Pastor follows steps of thousand-year pilgrimage

Lydia walks past fields of grain on her way to a medieval village. (photo by Mark and Lydia Brown)

Lydia sits beside pilgrim statues in Mansilla (photo by Mark and Lydia Brown)

Lydia hikes on a rugged stretch of the Camino. (photo by Mark and Lydia Brown)

El Molino is a rural guest house near Leon where Lydia and Mark spent the night and the cast of “The Way ” stayed. (photo by Mark and Lydia Brown)

Mark and Lydia display one of their pilgrim’s passports with stamps for every stop on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. (photo by Pamela O’Meara/Review)

This pilgrim’s stamp from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela shows completion of the Camino. (photo by Pamela O’Meara/Review)

This stamp is from the beginning of the Camino. (photo by Pamela O’Meara/Review)

This shell, a symbol of the Camino, is carried on pilgrim’s backpacks and found on signs along the course. (photo by Pamela O’Meara/Review)

Camino de Santiago offers intimate look at Spain

From the windy, lonely hills of the Pyrenees to the narrow Pamplona streets and through villages, poppy fields and farms across northern Spain, pilgrims with walking sticks and packs hike along the Camino de Santiago -- the Way of St. James. Their destination is Santiago de Compostela, where legend says the remains of St. James are buried. A magnificent cathedral was built on the site in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The steps of pilgrims stretch back unbroken to the 800s; reportedly the pilgrimages continued through the centuries, although with fewer people, even during wartime.

On my recent trip to Pamplona, a major city on the Camino, I saw pilgrims of all ages. Motivated by their faith, a desire to do penance or an interest in testing their endurance while seeing the country on foot, more than 100,000 hikers a year make their way to Compostela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some walk the whole route at once; others walk a few weeks at a time.

The Rev. Lydia Brown and her husband Mark of North Oaks spent five weeks in 2011 walking 500 miles to Compostela.

“The reasons I wanted to walk it included the physical challenge, history of the Camino and the cultural-linguistic interest,” said Lydia, 58 and rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Sunfish Lake. She did the trip on a 20-week sabbatical with a grant from the Lily Endowment’s clergy renewal program, persuading Mark, 57, a bioengineer and research scientist with Medtronic, to go along. It was something Lydia, a grandmother of five, had long thought about doing.

Grueling beginning

After months of research, the Browns flew to Paris and then took trains and buses to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, where they embarked on the most popular of many roads leading to Compostela. They averaged 15 miles a day.

Lydia said the first day was grueling as they ascended over a mile through the Pyrenees to Spain. Their second night was spent in Roncesvalles and third in Pamplona, where they ate at Cafe Iruña, made famous by Ernest Hemingway.

I could picture their location because my trip included a short drive on that very remote, windswept area between Roncesvalles and Pamplona. Like the Browns I stopped at Casa Sabina in Roncesvalles for a pilgrim’s lunch of garbanzo soup with ham, lamb stew, almond cake and wine and also had dinner one night at Cafe Iruña.

Along with tired muscles and sore feet came welcome peace and solitude, as they followed narrow dirt paths and found themselves relatively isolated from other walkers.

“It takes a while to escape being in a fast-paced world and to relax and know you won’t have any interruptions,” Mark said. “It’s a long walk that you just take one day at a time.”

The daily routine

Each day Lydia and Mark would start walking about 7 or 7:30 a.m. and finish between 1 and 4 p.m.

They carried along both ancient and modern symbols of the pilgrim: a scallop shell, the historic symbol of the Camino, and a “pilgrim’s passport,” which was stamped in each town to prove they earned their certificate of completion at the end of the walk. They’d walk alone or meet people along the way and travel together for half a day and then meet up with them again later.

Pilgrimages originally began with a few faithful from area towns before their popularity spread into the rest of Europe and England around the turn of the first millennium. Now, they’re an all-ages international attraction. 

“There were people of all ages, even groups of South Korean children with their teachers doing their lessons in the afternoon after hiking,” Lydia said.

