My wife Martha Wiebe and I were in Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in September and October of 2014. We chose to start in Pamplona but our destination was the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela about 700 kilometres away through five autonomous regions and most of the distance across the north of Spain. We spent a month walking the trail and most days I posted to Facebook about what we were seeing, hearing and experiencing. I have revised and fact checked that material and added more content. I will post 31 pieces to this blog in the coming days and weeks. This is a pilgrims’ travelogue and is not meant to be a practical guide to preparing for and walking the Camino. There are, however, many hints embedded in the writing that will make it useful for those planning to make the pilgrimage. I hope that you enjoy what you read here. If you are so inclined, please send me a note via the Comments section found at the end of the piece.
(September 04, 2014)
We arrive in Pamplona after a pleasant three hour ride aboard a modern and rapid train which we caught at the Atocha station in central Madrid.
Pamplona is the capital of the province of Navarre, a city of about 200,000 in the heart of Basque country. It is a pleasant city with a scenic old centre. Basque separatism in this region appears to be ebbing but the Camino de Santiago was also for several hundred years a kind of Mason-Dixon Line separating northern and Christian Spain from the remaining vast reaches of the country which were under control of the Muslims, or Moors. They were expelled by Christian armies in 1492, the same year that Columbus reached America.
History, however, is not uppermost in our minds as we catch a bus from the Pamplona train station into the city in search of our hotel. We are given directions by an elderly lady on the bus and helped by an attentive driver, both of who know immediately from our backpacks and hiking poles that we are peregrinos or pilgrims. The driver drops us off at a convenient location with instructions and after a 10-minute walk we find the Hotel Eslava across a narrow cobblestone street from an old convent which is now a school. Our hotel window looks out on a small square which forms part of the old city walls.
In the evening, after the mid-30 degree heat of the afternoon has subsided, we explore the city centre. We look for a store called Caminoteca whose website we had found useful for its information on what gear to buy, how to pack, when to travel and the best albergues (pilgrim hostels) in which to stay. We had most of what we needed but had read that at Caminoteca we could pick the Credencial del Peregrino, a kind of passport which can be stamped at churches, albergues and hotels along the way. The credencial is of stiff paper folded into eight panels with maps on one side and room for passport stamps on the other. Only if you have the credencial stamped at locations each day will you to receive a certificate at the end of your trip establishing that you have truly hiked the Camino.
We find the store, meet Istvan, the young man who runs it, and purchase the credencial. He tells us the Camino is busy this month and that the albergues are filling up with pilgrims by early in the afternoon of each day. He says that it pays to have a cell phone and to book ahead when possible. I have a phone but it lacks a SIMM card that I can use in Spain. No problem, he says and he gives me the name of a local store that sells cards on a month-by-month basis. Soon we are off on a hunt for the shop and after a few false leads we are able to find the store and buy a card.
Praying the rosary
Later we have meal in a restaurant on the Plaza de Castillo, the arcaded main square in the old city, and then we visit the Cathedral de Santa Maria. There we witness a group of about 60 people middle-aged and older clutching rosary their beads and praying in unison – a combination of the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Glory Be and a profusion of Hail Mary’s.
I am familiar enough with that, having been raised as a Catholic at a time when people in my little prairie town still prayed the rosary, but I am surprised to see that at intervals between the cluster of prayers a group of male cantors begin to sing and then the entire group of parishioners walk, also singing, through the church’s aisles led by two men carrying a cloth banner. Spain was perhaps the most Catholic of European countries in the past and it was also the centre of the feared Inquisition. However, secularization moved quickly when it arrived in the 1970s, much as it did in Quebec. What I witness tonight is traditional indeed but there are no young people, not even middle-aged people, in the church.
We had planned to spend a second day in Pamplona but we are also keen to begin walking. So we have decided that early tomorrow morning we will lace up our hiking shoes, don our backpacks and be on our way.