While hiking the Camino de Santiago, I did not write lengthy journal entries. I did, however, jot down a few general impressions. The following is a list of the notations that jumped out at me when I reviewed them back in Wisconsin.
- The villages where we spent our nights were a step back in time. I did not know such places still existed. With a large ancient church in the center of town and roadways too narrow for automobile traffic, I fluctuated between thinking I’d time traveled into the Middle Ages and wondering whether I’d wandered onto a masterfully constructed movie set. My companions and I were too set in our ways (and maybe too well off financially) to stay in the hostel-type housing many pilgrims use, so we enjoyed the comfort of private rooms in simple inns – usually single family dwellings converted into “gîtes” of two or three tiny guest rooms and a bathroom down the hall. On our five-day pilgrimage, I walked up and down more narrow spiral staircases than I had in my previous sixty-seven years.
- The people in the villages were wonderful. Prior to our pilgrimage, Manyu and I had spent a week in Alsace. There I found the waiters and the people working the tourist attractions inhospitable. They were not rude, so much as indifferent. In the villages along the Camino, innkeepers and restaurant staff were friendly and genuinely pleased to have us there. In Conques, we asked for breakfast at 7am instead of the scheduled 7:30. Our time was tight because the van we’d hired to take us back to our starting point (where we’d left our car) was a 10-minute walk away and scheduled to leave at 8:10. Our host was bothered by this change of time, not because he had to get up 30 minutes early to prepare an early breakfast, but because the village’s bakery didn’t open until 7:30. He was embarrassed to serve us breakfast without fresh croissants. He agreed to serve us early only if we stayed long enough for him to run to the bakery and get us a bag of croissants to go.
- We made our pilgrimage just in time. Except for indoor plumbing and electricity, the six villages we visited probably hadn’t changed much in at least five hundred years. My sense is that this is about to change. The first inklings of mass tourism were beginning to show themselves. At Conques, the last village on our itinerary, visitors already were arriving by car rather than by foot. Conques was my favorite village of the entire trip, but the inns and restaurants were beginning to cater to a non-pilgrim clientele. A third of the patrons at the pubs and eateries were not locals, nor did they have the weathered look of someone just off the trail.
- I have no understanding of the devastation of World War I. Every village we stayed at had a memorial listing the names of the townspeople who’d died during World War I. If I had to guess, I’d say these towns had no more than five hundred residents, yet the plaques at the memorials contained anywhere from forty to eighty names. These communities had to have lost an entire generation of young men, and I don’t know how a place would ever recover from something like that.
- I am still capable of extended hikes. Prior to the pilgrimage, I hadn’t gone on a multi-day hike in nearly twenty years. Because of bad knees, my wilderness experiences had shifted from backpacking to backcountry canoeing. Now I realize the problem was not so much hiking for miles on end as hiking for miles on end with a seventy-pound pack on my back. Because we stayed at inns and ate in restaurants, I did not carry a tent, a sleeping bag, cooking gear, or a cache of food. For the first two days, I carried rain gear, lunch, heavy sweaters, a change of clothes for both Manyu and me, bathroom kits, towels, and a journal. Then I found out that for seven Euros a day, a van would shuttle to the next village anything I did not need on the trail. For the last three days, I put my backpack in a van and carried only Manyu’s small daypack. The heaviest thing in the pack was drinking water, and my ninety-pound wife didn’t have to carry anything at all.
The pilgrimage was the highlight of my vacation to France, but immediately afterwards events turned for the worse. That is a story is for next Monday’s blog.