Pilgrim's Progress in Northern Spain
Published: April 2009
By Mike Guy
High-tech innovation—computer-controlled traffic, solar trash cans, a new Frank Gehry building—greets the faithful along Spain's Camino de Santiago.
Many people start a pilgrimage with a prayer. I start mine with a croissant.
It's sunrise in Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain. Pastries and coffee in hand, I walk down to the beach with my girlfriend, Katya, as lights along the boardwalk are flicking off. The strand is empty except for a man waving a metal detector over the sand. It seems the entire city was up late last night like us, eating pintxos (Basque tapas), drinking wine, and toasting the beginning of the Camino de Santiago, a 900-year-old, 500-mile journey, usually taken on foot, to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are said to be buried. Katya and I have little interest in sacred relics—she's a Russian skeptic and I haven't been to church since the first Bush administration. But there's something about the tens of thousands of pilgrims that stirs my own inquisitive nature. Many walk to Santiago for religious reasons—the grueling journey to the saint's tomb recalls the ordeals of Christian martyrs—while others follow the trail to satisfy their curiosity. I want to see the route that's inspired such devotion. I also want to see how a part of the country I once called home for more than a year (Katya and I lived in Barcelona but never ventured west of San Sebastián) has adapted to the 21st century.
We eat our breakfast at the shore. As the sun warms the sand, we walk to the water's edge, splashing our bare feet in the tepid sea as a sort of benediction, our heathen equivalent of the pilgrims' blessing of their walking sticks. Then we head back into town to pick up our rental Renault and drive southwest toward the town of Estella. It's only 8 a.m., but the temperature is already 90 degrees. Katya rolls up the windows and turns on the air conditioner. "Don't you think it's a little early to start suffering?" she asks.
You might say a trip on the Camino de Santiago was the first package tour in Europe. Instead of buses, however, there are worn sandals and backpacks; instead of tour guides, pilgrims rely on one another as they walk a well-traveled path across mountains and heat-blasted plains, through rolling fields of sunflowers and wheat, and along empty streets lined with graffiti that pre-dates much of the brutal regime of Francisco Franco.
At about noon, we're on the outskirts of Estella, driving past donkey carts, goat herds, and hordes of pilgrims, or peregrinos. They are easy to spot: peregrinos carry walking sticks and wear necklaces with scallop shells, the universal symbol of Saint James. In the past 10 years, arrivals at the Santiago cathedral rose from just under 10,000 to more than 70,000, mostly from the United States, England, France, and Italy, as well as China, Japan, and even India. Some, like us, begin in San Sebastián, but most start at St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, just over the border. They walk all day, stopping at night at monasteries and ermitas, or hermitages, for a free meal and a cot. By the time they reach Estella in the province of Navarra, the peregrinos have spent a week descending from the 3,300-foot pass at the French border and have started to fray around the edges. Several are stooped, many are limping, and almost all are sunburned—the midday heat is torturous.
We park the car near the Plaza de Santiago and find a tidy café. Over ajoarriero, a dish of cod, garlic, and peppers, and iced café con leche, I flip through the guidebook section of the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus, believed to have been compiled by a monk from Poitiers, France. He describes the people of Estella's province as "...full of malice, swarthy of complexion, ugly of appearance, depraved, perverse, despicable..." (For the record, the Navarrese aren't any of those things, at least not the ones we met.) A French peregrino spots the Codex and stops at our table. "That monk was a bitter old man," he says, "but I doubt I'd stay in this town either."
When we finish our meal, we return to the car. Katya flips on the air conditioner once again, and I thread the Renault out of town to the N111, a winding, one-lane highway topped with crumbling asphalt that runs approximately parallel to the Camino de Santiago. Today's traffic is much thicker than we would have imagined for such a rural area.
The best way to tell the true character of a nation, in my opinion, is by watching its citizens drive. Americans are generally polite, for instance, but they hog the road and often fly into a rage at the slightest provocation.
The Spanish, from my experience, are proud drivers and hate being passed more than anything else, yet they often plod along at a maddeningly slow, deliberate pace (perhaps it's the institutional memory of less prosperous times under Franco, when gas was scarce and they had time on their hands).
