We must seem a strange band of pilgrims, making our way along the old stone tracks that lead towards Santiago de Compostela. There are 16 of us: a Spanish family comprising grandparents, parents and children, the youngest of whom is just six – and me. The vast majority of pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago, but we are riding, on glossy Spanish horses whose steel shoes crunch on the hard ground. And we are rarely quiet, on this first day, anyway: the girls chat, the boys trot forward to talk to their grandfather, Huberto, and then fall back to tease their younger sisters. The rest of us take pictures, marvelling at the chestnut forests, or pointing out a waterfall or a burst of wild pink foxgloves, hidden over a wall out of sight of walkers.
Most pilgrims we pass are walking alone or in small groups. Some stop to wave and take photographs of us. The majority remain quiet, focused on the path that leads to the burial place of the apostle Santiago (St James), the patron saint of Spain.
Scattered along the route are granite way markers, etched with a scallop shell, the symbol of the camino: the ones we follow are yellow on a blue background, denoting that we are following the French camino, which starts in St Jean Pied de Port, over 800km away. There are routes from across Europe – Ireland, England, Germany, Portugal, even Istanbul – all converging on Santiago. I take a picture of one route marker, which indicates we are 152.836km away from our destination. On top of it teeters a mound of small stones placed there by passing pilgrims and a single worn boot; I wonder whether we will pass its hopping owner.
The path ahead is framed by the pricked ears of Pericles, my dark-bay mount, who is a retired show-jumper. We are following the route trodden by millions of pilgrims over 12 centuries, but there is a feeling, nagging in the back of my head, that I am doing this fraudulently. I am not a Catholic; at this stage I have only a hazy idea of who Santiago was; and from my Periclean throne this is certainly no penance.
The invitation to ride the camino had come from Aurelio Tagua. A former national champion equestrian from Andalucia, he told me that he’d first set foot on the path to Santiago 18 years ago, when he was at a horse show in Galicia. He started exploring and became obsessed with the camino’s lush beauty and history. He researched all the routes, to see which avoided steep paths and major roads – and then began to organise horse-powered trips, either riding or in a carriage. Ours is his 94th and his fourth this year.
When he’d talked about the camino – in rapid Spanish that I couldn’t understand – passion shone through his every gesture. He showed me photographs of wooded ways and ancient chapels and the grand façade of the cathedral in Santiago with people smiling from the backs of Spanish horses. For him, the camino united the twin pillars of his life: religion and horses.
For many Spaniards, and Andalusians particularly, horses are a way of life. They are more than a mode of transport – they’re a symbol of what it is to be Spanish, as much as bullfighting, football and sherry. Many dream of owning a horse and, come the festival season, trimming its tail, polishing its tack and dressing in festival gear: dresses for the women; short jackets, wide trousers and flat-rimmed black hats for the men. I’ve seen the transformation from an unremarkable person walking along a street to someone beautiful, straight-backed and noble.
Their horses, too, have long been highly regarded. In 1667, after visiting Spain, the Duke of Newcastle described them as “princes” of the horse world. I once met a handsome grey horse named JB who regularly carried his inebriated owner back home over the hills from the local fair.
That’s what keeps drawing me to Spain: the Spanish connection to horses and the hope that, if I spend enough time among these preternatural horsey people, I may be sprinkled with their elegance. So when Aurelio called and said I could join a family from Jerez on the camino, I polished my boots and jumped at the opportunity.
None of us was quite sure what to expect. The night before we set off – over a feast featuring Galician beef stew, paper-thin beef jamón, and copious wine at a small hotel – Aurelio had set the scene for the next five days. Mañana would be muy bueno, with some open country, but mañana mañana would be mejor he said, kissing his thumb and fingers loudly. Traditionally, there were three motivations for people to walk the camino, he explained: “to relieve your sins; to experience a miracle; to get advancement in court.” But these days there are a multiplicity of reasons: “for nature, for exercise, for meditation, for religion. Everyone can have their own reason.”
