Dry gravel crunches underneath my feet. On my right, a gentle breeze ripples a field of nearly ripened wheat while on my left, sunflowers crane their necks toward the setting sun. This would be a beautiful moment if it weren’t for all the other people marching along behind, beside and in front of me – chatting, sweating and breath-ing hard from the exertion. It’s August, and the Way of St. James between Pamplona and Santiago de Compostela is like a busy human highway.
The Camino Francés or French Way across northern Spain is the most popular pilgrimage route. It ends at the shrine of St. James the Apostle in Santiago. I had hoped for a chance to reflect and turn inward on this journey, but the hostels en route all fill up by noon, and in their rows and rows of bunk beds, the pilgrims cough and snore the night away.
Luckily for me, I meet Markus, a man in his early thirties who has quit the rat race although he’s still young. Markus advises me to get up before dawn, which I happily do, and so I finally have a chance to spend some time with myself. I stumble through the fog with my headlamp on, tramp up green hills against the steady rain and stop at tiny sandstone chapels that most other people overlook or ignore. In one of them, an old priest in a dark robe and a bushy beard gives me a second piece of advice: “Come in the spring next time and you will find far fewer people on the road.”