One (Mis)Step at a Time
I can’t find the ticket counter.
On top of that, I’ve slept for maybe forty-five minutes in the last thirty hours. Forget finding a ticket counter, I can barely find my hands.
My girlfriend, Stephanie, and I are lying on a concrete bench in the Austerlitz Train Station in Paris, or as Steph calls it, “Auschwitz” Train Station. Getting this far has been tough – lost luggage, a missed train – but Steph’s accidental rechristening of the train station reminds me things can always be worse.
I knew this wasn’t going to be a typical vacation. When Stephanie approached me about walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage crossing northern Spain, I had more questions than I could count, not the least of which was “Why on earth would I want to do that?”
The Pyrenees and Julie Andrews
“Traveling is just hurrying to get to the next place you have to wait.”
Or so says the burly German pilgrim (with equally burly nose pores). The Pyrenees, with their rolling green peaks, look as though they’re straight out of The Sound of Music. Inspired, Steph does her best Julie Andrews impression: “The hills are ali-i-i-i-ve with the sound of mewzi-i-i-i-k.”
We reach Roncesvalles after seven hours of walking. The small village contains only a handful of buildings surrounded by trees and mountains as far as the eye can see.
At some point we crossed the border into Spain, I never saw a border marker of any sort, and I feel slightly ripped off. Where’s the border crossing photo op? Where’s the sign warning you of the photo op? Where’s the photo-op information center? Already Spain is proving to be very un-American.
Cola-Cao, wine, water
Once other pilgrims start stirring, it’s time to get up. There’s no way you can sleep in when dozens of other pilgrims are zipping and unzipping their backpacks, rifling through their possessions, and splashing their headlamps across the walls and ceiling like manic spotlights.
We eat a typical breakfast of bread with jam, yogurt, and Cola-Cao (think European Nesquik) and leave our hostel the city of Estella behind us, searching for a rumored wine fountain along the pilgrim route somewhere in the hills north of town.
After an hour of walking groggily through the early morning dark, we stumble straight into it: the Fuente del Vino – the Fountain of Wine.
The small miracle of a free wine fountain immediately perks us up. Forget that it’s seven in the morning. Forget that it’s still dark and I can see my breath rising in front of my face through the yellow light of my headlamp. We’ve hit the jackpot.
I tip my water bottle, emptying the water onto the cobblestones at the base of the fountain. I pull back the silver tap like a slot machine and dark wine gurgles into my bottle.
It doesn’t even matter when the wine tastes gritty, like it’s been ageing in a concrete tomb instead of a barrel. Asking for the wine to taste as heavenly as the rest of the wine in the Rioja region of Spain would be asking far too much. It’s a free wine fountain, and that’s good enough for me.
After a few more sips, I dump out the remaining wine and refill the bottle with a more practical pilgrim’s drink: water.
Boring, non-alcoholic water.
plaza, parade, horse-sized dogs
In León Steph and I take a break from the shower-sharing, bunk-bedding life of a pilgrim and get a private room. The room has a terrace with a string of red flowers hugging the railing that overlooks the Plaza de San Isidoro.
Before heading out to find dinner, Stephanie peaks out the window and notices that the people milling in the plaza below are beginning to form patterns. As the sky dims and the lights of León t
ake over, the grouping continues until the plaza is ringed by onlookers.
We hear the drums before the parade comes into view. Minutes later, the procession appears – a reenactment of the coronation of King Alphoso IX. Men in chain mail on horses, women in layered lampshade dresses, and mastiffs so oversized they look unreal.
Finally, rows of drummers appear at the rear. The noise from the drums swells rapidly as they spill row by row into the plaza. The medieval procession continues through the plaza and past our window out of sight.
Mouths agape and bored looking, the mastiffs lumber by, followed by horses with a barely discernable size advantage. The drummers chase them out of view, their drums fading; an echoing, ominous thud. If the plaza had a Starbucks, the ambiance might not have felt as authentic. As it is, we had the perfect view.
Ravenous from putting off dinner, we step out into the dispersing crowd and hunt for a restaurant.
Candyland, Brazil, Oregon
We leave Cacabelos to wet pavement and threatening skies.
As we climb out of the valley the sun rises and the clouds part just enough to give us a view from Cacabelos back to Ponferrada and its lone skyscraper stacked haphazardly like children’s blocks.
A rainbow appears in front of us on the vineyard-covered hills and the scent of licorice root is in the air. Even the cow-pies dotting the path are starting to resemble some delectable chocolaty treat.
“Are we playing a grueling version of Candyland?” I ask Steph. She just looks at me like I’m crazy, which I probably am. Or maybe the trees peppering the hills in the distance mark the beginning of the gumdrop forest.
The rainbow eventually disappears but the clouds and the smell of licorice follow us all day.
The rain finally hits as we’re sitting down to dinner at Brazilian-ran hostel. The pilgrims pause momentarily, ears cocked to the growing roar of the downpour. Soon everyone is on their feet, running outside to rescue the clothes that had been drying on the clothesline.
Everyone returns giggling, and the multilingual chatter around the stout wooden table is animated. A different sound can be heard over the deluge outside; water is trickling close by. I look up and the back wall of the hostel is weeping.
Again all the pilgrims rise and hurry to relieve the wall of its various Brazilian paintings, masks, and decorations before the water ruins them. Everyone is laughing and wet and I smile and think for the first time of home.
We reach the cathedral in Santiago before the noon mass. The yellow mold and dark grime on the façade gives the cathedral ancient, almost mystical quality that makes me think of a temple from an Indiana Jones movie.
The plaza outside the cathedral is noisy. Pilgrims and tourists crowd the square and there is already a line for mass zigzagging down the stone steps of the front entrance.
Steph and I take a cursory tour of the cathedral, including the dubious tomb of the pilgrimage’s namesake, St. James, before escaping from the Sunday morning throng and heading to the pilgrim’s office to pick up our compostelas – a certificate verifying that we completed the journey on foot.
We display our pilgrim’s passports, which are filled with stamps from each hostel we stayed in, and are handed a piece of paper that reminds me of my high school diploma (though I think I’m more proud of having earned the compostela).
Once I have the certificate, all I can think about is rest. What it means to finally complete a 500-mile pilgrimage can catch up with me later – after a nap, and maybe over a glass of wine.
Where is that damn ticket counter?
Our lack of French comprehension skills leaves the information booth attendant befuddled. It has been three hours since our search for train tickets began. Steph and I return to our concrete bench defeated.
I’m sitting with my head held low in defeat when I see the footprints.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I mumble. “Steph, look down.”
Steph bursts out laughing.
There they are. Footprints painted fire truck red and inscribed with the word billets – tickets. The footprints lead us directly to the ticket counter, which is located conveniently in the largest, most obvious room in the train station – a room that we somehow avoided during our hours long search.
Only half kidding, I ask Steph how we’re going to follow a trail 500 miles through Spain when we can’t follow childproof red footprints.
“Well,” Steph counters. “No matter what happens I’m sure as hell making it to that free wine fountain.”