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


St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles (2009)


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One thing I can tell you about walking the first stage of the Camino, typically the route through the Pyrenees from France into Spain, is this: it’s just really not all that easy. You leave the sweet village of St. Jean Pied de Port and start climbing into the mountains and before you know it, you’ve gone farther than you ever thought possible and the surrounding vistas are spectacular.

The guide books all say the same thing – “your climb is arduous but you will be rewarded with stunning views.” I think that’s hilarious. The only reward I was looking for was a tall glass of ice water and a chance to lie down. Please don’t get me wrong though, the views are amazing and you get to see small farms in the distance along with sheep, cows, goats, birds, flowers – it’s all wonderful.

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Unfortunately, there really is not a great halfway place to stop along the route. That would have broken up the climb and given us the choice to stop overnight in the mountains. This is not to say the walk needs to be broken up into two stages but it’s always nice to have the option if you aren’t feeling well or need a serious break.

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We started at daylight, late in May, and it was very cold in St. Jean. I was worried I wouldn’t be warm enough, so I wrapped my scarf around and around my neck, thinking that would be all I needed. Little did I know, it was actually sunblock that I needed because not a half hour passed before I had taken off my sweater and my scarf and walked the rest of the day in a sleeveless tank top. I struggled with my backpack and my beloved son carried it a good bit of the way – along with his. I have such great memories of watching him walk ahead of me with a bag of potato chips hanging from the side of his pack.

No sunblock and not enough water! The woman at the pension in St. Jean said, “Don’t worry about water – there’s a lot of places to fill up your bottle. You don’t need the extra weight.” Seriously, I believed her and was down to my last half ounce of water before we came upon a fountain that gushed ice cold water.

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Once you cross into Spain, you find yourself in a beautiful forest, coming down into Roncesvalles. The standard pilgrim greeting in France is “Bon chemin!” but it changes subtly until everyone you greet wishes you a “Buen Camino.” No passport or border control necessary – you know you’ve walked into Spain by the way your fellow pilgrims greet you.

My son walked ahead of me down the mountain path and we met up in Roncesvalles in the early evening. We checked into a hotel and walked across the way to an outdoor cafe for sandwiches and something to drink. It was shortly after that when I realized I was too sunburned, too blistered to continue walking another day. We had no intention of walking to Santiago de Compostela on this trip, but we did plan to take another two days walking to Pamplona. Instead, we hailed a cab to Pamplona and to this day, I regret not giving my son the experience of walking the route from Roncesvalles to Pamplona.

In Pamplona however, we did have some fabulous tapas and pintxos. From there, we made our way on to Madrid to meet up with my daughter who at the time was in a study abroad program there.

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What did I learn? Carry less. If there is one lesson to learn over and over again, it’s just that: carry less. And if it’s the least bit sunny, use sunblock. When I got back to my job, someone saw the sunburn and asked if I’d been to the beach and without thinking I responded, “I don’t go to the beach, I burn too easily.” Where was that smart cookie when I was in the mountains in Spain?

Final thought: I have walked many stages of the Camino since this daylong trek but if this was my only day on the Camino, for the rest of my life I would be able to say that I had crossed the Pyrenees from France into Spain with my son and we walked in the footsteps of Charlemagne. That’s pretty extraordinary, all in all, and I am still so very proud of this achievement.

Paris to St. Jean Pied de Port (2009)

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In late May of 2009, I flew to Paris with my son on a mission to explore a number of pilgrimage sites I had studied in college. We visited the Tour St. Jacques which had just recently been restored. It was more a symbolic gesture than anything substantive because we were not going to walk to Santiago from there. Still, I wanted a sense of the place where pilgrims began their journey.

