Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 24, 2022

© Gerald Fitzpatrick

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Hit the road, Jack

Follow in medieval footsteps along the ancient Camino de Santiago in northern Spain

South of the Spanish city of Pamplona, the morning sun was warm on my back. Beside fields bright with canola, I was walking a short stretch of the ancient pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago. The only sound was of a distant cuckoo and the spring sunshine felt so good after a long Canadian winter that I wanted to walk all day.

But as I paused to admire the view, a modern-day pilgrim passed me with a long, easy stride. My own brief masquerade as a pilgrim was over. I would love to have walked further but was destined to see just snatches of the Camino de Santiago (or Way of Saint James) in a one-week journey across northern Spain, tracing the French Way, the most popular of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrims have been travelling the Camino across northern Spain for over 1000 years in their quest for spiritual fulfillment. The path was often dangerous and devout followers sometimes spent months before finally arriving at the shrine of Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

Compostela became venerated as a Christian shrine when what were claimed to be the remains of the apostle James were brought from Judea to Galicia by his disciples. By the 11th century, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all parts of Europe converged annually on the shrine and Compostela came to rival Rome and Jerusalem as a holy city.

Ancient aches, modern comforts

The French Way begins in the snows of the Pyrenees and continues westwards for almost 800 kilometres. Guided by scallop-shell markers, today’s pilgrims follow the ancient route though lush valleys, across the bare Castilian plain, past ancient monasteries and the vineyards of Rioja, and through the cobblestone streets of historic cities.

The annual number of pilgrims is now between 200,000 and 300,000 and in a Holy Year, when the Festival of Saint James (July 25) falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, the numbers can rise to 600,000.

The journey itself is likely the most meaningful part of the experience for most of today's walkers and cyclists, rather than any anticipation of profound spiritual experience at the end of the route. "We’re doing it for the history, the scenery — and just to do it," said Joan Beck (age 67), a self-described "slightly fallen Anglican" from Williams Lake BC who together with her friend, Jola Jarecki, (age 74) an ex-Roman Catholic from Quesnel, BC, decided to tackle the Way of Saint James after hearing on CBC radio the inspiring story of fiddler/composer Oliver Schroer who died of leukemia in July 2008 at age 52.

In 2004, Schroer, with his wife, Elena, and two friends, walked 1000 kilometres of the Camino. Amongst his socks and underwear, he packed his fiddle and a portable recording studio. When Schroer found a church with good acoustics, out came his fiddle and recording equipment. Over the course of two months, Schroer played in 25 of the Romanesque churches of the Camino, each space with its unique sonic character. His story clearly touched a chord with many Canadian listeners.

I had stopped Joan and her friend at random just as they were leaving Burgos, having no idea they were from Canada. She admitted that they hadn’t done a lot of planning, other than trying to get their packs down to size. The two women had already covered 600 kilometres, much of that in France. "We’ve been dropping things off along the way," said Joan with a laugh, "and I’ve managed to lose a few items."

A day or so later, outside the cathedral of León, I chanced upon Joan and Jola again. This time they were in sandals and without their backpacks. Joan took a moment to show me her pilgrim "credentials," a pass-book with the stamps of all the places they had stayed at along the route. "We’re sightseeing today, but tomorrow it’s back to the Camino," she said.

Many of today’s pilgrims don’t feel like enduring what they consider unnecessary hardships and alternate between staying at hostels and hotels. Hugh and Helen McPherson from Calgary, again encountered at random, allowed five weeks for the entire trip. "We’re averaging between 18 and 25 kilometres a day, depending on where our accommodation is," said Helen.

But they were passing up the pilgrim hostels. "You don’t sleep too much in those places," said Helen. "Sometimes one room is supposed to be reserved for those who snore and another for those that don’t. But, believe me, everybody snores," she laughed, "So we stay in hotels and take the bus when we need to."

On a hot May morning I walked to the little square in front of the church at Fromista. A tired hiker was sitting on the edge of the fountain soothing his feet in the water, while another barefoot pilgrim hobbled painfully with a bandage on one foot. "An infection," he said with a shrug. The brightly clad cyclists nearby were having an easier time of it, relaxing on a shady patio with cold beers: I couldn’t help feeling that the real pilgrims are the ones with the sore feet. As for the man I saw in a wheelchair — a distinctive new breed of pilgrim — grinding up a hill a long way from Compostela I am still speechless.

Incense and inspiration

I awoke on the last morning of my journey to a heavy mist. But now the pilgrims knew the end of their journey was in sight and seemed to have renewed energy as they tackled the last dozen or so kilometres of the Camino.

When I finally reached Compostela, the great plaza in front of the cathedral was alive with people, the pilgrims among them exhausted but triumphant. One group lay on the cobbles, heads on backpacks, gazing up at the cathedral façade.

As I entered the cathedral the celebration of a special mass was just ending. Hundreds of people stood packed to the doors while pilgrims with backpacks sat on the floor and others jostled to get a better view of the spectacular event which since 1604 has closed special celebrations of mass in the cathedral: the swinging of the huge incense burner called the botafumeiro.

The massive censer, weighing over 50 kilograms, is carried to the crossing of the cathedral where two thick ropes hang down from pulleys set high above the nave. The censer is tied to one of the ropes as incense begins to drift back over the altar. Then eight red-coated church attendants start to pull and the burner begins to swing in a gentle arc. Each pull swings it higher and higher.

Sparks fly from the glowing charcoal as the censer hurtles over the heads of the congregation and soars to the very top of the transept. Pausing for an instant, it plunges downwards in a cloud of incense. Again and again the botafumeiro repeats its huge arc until the burner slows to a stop and the astonishing ceremony is over.

As the church emptied, I saw again the range of people, old and young, who take on the daunting challenge of the Camino. One of them was Luigi Cianti from Rome. His companion, Maria, explained that Luigi had been a successful businessman who some years ago had given his wealth to the poor. He had apparently walked the Camino more than 30 times — and pulled up his pants to show the muscles in his legs.

Luigi proudly showed off the press clippings, sealed in plastic, describing his achievements, but I didn’t feel the spirit of the Camino as much as when I encountered another man pausing before entering the cathedral.

I felt guilty disturbing the private reverie of Mario Coste, but he smiled kindly in response to my questions. Mario had walked over 800 kilometres from France, covering 30 kilometres a day. I asked what it felt like to finally be in Santiago. "I simply feel like crying," he said. For Mario the Camino was very much a spiritual experience. "I am doing it to honour my father," he said softly. "And I’m going on to Portugal to the village where I was born."

As I wished Mario "Buen camino," the traditional greeting of those who meet on the Way, I felt perhaps I understood just a little of what this special journey means to some people. But then, flashing through my mind, came the image of that man in the wheel chair toiling up a hill far from Santiago. Perhaps I didn’t really understand at all.

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