Buen Camino! Tips from an American Pilgrim

New BOOK Notice!
Not a guidebook, no maps, no long-winded legends or history – just lots of stories and helpful suggestions to anyone planning their first Camino or just waiting to go back. Geared toward American Pilgrims, this book is a must-have, must-read.

It’s the perfect companion to your standard guidebooks, like John Brierley, the Confraternity of St. James guidebooks, or Wise Pilgrim.

Look for it on Amazon ($6.99 US) December 10, 2017 in paperback and January 8, 2018 on Kindle!


Timid Anne

In 1971, I took an art history course at the University of Michigan called “Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Road.” The course was taught by an extraordinary professor named Ilene Forsyth. In those years, her scholarship was disparaged by her peers because she had married into the spotlight of her more established husband, George Forsyth. But her zeal and her commitment to studying the intricacies of these small, dear objects was contagious and I fell hard for medieval church architecture in general and medieval sculpture in specific.

She used a two-volume book written by the American medievalist Arthur Kingsley Porter as the basis for the course.Learning about her own work on the sculptural program in the cloister at the monastery at Moissac was just a wonderful bonus. What I could not have known in 1971 was that she would go on to become a very highly respected scholar in her own right and that she would spend the rest of her life exploring every square millimeter of that Moissac cloister.

But Porter’s book was just as extraordinary. As a young scholar himself, being aided by unlimited personal funds, he had traversed Europe in a way most of us do not. He went to Europe as a place the way we might go to Paris or Rome as a place. And because of that broader view, he saw the Camino de Santiago as if it were a thread tying many places together by this common road, this common goal of reaching Santiago de Compostela by walking from one town to the next. Where his predecessors identified schools of art production based on place, like a school of Paris or a school of Rome, he saw that sculpture along the road to Santiago had similar characteristics and perhaps, sculptors and church builders were as itinerant as the pilgrims they served or the troubadours and poets who entertained them.

I was fascinated. As a young art historian myself, the idea that style could travel instead of remain in one location was a game changer in the way I looked at and looked for the subtleties of any given piece of work. Porter believed that if troubadours and poets could travel easily and routinely from one place to the other, maybe when the work was done at one church, sculptors and builders would do the same. This would account for the similarities he identified along The Way: everyone was walking with the pilgrims on their way to Santiago.

I kept this in the back of my mind for nearly four decades. Every time I would read something about the pilgrimage road, I would say to myself, “How wonderful to be able to see all of those churches, strung like beads along the road to Santiago.”

And I wouldn’t go. Simply because I determined that I needed three things to appear together in my life in order to be able to go: I needed the time, the money, and someone to travel with. If they didn’t appear at the same time, along with my need to see churches, I figured I’d just wait. So I waited. And I’d read something, hear something about the Camino and repeat the mantra: “I must have three things.” I’d have the money and no time to travel. Or I’d have the time and not the funds. And never once did I have anyone interested in coming along with me. 

Until 2009. That spring, I decided to press my then 19-year-old son into service and I took two weeks off work. I had read up a bit on what to bring, what to leave at home in order to be a successful pilgrim, but I also had decided this was to be more of a reconnaissance mission than anything serious like a full-on pilgrimage. We flew to Paris, visited the Tour St. Jacques, and spent a few days shopping and seeing churches. Then, on to Toulouse, where I finally took a day trip out to Professor Forsyth’s beloved cloister at Moissac. It was glorious.

Just a few days later, we took the train from Toulouse to St. Jean Pied de Port – the most popular starting point for the most popular pilgrimage road, the Camino Frances. We checked into the pilgrim’s office, bought our shells, spent the night in a lovely home, and set out to cross the Pyrenees at dawn the next day. A full twelve hours later, I dragged my sorry self into the tiny town at the other side of the mountains where my son was waiting for me. We were in Spain, we had walked the first stage of the Camino Frances, we were in Roncesvalles. And I was done.

I learned so many valuable lessons in one day walking. I learned that I was still carrying way too much stuff. I learned that I would have to walk at my own pace and not try to keep up with a 19-year-old boy. And I learned that without sufficient motivation, no amount of planning or preparation would get you out the door again the next morning. We took a cab to Pamplona, then a train to Madrid.

But I was hooked. And I knew that now that I had the serious motivation to walk again, I no longer needed anyone to come with me. All I needed was time – because, since I was working full-time, the funds were something I could deal with by putting some money aside.

