Walking el Camino de Santiago

Photo by Peter Coffman

By Pamela Steel

It’s a long walk.

And those who have taken it say it’s life changing.

Several Huntsville residents have walked the up-to-1,000-km pilgrim’s journey through France and Spain, the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James.

The Camino is made up of pilgrimage routes throughout Europe that all lead to the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.

The trails are ancient, some more than a thousand years old.

It begins on one side of the Pyrenees Mountains and passes through Pamplona, Burgos and León on its way to Santiago. There is a legend that one of the Jesus’ apostles, St. James the Elder was buried in the cathedral city. In medieval times it was one of the big three pilgrimages, along with Jerusalem and Rome.

Huntsville’s Suzanne Riverin was inspired by the Camino. For years she had been interested in travelling to Europe to search for cairns and dolmens.

“I have always been interested in tracing the myths and rituals of past centuries and when I heard about the Camino something in my soul felt a tug,” she said. “I suddenly desperately wanted to walk along a path shared by so many others, for so many years and for so many reasons.”

With a group of friends, she spent a week walking the last 100 kilometres of the trail from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. She said the preparation for the walk brought the group together.

“We walked and walked and walked all winter and spring as we knew that a few days on the Camino would involve many kilometres of walking,” she said.

One of the highlights of the walk for her was being present in the cathedral at Santiago when they swung the “Botafumeiro.” She called it humbling and amazing.

The 700-year-old custom has red-robed monks swing the largest incense burner in the world over a crossing. It swings at speeds of 80 km/h, choking out clouds of incense in its wake.

***

Martina Shroer of the Concert Association of Huntsville recently took part in the Reel Alternatives’ film festival showing of The Way, a film about one man’s walk on the Camino.

She read from her brother’s journal, written in 2004 when he did the pilgrimage. Oliver Shroer was a world-renowned fiddler/composer who died from leukemia at age 52 in 2008.

Music from his CD, Camino, which was composed and recorded in the ancient churches along the trail, was played before the movie.

In May 2004, Schroer started on his trek, an adventure of the soul, of music and of really sore feet. Over two months, with three companions, he walked the ancient pilgrim trail that meanders across France and Spain. In the footsteps of medieval pilgrims, Schroer composed and recorded hauntingly beautiful songs that his sister Martina said captured his soul.

Her love for her brother is obvious, and she beams when she talks about his life and his music. In particular Camino.

“It is Oli,” she said of the music he recorded on the trek.

“In my backpack, I carried my violin like a wooden chalice, like my own precious relic, carefully packed in its reliquary of socks and underwear and waiting to work a miracle. My pack also contained a portable recording studio,” wrote Shroer.

The journal Shroer posted during his walk can be read on his website at olivershroer.com.

On Day 10 of the walk, Shroer posted in his journal.

“The alternate name of this walk could be The Phenomenology of Pain. Every day, something else hurts terribly. The most critical thing is of course the feet and the knees. You could say this is two months of showing your legs who is the boss (turns out they are!). In any case, we have got into a routine of getting up around 6 or 7 in the morning and walking about 20 kilometres or so before we find a pilgrims’ hostel (called a gite), and collapse for a wee rest,” he said.

Later in the post he talks about his first chance to play in one of the churches along the route, in the medieval town of Conques, France.

“After people started leaving, we decided to get my fiddle and the recording gear and to try to sneak in. Remarkably, the doors were open and no one was there. It was 10 p.m. I set up the recording gear and I played for an hour in the candlelit church. The audience was my three travel companions and many dimly lit saints. It was pure magic. I was not just playing my violin in this church; I was playing the church itself with my violin. It felt like the largest instrument I had ever played. Playing a note was like sounding a gong. The sound bloomed out of the first attack, and then subsided only slowly. My violin filled that place remarkably.”

In 2006, Schroer brought his Camino music to Huntsville as part of a multimedia presentation.

***

Retired Huntsville teacher Kirsty Williamson did the walk with her 33-year-old son Joshua Fahey in spring of 2006.

The camino kept presenting itself to Williamson, in books and articles she happened upon. She worked at the Bookcase bookstore in Huntsville at the time and Judy Ruan was the owner. The women started to seriously contemplate the long walk.

While they both ended up making the pilgrimage, they went at different times; Ruan went with a friend in the fall and Williamson with her son the following spring.

“I went in 2005 and walked from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to the end,” said Ruan. “It took 31 days and was a marvelous experience… not easy for sure, but a lesson in living simply and appreciating the basics of life… a bed at night, a good meal and a hot shower.”

She said the “bed” was often a piece of plywood on an old iron spring on the floor of a cement block building with one side open to the pouring rain and a “good meal” might only be bread and cheese.

“And hot showers were just a fantasy!”

Williamson and Fahey flew to Paris and also began their 800-km journey in Saint-Jean-John-Pied-de-Port – where many people start. They registered as pilgrims on April 27 and finished the walk in Santiago on May 30.

“For us it was an amazing experience,” said Williamson, adding that she learned to take things one day at a time.

She and her son walked together, but as they met other pilgrims on the way, they would break off and have separate conversations. At the end of the day they would meet in a pub for a beer and stay at the same refugio.

The refugios are pilgrim hostels, where people sometimes stay 100 to a room, and that cost around two to eight euros a night.

It was a bonding experience for mother and son.

They averaged about 25 kilometres a day, but on the first day they walked 42 kilometers because they got lost.

“There were moments when we went, oh my gosh, nobody’s going to find us,” said Williamson. But they came upon a farmhouse and with broken French were able to communicate well enough to get a ride back to the Camino.

“After that, we no longer feared getting lost,” she said.

The hardships of the road were mostly feet-related, and blisters and sore feet are to be expected.

And then there’s the snoring. Sleeping on rustic cots in a large room with a hundred pilgrims can be a noisy endeavour.

“At first the snoring was part of the adventure, but by the end I was poking people,” said Williamson.

When they got to the end of the long walk, Williamson said she didn’t want to stop.

“I wanted to keep walking. For me it sat there for quite some time afterwards. Not that it wasn’t exhausting.”

She decided after the Camino that the only way she wants to see a country is to walk across it.

Since then she has walked across England, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and hiked through Iceland. And at the end of August she plans to take on Italy, walking the Cinq Terre – a path between five villages strung along 18 kilometres of serrated cliffs.

 

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