Our first day started with a visit to the small church in O Cebreiro, perched on top of a hill and smothered in mist. Inside, the Spanish family genuflected. The church, Aurelio explained, was the site of a miracle. According to legend, many centuries ago a pilgrim, stranded here by deep snow, survived when the communion wafers that were his only food turned to meat. These days, he would have been able to stock up on pungent Spanish cheese from any of the small shops that have popped up in this popular stopping-off point. We settled for buying scallop shells on red twine, a sign to locals that we were pilgrims, and gathered the first stamp in our credencial, the pilgrim’s passport that, on arrival in Santiago, would testify to our completion of the minimum 100km required to receive a compostela (a certificate of pilgrimage).
The horses were waiting in a lay-by at the bottom of the hill. Once we were mounted, Aurelio pointed towards a yellow arrow and told us to follow it down a narrow track between bramble bushes. Then he waved us goodbye. Our path led us through small villages, grey stone houses topped with scalloped slate roofs and fields populated with enormous blonde cows. There were wild flowers everywhere – mint, lupins and acid-green euphorbia growing out of tumbledown walls.
I started to take a mental survey of the approximate ages and nationalities of the pilgrims we passed. They were generally older than I’d anticipated – at a rough estimate, the average age was somewhere around 55 – but I was struck by the range of flags that walkers had tied to their rucksacks. There was a group of women from Uruguay, a family from the Philippines, pilgrims from America, Australia and, perhaps most surprisingly, South Korea. Later, I asked Aurelio about the Koreans. “Many Koreans are Catholic,” he explained. “A Korean man wrote a book about doing the camino. Now lots come. It is said to enhance their job prospects.”
I trotted forward to talk to Huberto, who had brought his sturdy chestnut horse from his farm near Jerez. It had long been his dream to ride the camino with his family, he told me. His daughters had ridden before they could walk and although two of them had moved to Madrid, he wanted to pass down the knowledge to his grandchildren. The pilgrimage, for him, was about family and family meant horses.
We rode for five hours that first morning – without food or drink or a word of complaint. The wide valleys started folding in on themselves until it felt like we were tunnelling between hills. The villages appeared frozen in a time before modernity. Hay dried in large wooden ricks beside the track, sheep and cows dozed in barns tucked beneath dwellings. Out of the main towns there was little commercialisation of the camino, just the occasional albergue advertising washing machines and showers and a hand-painted sign stuck to a front gate. It read “No Pooping”.
Aurelio followed in a car, popping up with a beaming smile at any potentially bewildering junction. Lunch was – as it would be on all the days that followed – bountiful: octopus, mussels and scallops, with shells that might someday hang round the necks of future pilgrims.
It was sometime that evening as we approached our stopping point, near the town of Samos, that I noticed we had fallen quiet. I turned around and everyone was ambling along with a peaceful look on their faces. I realised that I was not thinking about anything other than the road. For the first time in longer than I could remember, I was fully in the present.
By day we followed the scallops, which led us deeper into the Galician woods. It rained, lightly but persistently, yet I found that I had a smile fixed on my face that no raindrops could wash away. Aurelio’s powers of organisation meant that we did not have to make decisions and we happily acceded to his plans. When he took us to the imposing, sixth-century Monastery of Samos (in which only seven monks now live), even the kids followed the guided tour, peering into the gilded chapel and restraining themselves from sliding down the stone bannisters.
At times, the horse lorries miraculously appeared so that we could bypass boring stretches (“Aurelio has edited the route to take out the ugly bits,” the young owner of our first hotel had told me). As we all got more fluent at Spanglish I learned about Santiago. According to legend, he spent years spreading the gospel on the Iberian peninsula before returning to Jerusalem in 44AD, only to have his head chopped off by King Herod.
