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.