Songs, laughter and friendship: a pilgrimage in Northern Spain
Nancy Thompson sent in this lovely account of a walk along the Camino del Norte, the northern route of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.
Rumi (13th century Sufi)
In May this year, my 13 year old son and I, with two very old friends walked a stretch of the northern route of the Camino de Santiago. We set off with our rucksacks from Santander, to follow the yellow arrows and shell symbols out of town. In total we walked just over 125 kilometres through rain, wind and sun. We walked along roads, past industrial landscapes (at one point alongside a never ending pipeline), over bridges and down tracks.
Then, through the rolling hills of Cantabria with glimpses of the sea towards the mountains of the Picos de Europa and neighbouring mountains of Asturias, before ending our walk at a pretty coastal town called Llanes. We did, at one point, take a sneaky train ride with other pilgrims to avoid a huge detour round a bridgeless river!
Walking in the heat of the day was hard work! Though my son did incredibly well, he does not like the heat. So after coaxing him up a steep hill in the hot sun, with the promise of a rest in the shade of a wood in the next valley, we stopped for a while and took off our backpacks, socks and boots. As we rested I read an excerpt from a book I’d brought with me, written by an American artist about the simple life of the Amish community. One of my friends asked if we’d like her to sing a song she wrote, a song about peace in Arabic, Hebrew and English. It was truly beautiful.
We heard the first cuckoo of the year from the other side of the valley! This was such a delight and made us think of the old English folk song: “Summer is a Coming in”. The most amusing part of our rest that day was plucking blades of grass to blow through, making a reedy “duck” noise. My dear friend Malika played the most remarkable tune on our grass instruments and we fell about in fits of laughter! We ate nuts and drank water and snoozed before continuing down through the most dreamlike valley, past cows with big eyes and horns on their heads, past old churches, smiling kids in a playpark, trees and water pumps, on and on towards gathering rainclouds and a bed for the night in a pilgrim hostel.
Happily, some of the churches and chapels or ‘hermitages’ were not locked, and at these sites we were able to get a stamp for our pilgrim passport and stop to pray, meditate and contemplate our journey. A very precious moment came to us when, at a beautiful old church at the top of a hot hill, we came across a modern ‘hermitage’. Inside was a simple crucifix and two benches to rest on. Someone had written at the foot of the cross: “Pilgrims, what 12 things are you grateful for on your journey to Santiago?”. We each reflected on this and said aloud what we were grateful for: our health, this journey, each other, good food and coffee and much more. Afterwards, I wound a wreath of yellow flowers which I placed on Christ’s head and posted a dandelion flower in the wound on His side. I thanked Him silently for the Camino and for bringing us together. It was a poignant moment for us all.
Another open ‘hermitage’ we came across had stained glass windows and was full of nesting swallows, which swooped over our heads into the cool and peace, where we sat in prayerful repose.
Early on in our journey, we had been lucky enough to find an old wayside church with the doors wide open and being taken care of by the lovely Rosamaria, who offered us refreshments and ushered us inside to sit with the blessed sacrament. She was waiting for the arrival of some flowers for a wedding the next day, and after taking photos of us all together said to my son: “Samson, you are good at being handsome, now you must learn to be strong!”. On our return to Britain, Samson said to me “why did they like me so much in Spain?” We were all touched at the easy friendliness and kindness people showed towards my boy; it is wonderful how children are so cherished by the Spanish.
We had many conversations about faith and religion. We prayed together and read poems to one another. We ranted about past hurts and cried over present wounds both physical and emotional. We laughed (a lot!), sang and were silent. As we walked and talked, we were mindful of Saint Augustine of Hippo’s wise words: “Solvitur ambulando” which means, “It is solved by walking.” It was a healing time for all of us.