Walk of a lifetime: El Camino Ignacio
The Basque Countryside
We had been walking non-stop for about 90 minutes in an obscure town called Vilagrassa in Spain when I thought, why did I sign up for this tour? I had been leading the sedentary life of an adman. The only serious walking I did was through paved shopping avenues, and there I had the option to stop for a cold drink or gelato.
I did not consider myself religious enough to expect a grand epiphany from all the trekking. After the trek, my companions said it seemed I was in deep meditation, like I was reflecting on the beauty of the untouched landscapes around us. Actually, I was just taking stock of all the wonderful food I had since I arrived in Spain, and was praying for the next tapas bar to reveal itself.
But when a lovely Romanesque town called Verdú finally appeared in the horizon, and after all the stops that were part of Camino Ignacio were done, I knew my life as a traveler had changed forever. I had learned that the Camino was a great metaphor for living. It’s beautiful and tough sometimes. It’s about discovering how you’re more capable than you think you are. It’s about surprises and stunning landscapes. It’s about connecting with the past, glorious or sorrowful. It’s about sharing the joy and pain with the people around you, whether familiar or strange. It’s about learning how to walk through life with ourselves — and the right footwear. And the not so trifling themes of seeing the Filipino in the Spanish; and why (Spanish) wine is proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy, to borrow from Ben Franklin.
The 675-km journey
El Camino Ignacio or The Ignatian Way was first developed by the Barcelona-based Jesuit Fr. Josep Lluís Iriberri a few years ago, and was designed to attract pilgrims to walk the camino for religious, spiritual or cultural reasons, much like the centuries-old St. James Way. Camino Ignacio retraces the steps of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, and patron saint of the Basque region (Euskadi to locals), from his birthplace in Guipúzcoa to Manresa where Ignatius experienced a spiritual awakening and wrote his famous Spiritual Exercises.
The 675-kilometer trail traverses through an idyllic Basque countryside and historic Catalan towns. By following painted arrows marking the road, a pilgrim can expect to walk miles and miles a day to reach the next town for the night. If you’re athletic and can deal with blisters, you’d probably take at least six weeks to get to Manresa. But we always don’t have six weeks. You may choose to bike, though rentals are hard to come by. We met a hefty middle-age Catalan who did just that. I only did two hikes, 10 kilometers in all, enough to make me contrite. Hike for a few kilometers, then take the bus through all the towns that Ignatius crossed on foot. And in each stop, immerse yourself in local food, culture and history dedicated to this experience. You’ll also discover a different and gratifying side of Spain beyond paellas and bullfights.
Besides strong knees and battered hiking hooks, most pelegrinos’ bragging rights include a pilgrim’s passport purchased for a few euros from a Spanish tourist agency, a church or hostel on the route. The credencial serves as a pass that gives access to inexpensive accommodations in hostels along the trail. It not only provides pilgrims with a record of where they travel, but also serves as proof of completion of the pilgrimage.
The most efficient way to start the Camino is to fly to Bilbao from Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. From Bilbao, take a one-hour car ride to Loyola (Azpeitia, Guipuzkoa), the quiet, picturesque Basque town where Ignatius was born and surrendered himself to God after serving as a military officer. A sanctuary, including a grand basilica, was erected around the same tower house where Ignatius grew up in and started his conversion during a period of convalescence.
From Loyola, five regions that are part of the route await you. The landscape changes and plays out as dramatically as a Flamenco opera — from fields of lavender and Rioja grapes, functioning communities built on Gothic stone, Romanesque churches, to multi-peaked mountains of eroded limestone. These are the places that transformed Ignatius. It was the Spain I never knew existed. To a secular degree, I likened my experience to Ignatius’ “swimming upstream” from the Basque countryside, when other pilgrims were heading the opposite direction. Take a different path, heed the call to go the other way, against the current of popular fashion. When traveling in Spain, that is.
Here are the key stages of the Camino.
The three temple route
“Try walking by the Urola River and you can’t help but be contemplative, my Basque guide said. The temperate weather conditions, the influence of the sea, the abundant greenery and fertile terrain framed by the Pyrenees mountains, could have been instrumental in turning Ignatius the soldier into a gentler soul.
The Urola runs through the province of Guipúzcoa, which is the first stage of the Camino. It’s largely unexplored and not as known as the other Basque territories of San Sebastian, the mecca for foodies; Biarritz, the surfing destination; and Bilbao, known for the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum. But nowhere else in Northern Spain will you find a concentration of sights that both evoke the past and stimulate spirituality than in Guipúzcoa.
In the magical valleys of Guipúzcoa lie three religious monuments of varying character. Baroque: The Loyola Sanctuary, defined by its spectacular dome and altarpiece of marble and jasper. Romanesque: Santa María La Antigua Shrine in the town of Zumarraga, emblematic for its wood-and-stone interior dating back to the 12th century, and noteworthy for still having the marble basin where Zumarraga-born founder of Manila, conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi, was baptized. Contemporary: Arantzazu Sanctuary in Oñati, a hymn to Franciscan resolve, freedom and modern art.
The Arantzazu Sanctuary was erected by the Franciscans in the 1950s on the same site where a shepherd boy found an image of Santa Maria wrapped in thorns. Hanging off a cliff, the site is a powerful dialogue between nature and architecture. The towering altar mimics rocks that surround the sanctuary, and at its center rests the fragile image of Mary, seemingly protected by the intense surroundings. It’s also a controversial mix of piety and avant-garde art. Fourteen, not twelve, grotesque apostles greet you as you enter a huge iron gate done in abstract style. The paintings in the crypt, done by Basque artists in the ’50s till the ’60s, once drew the Vatican’s ire. The collection is as strange and perplexing as the Basque language (with its abundant “tz” and “tx” compound consonants). One depicts Jesus in devil red.
The Three Temple Route is gentle, proud, original and feisty — all so very Basque.
The Medieval town of Laguardia
After Guipúzcoa, the Camino takes you to the Laguardia, a walled town built in the 13th century, where Ignatius was believed to have stopped for shelter on his way to Montserrat. Laguardia may not hold any profound spiritual significance for the Ignatian pilgrim, but it’s a must-see for a night or two. It was my first of many lessons in Spain on the preservation of entire ancient communities, something we lament in our country that’s overrun by hideous peach buildings and shopping malls.
Imagine a small town sitting on a rock foundation where its four main entrances and walls remain intact since the middle ages. No cars in its few narrow streets are allowed to protect the underground passages and cellars that were dug deeply by its old inhabitants. Today, only a few cellars are used for fermenting. But right outside the walls of Laguardia are endless fields of grapes where Spain’s best wine and one of the world’s best — the La Rioja — comes from.
When you’re In Laguardia a quick diversion from the road to redemption isn’t a bad idea. Our group went on a guided visit to the vineyards of Casa Primicias, the oldest wine cellar in Spain, and there we knew nature provided a special kind of healing and enlightenment. The vineyards mixed with gardens of green, blue, red and orange. We moved through oak trees and bushes of lavender, blueberry, chamomile, rosemary and thyme. The magnificence of the Basque countryside was intoxicating. It was the perfect interlude before Catalunya, which was altogether a different paradise in Ignacio’s España.
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