by Amanda Bourne
April 2014

The Camino de Santiago was an intentional journey of self-discovery reflected in the stones across Spain. Although an ancient medieval pilgrimage route, “the Way” proved to be far more than just a walking experience. Some parts of the Camino were little more than well-worn hiking paths, while others were paved in flagstones. To children, the Way would be a secret trail, and the only people they would meet would be kids who knew the secret too. Deer trails would transform into paths that led to a magical destination, and they would imagine that destination with wonder. For me, however, my imagination lay in the past as I pondered who had also traveled the Camino. It has been said that Saint Francis himself made the pilgrimage – the thought of his feet having touched the ground I walked upon was magical in itself. The greeting that travelers exchanged on the trail was “buen Camino!”, like a secret password. Those who said it had found the Way too, and we all were somehow journeying to the same place: Santiago. Those who traveled, past, present, and future, all knew the lure of the Camino.

Our group was made up of twenty-four students and faculty members, spread across a wide variety of majors, brought together by a creative literary non-fiction class that advertised a Spring Break trip to Spain. Now that we were on the Camino, this trip had become a reality. We started our first day by walking seventeen kilometers through the countryside between Burgos and Leon. The sun shone brightly, but stretches of nothing but mud told of recent rains. Piles of stone lined the Camino path alongside the fields they had been pulled from. Stone proved to be an integral part of our experience along the Camino. Pilgrims create small stone cairns (milladoiros) along the Camino. Traditionally, they are used to mark the path for others following, but also act as symbols of being present in a place that has been sacred for thousands of years (Nilsen). These cairns state ‘I was here. I somehow, in some way, made my history intertwine with the Camino’s. I will in some way live on even when I am gone because of these stones.’ We saw many of these milladoiros stacked alongside the path and on top of stone piles. On those long stretches of the Way that were void of civilization, these small piles of rock motivated us to keep walking towards Leon.

Our second day of walking started on the top of a mountain. The town of Foncebadón sits on the highest part of the Camino. Just a few kilometers from the Iron Cross, this village has its roots in the Roman road over the mountain pass. Our brief visit there resembled Gitlitz and Davidson’s description in The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago.

 

When we first visited Foncebadón in 1974, the 2,000-year-old village was in its death throes. Only 4 human inhabitants remained to tend a couple of cows and a handful of sheep… On our last visit, in 1996, a handful of former inhabitants had reconditioned some of the ruins as summer homes, but anyone wishing to spend the night needed a tent….(282)

 

The thick fog on the mountaintop limited visibility, and I couldn’t see the church bell tower referenced in another part of Gitlitz and Davidson’s description. The two small restaurants were closed because of the season and the rest of the buildings were slowly crumbling into ruin. I walked a little further to see the many buildings half-covered in snow – some partially standing – the remainder of their walls dissolved into piles of slate. At one time in history, this place had grown prosperous from the Roman road. It thrived on trade, and people once lived here. Now that road had been replaced by a highway that completely bypassed the ruins of Foncebadón.

After Foncebadón, we climbed the two kilometers to the Cruz de Fierro – the Iron Cross. The Way’s tradition of leaving stone cairns seemed to cumulate in this monument. The modern pile of stones topped by a pole originated in the Celt tradition of “marking their high mountain passes with piles of rock” (Gitlitz 284). A cross was probably added in the 12th century by the hermit Gaucelmo. It is a pilgrimage tradition to bring a stone from home or elsewhere to the foot of this cross. Whether the stone is thrown over the shoulder, or left as a symbol of the pain or sin that the pilgrim would like to leave behind, this practice has accumulated a small mountain’s worth of stone atop one of the highest points on the Camino (Connolly, Gitlitz 283, Nilsen).

The actual Cruz de Fierro structure was a tall wooden pole topped with an iron cross. The base of the splintering wood was wrapped with hundreds of prayer ties in all colors. Photographs of children and loved ones were tucked in these strips, each a supplication or memory that lingered long after the departure of each pilgrim. The Camino was lined with objects such as these. As we walked through the pine-filled forests descending from O Cebreiro, a Buddhist prayer flag waved in the breeze; worn threads in once-bright colors that had seen many days of sun and rain.

The third day of our Camino started when we met with the other half of the group. We headed out on the Camino while exchanging questions and stories from the night before, when we were split into two places of lodging. Was your casa rural warm? What did you have for breakfast?

