In the Footsteps of Pilgrims -- A Balancing Act: Attorney Finds Spain's Soul
by Charles A. (Rick) Riccio
I finally did something I always wanted to do. I made a pilgrimage to Spain to the shrine of Santiago, the great apostle of Christ known in English as Saint James.
Not long ago, I learned of a company that sponsors walking tours. Inquiry disclosed that the walk covered the last part of the route, about 100 miles, (rather than 500 miles if you begin at the French border) and was accompanied by an experienced Spanish-speaking guide. And the groups that made the excursion had reservations in the best hotels or charmingly renovated centuries-old country homes.
Our congenial group met at the Hotel de los Reyes Católicos in León, in northern Spain, on a sunny September day. After a day and night there and a tour of the cathedral, we were off. We were accompanied by Vicki Ward, president of www.walkingtheworld.com. She is fluent in Spanish and a long-time resident of Spain. We were armed with the pilgrim’s credential, i.e., the passport that must be stamped at various points along the route to prove our bona fides, which is the traditional scallop shellworn around the neck to identify ourselves as pilgrims and not merely "tourists." We also carried with us the bordon, the staff to help uncover the stony parts of the path.
In the Middle Ages, the first travelers were a mixed group: simple pilgrims who wished to expiate their sins; knights who had vowed to make the pilgrimage if they survived battle; and priests, bishops and cardinals who wished to crown their religious lives with an outward sign of faith. Of course, there were criminals who had been given the choice of serving many years in a dank dungeon or making a successful completion of the pilgrimage.
On our hike, along a trail that had been in use for a thousand years or more, we met pilgrims from all over Europe. Everyone we met was in good spirits and we used the common greeting, "Buen Camino"—have a safe trip.
Memorable Moments on the Trail
Trudging up the hill to O Cebreiro through drizzle and low-hanging clouds, we came upon a stone chapel built in the year 200 A.D. by Celts. Next to it was a jolly restaurant where we were served the most delicious "tortilla" (a Spanish tortilla is an omelette cooked with potatoes and onions). We met a little old grandmother, no more than five-feet tall, who was glad to take a few moments off from picking mulberries to chat with me and to pose with a toothless grin for a photo. We saw the ancient church in Portomarin being prepared by young women for a wedding at 8 p.m. The reception was held at our hotel and the celebrating went on until 6 a.m., keeping most of our travelling companions awake.
There was also a German couple who had no time to chat and merely shouted "Buen Camino!" and marched off as though wearing seven-league boots.
Then there was the dinner at Mario’s stone house, where he performed the ceremony of the quemada. A large bowl of grappa, wines and fruit were set afire and as they burned, Mario uttered incantations, which were intended to remove all evil thoughts from our minds. We all took turns muttering something as we stirred the quemada. I recited as much as I could remember of the witches scene from MacBeth.
Two Danish ladies told me, to my surprise, that the Danish word for hello is . . . hello!
A herd of cows, beige with soft brown eyes and long eyelashes, were being tended by a teenage girl. She asked if I would like a refreshing drink of milk. I declined and we laughed.
At last, from the view from the summit of Monte Goza we saw the spires of the cathedral at Santiago. The spires thrust themselves up through the morning mist to the diamond-blue Spanish sky.
In Santiago, we were awarded with certificates in the awesome dignity of the cathedral itself. We placed our fingers in the indentations made by countless pilgrims in the Jesse Tree, a marble post. We bent to touch our foreheads to the top of the head of a kneeling Sanitago, the patron saint of Spain.
And as I knelt in silent contemplation before the altar, I thought, of all the countries that I know, Spain is the only one that has a soul.