Christopher Howse

To be a pilgrim

To make the pilgrimage less grim, avoid the Pyrenees — and your fellow travellers, advises Jean-Christophe Rufin

In his friendly and beguiling voice, Jean-Christophe Rufin explains (in a way that reminded me of the pre-journey relish of Camilo José Cela’s Journey to the Alcarria) that, before setting off on foot for Santiago de Compostela, he went to a little shop in Paris and joined the Association of Friends of St James. I have sometimes toyed with the idea of starting an Association of Enemies of St James. I suspect that in his worse, or better, moods Rufin might join.

It’s not St James who’s the problem but his friends. Look at the evidence. Rufin walks to Santiago, but chooses the northern route from San Sebastian along the coast. He won’t go the ordinary route, from Roncevaux in the Pyrenees along the so-called French Way, partly because it is dull and often haunted by heavy-goods vehicles, but principally because he can’t bear walking with other pilgrims. I’m with him there. They wear shorts and smell (and Rufin dislikes body odour, even his own), and they have gone on pilgrimage for a reason, often to do with an unhappy love life.

Rufin, a novelist and physician who has devoted many years to humanitarian endeavour in foreign lands, most of all couldn’t bear sleeping in crowded hostels, or rather, not sleeping, for he is insomniac at the best of times and attracts snorers as ailurophobes attract cats. Driven to shelter in a hostel, he is greeted by a cyclist rubbing smelly brown ointment on to smellier callused feet. ‘A certain nasal tone in his voice made me suspect two things: that he was German, which was fine with me, but more importantly that he belonged to the vast international brotherhood of snorers.’ So Rufin carried a light tent and, having sensibly en route posted home his cooking gear to get his pack below three kilos, put up with the nuisance of having to walk two or three miles for his morning coffee.

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