Page last updated at 09:35 UTC, Wednesday, 14 February 2018 PH
We chose to begin the one hundred-kilometer walk in a town of Galicia called Sarria. To reach this place, we first flew to Madrid, spending a night in the Capital of Spain. By another coincidence, we stayed in a hotel called Hotel Catalunya in the center of Madrid, within walking distance from favorite tourist sites such as the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor. The irony of the name of the hotel was not lost to me and my four nephews. During that very week we would be doing the Camino, emotions were very high in the region of Catalunya, especially its capital Barcelona, about the issue of independence from Spain. We were staying in a hotel called Catalunya in the center of the City which is being criticized by the Catalans as imperial and insensitive to the needs of their region. Since we were planning to spend another week in Barcelona after having done the Camino, we tried to be as neutral as possible about the very complicated issue of Catalan independence. True enough, when we arrived in Barcelona the week after having done the Camino, we did not hear the end of debates among the people we met there about the so-called referendum or plebiscite. Every taxi driver we talked to had an opinion, for or against independence.
But back to the Camino. From Madrid, we took a van that transported us to the town of Sarria in six hours. In that journey, I once again marveled at how Spain had done its homework decades ago in Build, Build, Build! The six-hour trip brought us through tunnels, hanging bridges, highways (autovias) and superhighways (autopistas) which are among the best in the world. I remembered my first long stay in Spain in 1963 when I spent a year in Barcelona after obtaining my Ph.D. in the United States. Spain then was still very much a Third World country. A million Spaniards were overseas workers in more advanced countries like Germany and France and the country’s infrastructures were inadequate and inefficient. It was during the time of the authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco that an aggressive program to build roads, bridges, railways, dams, and other public works began. His example was followed by the subsequent governments. I thought to myself that we can learn a great deal from Spain about how to implement our own Build, Build, Build programs. In fact, some of their large companies should be welcome to give unsolicited proposals for our railways, airports, superhighways and other infrastructures. The Spanish economy has been the first to recover from the Great Recession of the past decade or so. It has been growing at more than 3 percent in GDP, one of the highest in the developed world today.
In no time at all, we reached the small town of Sarria where we were to start our pilgrimage. The first stage took us from Sarria to As Rozas to Vilacha and finally Portomarin which spanned 22.4 kilometers. Sarria has an altitude of 440 meters above sea level and the highest altitude we reached during the whole Camino was 700 meters. We went up and down through winding mountain trails, from time to time traversing modern villages where we would take our lunches at close to 2 p.m. The first day ended in the historic town of Portomarin, which dates back to the Roman age, and an important halt along the route in the middle ages. The old Portomarin lies beneath the waters of the dam built in 1962. But before flooding the town, many ancient monuments were moved, stone by stone, and transferred somewhere else. The municipality also has the Church of St. Nicholas that dates back to the 13th Century; the portal of the Church of St. Peter from 1182; the count’s house, from the 16th Century and a palace constructed in the 17th century. The Camino, therefore, is also a trip back to ancient times and is as much a rich cultural experience as it is spiritual and physical. There were many monuments illustrating Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque art along the route. The art lovers among my nephews had a feast in taking photos of these architectural wonders of the past.
During the five days of our walk, we coincided with hundreds of other pilgrims from all over the world. There were Americans, Canadians, Australians, Japanese, and, of course Spaniards and other Europeans. One could not possibly lose the way, not only because of the ubiquitous “scallop” signs pointing to the right direction, but because of the many other pilgrims whom one just had to follow. There was the constant greeting “Buencamino” every time one crosses path with other pilgrims. There was a great deal of camaraderie among the pilgrims. One of my nephews, who was especially gregarious, exchanged a lot of stories with our fellow travelers. Another even played frisbee with some American teenagers. I had my hands full translating for my nephews every time they had to communicate in Spanish to waiters, our chauffeur, and other service workers. I enjoyed having the opportunity to practice the Spanish I learned while teaching for a total of three years at the IESE Business School in Barcelona. I wish I had more opportunities to practice the language of Cervantes. It is very easy to lose fluency in a foreign language because of lack of practice. I reminded my nephews that Spanish is worth learning because it is the mostly widely spoken Western language after English. I am glad that some of my grandnieces and nephews—who belong to the new Generation Z—are either already studying in Spanish universities or planning to do so. (To be continued.)