If you think walking alone on steep tracks through Spanish forest overgrown with eucalypt, blackberry and bracken in oppressively humid weather carrying a 12-kilogram backpack for 25 kilometres every day for about six weeks is your idea of a good break from urban life, then the Camino del Norte from Irun along the northern coast of Spain to Santiago de Compostela in Galacia is for you.
And if you like barking dogs, walking on narrow country roads and through industrial wastelands then by all means take the plunge. I did. This was to be my second pilgrimage. Having completed the Camino Francés from St Jean Pied du Port in France to Santiago in 2016, I decided to give the Norte a try.
I resolved before I walked the Camino Norte, which like the Francés is sometimes called the Way, that it would need a theme. In 2016, in the ruins of a Celtic village near Castromayor, I had wondered whether my ancestors may have lived there. After all, my mother was Irish. I had walked about 650 kilometres by then and distances like that can play tricks with one’s mind.
So the theme of my first Way, as I walked into Santiago, became the truth and simplicity with which my mother viewed the struggles during the course of her life. I had also set out from St Jean with a walking stick that was a gift from a judge, a close friend who died in 2006. I left it in the cathedral in Santiago for him.
In the time of alternative facts and fake news I decided on the second Way I would explore the Norte through the context of Picasso’s monumental painting Guernica. Perhaps that work would hold some answers to my deep sense of unease at the direction we were taking. And the Norte passes through Gernika (the Basque spelling of the town and now named Gernika–Lumo).
The first thing to do would be to see the painting. This Way would begin at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, where the painting has been housed, after a number of homes, since 1992. The fire bombing of Gernika by the German and Italian air forces took place on 26 April 1937. It was intended to repress the Basque resistance to Franco as the Spanish Civil War unfolded and was seen as an opportunity by the Nazis and their imitators in Italy to test their weapons on a civilian population. It was the forerunner to the notion of total war. Many hundreds of civilians were killed and injured and most of the town was destroyed.
When the world press, who were in nearby Bilbao covering the civil war, reported the attack, Franco claimed the Basque people had destroyed their capital and murdered their own people. These events occurred 80 years ago and to reflect on them the Reina Sofia mounted an exhibition, Piedad y terror en Picasso. El camino a Guernica, ‘Pity and terror. Picasso’s path to Guernica’. The exhibition would run until 4 September 2017. And so good fortune and timing allowed me to examine the painting in a detailed way and by reference to the archival material on display.
Picasso began work on Guernica in Paris on 1 May 1937. He had been commissioned to complete a work for the Spanish pavilion at the forthcoming International Exposition of Art and Technology in modern life, which was to open in July 1937. He had struggled to produce a work fit for the time until the attack on Gernika took place. He completed the painting in about six weeks and it has since become an international symbol of peace and humanity. That reputation was reinforced in 2003 when a replica tapestry of the painting that hangs in the UN in New York was covered in a shroud when Colin Powell sought approval for the invasion of Iraq, so it didn’t appear on television behind him.
The Way began in the Reina Sofia among a group of Spanish students on a Friday afternoon in front of Guernica. I am not an art critic or art historian, but the immense power of the work, its scale and creative soul, cannot be denied. Picasso’s Camino to Guernica took him through Cubism and mythology, his estrangement from Spain and a complex personal life. The painting was also motivated by a global political event. Politics had not been a factor in any of his earlier work. What I didn’t know was that in the coming weeks 22 people would be murdered in Manchester, eight in London and one in Melbourne in acts of terrorism and hundreds would die in a catastrophic fire again in London.
That day at the Reina Sofia I thought the painting seemed overcome by the burden of the expectation that it provide answers to the global challenges faced by humanity; answers Picasso didn’t intend to provide. In turn, this cast some doubt on the theme of my Camino.
The other main Camino in Spain is the Primitivo, a journey that began in Oviedo in the ninth century. I decided I would walk the Norte from San Sebastian to Oviedo, a distance of about 420 kilometres, and that I would return in a year or so to complete the Primitivo to Santiago. I left San Sebastian in late May. Gernika lay ahead across the steep and remote Basque countryside.
My departure coincided with unseasonal hot weather. The stages from San Sebastian to Deba were along the coast. Walking alone along the edge of the European continent on a clear day in early summer is surely a healthy way to leave urban life behind. I met the occasional pilgrim, we stayed in comfortable albergues and ate paella.
I left Deba early one morning and entered the Basque hinterland. It was a hot, steep climb. The dense forest obscured the sky. I was alone with my thoughts, backpack and not quite enough water. Much of the Spanish forest had been cleared and replaced with pine and eucalypt. Harsh logging truck tracks had been cut through it. However, the waymarking is reliable and I didn’t get lost.
In the early afternoon that day, exhausted and frustrated, I felt it was okay to express it in overly strong terms. ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I yelled into the forest. Shortly afterwards, a fit-looking Spanish man came up behind me. He seemed just to materialise. He was carrying a daypack and was out for a stroll. I told him of my exhaustion. He nodded and said in a kind way, ‘Do not desecrate.’ He was right of course. I told myself pilgrims like me often hit the wall early in a journey and I had hit mine. That night I slept in a very basic room in Markina, ate perfect slow-cooked beef cheeks, drank some Rioja and prepared for the walk the following day into Gernika.
Again it was an early start in low-lying cloud. As the sun began to rise into the sky I walked into the fourteenth-century Monasterio de Zennaruza. I was alone. The cloisters were empty. An ancient discarded church bell sat in a garden surrounded by roses. A carved wooden serpent looked down at me as I drank some water. I began to measure time by distance.
From the monastery the Way again climbed steeply into dense forest. I met Michael, a German pilgrim who had walked from his house near the Swiss border, was going to Santiago and then back on the Camino Francés to France and ultimately Rome. He said he was walking 5000 kilometres in about eight months. He told me he had broken in five pairs of shoes at home and his family would send them ahead as needed.
I walked on. It is hard to walk, talk and think sometimes. As I approached Gernika loud gunshots rang out through the forest. I had little choice but to keep going and assumed whoever was firing the high-powered rifle was aware the forest was occupied by a number of widely dispersed pilgrims. Arriving in Gernika that afternoon, taking off my backpack and ordering a large cold cerveza at the first bar I came to was one the great reliefs of my life.
Gernika today is a much more attractive town than we are led to believe. The Park of European Peoples is adjacent to the Assembly House, which still sits to this day. Nearby the fifteenth-century Church of Santa Maria also survived the firebombing and this area is a calm and dignified place. In the Assembly House I met the administrative director, who explained the history and work in the building to me. The assembly and church survived the repression of fascism and provided the foundation for the people of the town to recover.
That night I ate in the busy and peaceful town square. As with Spain generally, children played in the street well into the night. Families strolled together. The soccer was on television in the bars, where delectable tapas and drinks were being served. There was no public drunkenness, aggression or fear. A band played 1970s rock and roll in a nearby street, watched by the young and the elderly.
There is a replica of Guernica in Gernika and a simple museum devoted to the attack. A room in the museum re-creates a living room in an apartment in the town. I sat in the darkness listening to the planes flying down the Mundarca River, unleashing their weapons, and the fire taking hold. I left the town on the way to Bilbao along Calle Pablo Picasso.
Gernika is an important place and its dignified contribution to peace is well recognised in Europe. Guernica the painting helps to keep the contribution alive. As I walked along I wondered, why do we need to be reminded of these lessons or perhaps more fundamentally what are the lessons? It began to emerge that this Camino was not so much about my pilgrimage but more concerned with a collective Camino, if such a thing was possible.
In Bilbao I met a couple from Manchester. They often dropped off and collected their children from the venue where the murders occurred. It could happen to anyone. They were in Bilbao for an installation and sculpture show their nephew was staging and we went to the Guggenheim together to see an abstract expressionist retrospective showing significant works by Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning. But after Gernika I needed to keep walking.
I walked into Cantabria and the weather from the Atlantic closed in. The days were shrouded in low cloud and mist. The coast became more and more dramatic. Ancient cliffs like those in south-west Victoria met the deep ocean.
I met an Irish couple, Patrick and Gerda. Gerda was from Holland but she spoke English with an Irish brogue. We stayed together in a well-known albergue in Germes run by Ernesto, a Catholic priest, who seemed to be running a healthy business judging by the numbers of visitors he displayed on the charts at the entrance. He told us to look at nature as we walked and not just the yellow way markers. We all seemed to understand that. Patrick and I persuaded him to let us watch the Champions League final in his library with a bottle of Rioja. It was Real Madrid 4–0.
The weather improved as I arrived in the medieval village of Santillana del Mar for my birthday. To celebrate, I went to the Museum of Torture that exhibited an extraordinary array of devices to inflict immeasurable pain on dissidents during the Inquisition. I texted a wise friend and he replied, ‘Good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things, but if you want good people to do bad things religion will help.’ I pondered this over the best Cantabrian fabada I have eaten.
The weather deteriorated again as I walked alone along the coast to Comillas and Llanes. These towns on the Cantabrian Sea are truly beautiful. I slowed down, rested my ageing body and enjoyed the food and architecture. Occasionally, I would glimpse a reproduction of Guernica in a café, which served as a reminder of my purpose, but by then that purpose had become less clear.
I had walked about 300 kilometres from Gernika through peaceful untroubled countryside and towns. In Asturias the forests were behind me and cow bells rang across the paths and trails lined with wild-flowers. Newborn foals and calves were everywhere, simple lives responding to the struggle we all face, town by town, village by village, person by person.
In Ribadesella I met Peter and Jane from England. We had a menu del día together. That’s three courses, wine, a litre of water and a coffee for 13 euros. I’d become accustomed to having my main meal at lunchtime as most do in this part of Spain. Lunch is at three and by that time of the day I’d walked 20 or so kilometres.
Peter and Jane devote their retirement to funding small business development in HIV-devastated villages in Kenya as their way of helping out, as they put it. They organise friends to contribute small monthly sums to support a shop, service provider or farm. They take no commission or profits of any kind and pay all the expenses themselves. They visit Kenya each year to see how things are progressing. It seemed to me that this was a model we could all consider if we wanted to help out.
I walked to La Isla and on to Oviedo along the coast and through the countryside. The weather closed in yet again. My arrival in Oviedo was unlike arriving in Santiago.
I had not completed a Camino but walked a significant section of the Norte, only to arrive at a beginning. I left my walking stick in the cathedral cloisters and returned to Madrid to see Guernica again. As I sat on the train crossing the Picos de Europa I felt the distance I had travelled once more, the welcoming Spanish men and women I had met and the privilege of crossing their country on foot.
I arrived at the Reina Sofia late one evening and stood in the quiet gallery with the painting. I kept thinking of the replica covered with a shroud in 2003, in the UN of all places. On that day in 2003 Laurie Brereton, a former ALP cabinet minister and then Member of the Australian House of Representatives, was present as a member of an Australian delegation, and observed in relation to the invasion of Iraq, ‘We may well live in the age of the smart bomb, but the horror on the ground will be just the same as that visited on the people of Gernika, and it won’t be possible to pull a curtain over that.’
In the time of alternative facts and fake news his words resonate today. If Guernica tells us anything, it is that we cannot hide truth. •