My time in the Army gave me something of a taste for long-distance marching, and in later life I became fond of bushwalking. Those who have done that know the sort of pleasure that comes from putting on one’s boots and adjusting ones pack at the start of the walk. What will the day bring? One is ready for it, whatever it is. The longest walk I have done in one day was about 34 km, across Barrington National Park, in New South Wales, and I was pretty tired at the end of it.
Imagine then a six-week walk, covering in all about 1000 km. An average day on that walk is 24 km, and any rest day pushes up the average. People now do it all the time: the pilgrim’s walk from somewhere to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It is a time for reflection and talk — unless you do it on your own. There are recognised routes, and you can acquire a pilgrim’s passport that entitles you to accommodation along the way, where you will encounter other pilgrims, good fellowship and good stories. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is built on such a walk, and in mediaeval times there were a number of such pilgrim routes, the most famous one being to Rome.
Two Kiwis decided to do the walk, more or less without much serious thought, and one of them, John McAneney, wrote a book about their journey, Where Wine Flows Like Water. A Gastronomic Pilgrimage Through Spain, which you can acquire through Abbey’s bookshop in Sydney, or through Amazon.com. It is a delicious book, a word that a serious foodie would use, and I frequently disturbed my wife’s own reading with ‘Hey, listen to this!’ — which she patiently did.
They started in France not far from the Pyrenees, walked more or less south until they reached Spain, then turned and walked west right across north-western Spain. I’ll pass quickly over the agonies with feet, blisters and pain. One thing we learned in the Army was the need for real care with one’s boots, socks and feet, and I was really sorry when I let my army boots go, after some years.They had become good friends. John and Pete learned this the hard way, which I probably would have done, too. Doing the Pigeon House Mountain walk a few days ago reminded me of how quickly you can get out of practice, and how painful that can be.
But they pressed on, enjoying the changing countryside, coming to terms with the discipline of the walk, enjoying the vin du pays, eating whatever was available, and acquiring new friends. Sometimes the accommodation was ordinary to say the least, sometimes it was heaven. A hard day’s walking makes you really appreciate food and drink, and John provides 34 recipes of what they ate, tempered with guesswork, practice and the availability of ingredients.
I too appreciated Spanish food and wine when I was there, a long time ago. It was good, robust and cheap. I met a couple of English girls in Madrid, who spotted that our motor caravan had a GB sticker, and asked whether we had any food left. Puzzled, I asked what she meant. ‘Well, baked beans, tinned stuff. We can’t eat any of what they have here!’ In vain, I mentioned the glories of paella, the wonderful chicken dishes that were available in the Madrid camping area’s cafeteria, the good bread, coffee and pastries. That was before the British had turned the Costa del Sol into a British colony.
Along their way John describes the history of the area, muses on God’s purpose for us all, wonders about the architecture, enjoys the hospitality, and introduces us to new friends, all of them pilgrims. he evokes the Spanish countryside and villages very well. I remember arriving in a small town in the heat of the afternoon. We could not go on further without petrol, and my guidebook showed the petrol-bowser icon. But the town seemed poor and deserted, and there was no bowser in sight. It was not even clear that there were any shops, and the small square was empty. At about 6 o’clock a marvellous change occurred: the square became alive with people, all well-dressed, walking around the square in family groups, greeting one another. There proved to be shops aplenty, and petrol was available, as were wine and food. We marvelled, and enjoyed it all.
This is a book to be savoured and read slowly, over a week or two. I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a postscript, the current book is the second edition, and John knows of at least 50 people who decided to walk el Camino after reading, including all of Pete’s seven children. When he and Pete did their walk in the mid 1990s, about 20,000 others also did so. The walk has since become the thing to do, and more than 270,000 did it in 2010, a holy year. Yes, and there are travel companies ready and willing to help you tackle it, too.