On Foot to the End of the World by René Freund trs Janina Joffe

Pilgrim, pick up your staff!
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The Independent Culture

Saint James, it is fair to say, is not the most politically correct of apostles. Among the Spanish, whose patron saint he is, he rejoices in the sanguinary epithet of matamoros: "the Moor slayer". In 841, at the battle of Clavijo, he appeared on a cloud of dazzling white, riding to the rescue of the Christians as they fought the invading Muslims. A hundred and fifty years later, and the Moors won payback by sacking the cathedral that had been raised over the supposed site of Sant Iago's tomb, and carting off its bells. The Christians, nothing daunted, briskly restored the shrine. It had soon become, after Jerusalem and Rome, the most sacred object of pilgrimage in the whole of Christendom. For centuries, throughout the Middle Ages, pilgrims from all over Europe thronged the "Camino de Santiago" - the "Way of Saint James".

And recently, over the past 15 years, the Camino has begun to fill up once again. In On Foot to the End of the World, a wonderfully wry and amusing account of what it is like to be a modern-day pilgrim, the author, the Austrian travel-writer René Freund, describes looking up and seeing a fighter jet screaming overhead. "It would take a jet less than an hour to get to Santiago," Freund cannot help reflecting, "and we still have six weeks ahead of us. We are walking anachronisms."

Yet it is precisely the anachronistic quality of what he is doing that makes it so fascinating a theme. The question of why, in a continent of emptying churches and ever-filling airports, so many Europeans should be picking up their staffs, lacing on their hiking-boots, and following their medieval forebears along the road to Santiago is one that obsesses and niggles Freund, like an itch that he is unable quite to scratch. His own motives, he insists, are not religious; indeed, as a vaguely agnostic Protestant, he finds some of the more lurid manifestations of Spanish Catholicism positively repellant. "We are pilgrims because other people see us as that," he decides in one moment of particularly existential gloom. As a result, the moment that people stop treating him and his wife as pilgrims, he feels himself demoted to the status of an "irritating budget holidaymaker". Which, he concludes, "is essentially what we are".

Yet this is too easy and self-deprecatory a verdict, and Freund is not the man to rest content with it for long. During the course of his 1,000-mile journey, he seizes upon any number of alternative conclusions. Pilgrims take the Camino because they are facing a cross-roads in their lives, or because it is an escape from the pace of modern existence, or because they have read too much Paulo Coelho. All are perfectly plausible. None entirely convince. No wonder, then, that pilgrims, when they meet up at the end of the day, should prefer to stick to safer topics of conversation, whether food, or blisters, or how to deal with Spanish dogs. Metaphysical questions, as Freund points out, are "absolute no-go areas".

Yet it is the charm and achievement of his book that in fact it makes perfectly clear what the lure of the Camino is. "The Way!" Freund exclaims, Bilbo Baggins-style, as he embarks on his first day's walking. "How beautiful this route is when one has finally left the outskirts of the city! It snakes its way through oak forests, over fields, along stone walls in which one can hear lizards scuttling... I now know why I hesitated so long to describe this trail. I simply cannot do it justice." True, his sense of joy is soon being darkened by the mishaps and annoyances that afflict all pilgrims, but not the leakiest Gore-Tex, nor the most thunderous snores from a fellow guest in a dormitory, can entirely dissipate it.

For it is the peculiar quality of the Camino that even the bleakest moments serve only to counterpoint the highs. A wet day will be followed by one of perfect sunshine; the pilgrim who snored all night will offer you, in the morning, some of his carefully-hoarded jam. "Walking the route several times doesn't necessarily make you a wiser person," as Freund, aggravated by two sententious fellow-pilgrims, points out waspishly; but it certainly does encourage you to move to a distinctive rhythm. All those who have walked to Santiago will find, in Freund's book, a perfect evocation of the Way; all those who have not will surely find themselves yearning to experience it at first hand. "Ultreïa!", as the old pilgrim's greeting puts it. "Ever onwards to the end!"