2010 was a Holy Year. What is that? It’s when the feast day of the Apostle St. James falls on a Sunday and, in his honor, the Cathedral in Santiago opens their Holy Door to allow pilgrims to receive special blessings and to enter the church near the altar. I read an article in the New York Times that said they were getting ready to close it on December 31 and that it would not be opened again until 2021. In that moment, I decided to go. I took two weeks vacation and left on December 25, Christmas Day. It was only a few hours ahead of a devastating blizzard that would close all New York airports for days.

I flew to Madrid and took a bus to Sarria – the starting point of the last 100 km of the Camino Frances. Pilgrims who start in Sarria are eligible to receive the confirming document, the Compostela, saying they had completed the pilgrimage by walking the minimum distance. And I walked for five days, most of the way by myself. I arrived at the Cathedral at 3:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve – only an hour and a half before they closed the door to get ready for the celebration that evening. I did it.

Since then, I have walked from Leon to Santiago with the oldest and youngest of my three daughters, I have walked from Roncesvalles to Burgos with my middle daughter who then went on to walk to Santiago by herself, and most recently, I picked up the trail again in Burgos and walked to Leon. I have worked as a volunteer in the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago and twice at The Abbey, just outside Pamplona. I’ve also worked in an albergue, a pilgrims’ hostel, in Ribadiso, just 40 or so kilometers outside of Santiago.

And through it all, through all of these visits to Spain, I wonder how it was that it took me so long to do this when, in 1971, I was so captivated by the Camino. I think I was more than likely a product of that time. Most women I knew in 1971 did not feel empowered enough to take bold adventures, like hiking across Spain by themselves. And to be fair, the Camino was not nearly as popular as it is now. I also wonder what my younger self would have made of it. I wonder too if I would have become the town crier for the Camino that I am now. I can tell you how frustrating it was that first time, finding out how many of the churches were not open when I walked by. I think that’s ironic.

So, I guess this is just the story of Timid Anne from Niles, Michigan: a young girl who fell for the Camino, and the older lady who actually experienced it. It took me just 38 years to get here. I’d like that that shouldn’t happen to you, too. My hashtag these days is #littleoldladywalking

Photo: the tympanum at Conques, another day trip from Toulouse and the cloister at Moissac

Volunteering at the Albergue in Ribadiso

So, what is it like to volunteer on the Camino de Santiago in Spain? I thought it might be helpful if I gave you some quick background and an idea of what a day is like – then, you might say, “That’s neat. I could so do that, too!”

I have walked the Camino on several occasions, the most recent being in May 2016, walking from Burgos to Leon. I have covered most of the Camino Frances, as the most famous route is called, and I have rather unusual experience doing it, walking mostly in December instead of the summer months. I can tell you where to stay, what not to pack, how to negotiate the emotional highs and lows, and I can tell you what it’s like to finish, ending up in the wonderful medieval town, Santiago de Compostela. It is in the cathedral there that the earthly remains of the apostle James are laid to rest. 
Is it really him? That’s hard to say. I did read once, that in the late 19th century, they opened the silver casket and found the remains of three individuals and a piece of masonry, presumed to be a fragment of the original church in that location. Does it matter if it’s really him? No, of course not – but, for over 1,000 years, pilgrims from every country on this planet have walked this route, and others, to find themselves in the presence of this small, silver casket. 

Walking the Camino is one of those famous bucket list items. People I know say routinely, “Gee, I’d love to be able to do that some day,” but only two of my friends have actually done it. Once you do complete your “Camino,” it’s fair to say you are pretty expert in a whole host of tasks; including how to walk with blisters on both feet, how to dry clothes quickly to avoid having to pack wet things, what to pack, what NOT to pack, how to stay warm when it’s cold and dry when it’s wet. And that simple background, coupled with experience walking, is the basis for what makes a great volunteer.

I’ve been fortunate to have volunteered on 4 separate occasions – once, in 2014, in the Pilgrim’s Welcome Office in Santiago de Compostela; twice at The Abbey located on the way into Pamplona in Navarra; and now, in a municipal albergue in the tiny town of Ribadiso, roughly 40 kilometers outside Santiago, next to the Iso River.

The Pilgrim’s Office had a program, sponsored by the English-speaking Cathedral Chaplaincy with teams of four English speakers at a time would be housed in a furnished apartment and work for 4 hours each day greeting pilgrims, managing the line into the office, and selling the mailing tubes that would house your newly minted paperwork showing you have completed your Camino. It’s called a Compostela. You bring a pilgrim’s passport on the way with you and in each place you stop, you collect a stamp that shows you were walking that day. A minimum of 100 km will net you a Compostela if you collect at least 2 stamps each day you walk.