This was a more complex trip than I had attempted in the past. Typically, I’d go to Paris and come home, but this time, we spent a few days in Paris, flew to Toulouse where we took day trips to Moissac and Conques – both important medieval pilgrimage sites in southwestern France. From Toulouse, we took a train to Bayonne and then on to St. Jean Pied de Port, the traditional starting place for the Camino Frances in the French Pyrenees. After that, we went on to Pamplona, Madrid, and then back to Paris with my daughter.

We planned to walk to Pamplona – just three days on the Camino – but we were not adequately prepared, we were carrying the wrong gear, had the wrong boots, had not done sufficient research, and when it came time to decide, do we go on walking or do we bail and take a cab to Pamplona, we hailed the cab.

But I learned quite a bit that made later walks much more successful. This is a bit of my learning experience.

1) Rather than starting in Paris, unless you aspire to walk the Camino starting in Paris, I recommend Toulouse. This is a wonderful town with fabulous food, beautiful churches, and great day trips to other wonderful towns. We based our operation at an inexpensive, centrally located Ibis hotel and took the train one day to Moissac, to Conques the next. It was easy taking the train from Toulouse to St. Jean, changing trains in Bayonne.

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2) The highlight in Moissac is the serene cloister of the St. Pierre Abbey.

It was nearly demolished when the train line was put in and now, it’s the scene of many local weddings and events. You can get a sense of the divine isolation that its residents must have felt when you view the columns and capitals of the cloister walkway. There’s a sense that viewing these images would both challenge you and bring you some comfort as you kept to your prayers, walking the length of the square space.

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3) I was introduced to the village of Conques when I studied the sculptural program at the Abbey church of Ste. Foy. I found the the story of Ste. Foy to be charming and the photos of the small town and the church were something I could not forget, swearing early on that this was the first place on my life’s bucket list. To be fair, we didn’t call it a bucket list in the mid 1970s – it was just an object of desire.

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We had no trouble getting to Conques but we nearly had to spend the night there – not our plan – when we could not find a car to take us back to the train station for our return to Toulouse. What was the issue? Typically, there was a bus that arrived in the early evening, you would spend the night and then return in the morning. We wanted lunch so we pieced together a train plus cab that took us right into Conques. When we wanted to leave in time to catch a late afternoon return train. there was not a single taxi. I even asked a young man if he had friends who might want to make a few Euro taking us back to our train, but he told me all his friends were walking the Camino. We ended up walking back into town and asking a woman at the post office to call us a cab. We made our train with about 8 minutes to spare.

4) Toulouse to St. Jean Pied de Port – another easy train trip. We stopped in St. Sernin in Toulouse to stamp our pilgrim’s passports, took the train to Bayonne, spent about an hour, hour and a half in Bayonne, then changed trains to St. Jean Pied de Port. The trip passed through the town of Lourdes: another pilgrimage for another time.

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5) St. Jean Pied de Port. Arriving here, we walked first to the Pilgrim Office where we checked in, got stamps for our pilgrim’s passports, and bought a shell for my son. We only walked about two doors down the street before I realized I needed one as well and we returned, paid something like one Euro, and I collected my shell. Pilgrims are traditionally identified by their large scallop shells. In the past, carrying a shell was a way to prove that you had completed the pilgrimage because you would have been to the Atlantic coast of Spain.

Finding a place to stay was as simple as asking the woman who sold me the shell for a recommendation. She referred us to a friend of hers who gave us a room with two beds and a view of the hills beyond the terrace out back.

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We had dinner in a lovely place on the river where we watched a young man jump into the water and play like an 8-year-old boy. We visited the church and explored the town after dinner. In the morning, we had a few pieces of toast with cafe au lait. The running joke among the locals is the standard French phrase, “a demain!” Why joke? Because everyone leaves for the pilgrimage routes right away. I doubt there are more than a handful of tourists who would spend more than one night in this lovely town. So, “See you tomorrow” is funny.

In St. Jean, the pilgrim’s office is the most helpful place. They will give you maps – which I managed to lose – and lots of helpful advice.

Up next? St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles (2009)