you speak Spanish?” she asks, finally.

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Could you make a phone call for me in Spanish?”

I find myself calling the Spanish hotel where she is headed to ask if they would accept a letter on her behalf. It will contain a credit card from a Japanese bank to replace the one in the wallet she lost two days ago. I am comforted by the fact that things will go wrong traveling no matter how many miles you walk in a day.

Dinner at 7:00 p.m. is a group event, shared by 15 bona fide pilgrims and two fake ones, namely us. Chatting with the proprietress, I learn that the building is at least 300 years old and used to belong to a farmer who stored his grapes in the dining room right where we are sitting.

Walking around town the next day, we see pilgrims trudging up the hill unerringly in the direction of the hostel. “How do they know the way?”, we wonder. They aren’t looking at a smartphone or a map, yet they make all the right turns up the steep alleyways. After admiring the view of the town from behind the vineyards in the valley, we head back.

That’s when we notice the shells. Of course. They are following the shells, the symbol of St. James.

A shell painted along the Camino de Santiago
A painted shell marking the Camino de Santiago

These are painted on signposts, fences, and walls, all along the thousands of kilometers that form the camino. Even in the age of smartphones and GPS, it is comforting to see a simple painted sign reassuring you that you didn’t just scale that big hill for nothing.

Back in Munich two months later, I take part in a walking tour of Munich. The guide mentions that the Jakobsweg, the Way of St. James, runs straight through Munich. It even goes right past my old office at St.Jakobs-Platz, St. James Square. And supposedly it’s even marked with shells.

Now, wait a minute. I never spotted a single shell there. Am I that unobservant, I wonder (knowing that the answer in general is “yes,” but hoping that it’s “no” in this particular instance). The next day I check it out and am relieved: not a shell in sight.

Strolling across the St.-Jakobs-Platz, I think of those determined pilgrims back in Spain. I consider walking part of the camino myself–apart from this one, which leads me straight to the Stadtcafé to recover from my arduous shell search. And strictly speaking, I have already walked the camino, so I figure this is entirely justified, I say to myself as I take another bite of cake.

Brenda Arnold

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