Monday 4th June 2012
'To be a pilgrim …
Or maybe, just now and again, not. The Camino de Santiago, not so long ago an almost forgotten byway for religious eccentrics and spiritual refuseniks, has become a motorway of the soul, travelled by all manner of pilgrims from across the globe.
Sometimes, however, it can get a bit too much and after one particularly trying night in an overcrowded albergue – perhaps better described as a snorers’ convention – I decided to take the road less travelled.
And what a road it is. At Villafranca del Bierzo the Camino divides into three, the ‘official’ route climbing through woodland before joining the senda – a paved path which runs alongside a busy main road for twenty kilometres. The third option, the alluringly named Ruta Dragonte, is spoken of in hushed tones even amongst Camino veterans. Poorly signposted – often not signposted at all – the hospitalero in Villafranca pooh-poohed my idea; a red rag to a bull, if ever there was one.
So, like a contemporary apostate, whilst my fellow pilgrims followed the ubiquitous yellow arrow, I took a tortuously winding road that lead up, through vineyards and orchards, into the cloudless heavens, into the mountains I’d been eyeing lasciviously since crossing the Meseta.
The flat, featureless Meseta, a hiking hell that had almost broken my soul.
The first ascent, to the village of Dragonte itself, was a relatively straightforward affair; I was three weeks into my camino and in good shape. A taxi driver stopped to wish me buen camino, a much-appreciated gesture unless, of course, he was circling like a vulture, anticipating a premature – and lucrative – end to my adventure. Just above the village I paused to savour the view, and the fact that for the first time in 23 days there wasn’t a single pilgrim before or behind; the handful of people I encountered that day were all locals. Everyone talks about ‘forgotten Spain’, this was the cliché come true. The Camino has brought prosperity to villages that would otherwise have been deserted decades ago, here, just a few kilometres away from the main drag, was a rural economy that had changed little since the Franco era.
The path plunged deep into a valley so opulently verdant I might have wandered into my own, private Eden. Through gut instinct or sheer luck – I like to think it was the former – the thin trail finally metamorphosed into a track that took me safely to the village of Vilar de Corales and a reassuring signpost pointing the way to Santiago. It was noon, it was hot, there was plenty more to come.
Down again, up again; down again, up again. By the time I’d scrambled down the steep slope to Herrerías I’d covered thirty kilometres and climbed – and descended – twice the height of Ben Nevis. My fellow pilgrims might have arrived a couple of hours closer to their holy grail, less aching in their leg muscles, but I’d come just a little bit closer to heaven.'
Thus, in 500 words, did I describe my hike along the Camino Francés on Monday 4th June 2012 for a travel-writing competition in The Daily Telegraph; brevity has never been my forte, needless to say my entry was not published. Five hundred words are woefully inadequate to describe the emotions aroused by what was, quite probably, the most memorable day of walking I've ever experienced; five thousand words would barely suffice and I'm willing to wager the price of a bottle of top-notch gin that I'd still be going strong long after the word count had hit five figures.
It would be safe to say that on that day, three years ago, this thesis was born; when it underwent that crucial transition from a nebulous collection of thoughts conceived, many years ago, during my undergraduate studies, to a living, breathing entity which, given sustenance, might emerge from its pupation into a piece of bona fide academic research.
But more of that anon. Let's return to that day of what I can only describe as perambulatory and spiritual intensity. For the previous 561 kilometres I'd been following, religiously, the ubiquitous yellow arrows that make getting lost virtually impossible. And for the previous 561 kilometres I had, of course, been sharing almost every aspect of the camino with my fellow pilgrims; not just the path itself but the albergues, the dormitories, the bars and restaurants, my own personal space and, in one particular albergue, my body1. By the time I'd reached the town of Ponferrada my patience and tolerance were wearing pretty thin. The hike over the Montes de Leon (the location of the iconic Cruz de Ferro where I made a point of not adding my stone to the growing pile) had been impressive and, for the most part, I'd managed to avoid the hordes and walk solitarily. After 561 km I was becoming a avowed anti-pilgrim and re-identified myself as a born-again hiker.
In Ponferrada I encountered the pilgrim masses once more, and they seemed to have multiplied. From here the camino crosses the Hoya de Bierzo, a wide plain surrounded by mountains; pilgrims are herded together again and the path winds its way on or around a main road, as it does on much of the Camino Frances.
I cheated, jumped on a bus.
