September 2002. Disillusioned with protesting against the ‘war on terror’, Katie went on a 13-day pilgrimage in Northern Spain.
Day 1: Invasion
On the railway platform at Bayonne we were all waiting in our different ways for the train that would take us to St. Jean Pied de Port (‘St John at the foot of the pass’) and the start of the pilgrimage route. One man was smoking a pipe and his wife, a cigarette. They wore chic red rain gear. I wondered how they would make it, with smokers’ lungs, over the Port de Cize, the mountain pass that had brought the Romans and Napoleon into Spain, and now pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.
We strung ourselves out along the platform. We were all clearly walkers, with our backpacks and boots. We couldn’t hide from each other that we were all starting off on the same rather zany commitment of time and energy: a pilgrimage. Even today, even when lots of the walkers on the route are atheists or agnostics, it isn’t quite like just setting off on a hike. The modern tradition of the route says it will change you, it will give you some kind of experience of truth or happiness or peace. Paolo Coelho and Shirley MacLaine are but two of the more famous writers who have talked of mystic experiences on the way to Compostela. And that made us all a little sheepish standing there, made it difficult to strike up a conversation, as if we were all sitting in a therapist’s waiting room.
Our train crawled into the station. It hadn’t been painted for years. It made me think of the Harry Potter train, taking us into the time-warp of walking, into a world where the rules are different. Very soon the land began to rise around us as the train rattled on, winding tighter and tighter into the Pyrenees. Grassy banks sloped up at forty-five degree angles from our window, waving bunches of trees at the top. A light misty rain blurred the distances.
Opposite me in my compartment sat a young Englishman, just out of his teens. He was well built, with close-cropped hair. I could tell he was English because, apart from pale skin and shyness, he was studying a copy of the bright green laminated guidebook produced by The Confraternity of Saint James, a British outfit headquartered in Lambeth.
Chugging round tight valleys in the Pyrenees, I wondered if the young man opposite me had met the same lady in mauve that I had met in the Confraternity’s Lambeth office. He certainly had great respect for the guide, which he was poring over. Would he like a conversation or would he think talking to fellow English spoilt the atmosphere?
The ticket inspector entered our compartment. This created more awkwardness: the embarrassment of making those strange French sounds in front of a fellow Englishman. So we both of us confined ourselves to the relatively uncontroversial ‘Merci’, with just a glimmer of the vomit sound of the French ‘r’. The inspector didn’t bother looking us in the face, but examined our tickets disapprovingly from above a bulbous nose.
Having survived that incident together, we started to exchange bits of our lives. Alec was at ‘uni’ and seemed anxious. He only had enough money for two weeks’ walking and he wanted to get as far as Burgos, 257km according to the guidebook. I would never be able to walk that fast. Ah youth and maleness!
‘And what made you decide to do it?’ I asked.
‘Character building. That sort of thing.’ He was looking down. ‘I want to test myself. My Dad was in the army.’ So that explained the haircut. ‘He’s always told us that it’s important to have challenges in your life.’ Pause. ‘How about you?’
There I was, a recent peace demonstrator, walking against war, and in the very first moments of my pilgrimage I’m alone in a compartment with a soldier’s son. What magnetic material had they planted in those laminated bright green booklets to bring unlikely people together?
Faced with the politeness and forthright decency of this young man, my anti war arguments dissolved on my tongue. ‘I just wanted some time to reflect,’ I said, ‘Deserter!’ ringing in my ears.
I moved the conversation on to discussing the two routes over the Pyrennees into Spain: Napoleon’s conquering one over the mountain and Charlemagne’s path of retreat down in the valley. To my surprise, Alec agreed with me that the lower route would be enough of a personal challenge for the first day. Neither of us had done any training before we left, he because he was working day and night and I because I hadn’t managed to get organised.
But when we reached the tourist office in St. Jean, which was flooded out with pilgrims of all nationalities, their pilgrim staffs rolling over the floor and the shiny new rucksacks obstructing all passage, we were commanded to take the upper path, the ‘Route Napoleon’. The woman behind the desk raised an eyebrow and completely failed to comprehend when we suggested we might follow the modern lorry driver’s route. Brushing aside our qualms she told us to stay the first night at a hamlet called Huntto and attack the pass tomorrow. She pointed out the way on her map and showed us where, tomorrow, halfway along, there was a water fountain and shops. This I translated for my friend.
Alec was keen to get to a supermarket and stock up on provisions. I on the other hand was dreaming of a sit-down lunch with meat and potatoes. He was a little hesitant to abandon me in Saint Jean but I reassured him, so he shook hands with me and strode off. Over the next days of the walk I soon lost touch with him, polite and upright as he was. He rose each day with the earliest and launched off into the pre-dawn, swinging a plain baguette. I’m sure he reached Burgos and will do well.
In contrasting style I lingered in the mediaeval fortified town of St. Jean, eating a pricey meal of a whole duck with chips. It was late and I was the last person lunching, upstairs over a bar, with red and white checked paper tablecloths for company.
The town’s chief business seemed to be starting pilgrims on their journey. There was an entire market for pilgrims’ staffs. I wanted one of these, as I had read that they were a deterrent to dogs. I chose one with a spike. This was a bad mistake. The shock and ring of that spike on dry roads was to persecute me up and down dale for two weeks. But I clung to the thing in the hope that it would scare off territorial beasts who might waylay me at the gates of far-flung farms.
Before leaving St Jean, I climbed one of the stone staircases up onto the massive walls. Hills stretched away in all directions, blue and mushy with mist.
I had decided to dedicate each day of my walk to an aspect of the ‘war on terror’. I was hoping to find insights as I walked.
The theme I had picked for today, September 5th, was the plight of the Iraqis. Troops were already massing in the Gulf before I set off.
From my position on the fortifications, I gazed down on terracotta roofs, which the rain had stained dark red. Each had its own sliver of garden running towards the wall, dripping and shiny with the recent showers. Some were striped with different shades of green, the foliage of tomatoes, marrows, beans. Others had grown wild, but even those showed some sign of human providence – a walnut tree or an apple tree, a little easy nourishment in these pockets of land.
I could not think about a dry place. I could not think about suffering and fear. I could not think about hunger and the worry of parents. I could not both be here and somewhere else. How strange it was to be attacking a country so far away, none of whose people I had ever met, let alone hated. Here was full of enjoyment and there not. I chose here. I chose with an uneasy feeling of guilt.
So it was with a heavy heart and confusion, together with my usual expectant fear of dogs, that I crossed the river over the mediaeval bridge and followed signs for Huntto….