The Abbey required similar skills – which was a good thing! I had read about the project where a South African pilgrim and his English partner were walking the Camino together when they saw a property that was in near total disrepair. So, over the course of many months, they bought it from the Catholic Church and began renovating it. The goal is simple – to return it to use by pilgrims who pass by the property each year by the thousands. I was there, greeting pilgrims, talking about the project, and encouraging pilgrims to consider volunteering there themselves, for one week in 2015 and one day in 2016. The project is ongoing and each week it gets closer to being operational. 

In Ribadiso – I also get to talk with pilgrims. Today, we brought plates of fresh cut fruit to the edge of the property and offered small cups of water to entering pilgrims. The albergues, as Camino hostels are called, typically do not open for the day until 1 o’clock, so pilgrims who arrive early have to sit outside. It was the perfect thing! We could hear their stories, learn where they were from, try to see what they needed, and share some fruit.

This work is not for everyone – today, the hospitalera (the lady who runs the albergue) said to me, you need to be a Psychologist to be good at her job. Which is partly true. People who have walked over 20 kilometers each day for over a month – something too that is typical – will need different things to feel safe and comfortable staying overnight in rooms filled with both familiar faces and strangers. Today, we are housing 62 pilgrims in bunk beds and another 20 or so campers in the back field.

Accommodations for volunteers vary, I’ve been told, but the places I have stayed have been plush. Hot showers, warm beds, fully stocked kitchens and a place to wash your clothes. And endless pilgrims to look after.

That’s the thing. The expression I have heard is not that we house pilgrims but we “protect” them. It’s important. It’s necessary. And I will probably do it again. Well, after the current 15-day stint is finished!

Back at The Abbey

What a treat and such a gift to be able to volunteer again just for the day at The Abbey.

This beautiful property is right on the Camino and I was able to greet dozens of pilgrims today – in English, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, and French! It’s so fabulous to speak even a few words of welcome to pilgrims from so many places: Minnesota, Texas, California, Vermont, Italy, Brazil, Germany, France, Spain, Canada, Korea, Australia, Ireland, England, Illinois, Iowa.

And the best? I got to ring the bell! Then I scampered down to the lawn to make this little recording.

Buen Camino to all who visited the Abbey today! 

To help save The Abbey: https://www.gofundme.com/theabbey-es

Having the Cathedral All to Myself in Oviedo

When I arrived in Oviedo, the desk clerk told me, “Everything is closed, you know. It’s a holiday.” Never found out which saint was being honored or if it was just Pentecost Tuesday, but damn if she wasn’t right. Including the very object of my visit: the stunning Cathedral of Oviedo.

I was bummed. I’d planned initially to continue walking from here along the Camino Primitivo, but a combination of forces changed my plans. The weather was dicey and I was nervous there could be snow or dense fog. The route is challenging in the best weather. I was also worried I’d really gotten in over my head and maybe tacking a different new and unfamiliar route to my walk along the Meseta was just too much. 

But I still wanted to visit this Cathedral. It’s been on my list for a long while and it’s what drew me to the Primitivo in the first place. So I  took a bus from León just to spend the night and visit the church. And it was shut.

But I kept thinking, maybe, if I’m there sitting in front of the place, somebody might need to get in and I’d slip in behind them. And that’s what happened this morning!

I’d remembered reading a note that said Mass was said every day in the Capilla de Santa Barbara at 9:15 a.m., so I waited – hopefully – on the plaza and this man, followed by a priest, opened the gate, unlocked the door, and the priest held the door open so I could step in.

They walked ahead up the aisle and disappeared and I very nearly had the entire sacred space to myself.

It’s now 8:55 a.m. and my bus is at 10:00 a.m. but I’m happy as a clam and not even thinking about the Mass.

I walk into this beautiful side chapel. There are two people praying near the front and as I start to leave, that same priest that let me in takes the altar and begins to say Mass. I remembered my friend, Priscilla, saying Mass was only 20 minutes in León, so I take my seat. I have just about that much time before I’d have to get back to my hotel to get to the bus station.

On my way out, I thanked St. James once again for guiding my feet.

Next stop: Santiago de Compostela

Industrial Chic on the Way to León 

The Camino into León is so industrial that many pilgrims just opt to take the bus or a taxi on this stage. I walked happily because I love watching small towns in action: the flower shop getting deliveries, local guys catching up outside a car repair place, or the smell of fresh bread from the bakery. 

Walking on asphalt or concrete for any length of time is a killer on your knees though. I tried to stay just off as much as I could.

But then, this splendid XIII c. masterpiece suddenly fills your view finder. 

And here I am in León. My Camino Frances is finished – for the moment!
I’ll come back again to pick up the Frances where I left off and walk to O’Cebreiro. Then finally from O’Cebreiro to Santiago.