Martin Szekeresh has a thirst for adventure. It is a condition that has plagued him for many years and resulted in a treasure trove of memories and great stories.
He quenches that thirst with frequent visits to the Grand Canyon. In fact, he is planning a camping trip there next week – yes, next week, the first week of January. Every year he hikes it from rim to rim on his birthday. Szekeresh is 73.
That thirst for adventure has been satiated over the years through events for ultra runners too – such as the Zane Grey 50-Mile Run, numerous 100-mile runs and multiple marathons. A number of years ago Szekeresh and one of his brothers also ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
Szekeresh has developed a fondness for Spain over the years, and after reading James Michener’s Iberia was inspired to return for a different kind of adventure – following The Way (Camino) of St. James.
The Way of St. James is a pilgrimage path from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It covers 503.93 miles across northern Spain (811 km).
“Buen Camino Pelegrino” means, “Pilgrim, have a good pilgrimage,” was a comment he was to hear many times from many people on his adventure, though he did not make the journey as a pilgrim.
A brief recap of the history of “The Way of St. James”: Christ’s apostle, St. James, preached in Spain before returning to Jerusalem and being beheaded by King Herod in 44 AD. According to legend, two of his disciples secreted away his remains and sailed in a stone boat across the Mediterranean Sea and through the Straights of Gibraltar to Spain. There they buried him. In the early 800’s a religious hermit named Pelayo had a vision in which a spot on a hillside was identified by a bright star. The local bishop ordered a search and St. James’ grave was discovered. A church, which is now the Cathedral of St. James, was built over the site. Not coincidentally at this time, the Christians were trying to recapture Spain from the Moors. And who should appear from the heavens to lead them to victory but none other than St. James mounted on a white steed swinging a mighty sword and killing Moors by the thousands. Thus the legend of St. James (Santiago Matamoros – the Moor slayer) was created. He became the patron saint of Spain and Christians from throughout Europe began making pilgrimages to his church. Since about 950 AD many notables such as St. Francis of Assisi, Ferdinand and Isabella, pope John Paul II and one of President Bush’s daughters, have made all or part of the pilgrimage.
In the last 1,000 years, millions of individuals have completed the pilgrimage and they all had one thing in common – their outfit. The outfit of the historical pilgrims was a large brimmed hat to block the heat and glare of the sun; a wooden staff for defense and fighting off dogs; a gourd for water; sandals for the feet; a knapsack for food and a blanket. In contrast, Szekeresh wore sunscreen and a French foreign legion style cap; carried an aluminum collapsible hiking pole; a camelback for water; trail running shoes; and a backpack with a down sleeping bag. The one item both historical and modern “pilgrims” wore was a scalloped seashell on a string around the neck. “The shell is the symbol for the Camino and for St. James,” Szekeresh explained.
Each year thousands of peregrinos/peregrinas (pilgrims) earn their Compostela (certificate of pilgrimage) in recognition of following The Way of St. James. The Cathedral’s Pilgrim Office issues it to individuals who have completed The Way on foot or by bicycle (or horseback) as documented by their Pilgrim’s Record. The record is like a passport that must be stamped, signed, dated and recorded at different locations along the route.
To earn the Compostela, if traveling by foot, you only need to complete the last 100 km and if by bike, the last 200 km. An authenticated passport must be presented at refugios or albergues (like hostels) for inexpensive overnight accommodations that are intended solely for the use of pilgrims.
Szekeresh said his cost per night averaged 6 Euros or about $8. “I wanted an old fashion pilgrimage experience and was willing to tolerate sleeping and bathroom arrangements that I would hesitate to ask my wife to endure.
“There are a lot of other lodging options available along the Camino that vary from five star paradores (operated by the government) to rooms above bars in remote villages. However, you would miss experiences like the night in the church refugio when an Italian man with a deep beautiful voice sang Amazing Grace accompanied on a guitar by a man from the Netherlands. Or the albergue that played soft classical music until lights out. Or the one that played Gregorian chants by Benedictine monks. Or stepping back in time to the 1950s and 60s in the Acuario (Aquarius) alberque with hippie style posters, wall hangings, dripping candles and incense.”
Szekeresh began his pilgrimage in St. Jean on May 17, following the French route. He hiked over the Pyrenees and spent the first night in an albergue in Roncesvalles, Spain.
The pilgrim accommodations are not for travelers who like privacy. “My first night was spent in a 500-year-old stone building. That one room was large enough to sleep 120 pilgrims in steel, two-tier bunk beds. There was a separate bathroom for men and women and each contained three toilets, three showers and three sinks.”
However, not all facilities were so crowded and in Astorga there were 75 small rooms each with two beds. He said accommodations were usually at least eight to a room, and –except for the two nights he slept on a mat on the floor – always in bunk beds.
