I made this, my first Camino, an act of penance and of gratitude. It was a spiritual and religious pilgrimage for me.
In October 2008 I had a bowel cancer removed, with apparently no spread. In December 2011 I grew a large me- tastasis in the right lung and had R lung lobectomy. This was followed in March 2012 by another growth, this time in the right cerebellum (the part of the brain that controls bal- ance and coordination). This was removed and then I had more recurrent tumours, back in the lungs. I was given 7-8 months of chemotherapy as well as lots of radiotherapy. I felt terrible after this, but I was alive!
I knew I could not walk the Camino, but would be allowed to ride, so long as I covered at least 100km. In December 2012 I went for weekly riding lessons in preparation, having established that if I could see, I could balance quite well – the dark or low lighting was another matter!
My sister and brother-in-law (Penny and David) walked the trail while I rode with 2 or 3 others from O Cebreiro to Santiago. This was 150km (covered over the space of 5 days), but the riders went quite a bit further; as we were moving faster we could take detours to the tops of some of the mountains, so we easily covered the required 100km for the coveted Credencial. I found that being on horseback gave me a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside and a greater appreciation of the enormity of our commitment to this pilgrimage.
We were met by Marcelino, tour leader and a Knight of the Order of the Camino de Santiago – a title given in recognition of over 25 years of service to pilgrims on the Camino. He was accompanied by his jovial assistant, Rafa. With them was a very handsome Spanish lady called Pilar. She looked mag- nificent on horseback and over the Camino taught me a lot about horsemanship. I am, after all, a beginner even though I had ridden a little as a child and adolescent.
Our first night was in O Cebreiro, an ancient village of, apparently, Celtic origin. Although there are Celtic influences visible throughout Galicia, the local language, Gallego, is a cross between Spanish and Portuguese. Span- ish, proper, is spoken by all. As my knowledge of Spanish is pretty basic, to communicate with the others I was depend- ent on Pilar’s fair command of English and translations from Penny and David.
My horse was called ‘Flecha’ (arrow in Spanish), but I should not have worried; she was tame and did not put me into difficulties or frighten me. I did not fall off, either!
Mostly the Camino was at the ‘walk’, but from time to time Flecha allowed me to canter and even gallop. She had no diffi- culty with some of the steep and rocky parts of the trail, and made the difficul- ties I was experiencing minimal.
A persistent memory of the ride was the bitter cold. I had forgotten that it was still Spring and that we were at fairly high altitude. I should have packed more than t-shirts and shorts. No jumpers or anoraks, but Marcelino and Pilar lent me some full weather gear to help.
Each day of the pilgrimage was more or less the same. We had breakfast where we had lodged overnight and set off before 9am. The first section was 3 to 4 hours on the trail, then a stop for a coffee and a nibbly. After the break another couple of hours riding followed by a more substantial break of 2 hours for a prop- er lunch. After this a further ride of a few hours, then shower and change of clothing. Unfortunately the Spanish have their evening meal very late by Australian standards – the earliest they offered it was about 8.30. I found that eating a large meal so late in the evening prevented me from sleeping that well, but overall the food was very good and usually something I’d not eaten before, so I enjoyed the meal breaks. Except on one occasion when the only food was a variety of octopus. My stomach rebelled at this!
One of the difficulties for some- one arranging a pilgrimage on horseback is managing the accommodation for the horses. With over 25 years’ experience Marcelino has secured the good- will of several establishments and, having been unsaddled and groomed, the horses were either left happily in a nearby field (with the consent of the farmer) or in a stable. For the coffee and lunch breaks they could be teth- ered alongside the bar or cafete- ria, where they attracted a lot of attention from our fellow pilgrims.
Although the trek was very cold, as the day wore on the tempera- ture rose a bit and the exercise warmed us all. We still needed protection from the wind and, on the final day, from the rain.
Some of the way points were fascinating; Portomarín was on the edge of a man-made dam. Before the valley was flooded, the villagers dismantled the Knights Templars’ redoubt stone by stone, moved it 300 meters up the hill and reassembled it. Their markings on these stones are still visible, and the fortress towers magnificently over the val- ley once again.
Although we saw many magnificent buildings, such as the massive monastery at Samos, I was most taken by the small slate built chapels along the way. They were all very humble structures and dark, cool. The only ornamentation was a simple altar, a crucifix and statues of the Blessed Virgin and Santiago, with little else. I could easily imagine myself alongside pilgrims of centuries ago. Kneeling in the same place and saying the same prayers, walking (riding) exactly the same Camino with the same sense of devotion to the Pilgrimage. It was very humbling and an antithesis to the ready-made disposable world of today. I used the silence of the ride for meditation, relaxing into the rhythm of the horse.
The other buildings which caught our collective interest were stone structures, 8 or 9 feet long, sometimes larger. They were raised a couple of feet from the ground by small stone piers. We (the English group) all thought they were family ossuaries, and were disappointed to find that they are called ‘horreos’ and were used as rat-proof grain depositories!
We finally arrived at Santiago, and I for one was on the verge of tears – of gratitude. Few of my friends, knowing about my cerebellar tumour, thought that I would complete even this shortened version of the Camino. I am a very fortunate man.
Santiago Cathedral was an outrageous Baroque confection with gold everywhere and two cathedral organs, facing each other. I was sorry not to hear the organs in full voice. After the severely monastic chapels seen en route, the Cathedral seemed a bit over the top and perhaps a little vulgar.As this was a religious pilgrimage, I wanted to confess to a priest, but the very ancient priest I found would only hear my confession in either Spanish or, better, Gallego. I offered him several European languages, including Latin (which I hoped he would not accept!), but he stuck to his guns. Fortunately I was able to find another, more cooperative priest, so I am now shriven and am the very proud possessor of a credencial.
I am grateful for the encouragement and support of the Friends of the Camino, and would very much like to undertake another one.