Hilary Fannin: On the Camino’s uplifting Gore-Tex trail
My pilgrimage was entirely secular, but no less meaningful for that
Walking the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela: “The journey was edifying and intimate and occasionally exhausting.” Photograph: Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images
There is a whole other strata of Irish society out there: fit, gently suntanned and, in terms of attire, vaguely genderless. It is a quietly active cohort, possessed of waterproof footwear, sculpted insoles, thousand-mile socks and trusty knapsacks; it is a tribe largely, it seems to me, culled from the middle-aged middle class.
Composed, prudent and muscular, reliable and self-sufficient, the members of this tribe emanate practicality. They are the kind of people, one is tempted to imagine, who have pensions and pocket hankies, and dog baskets in sunny porches, and blister bandages in their medicine boxes. They are folk who take pleasure in the word “Gore-Tex”. They are people, you might assume, who are more likely to have a bottle of Radox perched on the side of the bath than, say, a bottle of gin. They are walkers. (And Gore-Tex, for any louche and uncomprehending couch animals among you who are unfamiliar with the term, is a kind of mystical waterproofing.)
I recently encountered a cabin-load of serious walkers on a flight from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela. The Gore-Tex brigade were flying to northern Spain to be bussed into the surrounding countryside, where they would begin a pilgrimage along the last stages of the Camino back to the ancient city, where the relics of St James the Apostle lie.
I was mid-flight, midway through my miniature gin, reading about pilgrimage (elegantly described as an earthly manifestation of a path through the heavens), when I caught sight of my unfamiliar footwear and remembered that the reason I was aboard, laced into elephantine walking boots, was because I, too, was about to join the tribe. And why not? I’m bang on in terms of the middle-aged Radox archetype, although I possess neither a pension nor a dog basket.
I travelled with 30 women from my neighbourhood, under the stewardship of a young, glamorous, wildly energetic neighbour who runs our local gym and who boldly bucked the Camino aesthetic with cerise-pink nail polish that matched her runners and various other accoutrements.
Starting from the pretty village of Sarria, we walked through Galician woodland and farmland, past fields of wilting sunflowers; we passed through picturesque hamlets and dull suburbs. Along the way, we tiptoed around tiny, kennel-like churches where flaking plaster virgins stood on stone altars, surrounded by fresh flowers.
The sun came out, and stayed with us for the duration. At night we slept in bunk beds, whispered to one another in the dark like little girls from inky comic books. On the first night in the dormitory I emerged from the bathroom in a cheap, if glittery, bronze-coloured, strappy nightdress, much to the raucous amusement of my pyjamaed bunkmates. Were you never a Girl Guide, they asked me, or even a Brownie?
The journey was edifying and intimate and occasionally exhausting, and there was a moment, somewhere along the trail, when I was invited to sit among a group of elderly Korean women who wore bright orange and yellow bonnets to protect their milk-white skin from the sun. Their delight with their walk, their ability to appreciate each moment, was uplifting.
Later I sat in dappled shade with a terse and serious American, a woman who was walking in the hope of alleviating her despair about the US presidential election. She spoke about being among the Washington throngs at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, described the joyous crowd singing goodbye to George Bush’s helicopter as it flew overhead, disappearing into oblivion. Now the spectre of Donald Trump, in or out of office, chills her weary bones.
On the last day, some of us, having sat too long on our waterproofed backsides at lunchtime, eating and talking in shallow sunlight, took the bus for 10 kilometres or so, emerging again on to the trail to walk the final furlongs into town.
We reached Santiago de Compostela at dusk, and dashed through its medieval, labyrinthine streets to our date with apostolic dust, gathering with our fellow pilgrims on the huge granite square outside the gothic cathedral. Knapsacks on our backs, we entered, then trailed behind the baroque altar (an operatic affair, decked with swarming cherubs and lipsticked angels who floated above us like big floozies or garishly lovely carnival dollies) to embrace the gilded statue of St James and make our wishes.
Pilgrimage, an earthly manifestation of an interior journey, was in my case entirely secular, but no less meaningful for that. I want to go back. I want to stay on the Gore-Tex trail.