“In all lodging the sexes were commingled. Since none of the beds had sheets, everyone had a sleep sack or sleeping bag. I was able to take a hot shower all but two nights and washed clothes (more like rinsed out the sweat) every night in a sink,” Szekeresh said.
All the facilities maintain the same schedule: open at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m.; lights out at 10 p.m.; lights on at 6 a.m.; everyone out and the doors locked at 8 a.m.
“Surprisingly, at the time of year (May-June) there were few young people on the Camino and most pilgrims were in their 50’s and 60’s. I understand that this is not the case in July and August and especially in towns holding fiestas like the running of the bulls in Pamplona.”
Szekeresh said finding a place to eat at a time he was accustomed to eating was always a concern. Usually a nearby restaurant or bar had a special “early” (between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.) for pilgrims and it was always accompanied by wine.
“Even when dining alone I was served a full bottle of wine. My fanciest menu” was in the extremely expensive Gaudi Hotel Restaurant in Astorga. It was white tablecloth service with a large salad, steak, fries, bread, wine and flan for desert, all for 10 euros. The most memorable menus were a simple spaghetti meal made with Spanish cheese in a refugio in Ruitlan (6 euros) and a communal meal in the church bell tower in the albergue in Granon (no charge, just a donation).”
Szekeresh’s daily routine was always the same: climb out – or down – from bed, dress, wash, brush my teeth, pack up and start walking with a stop for café con leche grande at the first open bar.
“I was blessed with good weather and many days walked between 36 and 42 km. Only the uncertainty of finding a place to sleep (and fear of top bunks) kept me from maintaining that schedule every day.
“On June 3 I reached Monte del Gozo (Mount Joy) from which you can see the steeples of the cathedral in Santiago for the first time. Being the first in my group to see them entitled me to be called Rex or King. (A fact lost on my wife, Helen).”
On June 4, Pentecost Sunday, and after 19 consecutive days of walking, except for a 200 km train ride between Burgos and Leon because he mistakenly thought he would run out of time to catch his flight back home, he walked into the Cathedral of St. James.
“I didn’t expect it to be emotional, but it was. I stayed for two masses and was enthralled watching the botafumerio or ‘smoke thrower’ censer. The censer is a 4-foot long silver incense burner that is suspended from the 90-foot ceiling by a 3-inch hemp rope. Through a pulley system below the roof and a series of coordinated pulling by five men, in a cloud of billowing smoke the censer swings just over the heads of the viewers along the north/south transept across the church, from ceiling to ceiling, in a 150-foot arc. It is a sight to behold and every bit as impressive as described by James A. Michener in his book, Iberia. I knew where to sit (on the floor) during the second service and the giant incense burner hurdles directly at me like a fiery comet passing a mere eight feet overhead.”
Szekeresh said there are many lasting impressions of Spain, such as: walking on 2,000-year-old roads and bridges built by the Romans and getting water from their ancient fountains; walking through many small villages with very old stone buildings in various stages of collapse; watching the bull fights on television while eating; electricity generating windmills on hill tops; sheep grazing in the Pyrenees; millions of acres of grain fields and vineyards; country roads lined with red poppies; being serenaded by coo-coo birds; standing still while old men or women drove sheep and cattle past me to different pastures; large stork nests on church spires, and never meeting an unfriendly person.
He recalls climbing the hill to the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) where traditionally pilgrims add a stone brought from their home to add to the cairn below the cross. “I added two Arizona diamonds (quartz crystals) from Diamond Point near Payson.”
He also has a fond memory of drinking free wine near the town of Estella where the local Bodega has installed the “Fuente del Vino” (the wine fountain) for pilgrims. There, in a small plaza, two stainless steel spigots protrude through the wall; one dispenses cold water and the other an excellent port wine.
Szekeresh also made a side trip from Santiago to the seaport of Finisterre. This small fishing village was the end of the known world in medieval times. It is located on a very rocky coast on the Atlantic Ocean known as Costa del Morte (Coast of Death) because of all the shipwrecks.
Szekeresh said with all the avid hikers in the Rim Country, taking The Way of St. James would be a wonderful way to see a great country in a fashion most tourists never enjoy.
He said he would like to do it again with his wife, but she isn’t keen on “roughing” it.
Szekeresh said additional information on the pilgrimage is available on the Web from the Confraternity of Saint James, London, UK, at www.csj.org.uk.
Szekeresh has lived in Payson for 11 years and has had a home here for 15. Retiring from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., he and his wife traveled around to find the place they wanted to settle. They looked at Prescott Valley and at Silver City, N.M. and visited the Rim Country.
Talking it over they decided they liked Payson best and following a speaking engagement in Albuquerque, N.M., Szekeresh made a return visit and found a house. He and his wife came back out and made an offer and were homeowners.
Editor’s note: Much of this narrative is from a letter Szekeresh wrote to his family immediately after his hike through northern Spain along The Way of St. James.