It wasn't the first time. The walk into and out of Leon is an interminable trek alongside another busy road and then through suburbs and industrial estates so I took the bus from Mansilla de las Mulas. Earlier still, suffering from a nasty chill, I caught the bus from the outskirts of Burgos into the city centre.
I wondered whether I might live to regret my 'cheating', that the three missing chunks of my pilgrimage would somehow invalidate the whole project, condemn me to such purgatorial angst that I'd have to return to do the whole walk all over again the following year.
But that wasn't the case. My inner hiker was winning out over my external pilgrim; the walk was important but so was the landscape. The Ruta Dragonte changed all that; it changed everything, reconciled the two conflicting desires and brought with it a transformative, ecstatic in-the-moment, in-the-landscape experience that had profound religious consequences.
A bit like Saul on the road to Damascus, I suppose.
From the bus to Villafranca del Bierzo I watched a long, thick line of (my fellow) pilgrims wind its way across the plain and couldn't help thinking of Nietzche's herd mentality; I was beginning to take a dislike to my fellow pilgrims and their apparent unwillingness – or inability – to deviate from the straight and narrow. They were like sheep, and I was in the mood for playing the wolf.
But that ubiquitous yellow arrow's like a line of sparkling white cocaine: alluring, irresistible and oh-so-addictive. Three year's on and I still haven't shaken off the habit.
The misanthropy doesn't let up; there's something about the town of Villafranca del Bierzo that irks me all the more, especially when the hospitalero eyes me suspiciously when he notices I've come all the way from from Molinaseca. That would mean I'd walked 32 kilometres and it's still early afternoon; he knows I took the bus but I don't care. He's part of the human fabric of the Camino, the complex network of pilgrims who hike it and those who provide services for them; we exist in a bubble outside of which the rest of the world might as well not exist. We're locked into the path, carve an deeper groove from which it becomes increasingly possible to extricate ourselves. I'm sure I'm not the first to go stir crazy and toy with the idea of insurrection but I'm equally sure I'm not the first to be find myself longing to return, seduced the orthodoxy of the way. Must be the Catholic in me.
But I will always return. Like a lamb to the fold, like a moth to a flame.
The Camino de Santiago from Villafranca de Bierzo as described in John Brierley's Camino Frances Guide, by far the most popular pilgrim guide2. The Ruta Dragonte is in green
Taking the road less travelled was an act of defiance fuelled by the desire to distance myself from my fellow pilgrims. Amongst Camino connoisseurs the Dragonte route has an almost legendary status, the El Dorado of the caminos to Santiago:
'It is not suitable for groups but individual pilgrims might sensibly join with another for added security in the mountains … Waymarking is obscure and the paths beyond Dragonte are frequently overgrown by scrub vegetation … so only contemplate this route if you are fit, have a good sense of orientation and an instinctive nature when faced with unexpected options. Don’t expect to get lost but allow some additional time in case you do! Leave early in the morning …'3
'I did this route last May, on my own and it was the most incredible day of mystery and magic. I experienced every emotion possible - I hardly saw one other person, and certainly nobody to talk to, let alone another Peligrino until I found the wonderful Celia who opened her 'cafe' in Vilasinde and I sat with her and cried and drank and ate the biscuits she offered brought out for me!
It was an immense day in every way and if it had not been such a superb day weather wise I would not have attempted it as even for someone as 'mountain fit' as I was, it was a big ask physically and mentally on my own. Walking over the high tops past abandoned villages and through ancient woods of huge Spanish Chestnuts or wading through streams that had taken over the path, or waving at an old woman staring out at me from an ancient house - I felt that I was in another age and a totally different Spain.
I loved that day and will never forget Celia's kindness or the intoxicating scent of white broom and the sheer relief of finding the path again when I thought I was lost.
A route for anyone wanting to push themselves mentally or emotionally or physically or for anyone who needs space and peace off the beaten track for a day.'4
'It' happened as I descended from the hamlet of Moral de Valence into the deep valley of the Arroyo de Moral (arroyo = stream). Apart from the taxi driver and an ageing farmer I'd seen not a soul since metaphorically waving farewell, somewhat self-righteously, to the main route just outside Villafranca; thus far I'd followed asphalted roads and cart tracks but now the path petered out amongst orchards and fields of vegetables and fruit. The intensity of colour was overwhelming: deep, russet reds, warm, earthy browns and verdant emerald greens. In the corner of this Arcadian tableau, a pockmarked muddy pasture led to a stream.