We pass into Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, in the late afternoon. A friend of ours, who has walked part of the Camino, says there's a shiny, modern heart to this city of 128,000, but after wandering its deserted streets, I'm not convinced it exists. The siesta was over hours ago, and a ghost-town quality still lingers. Then we hear the thump of deep house music through a line of low-slung linden trees across an empty esplanade. We follow the sound to Las Cubanas, a futuristic turquoise-and-chrome club, where the Armani-clad manager, a Madrid native named Antonio, offers us an iced tea. It's tempting to stay until dusk and watch the city come alive, but I want to visit the site of the new Frank Gehry building in Elciego, 10 miles away, before nightfall.
So we drive northwest out of Logroño, passing through a village called Cenicero (which apparently means "ashtray"), and turn north on a smooth route that winds between interlacing foothills. Just off the shoulder, gnarled grapevines seem to cover every inch of land.
The village of Elciego ("the blind one") is built on a hill in the middle of a fertile plain. The well-kept Marqués de Riscal vineyards rush up an opposing hillside, with Gehry's massive titanium waves shimmering in between. One hundred and fifty years ago, the reputation of the Rioja wine region was "teetering" among oenophiles, according to one wine critic. Then the Marqués de Riscal, a wealthy epicurean living in Bordeaux, arrived and single-handedly revived the local wine industry. He planted French grapes—sacrilege to many proud Riojans—retooled the fermentation process, and aged the wine in small barrels of new oak rather than the large, recycled barrels then in widespread use throughout Spain. De Riscal's enhancements were so profitable through the years that La Rioja today might be compared to the Silicon Valley in 1998. If a Riojan isn't growing grapes or bottling wine, he or she is blowing glass, building casks, or printing labels.
We pull into the Marqués de Riscal and are greeted by Alejandro Aznar, the vineyard's dapper president, who gives us a quick tour of the grounds and the site of the new Frank Gehry-designed headquarters and hotel (not a stop on the pilgrimage route, but I couldn't resist). When completed in 2005, the structure will form an architectural troika with Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao and José Rafael Moneo'sbold Kursaal Center in San Sebastián. Construction workersare sheathing the building in 95,000 square feet of undulating titanium. "The metal will reflect the colors of a bottle of red wine," Aznar explains. "You have the pink, which is the wine, and the silver is the foil covering the cork. Finally, the gold is the color of the wire around the foil."
We leave Elciego and get back on the Camino, meandering through Castilla y León, Spain's largest region, until we reach the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada at sunset. We find a small restaurant called El Mesón del Abuelo, with family-style banquet tables set on the Plaza Alameda. Much of the food along the pilgrim route is a selection of heavy, almost medieval chops and stews. Tonight, I have buttery chuletas de cordero (grilled lamb chops) with white asparagus, while Katya chooses sopa de caviar de trucha, a trout stew. Locals, happy for the night's coolness, spill from the dark streets to the fountain on the lighted plaza. A handful of pilgrims drink beer at an adjoining table; two of them soon fall asleep, and we watch as the others carry them away.
Burgos, just 40 miles up the road, is where we'll spend the night. As we drive through the dark, we stop to pick up a hobbling peregrino. Philippe, a Frenchman in his sixties, has a twisted ankle. Would other pilgrims consider hitchhiking to be cheating?"We're like brothers, or soldiers in an army," he says. "If I say, 'Oh, it's too hard to go on,' a brother picks me up. Like you two—you picked me up when I needed help."
After dropping off Philippe, we arrive at La Puebla, a tiny, angular hotel in Burgos. Three chic Spanish women in Prada are in the lobby, flipping through L'Uomo Vogue as the concierge makes dinner reservations for them. I'm grimy and sweaty, even though we've been in the car most of the day. In our soothing beige cave of a room, Katya collapses on a chaise longue. I stand in front of the air conditioner as I surf TV channels and plug my laptop into a high-speed port. Such amenities seem decadent after a day on the Camino.
