Off the Beaten Path in Spain

With a new trek from REI, take a storied Spanish pilgrimage on a route less traveled

BY BECCA HENSLEY — Winter 2018

e’ve hit a roadblock. Even the Codex Calixtinus, a kind of early travel guidebook thought to be written by a 12th-century monk to instruct medieval pilgrims on their march to northwestern Spain’s sacred Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, can’t help us now. The way around the bossy cows that block the threshold to a rickety bridge isn’t addressed in that ancient tome. Instead, stuck in foggy Galicia on the Camino de Santiago, that route long-traversed by those pilgrims hoping to ensure a place in heaven, we turn to our REI Adventures guide — and wait. As the cows bellow and moo, their horns menacing, their hoofs dancing, rain peppers us and a cold wind lifts our ponchos. We can barely see where to step.

The cows are like mythic gatekeepers, oddly larger than life. After days of trekking, we certainly aren’t willing to turn back, even though our four-legged blockers look as if they might stand guard forever. “Cows don’t do bridges,” says a fellow hiker behind me, his voice raised in alarm. “At least it’s not a bear,” I think, knowing that some do roam these parts, as do wild horses and wolves. Suddenly, our able guide, Jorge Granda, an Asturias native, tells us to clamber up a slippery incline to clear the path. There, clutching handfuls of golden broom and purple heather to keep us from falling, we wait while Jorge speaks to the cows in soothing Spanish, luring them away from the tumbledown bridge, enticing them back down the muddy trail from whence they (and we) came. “They will not make it to Santiago before us,” says Jorge, waving the cows goodbye.

It seems silly afterward, and we giggle as we continue the day’s hike, part of REI Adventures’ new nine-day walking trip called “Spain Hiking — Camino de Santiago.” The guided jaunt showcases some of the most ancient and less traveled portions of the various paths that make up the Camino, which pilgrims have hiked ritualistically for more than a millennium. The thoroughfare has various tributaries that all lead to the Iberian Peninsula’s glorious medieval city of Santiago — and farther, all the way to the Atlantic Coast. For our small group odyssey, REI chooses segments from the Coastal Way in Asturias (where the path edges dramatic sea cliffs), the Primitive Way (said to be the first path, and still the one that holds the most challenging, remote terrain), and the French Way, the most famous, most hiker-brimmed amble. Along our journey, we stay in colorful hamlets and characteristic upscale inns (such as one hewed into an abandoned monastery); drink local wine and beer; and recharge with regional cuisine, from seafood to ham. Between walking, we follow our guide to remarkable sites, including caves with Neanderthal drawings, the remnants of a Celtic village, and mind-boggling dinosaur footprint fossils by the ocean. Experiencing sun, rain, and snow, we log about 10 miles daily.

I’ve been making the hike to Santiago de Compostela for most of my life. Yet I’ve never been willing to take the five weeks required to tread the traditional path — a 490-mile slog, which stretches from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, passes through Pamplona and Burgos in Spain, and ends — eventually — in Santiago. Instead, I’ve shuffled Camino pathways in France and lumbered its trails in Germany. I’ve perambulated much of it in Spain, but always a week or days at a time. I’m drawn to this REI adventure because I’m still not willing (yet) to dedicate that chunk of time, but I wanted an insightful trip. As we ascend mountains; cut through meadows; pass vineyards, estuaries, and orchards; stand beside Roman walls; and huddle in the shadows of abandoned castles, we meet other hikers taking on the Camino for spiritual rumination and some simply walking as an athletic feat.

Whatever brings you, the magic of this “hero’s journey” is the soul-sharing that happens. People open up, exchange stories, become vulnerable, and connect deeply. On the trail, there’s a constant support among strangers, a solidarity that most modern world dwellers might not believe possible. Pilgrims traversing the Camino by foot, bike, wheelchair, or horse (even donkey-pulled cart) collaborate, advise, rescue one another from wrong turns, share food, and espouse wisdom as they go. Making the final descent from the aptly named Hill of Joy into Santiago, flanked by newfound friends, sets the heart aflutter.

I suppose a man at a café where I stop for a coffee in Eidian near Santiago on the French Way says it best: “There are no tourists on the Camino, just pilgrims who haven’t found their way yet.”

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