Day: April 25, 2007

Steps Toward Heaven

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Lydia Itoi walked in the path of pilgrims who sought forgiveness along the 780-km trail called El Camino de Santiago. Unlike them, she knew where to eat.

“Welcome, pilgrim,” says the ragged knight in the dirty white cape, thrusting a burning tiki torch into my hand. “You’ve come just in time.”

It is 11 a.m. on Day 26: 558 km into my 780-km walk across Spain on the great medieval pilgrimage route called El Camino de Santiago. The Way of St. James is not a single trail but a cobweb of paths threading through Europe to Santiago de Compostela on the northwestern coast of Spain, where the body of Santiago (St. James the Apostle) is said to have been miraculously discovered in the early 9th century. I’ve just trudged into Manjarín, a ruined pueblo slowly dissolving back into the misty mountainside, stone by stone. After three weeks of blisters, cramps and tendonitis, I feel about ready to dissolve myself.

That’s when I encounter Tomás Martínez de Paz, Manjarín’s most prominent (and only) permanent resident and a modern legend on the ancient trail. His thick white cape, emblazoned with the blood-red cross of the medieval Knights Templars, is tied over a camouflage vest. Under his arm he carries a broadsword wrapped in duct tape. When he tells me I’m just in time, I’m hoping he means time for coffee. But Tomás hustles me over to his pilgrim refugio, a derelict pile of granite with almost a whole roof. The yard is decorated like a paramilitary camp for Woodstock survivors. Flags fly over the rubble; across an old satellite dish someone has scrawled bring the soldiers home now! A stack of direction signs — santiago, 222 km; rome, 2,475 km; machu picchu, 9,453 km — lets me know precisely how far I am from nowhere.

Tomás pushes me in front of a harried young couple trying to hold a banner and a squirming little girl at the same time. Still wearing my pack and gripping the tiki torch, I stand at awkward attention while Gregorian chants and hymns of social protest crackle from a cassette player that wanted to give up the ghost long ago. As Tomás clangs a bell with his sword and prays for peace in Iraq, a riptide of delirium washes over me. My knees, calves and ankles seize up. I try not to collapse or set anything on fire.

Tomás, it turns out, once lived an ordinary middle-class subversive’s life in Madrid. About 10 years ago, he left his family and proclaimed himself the last of the Knights Templars, the secretive order of medieval warrior monks who protected Christian pilgrims. The Templars disappeared after they were denounced and burned at the stake in 1307, but Tomás has lifted their standard over Manjarín. People can’t decide whether to call him a saint or a madman. But if he is a modern-day warrior monk, I could use a little protection.

Let’s face it, “pilgrim” is an eccentric title these days. Tomás may be a bit quixotic, but I’ve got the traditional talismans of a Santiago pilgrim: a scallop shell, a bottle gourd and a walking stick — even if my stick happens to be a telescoping aluminum trekking pole. I’ve taken my place among the millions of pilgrims who have walked El Camino since the 9th century to pray at the saint’s tomb. Over the last 400 years or so, the river of the faithful had slowed to a trickle, but now foot traffic is picking up again, as thousands of people — some propelled by religious fervor, others by a taste for adventure — attempt the Everest of Western pilgrimages. Making the journey today means following a dusty, stony footpath marked by graffiti yellow arrows when most of the world, including good stretches of the original pilgrims’ way, has been paved over. It means checking contemporary secularism at the Romanesque church door and learning to go on faith.

But by anybody’s standards, I am an unlikely pilgrim. As a food writer and professional hedonist, I spend most of my free time in temples of gastronomy, not tabernacles and certainly not gyms. My idea of adventure is telling the waiter to surprise me. So why am I here? I confess that I began my pilgrimage with an impure motive: to commit the sin of gluttony by eating my way across Spain, then walking it off. Camino purists preach culinary self-denial, but it’s not for me. The trail runs through the most delicious landscapes in Spain: Basque country, garlanded with piquant red pimientos hung out to dry; the Rioja vineyards, where I imagined myself feasting on sun-sweetened grapes and spitting out the seeds as I walked; Castilla, with its tender milk-fed lamb and roast suckling pigs; and the final reward of Galicia, with its glorious shellfish feasts starring scallops, the symbol of Santiago himself. Other pilgrims carried lists of recommended refugios; I carried a list of must-eat restaurants.

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