The hills were all around me, and the years and years of birth, growth and decay; stabs of light cut through the overhanging eaves and ricocheted from every bough in tiny explosions of brilliant glory. Thicket and scrub, root and branch and leaf, turning in on me with the irrepressible will of nature; red, not only in tooth and claw, but in its carnal desire to consume both everything and everybody. I was hemmed in, deep in the cleft of a riven valley and soaked in an immutable shadow that engulfed every hue and colour except the rippled silvery waters of the stream.
I was lost and yet not lost; out-of-place but also acutely aware of being-in-place. Time and space ground to a halt and, for the next few minutes, it seemed to me that the earth span off its axis and inverted natural law.
That's the only way I can explain what happened; the immanent, divine presence in the valley, flickering scarlet and emerald behind and through the trees. Hiding, watching, guiding: I wasn't alone.
I forded the stream; on the other side a vague path traversed the mud and lead directly uphill. I tried it, tentatively. It didn't feel right; call it gut instinct, hiker's intuition or sacred interference, after five minutes walking I turned back and returned to the stream. There was, gently contouring the slope, a faint trail, mostly obscured by fallen leaves. I followed it, even more tentatively, as if each trepidatious step might lead me out of my prelapsarian Eden for I felt like an Eve, nervously transgressive and dazzled by the infinite possibilities of creation. That way madness lies, perhaps that's why I took the path and headed in that direction; I'd put my trust in the numinous and the immaterial, step by step it led me up and out of the valley on a track that slowly became more and more distinct. Half an hour later I entered the hamlet of Villar de Corrales and found someone to ask if this was the way to Santiago. They smiled and nodded, as if they'd seen it all before.
The energy of that encounter in the valley remained with me for the remainder of the Camino, kept me going as went down then up then down again, to the albergue in Herrerías where I ground to a halt with a can of cold beer in my hand. Never before I have felt such a sense of elation, of being so 'at one' with the landscape. It had soothed my temper, given me space, heightened my senses, pummelled and stretched my body; left me cerebrally, sensuously and spiritually satisfied.
And wanting more.
Everything changed on the Ruta Dragonte. It unlocked feeling, emotion and affect and brought me back, metaphorically and spiritually, to the way: pilgrimage, pilgrims and I were all reconciled.
Happy ever after? I wish!
The following day I hiked effortlessly up the 500 metre climb to O Cebreiro; there in the Romanesque church is a simple but exquisite statue of the Virgin and child which immediately reminded me of the Virgin of Biakorri I'd countered on the first day as I crossed the Pyrenees. Outside, now deeply relaxed, I strolled towards the car park which afforded a spectacular view eastwards over the Cordillera Cantabrica stretching out to the horizon and beyond.
That's when it hit me. The realisation, now made visible in distance, that I had walked all that way, as far as the eye could see, choked me with emotion; I didn't bother fighting the tears.
And then came the rain. All the way to Santiago and beyond, only letting up, by divine intervention, it seemed to me, for the last leg of the Camino Finisterre. By then I'd become a member of a camino family, my rapprochement with the way complete: on its terms, obviously. It had adsorbed and assimilated me; I had come to love that which I had, for a while, claimed to despise.
Camino de Santiago 1, Siân Lacey Taylder 0.
Predictably, perhaps, the arrival in Santiago, through low cloud and drizzle, was a disappointment. It was a Saturday, the following day I made my way to the cathedral for the pilgrim mass but there were too many tourists; I cursed them all and made my way to another church and another mass but even that didn't 'work'. It seemed to me that Santiago itself wasn't 'working', not performing, at least in the way I'd anticipated. As it happens I was wrong, landscapes – rural or urban – don't always respond how you'd like them to. And in any case, I had to keep walking …
During the week it took my family and I to complete the pilgrimage, what happened on the Ruta Dragonte, up in the mountains and down in the valley, played constantly on my mind. As I knelt down to pray, privately, in a corner of the cathedral in Santiago I even implored spiritual guidance to try to make sense of it. But even the Virgin Mary kept schtum. I took her silence as an affirmation; if I wanted to explore the phenomenon further I'd have to return to academia.
If it would have me ...
1 Pilgrims spending the night at the Ermita de San Nicolas, Itero de Castillo, have their feet washed and kissed by the hospitalero.
2 John Brierley: A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino De Santiago, Findhorn Press (2009)