We sat down for dinner with 25 strangers; we enjoyed dessert with 25 friends. On our second night on the Camino, Tom and I stayed in a small village named Larrasoaña. The town had a crummy albergue with no heat and squeaky beds, and only one restaurant. As such, almost every pilgrim in town ate there for dinner. We took our seat at the end of the table across from unfamiliar faces. But by the end of our meal we had sparked several new friendships that would last beyond Santiago.
Later that night, when Tom and I cuddled together on the lower bunk (the only way for us to stay warm without a sleeping bag), we looked up to read inscriptions from previous pilgrims. One in particular resonated with us, “Why am I here?” I believe that the night’s communal dinner was the Camino’s response to our doubt.
The following day we all walked to Pamplona, which kicked off eleven days of fun. Our bodies were adjusting to the walking and became accustomed to aches and pains. So by the time we arrived to Pamplona, an adorable city dripping with history from Hemingway to the tradition of running with the bulls, we were ready to enjoy some nightlife. As it was Friday night, Pamplona did not disappoint.
After several nights in small villages with nothing but one bar, we became infected with the energy of the streets and had so much fun we almost missed our curfew (of 10pm) at our small German-run albergue. Fortunately, this put us on pace to hit several of the other big cities along the Camino on weekends as well (for example, Burgos on a Sunday and Leon on a Saturday). And as we would learn, a fun night in a bigger city provides a welcome break and a chance to enjoy our new friendships.
There are a lot of life-sustaining reasons to make a friend, such as support and encouragement, but having fun with a friend is the icing on the cake.
The following day, we enjoyed one of our favorite walks, from Pamplona to Puente La Reina. We crossed over the peak, Alto del Perdón, famous for the metal pilgrim silhouettes and we enjoyed breath-taking views.
In Puente La Reina, we were adopted into a family. Jeroen, a dear friend that we saw on day zero in St. Jean, we met on day one in Roncesvalles, we dined with on day two in Larrasoaña, and we partied with in Pamplona on day three, now introduced us to his visiting brother-in-law, Martijn.
You see, Jeroen is one of those veteran pilgrims that had been walking the Camino all the way from his home in The Netherlands (a total of about 2,500km by the time he reached Santiago). While we were on day three, he was on day 55, so his brother-in-law came to visit him and walk for three days.
Jeroen was kind enough to share his brother-in-law with us and having been away from our own families for about two months, we enjoyed the feeling of having family once again. Martijn became our visiting brother too. In fact, I think he became all of the pilgrims’ visiting brother. Not surprising considering his warm demeanor and infectious smile, Martijn knew more people after three days on the Camino than we did after ten.
The following day, like most, we all walked separately, but reunited in the next destination, Estella. All along the Camino existed free water fountains for pilgrims, but we had heard rumors that free wine flowed from the faucet in this town. So after settling into the municipal albergue in Estella, several of us, with glasses from the hostel kitchen in our pockets, walked an additional 2km to the outskirts of town searching for the fountain of wine.
Martin from Germany, who has walked the Camino several times and knows all the secrets of the road, met us there with ham and bread to make a wine and tapa picnic. With glasses overflowing, and giddy with laughter, you would have thought we found the fountain of youth. I think there is only one thing pilgrims love more than vino tinto…free vino tinto! We capped off the night with a delicious pilgrims meal. It delighted us to find a good one as so many consist of three microwaved courses.
The next few days we enjoyed the company of new friends in several great towns including Los Arcos, Najera and Logrono. We formed bonds over our aches and pains. “Hey how are your knees today?” or “Are your blisters healing?” became as common a greeting as “buen camino.” A doctor stopped to help bandage a fellow pilgrims sore knees, another shared their brace with a hobbling friend. On the road, community grows.
We found it refreshing that conversation on the Camino didn’t revolve around our careers. “Why are you walking the Camino?” supplanted the common get-to-know-you question back home, “What do you do for a living?” And it led to a much deeper understanding of one another, a reminder that we have identities beyond what we do to make money. We touched on our hopes, fears, priorities, families and everything else that our jobs are meant to afford us. Yes, the conversation did occasionally drift toward work, but it never fixated there.
Day 10 epitomized the experience of community on the Camino. As Tom and I arrived in the small town of Grañon, Jeroen and Sabine, greeted us. As usual, these two walkers (the most experienced of the bunch since Jeroen had been walking from the Netherlands and Sabine from Paris) arrived first into town. They had already scoped out the place and found that the village church runs a donativo albergue in the back. There were no beds, only mats on the floor, but the welcoming atmosphere more than compensated. So we reserved our mat and headed back out to join our friends at the café across the street.
Over a glass of vino tinto, we watched the other pilgrims arrive, as was our custom. Like an anticipated homecoming, our friends began to congregate at the café. We shared drinks, snacks and specialty cookies from a local bakery that Martin knew until the church bells summoned us to mass. Following mass, about 40 of us pilgrims gathered around two long tables to grub on some amazing Italian food prepared by Vincenzo, an experienced pilgrim and the informal father of the Camino.
Then we gathered by candlelight in the choir loft of the Cathedral. Pilgrims shared some of their thoughts about the Camino, each in their native language. It was cozy (or as our Dutch friend would say, gezellig…which by the way is one of the top 10 most difficult words to translate). At one point in the evening, one friend said to me “I have never experienced community like this before.” I was shocked. Tom and I have been blessed to have experienced true community with family and a few close friends. In fact, it is this community that we miss the most while traveling this year.
One fellow pilgrim insightfully observed that some people seem more like themselves on the Camino than they do off the Camino. I wondered why until that night in Grañon. In the midst of normal life, it can be difficult to find true community and a sense of purpose, two essentials to an abundant life, but on the Camino one easily finds both.
**Thank you, Ken for so many of the wonderful pictures included above**
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!