What happened next is unclear, but one legend has it that his body was placed in a stone boat, which sailed towards Iberia. As it was approaching the Galician coast, a knight was riding along the cliffs. On seeing the boat, his horse took fright and leapt into the ocean, whereupon Santiago miraculously rose from the dead to save the knight. He brought him back to shore covered in scallop shells. These became his emblem (in France, scallops are called coquilles St Jacques after him). Once terminally deceased, his disciples carried him inland – following the stars of the Milky Way, which is known in Spain as el camino de Santiago – and buried him. The grave was supposedly discovered in the ninth century and King Alfonso II ordered the construction of a cathedral on that spot.
Pilgrims started to come to pay homage to Santiago, who was to become the patron saint of Spain, the Philippines, veterinarians, oyster fishing and, I was delighted to discover, equestrians. By the Middle Ages, the Camino de Santiago was considered as important as the other two great Christian pilgrimages, to Rome and to Jerusalem. But war, plague and indolence deterred walkers and the paths became overgrown. By the mid-1980s fewer than 2,000 people completed the walk each year. Since then it has experienced a rejuvenation – thanks to bestselling books like Paulo Coehlo’s “Pilgrimage”, a bizarre account of his quest to find himself on the camino, some television documentaries and perhaps a renewed appetite for peace among harassed urbanites. Last year, over 300,000 walkers, riders and cyclists earned their compostelas.
The high spirits of the first day subsided into a dreamy calm. With hours each day just to look and muse, I started to see things differently. When we passed through an oak wood, the branches curving high over the path seemed like the buttresses of a cathedral. It started to rain, but instead of a curse, it felt like a benediction – until Huberto’s horse, used to the dry south, took exception to the swishing of waterproof capes and leapt sideways into a thicket. Though plastic, the capes seemed to fit in: from behind they resembled the hooded monks’ habits we’d seen in a fresco in the monastery in Samos. And when we stopped for lunch at Pulperia Ezequiel in Melide, a town famous for its boiling vats of purple octopus, the long wooden tables made the restaurant look like an abbey refractory. We bumped into pilgrims we recognised and greeted each other like old friends.
Pericles’s long strides gobbled up the kilometres. Instead of ticking off each marker, I started to wish them away. I realised that this experience was unlike anything else I have done and I wanted to hold it close. I did not have a dramatic religious conversion, but I was changed by the camino; it slowed down my mind. Life became simpler; it was now us, our mounts and the path ahead.
On the fifth day, the horses were waiting for us beside a dual carriageway on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, along with a policeman who escorted us through the traffic. We started early to get into the Plaza del Obradoiro before the influx of pilgrims, crossing busy roads filled with people going about their business: work, school, shopping. After our days on the camino, this seemed unreal.
We clattered over cobbles, down a narrow side street and emerged in the plaza. Aurelio fussed over us as we tried to line our horses up in front of the cathedral’s Gloria portico. Behind, angels and saints looked down from the gothic faÇade.
Following Huberto’s lead we took off our hats as he recited the Gloria, the Lord’s Prayer and another for the Virgin. The words of the Horse’s Prayer, which I learnt as a child, came into my head: “Feed me, water and care for me. Be gentle to me and talk to me. Never strike, beat or kick me when I do not understand what you mean, but give me a chance to understand you.”
That evening, we took our places for the pilgrims’ mass. It was packed. My neighbours were swapping stories of their walk. I asked one, a lady from California, whether it had changed her. “I think so,” she replied. “I was worried that I didn’t own a house and that my job wasn’t going anywhere. I realise now that as long as I’m happy, that isn’t so important.”
I let the words of the service wash over me. When it came to the sign of peace, I hugged my new Andalucian family and the other pilgrims in front and behind me. Everyone was smiling. I wondered what sort of world it would be if the camino were mandatory for everyone (in Flanders, Belgium, one prisoner each year is pardoned on the condition that he walks to Santiago, carrying a heavy pack). Then seven crimson-robed sacristans lit the huge golden incense burner and pulled on ropes to swing it across the church, raising it into the rafters. I watched and inhaled and smiled.
Samantha Weinberg is travel and food & drink editor at 1843. She travelled as a guest of Aurelio Tagua (firstname.lastname@example.org)