In the morning, we skirt the pilgrims' trail through small villages such as Carrión de los Condes and Sahagún. The heat is even more oppressive here. Just before sunset we arrive in the pulsating city of León. Cafés are jammed with university students deep in discussion. One street broadcasts hip-hop, another a felicitous cello. At night, thousands fill the square; well-dressed couples nuzzle under the light of the cathedral, Santa María de la Regla, and wait until midnight, when the stained-glass windows are illuminated. Katya wants to dance, so I interrupt an urbane man and woman on the steps and ask them where we should go. They cheerfully lead us down a winding alley into the Barrio Húmedo, where we push through crowds of students to a dimly lit club called La Paloma. As Katya dances with our new friends, I spot two peregrinos sitting outside and bring them each a beer. "If only I had the energy to dance," laments a Spaniard from Marbella. "I'm missing the twenty-first century."
The next morning, Katya takes the wheel as we drive on back roads in the Ulla River Valley on the way to Santiago. In the alpine village of Molinaseca, Katya cools off in a frigid river with a busful of Italian tourists. Approaching Santiago, the traffic slows to near gridlock. Katya relents, and we park on the town's outskirts. Santiago de Compostela is a maze of dark granite that seems to spin off into curlicues. Along the ancient sidewalks are touches of tomorrow. Garbage cans have solar cells for refrigeration, cutting down on the smell (a small miracle in this heat). Traffic flows smoothly within city limits, thanks to computer-controlled traffic lights. The twisted glass-and-stone City of Culture, Santiago's new $125 million arts complex designed by American architect Peter Eisenman, shines from a nearby hill.
Despite all the technological advances, the city's nexus is the looming Catedral de Santiago. Originally constructed in the ninth century, supposedly atop the tomb of Saint James, the cathedral has been rebuilt so many times over the years that it is a hodgepodge of design, with styles that range from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque.
As we walk toward the giant cathedral, giddy peregrinos stride quickly past us. So close to completing their act of devotion, some abandon their backpacks on the sidewalk to get there faster. They pack the nave, dancing ecstatically on blistered feet. A few even break pews in their fervor. We leave a crate of bottled water for the exhausted faithful—at night, the steps outside become crowded with sleeping pilgrims—and walk back to our hotel, the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos. The peregrinos may be blessed, but tonight we sleep in a bed.
MIKE GUY writes for Rolling Stone, GQ, and Men's Journal.
Day 1 125 miles
Begin in San Sebastián, driving to Estella via the Sierra de Aralar range. Turn left on the N111, stopping in Logroño, andthen take the N120 to Santo Domingo de la Calzada for the night.
Day 2 80 miles
Double back on the N120 before taking a left on C113 to the Marqués de Riscal vineyard in Elciego. Head to Burgos on the N120.
Day 3 135 miles
Follow the pilgrim route through Carrión de los Condes and Sahagún. Pick up the N601 into León.
Day 4 200 miles
Return to the N120 and take it as far as Astorga, and then follow the winding LE142 to Molinaseca. Take country roads along the pilgrim trail right into Santiago de Compostela.
WHERE TO STAY
Hostal de los Reyes Católicos
This hotel, once a 13th-century hospital, is next to Santiago's cathedral. DOUBLES FROM $245. PRAZA DEL OBRADOIRO, SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA; 34-981/582-200
Hotel La Puebla
DOUBLES FROM $105. 20 CALLE LA PUEBLA, BURGOS; 34-947/200-011; www.hotellapuebla.com
Hostal Guzmán El Bueno
DOUBLES FROM $53. 6 CALLE LÓPEZ CASTRILLON, LEON; 34-987/236-412
An ermita run by a gaggle of kindly Cistercian nuns. DOUBLES FROM $50. 2 CALLE PINAR, SANTO DOMINGO DE LA CALZADA; 34-941/340-700
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurante El Llar
DINNER FOR TWO $42. 9 PLAZA SAN MARTIN, LEON; 34-987/254-287
El Mesón del Abuelo
DINNER FOR TWO $84. 7 PLAZA ALAMEDA, SANTO DOMINGO DE LA CALZADA; 34-941/342-791
WHAT TO SEE
Marqués de Riscal Vineyard
CALLE TORREA, ELCIEGO; 34-945/606-000; www.marquesderiscal.com
Catedral de Santiago
Tours of the cathedral's crypt and museum, which house numerous Romanesque and Gothic artifacts, cost $6. PRAZA DE INMACULADA, SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA; www.archicompostela.org