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Walking the Camino during Covid’s End of Days

A long hill climb on the Camino Norte is rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding coastline; right: Following the Camino arrows. (Images: Courtesy of the author)

Before the Portuguese police officer told me I couldn’t walk across the border into Spain, the only other time I had been stopped from crossing a border was when I tried to go from northern Ethiopia into Eritrea. That time had been in the role of a journalist, and I wasn’t entirely surprised with the rebuttal given Eritrea is ruled by an authoritarian government. At the Portugal-Spain border, I was trying to cross as a Camino pilgrim. Even though it was the middle of the pandemic and the border was technically closed, locals were allowed to cross for “essential” work, and I’d reasoned the police—who I estimated probably were Catholic themselves—might look sympathetically on a lone pilgrim. Unfortunately, there was to be no bending of the rules even when going forth in the name of Saint James.

I had found myself at the Guadiana International Bridge spanning the Guadiana River, the southernmost land crossing between the two countries, during a Camino pilgrimage that had grown exponentially. To escape lockdowns, I ended up hiking consecutive routes of the famous Camino de Santiago, the collective name for the network of pilgrimage routes across Europe that converge in the fabled city of Santiago de Compostela, the proclaimed resting place of Saint James. I was ruck-sacked up for about 11 months, all told. By the end I had walked about 3,000 kilometers, though I gave up counting.

Starting in August 2020, my route took me along Spain’s magnificent northern coastline on the Camino Norte. I then followed the Camino Primitivo toward Santiago, from where I followed the Camino Portuguese (in reverse) all the way down through Portugal to its most southwestern point. I then went eastward through the Algarve—no longer on a set Camino route, by this stage I was Camino “freestyling”—toward my border encounter. Despite that initial setback, a couple of weeks later I managed to get into Spain, and at Seville I rejoined the “official” pilgrimage network and headed northward on the Camino Via de la Plata heading into the interior of Spain and back toward Santiago.

Entering Salamanca during the Camino Via de la Plata. (Image: Courtesy of the author)

It was an astonishing experience—how could it not be when crossing such distances with all that entailed. At times it felt like doing a Camino after the Apocalypse: walking along deserted paradisiacal beaches, past bars and hotels closed up, chairs knocked over still lying on their sides, the sand and leaves accumulating on upswept terraces. Passing a Portuguese vineyard early in 2021, I popped into its shop and tasting room that adjoined the street that the Camino was following. It was empty apart from three old men sitting round a table drinking wine. One of them—the owner, who spoke some English—invited me to join them. After setting my rucksack down, as I sipped the excellent wine he poured for me, the three of them carried on their discussion in Portuguese. Amid the nonsensical words I caught a few English words I recognized. “You are talking about the End of Days and the Apocalypse?” I asked, somewhat taken aback. “Well, yes, there are strange things happening at the moment,” replied the vineyard owner.

In March 2020 after the arrival of Covid-19 around the world, with talk of the UK closing borders and flights selling out, I flew back to the motherland from Texas, where I was based for my journalism. I reasoned it would be preferable to be back in the UK where I could also assist family as I weathered what I thought would be a couple of months of Covid-19 before normality returned. Then President Trump proclaimed a presidential travel ban, which remained in place until November last year. I was stuck in the UK. By July 2020, I was about to go out of my mind. With the world in turmoil, and borders closing all over the place, there were very few options.

But in 2017, I walked my first Camino pilgrimage, the Camino Frances, the most popular route from Saint Jean Pied de Port at the base of the Pyrenees through the great cities of Pamplona, Burgos and Leon toward Santiago. The experience proved such a marvel, and knowing there were other Camino routes, I had always wanted to do another Camino. By August 2020, with lockdowns continuing, I knew what I had to do. It was still possible to get to France, and it appeared that the French border with Spain was still open. I packed my rucksack and caught a Eurostar train to Paris, where I hopped on a TGV train that took me all the way down to Bayonne, my starting point for the Camino Norte that traces the coastline of “Green Spain”, where forest and rocky hillsides meet glittering beaches.

My jubilation at “breaking out” of locked-down Britain was short lived. Closing in on the Spanish border on my second day after setting off from Bayonne, saturated with sweat under the French summer sun, I took advantage of a public shower beside a beach. Looking down, I saw the water cascading over what looked like a bout of leprosy breaking out over the right side of my chest. By the time I reached the sparkling city of San Sebastian—about 30 kilometers on—the pain was too much. After lifting my shirt to two Spanish pharmacists who both pulled the same concerned face, I was steered toward the nearest hospital.

