by Cynthia English

The first step on my camino was in an obscure room in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany on a bleak snow-shower day in December. A black cape and hat of felt trimmed with perfectly uniform scallop shells hung suspended in a glass case. A spirit and energy imbedded in these garments caught me, held me mesmerized and insidiously changed the course of my life.

‘…worn by a Prince along Der Jakobsweg during the Medieval Period…’. Never in all of my travels had (nor have) I seen anything so perfect in form, color and animation. And they were not animated. I know that. But there was a unique verve which coursed through my veins prompted by this dense outerwear and this mysterious ‘Jakobsweg’ that seemingly brought them to life. Those pieces of history had shielded a human soul from the elements, had borne blood, sweat and tears…happiness, camaraderie, loves and fears of someone–and survived undamaged. That cape and hat were asking me to share a story. I could feel it. What was it? What was this ‘Jakobsweg’?

Late that night, I ran from the train to my home in central Hamburg to immediately begin the research. Internet service was down. I’d been through this before, it was just a matter of time before it was reconnected. To distract myself, I opted for fresh air, a walk. And, as so extraordinarily happens in life, I began to see the word ‘Jakobsweg’ appearing everywhere…from posters on dimly lit street lamps to an ad under the florescent lights of Aldi to the cover of a book laying on the adjacent candlelit table at the Four Seasons Hotel. The signs were everywhere, directing me to ‘The Way’. What was it?

Der Jakobsweg, St. James Way, El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, The Way. A pilgrimage from ancient times, a path of trade, of war, of Knights Templar, of religious freedom seekers and for many, men in search of hope–of change.

Desperately in need of a place to harvest renewal of spirit, I decided to search for a friend game to try a new conquest and, how to get to St. Jean Pied-de-Port, my starting point.

I’d never carried a backpack in my life. Never been hiking. Transplanted Los Angeleno, Manhattanite, I could walk miles (even in Blahnik heels, porting a rather large, (translate: heavy) Ralph Lauren handbag) but I’d never carried my belongings on my back. Never slept in some kind of group home. Never traveled out into the ‘wilderness’ completely on my own. But, the Prince had touched me and I was determined to try to walk his path. What is the worst that could happen? The camino has had protectors since the 12th century.
A friend signed on; another offered her backpack (which I put on my back and promptly fell to the ground backwards, feet 90 degrees above me); another bought me John Brierley’s, ‘A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Santiago’; Paulo Coelho’s book, The Alchemist, and another Shirley MacLaine’s, The Camino, I purchased a day pack and scaled back to one change of clothing, emergency bandaids, salve, suntan lotion, camera and my pink flip flops; the friend cancelled the day before departure. Two more steps of my camino. I learned each of these challenges were the ebb and flow of conquest. Of learning to breathe in and out and to let-go. Of continuing to take one more step. Of having Faith. Trust. Even at the most hopeless of times, things work out somehow…patience, a skill to try to harness.

I boarded that plane, the bus, the train and with fear in my heart, I kept stepping forward. From Bayonne, France to St Jean Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre, Spain. I met amazing people: Kind and gracious. Compassionate and caring. I met horrible people: Selfish and cruel. Narcissistic and callous. I met the dogs of El Camino. I met challenges of El Camino head on. I learned, the modern ‘peregrino’ walking The Way remain people from all cultures and countries in search of spiritual restitution, enlightenment, sanctity, often hope or change of life, some walk their camino graciously, with humility. And I learned, there are others, people coursing through the villages, the cities, over the paths through vineyards, across plains, up rocky crags and beside ancient rivers, only for sport. To prove they can walk approximately 500 miles as quickly as they can. It can become a culture clash, the ‘sportifs’ click-clacking metal sticks along parts of the paved way, distracting the peaceful soul-seeker whom at one time may have carried a wooden staff, water gourd tied tightly at the top, that would have softly pounded the trodden dusty or sodden soil…but today just walks quietly, keeping his/her own counsel. I learned to carefully choose a time of travel, that this clash can jettison a race to certain albergos to such heights that the stress of early morning departures and disrespect and disregard for the tired and infirm can escalate to a re-enactment of the battle of the Moors–swords replaced with bungie cords used to hang wet laundry off of one’s backpack–an unpleasant sight disrupting the soul of the seeker of peace. I learned when you truly felt you couldn’t take one more step and the ‘inn’ was full, that spirit somehow enveloped you and despite the tears, propelled you forward where the last bed was for you and the innkeeper insisted you have warm soup or bread and cheese. An unexpected embrace of love. The Universe touches you. Perhaps it is the touch of St. James, the Patron Saint of Spain. Lovely people touch you. If you listen and watch, you discover who you are and may decide to make a few adjustments to ‘you’. I learned that I no longer needed ‘things’ to be happy and peaceful and fulfilled, that actually I was just as happy with little. But I also realized, that truthfully, when I saw El Parador in Leon, I couldn’t wait to throw open the shutters, to look out over the plaza with the bronze Peregrino, draw the hot bubble bath and luxuriate in the fine cotton sheets. I couldn’t really escape luxuries I’d been blessed to know, as hard as I tried. But I know now, I am a lover of all adventure, a true believer in the Divine–small miracles did not go unnoticed–and I am a survivor. Good or bad, I can do it alone.

I wonder what happened to the Prince whose life centuries later touched mine, sparking a lust in my soul to be ever seeking more of what this life wants of me by spurring me forth on ever more challenging adventures and risks–not necessarily dangerous, but pressuring the limits of domestic complicity. Without doubt, I am a better person for having walked a spiritual ‘Jakobsweg’. And I hope you, too, open your heart to a ‘camino’ of your life and see where the touch of magic guides you.

If you would like to ask a question regarding the author’s spiritual journey along El Camino, please email: Subject: Peregrino