Locals walk Medieval pilgrimage trail

ADDISON COUNTY — Pilgrims have been journeying to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, for over a thousand years. This past summer, a handful of local travelers were among the hundreds of thousands estimated to have walked some part of the “Way of Saint James” pilgrimage in 2016 alone.
Several of these Vermonters will discuss their experiences on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route (or simply the “Camino”) at Bristol’s Lawrence Memorial Library this Thursday at 7 p.m.
The “Camino” was popularized for many Americans by the 2010 film “The Way” starring Martin Sheen. In the film, Sheen’s character travels the most-well-worn part of the Camino, the footpath from St.-Jean-Pied-di-Port in France near the Spanish border, across the Basque region of Spain and into the Galician town of Santiago de Compostela.
The town, whose name translates as “Saint James of the Field of Stars,” was named for a miraculous vision by a 9th century hermit that led to the discovery, so legend has it, of the tomb of the Apostle James. Whether true miracle, marketing ploy by a clever bishop bent on drumming up more pilgrim trade or a rallying cry in Spain’s battle to wrest the peninsula from Moorish rule — no one can say.
Since at least the year 951, pilgrims from all over Europe have made their way to this spot in northwestern Spain. And in doing so, they have made the Camino not just one path but many, with different branches originating from Portugal, France, Demark, Poland, Germany, Hungary and Italy.
While Medieval pilgrims might have walked to Santiago to, say, buy time out of Purgatory, travelers today hike the Camino for about as many reasons as there are folks on the road.
“You can do this as a tourist or you can do this as a pilgrim, and the two are very different,” said Bristol resident Elissa Cobb, who hiked a portion of the Camino last summer with her husband, David. “Neither is right or wrong or better than the other but it’s a very different experience.
“I’m not so sure that it’s possible to be 100 percent one or the other.”
For Cobb, part of the spiritual journey of the Camino was facing any number of challenges and frustrations — and learning patience.
“It kicked my butt on pretty much every level — physically, emotionally, mentally, culturally — but in a loving way,” she said.
Chief among Cobb’s challenges? Completing the last 30 kilometers on a broken foot.
“I basically built my own cast with adhesive tape,” Cobb said off-handedly.
Because of health-related dietary restrictions, she also had to find a way to subsist on three dishes: french fries, tortilla Española (a kind of potato-egg frittata common in Spain), and salad. Once in Santiago de Compostela itself, Cobb discovered a kind of flourless almond cake.
“I think I devoured like 10 of them within the first 12 hours of getting there,” she laughed.
As on any long walk — be it pilgrimage route or Long Trail — a kind of unspoken camaraderie can develop amongst fellow travelers. In her weeks on the Camino, Cobb crossed paths with everyone from a 99-year-old man who’d hiked the Camino 20 times to a petite woman in skirt and high heels, carrying a pink, polka dot purse and snapping shots from her cellphone.
“The kindness of strangers was overwhelming,” Cobb said, whether it was getting directions or larger acts of generosity.
When the Cobbs arrived late at the Pilgrim Mass in Santiago’s cathedral, sweaty and smelly, they found every seat taken and had to lean against a pillar, broken foot at all. Two young people from Germany turned around, realized Cobb’s predicament and instantly gave up their seats.
Cobb said that for her the power and meaning of the route encompasses all fellow travelers past, present and future.
The Camino is made up “not only of the people walking it at that moment with you, but the people that made the path with their feet before you get there, and the sense of the people that are going to walk it afterward,” she said.
For Hinesburg resident Stevie Spencer, 68, walking the Camino was most of all about spending time with a beloved sister and a dear friend and moving at a slow pace through a lush countryside,
“The landscape was just so gorgeous, and for me if I can be in a spot like that it’s just so rewarding and it just kind of fills you up,” Spencer said.
Spencer first learned about the Camino in an art history class long ago at Syracuse University and had wanted to walk it ever since.
“I love traveling,” said Spencer, who said she’s been to every continent except Antarctica.
True to her art history routes, Spencer said she loved taking in the churches and cathedrals, the broad sweeping vistas of fields, villages and hills; drinking good wine and eating delicious food; and experiencing those kinds of small, unexpected moments that make travel memorable.
One such moment happened near dusk in Santiago. Spencer and friends suddenly looked up to see a murmuration of starlings — a huge flock of chattering birds that wheeled, twisted and turned — soaring together in amazing flight patterns down the street to the cathedral and back.
“They were making all this noise, and then they suddenly stopped,” Spencer said.
Next stop for Spencer? Uganda or Patagonia.
My family, too, hiked the Camino this past summer, but in France, where it’s called by the French name “Chemin St. Jacques.” Four main routes traverse France, and we took a lesser-known feeder route along the base of the Pyrenees that eventually crosses the mountains and connects with the main route to Santiago.
But even here, along such a Camino backwater, the legacy of the Chemin was etched into the landscape, in everything from an assortment of Camino-related UNESCO World Heritage sites to the blue and yellow shell signs that marked our way at street corners, on telephone poles, along cobbled village streets, forest pathways and mountain passes (the cockle shell being the universal symbol of the Way of St. James).
What stands out?
Time spent with my teenage daughters and husband with no distractions.
The radical shift in pace and perception that comes from moving on foot only.
Peeling off sweat-drenched clothes at the end of every day and showering (how did those Medieval pilgrims do this without running water?).
The invisible brotherhood and sisterhood of all those pilgrims who had walked this way before.
The legacy of human history — from the Roman bridges we crossed over many a stream, to the medieval churches where we lit candles, to the stone marker commemorating World War II partisans who led Jews through the mountains and out of Vichy France.
Those small glimpses into someone else’s way of life, when strangers become friends.
The look on our 16-year-old daughter’s face when our hosts-for-the-night offered her her first sip of alcohol ever — in this case, a small glass of homemade fruit liquor.
One evening we landed at a not-very-French-seeming “inn,” where the common Camino crash space looked disconcertingly like the interior of a Green Tortoise bus from back in the day (think Indian prints and lots of mattresses) and where three giant dogs roamed the supper tables very eager for scraps. We met a older woman who had hiked the Camino at least seven times already. Her journey had begun in family tragedy. This year she had started in the snow in Switzerland. The day we met her was the day before her 70th birthday.
She told us that she would always keep walking, that for her the Camino was inexhaustible.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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