Introduction: Lifts are for wimps

A view over San Marcos in Leon, Spain. San Marcos - a jewel of Spanish Plateresque-Renaissance architecture. Leon Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

Looking back on my travels to Santiago de Compostela, it’s the very first day that seems to be the most significant. It happened to me twice, that crossing the Pyrenees on that first day defined my whole expedition.

The first time I walked to Santiago, I had a guidebook that excluded the mountain passage between Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port and Roncesvalles. Obviously, this didn’t discourage me from walking. I presumed that the trail would be obvious. So, when I went to the pilgrim’s office in Saint-Jean-Pied-Du-Port, I didn’t even look at the map handed to me by one of the staff, nor did I listen to what she said as she forcibly pointed at the map.

I finally looked at the map the next day after three hours of lonely hiking when I didn’t even meet one other pilgrim and the Pyrenees were always beside me, never in front of me. That’s when I made a memorable discovery – there are TWO routes to Santiago, and I was walking the less popular one. Euphemism: the trail that was walked by only one person; me. Then, I started to have homicidal thoughts about those who suggested the trail on the map and who didn’t mark it properly making it is too easy to make a wrong turn. Well, at that point I didn’t feel like overanalyzing the thought that I am perhaps the only one who ever made the wrong turn. And I can tell you the exact spot – a fork in the road when, without a shadow of a doubt, I turned right singing “Don’t worry, be happy” while contemplating that I had spent too much time eating croissants, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes because it was already 10 o’clock. If by chance you get to that fork, turn left.

Anyway, the track I took is one route to Santiago, just an alternative one. And it is quite pleasant up to the point where it meets the tarmac mountain road. On the right, you have a steep rock and on the left a sheer chasm. No shoulder. I have no idea how anyone is supposed to walk this road. I gave up after a mile after stopping for a moment in a parking bay and seeing a truck rushing by at 50 miles per hour. Its trailer rebounded steadily from the rock and railing above the chasm. I realized that as I was not prepared to enter Heaven that day, I had to return to the previous village and hitchhike. This was a dramatic decision since before starting on the Camino I had decided to walk at all costs because taking a lift is for … well not for me.

Twenty minutes later I was sitting outside the monastery in Roncesvalles, driven there by a lovely Belgium family. Feeling gloomy, I watched yet another hero walking down the Pyrenees. I felt like a total loser. Of course, I had many opportunities to talk about it for the next five weeks as I was constantly asked about my blood-chilling first day. With a sense of calm that would make Buddha jealous, I explained to another pilgrim that, yes, I had started my journey in the Pyrenees, but I hadn’t hiked them, I’d driven them.

So, as expected, my second journey to Santiago, this time a cycling trip, didn’t start as planned either. You can imagine: when I should have been walking I was riding and when I should have been riding, I was walking; actually pushing the bike. For the last miles, I didn’t even pretend to be riding when yet another group of riders flashed past me. A few hours later, feeling just as gloomy as two years previously, I was sitting at a vantage point on the Ibaneta Pass one mile from Roncesvalles monastery.

Even though I felt disappointed, the real meaning of this experience was clear. There would be no glory stories about my lonely journey across Northern Spain. Not after day one. This journey would be a humble one. And yes, humility is not my greatest virtue. That was the missing element in my perfectly prepared rucksack – something I needed and received on the first day. Equipped, then, I flew over to Spain. Twice.

There the magic starts; and the adventure. In his book “The Pilgrimage” Paolo Coelho wrote that on the road to Santiago you meet good and evil. I only partly agree with him– yes, you meet the good; but you also meet that which scares you only to the point of experiencing the greatest good. So, for me, it was never an encounter with evil in spite of facing my biggest fear.

Well then, what I am trying to tell you is that the track to Santiago is totally different from any other trail. It will surprise and bewitch you with magic and beauty. And it will change your life forever. Because you see, what may look like a journey through Northern Spain, is a journey to your inner self.