I thought the Camino had eluded me this year.
The urge to climb high and view the world from Scottish peaks and sleep in green corrie campsites filled my head and heart all spring and summer. It absorbed every scrap of my energy and enthusiasm – and a lot of time when I should really have been working.
And yet. And yet.
Triggered by photographs, long shadows on walls or roads and contact with pilgrim friends on three continents, El Camino has lurked and tugged at my imagination. It’s three years since I first set foot on the Way from St Jean Pied de Port and there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t reflected on that journey, the people I met and the mark it made on my life.
And now, almost without warning, my backpack is loaded and my heather-scratched boots are patiently waiting at the door. My passport and guidebook are laid out on the table and the departure for my pilgrimage in the footsteps of St James is imminent.
This time I’ll walk along the camino portugués, along the route reputedly walked by Sant Iago himself when he first preached his gospel. Poignantly it’s also the way his body was carried back to be buried in the site now known as Santiago de Compostella.
I’m hoping for a Buen Camino.
It was Sunday afternoon and León was alive and bustling with bicycles, the streets clogged with wheels inexpertly manned by helmeted tiny children, fussing parents, old grannies – cyclists of all ages, ready for the off on an outing, or race of sorts. There was a great sense of excitement and fiesta and we found it hard to find a way through – or find a way at all actually – to the Santa María de Carbajalas Convent where we were segregated for the first time. Men to one side, women to the other.
It wasn’t late and Richard and I had walked only 25km or so but I was totally whacked when I arrived, lying down on my narrow bunk by the window and closing my eyes just the way I was: sweaty, dusty, exhausted, drained. Finally I had a shower, changed into clean clothes and wandered wearily into the street to find a table at a café where I sipped a sedate vino tinto and just watched the weekend city world wander by.
Finally I explored a little and found León Cathedral, a beautiful 13th century gothic structure that was satisfyingly simple. My German friend Andreas turned up as I sat admiring it on a bench outside and we walked round together listening to audio guides in different languages. The original architecture had been fundamentally flawed and the cathedral had gone through some hair-raising remedial work in the 18th century when its very survival was at stake. What I found fascinating about this building was that only 5000 people lived in León at the time of the original construction yet they were able to fund such an ambitious project. There’s an statue of a pregnant virgin Mary here too, which isn’t something you see too often!
Andreas claimed he knew a great tapas bar at the other end of town so we plodded off there, down endless streets (and past countless other tapa bars!) only to discover it was closed. So we sat down at the neighbouring one, drank wine, ate delicious “tapas variados” and communicated surprisingly well for the rest of the evening considering I can’t speak german and he has limited english! The wine undoubtedly eased translation.
It had been a great day. I had forgotten my exhaustion and weariness and lay down in my bunk that night believing I could tackle the exceptionally long haul the next day if I was going to catch up with other friends many, many miles ahead.
Morning would tell.