I had herpes zoster, commonly known as shingles. It’s the reactivation of the chicken-pox virus and excruciatingly uncomfortable. It’s more common among older generations but can also be caused by stress—I suspect it was the latter in my case after months of locked-down life. A former British army officer and now roving journalist, I’d never felt so hemmed in before, not to mention so emasculated on various levels. After three days of the medication taking effect, the pain subsided enough that I could carefully haul my rucksack back on with the straps against my chest. I re-joined the Camino del Norte, ascending into the hills surrounding San Sebastian as the sun rose on the lights still twinkling in the darkened city below as I pushed westward.

The Salamanca Cathedral. (Image: Courtesy of the author)

The various Camino routes once served as pagan pilgrimages to Finisterre on the western Spanish coastline during the Middle Ages. Finisterre was held as marking the end of the known world. But around the tenth century the canny Benedictine monks of Cluny in France began fostering the religious reputation of the route that would become the Camino Frances based on the claim Saint James preached the gospel in Spain soon after the Crucifixion, and that after his martyrdom in Jerusalem his body was smuggled back to the north-western region of Galicia by a party of Spanish disciples. There aren’t many scholars who agree that Saint James ever came to Spain. And nothing of the sort is suggested in the Acts of the Apostles, where his death is recorded (Acts 12:2).

“It is only an illusion, but so long has it been in the Spanish mind, so attractive is it in itself, that long ago, in the way of all the best hallucinations, it achieved a kind of truth,” is the verdict of Jan Morris in her wonderful book Spain. You will not find many pilgrims put off by the controversial history around Saint James in Spain. This is partly because nonbelievers match if not outnumber the religiously inspired on this epic journey (Camino means “journey” or “way” in Spanish). Furthermore, participants are united by more than what divides them. On that first Camino, I continually heard pilgrims—atheist or religious, almost everyone willingly refers to themselves as a pilgrim—lamenting the same problems and trappings of modern society, and of undertaking the Camino to gain thinking space amid the tumult.

“Everything is done at walking pace, in contrast to a world that, now more than ever, is ceaselessly rushing ahead faster than we can quite compute,” Peter Stanford writes in his book Pilgrimage: In Search of Meaning. “To catch a glimpse of the transcendent, otherwise impossible in the hustle-bustle and hassle of modern life, requires making one almighty and counter-intuitive effort — like going on a pilgrimage in a secular age.”

No matter the country of origin—on that first Camino, Italy, Brazil, South Korea, China, the United States, Poland, Australia and Denmark were notably represented—everyone sang the praises of the simplicity, camaraderie and sense of community engendered by the Camino, and what it teaches you about a potentially better and purer sort of lifestyle.

“If you live today, you breathe in nihilism, it’s the gas you breathe,” wrote American novelist Flannery O’Connor—and that was in the 1950s.

The Camino is a shared countering of such nihilism for pilgrims. Another notable feature was the number of people undertaking it as a means of processing loss and trauma—be it the death of a loved one or the breakup of a long-term relationship; this resonated personally as I embraced the Camino to try and put behind me my military experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed me into my civilian life and impacted my relationships.

During my most recent post-apocalyptic-esque Camino, one of the few American pilgrims I met explained she had recently left her Instagram job and that the pilgrimage experience had left her feeling that she had been brainwashed by the lifestyle she embraced before. The feeling of having escaped a suffocating world was even more pronounced as lockdowns rumbled on, with the vast majority of people forced to live curtailed lives due to Covid-19 restrictions—close to being under house arrest in stricter countries—while my walking sticks rapped out their endless tune on the pavements and roads that my seemingly never-ending Camino followed.

Occasionally, when I checked back into the real world, watching the news on television or checking social media, I was reminded of the roiling world I had left behind. Though there were ominous hints of it too on the Camino. “We show no mercy. ONLY THE HARDEST WILL SURVIVE,” was sprayed on a wall as I headed out of Bilbao, Spain’s edgy answer to Belin. There was nothing to indicate what this uncompromising message referred to. But it chimed with the so-called culture wars generating such pugilistic moods in the US and UK, with societies caught between the old and the new, between traditional values and progressive ideologies.

