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


Portomarín to Palas de Rei (2010)

And then I got lost leaving Portomarín.


I thought the Camino went up the hill past the church when it actually continues off to the left after you cross that bridge before you climb into town. I learned to find out where I am on the planet before moving, otherwise you move in the wrong direction. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?


This stretch of the Camino is where I started to do two things: get really tired and start enjoying the beautiful countryside. I remember thinking that nobody would know if I took a bus to the next stop, nobody would know if I hailed a cab to the next stop. I could just get there and have coffee and that would be infinitely better than walking. But I kept thinking how I’d disappoint the kid in my office who said I could do this – and when I got to Santiago, I’d have to live with the deceit.


So I toughed it out and started looking around me, and decided to focus on the flowers, trees, animals, and bugs that I saw. I remembered thinking of the cool black beetles I had seen in 2009 as I walked through the forest on the way into Roncesvalles and how I never noticed bugs in New York. I met a guy who claimed to speak English – and then he didn’t – and I lost the Mallorquinos and their backpack issues for good.

I’d read about a tiny Templar chapel, off the Camino a bit, that sounded like a nice side trip. I read you could hail a taxi, go out to the chapel, then cab it back without losing any credibility as a walking pilgrim. So I stopped a the closest bar and asked the bar man for three things: some water, a place to stash my backpack, and a phone call to a taxi service that could take me out to Vilar de Donas. I never expected to hear what he told the cab driver when he got him on the phone. He said, “There is a pilgrim here who would like to visit the Chapel.”


It was the very first time I’d been called a pilgrim.

The cabbie drove up, I left my backpack, and we drove down a muddy dirt road into a field where I saw the little chapel. I promised the cabbie I wouldn’t be very long, that I was a student of Romanesque sculpture and architecture and I just wanted some photos and a chance to walk around a bit. He nodded, I got out with my little camera.

I’d walked around the central building and was trying to focus my lens on a slit in the old wooden door to get a view of the interior when a man came up behind me holding keys. The cabbie was leaning on his car with a big smile on his face. He’d contacted the man with the keys for me! This man started talking about the Celtic origins of the decoration, about the monks who lived here, about the Templar knights. And then he opened the door and I walked in. He continued telling me the story and pointing out small sculptural details. I stamped my credencial with the stamp of the church, left a few Euro to compensate my guide, and got back in the cab to return to the bar and my backpack and my walking.


I felt completely refreshed. I walked on into Palas de Rei and stopped at the albergue to see if they also had solo accommodations – they didn’t. So I walked on another kilometer or so to a place that looked like a cool summer camp for grown-ups with cabins and a central building that had a restaurant. I had pizza for dinner and when I went to pay the bill at the bar, the bar man slipped me an orange and told me just to take it “for tomorrow” and the waiter came up and offered me a few slices of ham to try.

It was just what I needed.

Next: Palas de Rei to Arzúa


Sarria to Portomarín (2010)


I’m really not sure what I was thinking. December 27, 2010 and I take off like I know what I’m doing and I walk right out of town, right into the countryside – alone. How I became this reckless, this fearless, this full-on crazy different from my normal indoor self, I will never know. But I had that student’s words hanging over my head: “You have to do this.”

I didn’t even get out of town without losing my way – what made me think I could make it all the way to Portomarín without incident? And by incident, I mean without breaking something, losing something, or, I don’t know, getting swallowed up by the Spanish countryside. I do remember saying a prayer for the intercession of Saint James. A very nice older man saw me looking lost and calmly pointed out the way to me. I bet he does that every week of his life, given the number of lost pilgrims that must come by him in Sarria on their way out of town.

Walking in December typically means you will have a good section of the Camino to yourself. Whether by choice or coincidence, sometimes luck, or sometimes just a 10 to 20 minute lag between the time you leave in the morning and the time everyone else leaves, you can have the road to yourself if you want it. That’s amazing. The intense solitude is something you won’t find as easily during the summer months when the Camino is more populated.


