WHAT, you may ask, does a 58-year-old, seriously lapsed Catholic chap from Miramar do to while away those dreary Wellington winter days? Fly to Spain of course, and walk all 774 kilometres of the famed Saint James Trail.
The trail is formally known as the Pilgrims' Route or El Camino de Santiago and is a continuous path from Saint-Jean-de-Port, in South West France, to Santiago de Compostela in North West Spain, the resting place of the apostle St James.
Considering that a little over a year ago I had never even heard of El Camino, the thought that any day now, my wife and I, and her sister and husband, will be dropped, alien-like, into Northern Spain is quite bewildering. To add spice to the venture, we have only one month to complete the walk about 30 kilometres a day and it will be bloody hot, as in 30C-plus, most days.
Did I mention that we are carrying all our own gear and staying in cramped pilgrim hostels known as "refugios", some of which are said to be run by elderly psychotic nuns and crammed full of farting Aussies and snoring Germans? We can't wait.
The Camino is the world's oldest, and most frequented, commercial walking track. From the early 10th century, completing the pilgrimage across the north of Spain has been de rigueur for those seeking an afterlife insurance policy. In AD44, legend has it, the body of the apostle Saint James was secretly taken by his followers to Northern Spain and buried in a field a little south of the city of Santiago, where a peasant discovered it in 813.
There are several pilgrim tracks leading to the famed city, but El Camino de Santiago is the most famous, and certainly the most frequented. It takes in a variety of terrains from steep mountain tracks in the Pyrenees to the monotony of the Meseta desert, but the highlights for me will be the towns and villages en route, many of which have stunning cloisters and cathedrals.
Traditionally, pilgrims who complete the walk and attend a mass in the splendidly gothic Santiago Cathedral will be granted absolution for all their sins, or at the least a decent whack off their time in Purgatory. The rules have eased somewhat and remission can be granted with as little as 100km of the walk to your name.
We will be following the scallop-shell guide signs through some of the most beautiful countryside in the world and staying in ancient villages dripping with culture and mystery.
To prepare for the rigours of the track we have all been doing a lot of walking, and my sciatica has reared its ugly head to add to the challenge. Mind you, many of the walkers in medieval times would flail themselves every step of the way, or lug a ruddy great cross, so my sciatica seems an appropriate burden.
My wife, Julie, has been attending Spanish language classes and knows how to say useful things like "This is the cat of my mother". My language preparation has been limited to reading a phrase book and learning how to order beer, wine and coffee. I have enjoyed reading the romance section of the book and am well equipped with phrases such as "Quiero hacerte el amor" "I want to make love". In the extremely unlikely scenario that someone takes me up on this offer, I will have to walk the return journey as well.
I have done some other reading particularly accounts of people's experiences on the Camino. These range from the pitifully prepared young and self-conscious walkers who spend most of the time obsessing over their blisters and other ailments, to truly inspiring accounts of metaphorical exploration.
I do tire of stories about people "finding themselves" on the walk. I'll be the knackered, haggard chap in the mirror.
I have also dipped into Spanish history, although the inconceivable horrors of the Spanish Civil War make me wonder why we're walking into a country which still must be seething with unresolved anguish and trauma.
My wife's sister, Cathy, and her husband, Alan, are King Country farmers who run a couple of blocks that cover a land area about the size of Portugal.
They are both straight shooters and Alan is also one of the most gregarious blokes I know. His interactions with the local rural folk are bound to be highlights of the trip. How they'll react to his freely offered farming advice and hands-on demonstrations remains to be seen.
My noble intention is to let you follow our Camino progress at stuff.co.nz. Wish me "Buen Camino". I may be in touch.
- © Fairfax NZ News