For hundreds of years, pilgrims have beaten a path to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, seeking self-awakening and, for many, the experience of a lifetime
Story Dianne Kerwan
Pictures Steve and Marlene Ayling
Wearily they’d trudged into town with their broad-brimmed hats and heavy back packs. Now they cried or lay prostrate in front of the cathedral in Santiago, Spain. In 35 days, the “Camino” pilgrims had walked almost 800km (sometimes more) to view the silver-encrusted casket of St James, the disciple and cousin of Christ.
Intrigued, Steve and Marlene Ayling, who had stopped off in the city while doing a cruise between Cape Town and Southampton, signed up to do the pilgrimage themselves.
The Camino de Santiago or Way of St James is an historic pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of Apostle St James the Great are said to be buried. While this has been a popular Christian pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, people of all faiths have walked a variety of routes to the same destination as a form of spiritual journey.
Made fit by regular 24km hikes up the Giba Gorge from their home, the Aylings restricted themselves to two changes of lightweight clothing each, a compact towel and sleeping bag, some rooibos tea and slops for relaxation. “No razor for Steve and no make-up for me,” explained Marlene.
Thus equipped, they walked the Frances Route, which commences at St Jean-Pied-a-Port in France and runs in a westerly direction along the north of Spain. After rising in the dark, a two-hour walking stint was rewarded by a coffee break, a bite to eat and a stretch of the legs. Even when they trudged wearily into their overnight destination at 5pm instead of the ideal 2pm, during the process of showering, washing clothes and foraging for food, memories were made and relationships were formed with people of a variety of nationalities.
“Sleeping on a mat in the bell tower of a church in Granon, where we prepared a communal meal with 60 others, was a highlight for me,” Marlene recalls. “Hidden in the rafters of a small back room was a note of encouragement from our son who had walked the Camino five weeks before us, spurring us on.”
Other highlights included the moment when Steve released his metaphorical burden, carried from the Drakensberg and representing the individuals who had hassled him in his past, at Cruz Ferro (meaning iron cross). St Anton, a 12-bed albergue without electricity could not offer a hot shower, but the candlelit dinner with plenty of “vino tinto” (red wine) was compensation enough, while Carrión de los Condes boasted folk singing with 52 pilgrims.
Thirty-five days later, the Aylings were the ones who stood in front of the cathedral in Santiago, elated that they’d walked the 800kms without catching a bus, despite sore
and tired bodies.
“Energised and touched by the kindness we’d experienced across nationalities, we’d learnt to be content with very little and to value small mercies, even the shade of a small almond tree shared with another couple. Since returning, we’ve appreciated the luxury of a bed, sheets and the privacy of a bath,” said Marlene.
“We will definitely be doing the pilgrimage again in 2017,” enthused Steve.