I was about a third of the way into my day when I came upon a family from Mallorca. Dad was hustling everyone forward, the mom was pretty quiet, and the daughter, who was probably in high school, kept complaining that her backpack was too heavy. Dad was very seriously concerned that they would get to the next town to spend the night and they wouldn’t be able to stay in the same place. He kept warning them that if they didn’t keep moving, dire things would befall them.

We walked a bit farther and stopped for lunch in a very small place with a dining room in the back. They sat with me and we started talking. Their claim to fame was that they had cousins who went to school with someone in Rafael Nadal’s family in Mallorca. I called them – to myself, of course – the Mallorquinos and I wondered if I wouldn’t have identified myself similarly if I lived in Mallorca, needing to claim a relationship of any kind with such a famous athlete.


We set out again, this time walking together, and I stopped again a while later, just to catch my breath and ask myself just how it was that I thought I could do this. After all, I had only a few hours experience walking the Camino at that point. Dad walked up to me after about two minutes sitting and said, “Vamos, señora. Vamos!” And in that moment, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started walking again. While I never fully adopted his fears about places to spend the night, I did feel that he was so right. I didn’t come all that way with all that gear to sit alongside the Camino. I was there to walk.


We arrived at Portomarín mid-afternoon, I was amazed that the way into town was via a tall staircase but I read later about how the entire medieval town was transported to the top of the hill after years of dealing with rising river waters. When the water level is low, you can still see sections of the old town peeking out of the water. That staircase was what linked the Camino to the town and a place for us to spend the night. I let the Mallorquinos go and found a pension with private rooms and a shared bath.

I must have lain there on my neat little twin bed for an hour without moving, wrapped and bundled in my sleeping bag because there was no heat. But I had completed my first stage of this winter holiday walk and I was so happy. I walked into town and found a diner with a young woman behind the counter. When I asked what food was available since it was still kind of early for dinner by Spain standards, she replied, “We have espaghettis with hot salad or espaghettis with cold salad.” I opted for cold at which point she opened two cans of Chef Boyardee and warmed it up in the microwave.

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Disappointed that I couldn’t get inside the beautiful church, I photographed the outside of the building and went back to the unheated pension to spend the night. It was so cold – indoors – that I boiled water on the stove in the common area just to be able to hold cups of hot water in my hands while I watched a Spanish-dubbed re-run of the American comedy series, Reaper.

The next morning, I met up with the Mallorquinos again at a restaurant having breakfast, but as soon as we got out of town, they left me in the dust and I never saw them again. I imagine they got to the next town – Palas de Rei – right after lunch and were safely tucked in long before I got there. The daughter had sent her pack along with one of the “mochila transport” services that take your gear to the next town. She looked happy.

Next: Portomarín to Palas de Rei


New York City to Sarria (2010)

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2010 was, in the language of pilgrims, a Holy Year. They don’t come around all that often and when they do, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela greets many thousands more visitors than in an ordinary year. I had read about holy years for some time and thought it was really nice to have a special celebration just because the Feast of St. James falls on a Sunday in that particular year. The next one will be in 2021.

I was working in my office, catching up on world news over lunch at my desk, when I saw a post from someplace saying that Spain was getting ready to close out the Holy Year with some festivities and the formal closing of the Puerta Santa – the side door entrance to the main body of the Cathedral that is only open during holy years. I sat there for a minute, imagining being there for this event, wondering what kind of ecclesiastical celebrations were in store, and I started looking at my calendar. That was when I started my pilgrimage.

Since I worked at a university at the time, the winter break holidays were coming up; there were easy days to take off, four work holidays, lots of closings – in other words, lots of not much going on. Then I looked at one of the pilgrimage websites to see what the requirements were to receive the Compostela, the formal document from the church saying you completed the pilgrimage, the Camino. If I were to walk just the last 100 km., I would be eligible, and it looked like I could do it in just five days walking.