The terrain was different from what we had experienced the past two days. If trekking to the Iron Cross in early March was like climbing Mount Everest, then walking through the Lugo province was like frolicking through the hills of Ireland. The countryside was divided into small pastures by stone walls, creating a patchwork of green that covered the many hillsides. Cattle, sheep and goats grazed on the new greenery. Other walled areas were tilled; umber soil exposed to the sun’s rays. The path itself was an adventure, since the recent rains had created sections in the Camino that were entirely made of mud. A farmer clad in knee-high rubber boots walked along the Camino – I have worn similar while herding cattle – and the hoe and rake over his shoulder showed that he was going to work the wet earth. I had a sudden urge to join him. The beautiful Spanish countryside reminded me of my childhood home on a farm, and I suddenly became more homesick than I had ever been at college.

As the day wore on, the stones and muddy paths turned to highways and steep hills. We turned a corner and suddenly, across a broad expanse of water, Portomarin rose up in the distance. The Camino took us across a large bridge where trucks roared by – Saint Francis would not have traveled this way – and we ascended the stairs that led into the city.

After our countryside walk and a bus ride, the only thing that stood between us and Santiago was the four kilometer walk into the city. The sun that had been shining all day disappeared behind the clouds. As we started on the walk, I felt a few drops of rain. The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain and especially in Santiago, as we soon discovered. Walking into the Santiago was symbolic in many ways. We did not wash in the river before entering the city (a traditional rite of purification), so the heavens opened up and poured rain upon us. I walked without a jacket, finally knowing the physical meaning of being drenched in the Holy Spirit. As we walked into the cathedral square, the rain was joined by a sudden golden light from the sun’s rays beaming over the Compostela.

During our full day in Santiago, the rain barely stopped. We stood under the arches of the city hall, staring at the cathedral that loomed across the square – a huge mass of stone against the grey sky. However, weather in Santiago, as proved by our entrance into the city, is unpredictable. The rain stopped just in time for our tour of the cathedral rooftop, which although damp, proved to be one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.

Standing on the roof of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela brought to mind a photograph like one might see printed in National Geographic. The city spread out in front of me like a miniature village, red roofs against a blue-grey sky. I’d grown up with those types of photographs, but to see the view with my own eyes was ethereal. Ethereal. That one word seemed to encompass the state of my soul while atop the cathedral roof. The heavens, covered with clouds, felt closer than ever and, for an instant, I understood what the builders of Babel sought.

The rest of the day in Santiago was free, and after the tour, everyone scattered to explore different parts of the city. Dr. Carney, Dr. Peebles, and I stopped in a small two-story restaurant where hazy light drifted in from a large window. I brushed my hand against the wall and felt the cold, rough stone. It was filled with small crevices that created a porous texture. Within these crevices, guests had tucked small coins; others were balanced precariously on slightly jutting ledges in the stone. Meanwhile outside, rain that was only a light mist before started to pour down upon the large camellia below the window. These trees were all over Santiago, seeming to prophesy the return of spring with their bright pink and white blooms. We fell upon caldo gallego and croquettes and basked in the promise of spring from the dry indoors.

Later that evening, Dr. Peebles and I headed out into the rain to seek churros y chocolate. We found shelter from the weather in Café Botafumeiro, which was a few streets away from the Santiago Cathedral. Tucked into a side street with a chalkboard sign advertising 10€ meal specials, the cozy cafe was paneled in chocolate wood and the same textured stone that we found all over Santiago. Behind the counter, bottles of wine were displayed on shelves above a glass case holding breads and sweets. We waited for tea and churros under golden lamplight, surrounded by coin-filled walls. By asking the barista, we discovered that the tradition of leaving a coin in the wall is considered good luck, similar to throwing a coin in a wishing well or fountain.

While we enjoyed our churros y chocolate, the television overhead blared a trivia show… in Spanish. I knew before leaving the States that traveling to a country where I didn’t speak the language would be difficult, but the experience of traveling there made me want to speak Spanish. There was something magical about the ability to have a conversation with someone in their native language that called out to me and drew me in. Alas, we were only there for a week. There was not enough time to spend at any one place, let alone learn to speak adequate Spanish. I asked Dr. Peebles what they were talking about on the trivia show. Richard the Lionheart. My knowledge of history was a bit shabby, and the ensuing conversation provided many opportunities to laugh at it. (Apparently Richard the Lionheart did live in the Medieval time period.)

The light faded as we traipsed back to the hotel. Streetlights threw yellow casts on ancient flagstones, and the streets shimmered as small pools of water reflected the lamplight. The streets of Santiago shone, and as I walked, I could hear the feet of the thousands of pilgrims that had tread those stones before me.

Works Cited

Connolly, Michael. “Cruz De Ferro.” CaminoWayscom Blog. Camino Ways, 11 Feb. 2012. Web. 07 May 2013.

Gitlitz, David M., and Davidson, Linda Kay. The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000. Print.

Nilsen, Sylvia. “What Is the Meaning of the Piles of Stones along the Camino?” Camino De Santiago De Compostela. 7 July 2007. Web. 07 May 2013.

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