Overall, however, and just as was the case in 2017, my extended Camino transcended the bickering and heartlessness convulsing the world. How could it not with its admixture of religion, beautiful countryside, architecture and gastronomy, underpinned by the independence, simplicity and friendships you find along the way? Of course, there was nowhere near the same numbers of pilgrims as in 2017—but, crucially, there were some. In a hostel I stayed at before crossing the French border into Spain, the man running it told me that while of course the Camino I was about to walk wouldn’t be the usual experience due to the pandemic, those pilgrims I met would be of a special hue for undertaking it in such difficult and strange circumstances. He was entirely correct. Those subsequent encounters with my fellow pandemic pilgrims will stay with me for life.

“All those goals, like justice, community, and love, which make human life into a thing of intrinsic value, have their origin in the mutual accountability of persons, who respond to each other ‘I’ to ‘I’,” wrote the philosopher Roger Scruton. “Not surprisingly, therefore, people are satisfied that they understand the world and know its meaning, when they can see it as the outward form of another ‘I’—the ‘I’ of God, in which we all stand judged, and from which love and freedom flow.”

That idea, Scruton says, is “poured out” in the verse of the Veni Creator Spiritus, while “for most people it is simply there, a dense nugget of meaning in the centre of their lives, which weighs heavily when they find no way to express it in communal forms.”

Indeed, that weight had become unbearable for me during the first lockdown and hence I went to the Camino as my only refuge. I encountered others similarly motivated because, as Scruton describes, “people continue to look for the places where they can stand, as it were, at the window of the empirical world and gaze out towards the transcendental—the places from which breezes from that other sphere waft over them.”

And, my goodness, does the landscape and architecture of Spain—and of Portugal too—offer those sorts of places in abundance:

“As the skyscrapers,” Morris wrote, “are to New York so are the cathedrals to Spain: Avila, Barcelona, Burgos, Granada, Jaén, León, Málaga, Murcia, Palma, Salamanca, Santiago, Saragossa, Segovia, Seville, Toledo—masterpieces everyone, and supplemented in every region of Spain by lesser structures that would be, in any other country, national brags themselves.”

An attractive but rather disheartening sign on the Via de la Plata–still a long way to go before reaching Santiago de Compostela. (Image: Courtesy of the author)

At the same time, the pilgrimage held up a mirror to far less edifying sights—literally. By the time I was hiking through Portugal, my beard had gone feral and my hair was out of control. One friend that I spoke with on Zoom cautioned similarities to King Lear nearing the final act. The lifestyle of a Camino pilgrim—especially a long-term one—isn’t dissimilar to that of a destitute vagrant. I moved constantly between cheap hostels and lived out of plastic shopping bags that contained the food I carried in my rucksack.

At least my vagrant experience was temporary. Not so for many I saw along the way, especially in Portugal. Out of a population of just over ten million, it is estimated that around 2.6 million live below the poverty line. Child labour is common in Portugal’s northern and central parts. On my way to a Lisbon bar one evening to meet some pilgrim friends, I passed a long line of darkened figures queuing for a soup kitchen. In Porto on Christmas Day, prompted by another pilgrim I was with, I swallowed my pride to help prepare free meals at a Catholic parish for an assortment of locals. They ranged from the perennially homeless to those struggling with rent because of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Despite my disheveled appearance, in cities, towns and villages along the way, I encountered lots of outstretched hands and plaintive eyes. I was also offered lots of drugs. At the time I wondered if these were also ominous hints of the human toll of the pandemic’s economic restrictions coming the way of more wealthy countries. Indeed, in the US now inflation is at the highest level since 1981, as families are squeezed by spiraling gas, energy and food prices. There are fears that the development of young children has been stunted by the lockdown restrictions, especially mask wearing. Remote learning has been a disaster for students, while there has been increased concerns about soaring mental illness in American teenagers. Though every generation has suffered in their own particular ways during the past two distorted years. My advice to anyone who can’t shake off the pain and suffering: go find the Camino and see what it can do for you.

“Only one thing can cleanse us, namely offering and receiving forgiveness, which is a redemption from hatred and not a countervailing force which limits it,” Scruton says. “And we are raised to the level of this existential change by an example whom we have placed before ourselves, imposing on him the full burden of our aggression, and nevertheless receiving his acquiescent love.”

The glory of Cape Finisterre. (Image: Courtesy of the author)

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