Then, I needed to scope out buying the airfare – which, at that time of year, is kind of tricky. Travel on one day is expensive, leave the next and the fare drops or sky rockets, depending on where the actual holidays fall. I figured that the majority of my own holiday would be celebrated on Christmas Eve, leaving the next day for my trip to Spain. If I flew out of NYC on Christmas Day, I would arrive in Madrid the following morning. I could take a bus to Sarria, my starting point in Galicia, and start walking to the Cathedral on December 27 – which would make my arrival in Santiago de Compostela New Year’s Eve. It was cutting it close, but I was convinced I could do it. And I was going to do it by myself.

Then, I announced my intentions to my coworkers. Two out of three cheered and wished me well, saying how they knew I had wanted to do this again and that all would be well. But it was the third – an undergraduate work-study student – who gave me what I needed.

He simply said, “You have to do this. No, seriously, you have to do this.”

With their encouragement and some quizzical looks from my family, I bought the ticket, researched bus routes, booked a hotel in Sarria for one night, and started packing my backpack. I had boots and my dad bought me a new winter jacket. He told me later he wished he’d bought me a hot pink one instead of grey and black so I’d be safer walking along highways. I packed my seashell from my 2009 trip with my son, wished my family a Merry Christmas and left for the airport.

Waiting for the same flight to Madrid from JFK was a woman who kept looking over at me. I was waiting for the boarding call when she came over and asked if I were a pilgrim, that she recognized the gear, or lack thereof, and wondered if I were going to Santiago. She said she was a “Camino Junkie,” looking for any excuse to go, to walk, to learn more about the medieval routes, to compare notes with other junkies, and she teared up when I told her I was heading to Sarria to be able to walk through the Holy Door before it closed.

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While we were waiting, the flight desk personnel made an announcement that our flight was overbooked and if anyone could leave the next day, they would be rewarded with first class seats. I had a seat assignment on my boarding pass so I ignored them – and if I waited even a single day, my whole plan would have fallen apart. Which is lucky because December 26, 2010 was a fateful day in NYC weather. We got 20 inches of snow and absolutely nothing was leaving for Spain or anywhere else.

When we landed in Madrid the following morning, she wished me a “Buen Camino!” and I took a cab to the bus station to connect with a bus to Lugo, then on to Sarria. While I was waiting for my bus to come in, I bought a knit hat and a scarf in one of the little shops. The hat was hilarious – it must have been a Chinese import. Instead of the word Thinsulate on the logo, the hat read “Thinsuke.” But it worked and the scarf still reminds me of that bus station and how terribly cold I was waiting for the bus.

When I changed buses in Lugo, panic set in – big time. I convinced myself there must have been more than one Sarria, that I was in the wrong place, that the bus to Sarria would never show up, that I was going to have to scrap my plans, and that the ham sandwich I ate there was going to give me the dreaded collywobbles. I could not have been more wrong. Pilgrims started assembling in the station and just a few minutes later the bus to Sarria arrived and we were on our way.


I did have a map. But finding the hotel was a challenge. I stopped two older women and asked them how to get to the hotel and they just criticized my Spanish. They asked me if I knew any other languages with which to ask my “Donde esta el Hotel Alfonso IX?” I accommodated them with English, French, and Italian, just to be nice, and they sent me down along the river to look for a bridge – never once indicating that, in fact, at that precise location on this planet, I could have seen the hotel across the river.

I checked in and got some sleep. The next morning, I headed down to the lobby cafe for breakfast, and got my first stamp on my pilgrim’s passport from the very nice lady at the front desk. She warned me that daylight would not be for another hour and that it could be dangerous walking at that early hour. Never known for a reckless streak, I ignored her and wished her a lovely day. It was dark immediately after leaving town, but once I got out into the countryside, I had a 360 degree view of one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever known.

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Next: Sarria to Portomarin (2010)