Most places to eat along the way served inexpensive pilgrim’s lunches, and one monastery had a free fountain of wine for the “peregrinos,” the Spanish word for pilgrims.

Thanks to the Lily grant, they could stay in private guest houses but most peregrinos stay in inexpensive, often government-run pilgrims’ hostels with rooms lined with bunk beds.

The Browns could plan which town they’d stay in, but often didn’t have an exact address reserved. Toward the end of their trip, as travelers converged on heavily-used routes, they did call ahead.

“In one town there was no place to stay, but a woman walked up to us, saying she had a ‘casa rural’ -- El Molino - outside Leon -- and she took us there. It turned out that Martin Sheen, the star of ‘The Way,’ a movie about the Camino, had stayed there during the filming,” Lydia said, adding that a passage in the movie shows El Molino and their hostess.

Training needed

Though the original pilgrims and most who followed them were probably accustomed to lengthy treks, today’s travelers may want to get into condition before the trip.

Lydia said her legs didn’t have enough strength at first, especially after walking in the mountains. Unlike Mark, a runner already doing 20 to 25 miles a week, she had constant blisters and had to buy bigger hiking shoes along the way. She lost weight and inches but gained muscles in her legs.

She said that after walking 1 1/2 weeks, “It finally dawned on me just how long five weeks of walking was. ... Your whole body gets sore by the end of the day. The weight of my backpack (with minimal clothing) was the least of it.”

Mark added, “We underestimated the difficulties of walking day after day, so we took rest days every few days.”

Poppies, churches and cows

Lydia said the scenery was “stunningly beautiful” and they enjoyed good weather, though occasionally they walked in rain. Red poppies grew all over -- in the fields and along the road, and storks made their distinctive nests on all the tall buildings.

They walked with a lot of cows as cattle were moved from field to field --  half of the route was rural, Lydia said. The temperature varied from the 90s to the high 40s, and every day was an adventure.

Mark said Spain’s strong tradition of faith was evident all along the Camino. They walked through more than 350 villages, each with its own church; big cities had cathedrals dating back centuries.

There were religious services very day for the peregrinos, translated into many languages. Of particular interest to the Browns: paintings of St. Anne, patron saint of Lydia’s parish in Sunfish Lake.

Most days Mark found an Internet café where he could post photos on Facebook. Lydia’s parishioners followed along from St. Anne’s.

Euphoric arrival

After five weeks, they arrived in Compostela, surrounded by like-minded pilgrims both exhausted and exulted to have finally reached their goal.

“It’s very exciting when you get to Compostela. You walk through a tunnel to the cathedral and there are musicians serenading you.” Lydia said. “And there’s a silver box with St. James’ bones and a long line into a crypt to touch his statue.”

Mark added, “The end was exciting because the numbers of walkers mounted and the finish line was within reach after weeks of walking. ... We started seeing all the walkers we had met (along the way). It was a bit like the last day of summer camp -- hugs, warm greetings, exchanging email addresses, taking photos together.”

After all, they were bound by a weeks- and miles-long kinship.

“We had shared the experience,” Mark said. “We had seen each other struggle through the difficult moments.”

The human family

Lydia said the trip reminded her that her world view isn’t the only one. And the walk helped her reclaim the sense of adventure and risk-taking she remembered from her youth.

“Walking with all our possessions on our backs also helped us realize how little we really need, day to day,” she added.

The trek -- and the time to think -- bestowed their own benefits.

“We both became physically very fit, especially me,” Lydia said. “Before I went on sabbatical I was deeply in need of a break. Walking the Camino was a great way to reflect on all aspects of my life.”

Blisters and all, it was a renewing experience -- and one she’d like to try again. The Browns hope to travel the Camino again in a few years, using lighter backpacks, staying in hostels and taking more time for side trips.

Most of all, they hope to forge even more connections with the diverse group of travelers one meets along “the Way.”

“I took away a sense of being connected to a really interesting human family,” Lydia said.

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at or at 651-748-7818.

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