Did you know that 2012 is the European Year of Active Aging? I was pleased to learn from Julia Moulden’s newsletter Pulse that this is the year the EU are encouraging those of us over 60 to “get more out of life as you grow older, not less.”
Well thank you European Union. Now I know why I chose to walk the Camino this year.
To Europeans the word active actually means active. Where Canadian officials mention walking and gardening in their ‘new vision,’ in Estonia the new Move for Health initiative encourages hiking, Nordic walking, dancing and more.
Gardening? Hey Canadian officials, you left Bingo off your list!
There are several routes to Santiago. Our group walked along the French Way which is the most popular of the Way of St. James ancient pilgrimage routes to Santiago. It takes about a month if you walk the seven-hundred-and-fifty kilometers from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, all the way to Santiago de Compostela.
I was pleasantly surprised that many men and women who walked the whole route were older than me, and many were walking in spite of a severe illness like cancer.
A thousand years ago a pilgrimage on the Camino was undertaken for a religious reason. These days although many people do still walk for religious reasons, they also walk in memory of a loved one, or to celebrate a “zero” birthday, or graduation, sometimes to answer a personal quest or question like “What is my life’s purpose?” or simply because they like the challenge “Can I do it?”
Andrew, a young man from England, told me he spent last year in India and after walking the Camino he was going to Machu Pichu in Peru. I hope he finds what he’s looking for before he runs out of places to visit.
I’d love to share what it’s like to walk with no agenda. The rhythm of walking three miles an hour for over seven hours each day, slows you down, takes you far from the roller-coaster race of modern life, to a kinder, simpler more accepting existence …
Perhaps by showing you a few of my photos – in the order I took them – you’ll understand what I mean ..
We started walking in Ponferrada, a modern city with a population of 62,000, and a 12th century castle on the hill, which is all that remains of the templar’s order:
“Knight’s of the templar’s order, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, who were officially endorsed by the Catholic Church circa 1129, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades.”
But in 1312 the Knights Templar Order was outlawed and disbanded by a church “fearful of their increasing power.”
Unfortunately we couldn’t explore the castle, because we arrived too late the evening before, and we had to walk 15 km that first day. Next time…
There was much excitement in our group
- when we put on our way too heavy backpacks and started walking
- when we saw our first Camino sign marking the way
- when the first person walking past wished us “Buen Camino,” the traditional greeting of pilgrims
Once we were out of the town, the countryside soon became gentle rolling hills, and fields planted with old grape vines.
Along a quiet stretch of the path this farmer had fresh cherries, and little handmade wooden figures for sale. The cherries were packed in newspaper cones, and sold for one euro each. A delicious snack.
After a pleasant day’s walk we arrived in Cacabelos, a town of 5,000.
It must have been an important medieval pilgrim’s stop as there were once five pilgrims hospices in the city.
We stayed at the Municipal Albergue in Cacabelos.
I apologize, I know it’s not easy to see the doors to the rooms in the photo (the “wall” on the right) as it was overcast that day, and I forgot to go outside and take a photo of the rooms with the doors open…
The rooms were tiny – almost like a wall of garden sheds – in a semi-circle around the Church courtyard.
Each tiny “room” had two little narrow beds on a spotless tile floor, a tiny table with a light and a little “closet-like space” with just enough space for a backpack.
The next morning?
More gorgeous views of rolling hills, vineyards, poppies …
When we entered Villafranca del Bierzo (another town with a population of 5,000) the path took us past the fifteenth century Castillo Palacio de los Marqueses.
After a delicious lunch of fresh sardines (which I will share in a future post), and a few more hours of easy walking, we reached Trabadelo, that night’s rest stop.
Next morning I was pleasantly surprised to see muesli and organic fair trade coffee on the menu at the little bar down the road.
I felt encouraged that the good breakfast would help me face the hard walk up to O’Cebreiro (which I mentioned in my previous post).
The path out of Trabadelo led us past the Rio Pereje.
This man invited us into his workshop to show us the beautiful walking sticks he carves.
After walking for several hours by the river and through several ancient hamlets where cows and sheep welcomed us, I thought I’d been mistaken about the hard climb to O’Cebreiro…
Almost without any warning the path became steep and rocky, and the climb I’d dreaded proved to be the most difficult one I’ve ever done.
If you ever get to O’Cebreiro I hope you’re fortunate to go on a fog-free day so you can see the magnificent views.
O’Cebreiro still looks like a medieval village.
The building (below) is a “Palloza” a “traditional dry-stone thatched house, circular or oval, and about ten or twenty meters in diameter, which were built to withstand the severe winter weather in O’Cebreiro.”
When you walk along the Camino, scallop shells embedded in the walkways, and on the mileage markers point the way, but the yellow arrows which are painted everywhere – on the road, the path, rocks or the sides of a house or barn – are really what you follow.
I walked alone for part of every day and was grateful and reassured when I’d see the flashes of yellow (sometimes so old I could barely make them out) but which all felt like old friends there to guide me.
I use this opportunity to my give personal and grateful thanks to Don Elias Valina Sampedro (1929-1989) a parish priest and scholar living in O’Cebreiro. He devoted his life to the resurrection and promotion of the Camino, and it was his idea to mark the route with the yellow arrows.
When Don Elias first arrived in O’Cebreiro in 1959, the church, ancient inn and pilgrim hospital were badly neglected ruins which took many years and much hard work to restore, and in 1972 the village of O’ Cebreiro was declared an Historical Monument..
In 1967 at the time of Don Elias‘s doctoral thesis on “The Road of St James: A Historical and Legal Study,” there was only a remote memory of the Jacobean pilgrimage, and no clearly marked path.
In 1972 only 6 pilgrims were awarded the Compostela. These days hundreds – and possibly thousands in the summer – of Compostelas are awarded every day. When I was there earlier this month the office in Santiago stayed open until 10 pm every night.
I must share this lovely story about Don Sampedro:
One day in 1982, with fears of terrorism rife, the sight of yellow arrows painted on trees along a Pyrenean road aroused the suspicion of the Guardia Civil. Following the trail, they came upon a battered white van. A small, smiling man got out. When prompted, he opened the van’s back doors to reveal tins of bright yellow paint and a wet paintbrush.
“Identification!” barked the Guardia.
“I’m Don Elías Valiña Sampedro, parish priest of O Cebreiro in Galicia.”
“And what are you doing with all this?”
“Preparing a great invasion…”
More beautiful views greeted us on day four. I took the above photo at Alto do Poio after the short, but steep climb to the highest spot in Galicia (4,380 feet or 1,335 meters).
It was early in the afternoon as Lynne and I took a moment to rest and admire the view above, that I had another one of those incredible experiences one has on the Camino, when words – words that I hadn’t planned to say but had haunted me since childhood – poured out of my mouth (almost as if I’d vomited them out), and once I’d thrown them away to the wind, I was free of the pain they’d caused.
Thank you Lynne.
I wonder whether its easier to understand what I’m trying to share by watching the slide show. The 49 pictures are all in the order I took them (as you can see from the numbers) except for a few at the end.
My previous posts on The Camino: