Review of Spanish Pilgrimage – a Canter to Santiago by Robin Hanbury-Tenison
“It is not easy to get closer to the Middle Ages than in remote rural Spain, where customs die hard.” Robin Hanbury-Tenison reflects upon the past, present and future as he leads us at a fast canter along The Way of St. James, the Camino de Santiago. Named as the “greatest explorer” by the Sunday Times, Robin is a Founder and President of Survival International, the world’s leading organisation supporting tribal people. He has been on over 30 expeditions and was leader of the Royal Geographical Society’s largest expedition, taking over 100 scientists to study rainforests. You will, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that riding on horseback across Spain on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela would have little to offer in terms of discovery and adventure; however, you would be mistaken. This is a vivid and enjoyable tale of Robin’s pilgrimage to Santiago, along the Camino de Santiago, accompanied by his wife, Louella and with their young son forming part of the back up team.
Doubting his own religious beliefs as they set off on their 750 kilometre trek, Robin admits to worrying about what was he going to be able to write. Perhaps unconsciously, he identifies other reasons, such as the journey giving an insight into the history of the architecture and also that the route to Santiago de Compostela and Finisterre under the Milky Way had been a focus of worship, long before Christianity.
As soon as Robin first spots other pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, as opposed to on horseback like themselves, you sense that he feels guilty that he is doing the pilgrimage the easy way; the series of disasters that befall him in the first few days seem to be a plea for your sympathy and understanding that he too is suffering hardship. Nevertheless, he does show himself to be totally human and is not afraid to admit to having a hard time as a result of his own stupidity or lack of foresight.
Later on in the journey, once Robin has settled into the pilgrim’s calming rhythm, you notice that he is more comfortable with himself as he admits that, “bikes have to follow roads, walkers slog along under packs and riders have the best of both worlds.” But riding the Camino astride a horse is not without its difficulties, frustrations and……..danger. Going off-track to avoid roads, inevitably means that Robin and Louella get lost and you share their sense of despair, particularly when it involves returning to ride alongside a busy main road; cars and lorries thunder past them at terrifying speed with frighteningly little space to spare, apparently oblivious to the fact that a horse could easily spook and shy directly into their path, with dreadful consequences.
Critics have accused Robin of treating his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela as nothing more than a glorified sponsored horse ride; he has a friend who acts as their back-up team, carrying all supplies, finding suitable overnight camp sites, pitching tents and preparing food. They sometimes stay overnight in a quality hotel and spend “rest days”, sightseeing by car. It is true that, as a result, they do not have close interaction with other pilgrims walking the Camino or even doing the Camino on a bike, however, when you think that the forward scout finding overnight stops is in order to save the horses travelling unnecessary distances and that the rest days are also for the welfare of the horses, you realise that the critics are, at best, ill-informed. The Camino is your Camino, however you may wish to do it and “Buen Camino” to those that do do it!
Robin really does capture the sense of adventure of the Camino de Santiago and his tale vividly portrays the journey, his warm affection for his family and the rosy glow after-effects of meeting local Spaniards who proudly invite him into their own mini bodegas to sample a glass, or two, of their home made wine. These joyful tales make his deeper reflections all the more poignant; his comparison of the quality of life in the “rural serenity” of rural Spain with the “harsh edge of urban life, where every face in the street is a stranger.” His comment that, “what is valuable to us, has not changed.” And finally; “from the Middle Ages on, there has been a concentration on the redemption of mankind and a rejection of the natural world. This is now changing I believe.” Let’s hope that he is right – Buen Camino!
Review by Phil Robinson. Not wanting to leave the “living experience” until retirement, Phil Robinson and his wife (both in their early thirties) bought a Motorcaravan and for 15 months they toured Spain where the Pilgrimage to Santiago “seed” was planted. Another 15 years passed before the opportunity arose for Phil to walk the entire North Route from Hendaya, France to Santiago de Compostela in 40 days and 40 nights
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