The Camino de Levante is a quiet pilgrimage route that runs from Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, through Toledo to Zamora, where it joins up with the Vía de la Plata.
Andy Delmege, an Anglican priest from England, walked a large portion of the Camino de Levante in autumn 2009. He went from Valencia to Toledo on foot, and then took the train to Zamora. From there, he walked the Camino Sanabrés variant of the Vía de la Plata to Santiago.
He kindly agreed to answer my questions about the route and his experiences while walking.
Anna-Marie: What drew you to the Camino de Levante for your first walking pilgrimage? (I gather it was your first?)
Andy: It was my first in Spain. I had done a few week-long group pilgrimages to Walsingham twenty years ago.
I wanted a quiet route where I could encounter Spain and I wanted to visit the sites associated with the Carmelite Mystics. Talking it over with one or two people who know the Caminos well and researching on the Pilgrim Forum and the CSJ site decided me that the Levante fitted the bill.
On your blog, you described the first few days as “hellishly difficult.” Why was that?
I was ill. I had a stomach bug and could not eat. Also the enormity of the task I had set myself as well as being alone (there were no other pilgrims and I was walking solo) hit me. If I could have gone home without anyone noticing, I would have done. There were a few very tough few days. I got some medicine and appetite returned and began to make some impact on the mileage, realizing that I could do this.
One important thing was that I promised myself before I started that I would only go home if instructed to by a doctor; this helped me keep with the Camino when things were at their hardest.
In your article The Walking Becomes the Praying, you write that there were three parts to your pilgrimage: the “empty flatness” of the stretch from Valencia to Toledo, walking and driving with friends in the Toledo area, and then a “more relaxed walk” with more pilgrims from Zamora to Santiago. What was it like transitioning between the different parts of your walk?
The first part (which begins with urban Valencia, industrial farming and then some remote hill walking before the flatness of La Mancha) I walked entirely alone. There were no other pilgrims. This was hard but also good.
Some friends from home were coming to Toledo on holiday at the same time as I arrived and I decided I wanted company and to spend time with them. We did a little walking, and then visited Avila and Segovia by car. There was no problem transitioning to this—I was looking forward to the company of friends.
I then rejoined the Camino, deciding to go take the train to Zamora as this meant I could finish the Camino at a more relaxed pace and in order to meet pilgrims walking up the Vía de la Plata. I was anxious about this but was fine once I started to bump into other pilgrims. I formed close relationships with two people in particular.
I noticed you walked with a Spanish guidebook, and I’d imagine there weren’t a lot of English-speakers around on the first stretch. How much Spanish does a pilgrim on the Camino de Levante need to be able to speak and read?
I had done a year of classes and had basic conversational Spanish. I think to be able to do this route you need to be able to ask directions, sort out accommodation and the like. I only met one person who spoke English in the first three weeks.
What was the accommodation like along the way?
There is less pilgrim infrastructure than on the busier routes. There are albergues, but not every day. Some of these are excellent, for example the ones in Algemesi and Las Pedroneras. Others are basic Red Cross shelters. Sometimes it was impossible to find who had the key; other times they turned out to be homeless people’s hostels. It would have been possible to sleep in Sports Centres, but I decided (particularly as I was completely solo) that I would stay in Hostals. I never had a problem finding accommodation.
The route sounds like it can be difficult to follow in places. Did you have any serious problems?
I gather that the way marking is less good than other Caminos (certainly once I got to Zamora and joined the Vía de la Plata, marking seemed superb). I got lost a few times, but generally just the sort of thing that adds an hour or so onto the day. The strip maps in the Spanish Guide were generally good. I found with them, the arrows and a compass I did OK. Finding my way out of towns was quite often difficult.
There were a few times you fell asleep while walking. I didn’t realize that was possible. What was it like?
Towards the end of the very long forty kilometre stage between Almansa and Higueruela there was a small straight road with no traffic. I was exhausted and just plodding until I reached the end. Several times I came to, realizing that I had been asleep. There wasn’t much I could do about this. I didn’t want to stop and sleep because I wasn’t sure I’d get up again if I stopped.
I suppose it did me no harm!
You talk in your blog about the kindness of the Spanish people. What are some of your favourite examples?
Walking in afternoon heat, the manager of a farm employing people with learning disabilities told me to wait and then reappeared with a bottle of ice cold water. Some farmers above me on a hill called me over and presented me with a water melon. Several times, stopping in a bar for a cafe y refresco, the owners refused payment because I was a pilgrim. A nun giving me two kilos of home made biscuits.
You’ve written a little about the importance of rest days. What was your favourite place for a rest day?
I have several. Chinchilla is a wonderful historic hilltop town close to Albacete. I had walked a couple of very long stages to get there and a rest was essential. The parish Church is superb with a beautiful statue of la Virgen de las Nieves and a very robust Santiago Peregrino looking down from the roof.
Much later on, I spent a rest day at the private albergue ‘Casa Anita’ at Santa Croya de Tera, a few days beyond Zamora. This was a wonderfully nourishing place. Anita and Domingo were wonderful hosts, feeding us, drying soaked kit and dispensing vast quantities of wine. The Church at Santa Marta de Croya, just across the river, has the earliest statue of Santiago Peregrino and was a place of prayer.
I spent a couple of days at Oseira Monastery shortly before Santiago. This small retreat gave me the space to pray through the Camino before my arrival.
You say: “solo pilgrimage, although hard at times, can also become self-indulgent.” What do you mean by that?
When I am walking by myself my routine, pace, daily mileage, and the like are all about me. I walk and live in ways that entirely suit me. When I walk with others I have to keep other people’s needs in mind too.
You say, fairly early on: “I have learned the hard way not to push to much. The two things I am praying for myself are linked to this and to the pilgrim-pace: to learn to be much more relaxed and accepting, and to learn what it is possible for me to do wisely in a day and to accept this. Reliance on God and others in other words.” Was that something that developed as you kept walking?
It did develop while I was walking. It was something that I had been thinking and praying about before I walked which affects all of my life, not just the days out walking. The space and prayer of the Camino, along with the practical lessons you can learn on it helped a lot with this (although it is something I am still working on).
Can you tell me a bit about how, in your words, “the walking became the praying?”
[Note: This is an excerpt from Andy’s article The Walking Becomes the Praying, first published in the Fairacres Chronicle, Vol. 43 No. 1, Summer 2010. You can read the entire article on Andy’s blog, Pilgrimspace.]
What I gradually discovered was that the walking became the praying. Alan Ecclestone describes the pilgrimages of Charles Peguy to Chartres: A pilgrimage gets to the holy place at last but what gives it its part in prayer is the slamming down of one’s feet to complete the journey while praying the while for all its features[ii]. In putting one foot in front of another, in the tiredness, in the blisters, in the being at one with myself, the landscape and God, in the mind quietening, in all this, walking, pilgrimage itself, became prayer.
The simple goodness of walking and praying the Camino was a falling more deeply into God. The walking became a deeper loving. The incarnatedness of pilgrim prayer, its coming out of kilometre after kilometre, mile after mile of effort, is tested because the Camino is also a School of Charity. I have already written of how generous the people living along the Way were. One important thing for me was to learn to receive it. It can be more testing to learn to live with other pilgrims. Busy albergues can be challenge. Everyone is crowded into a simple dormitory with some showers, facilities for hand washing clothes, and maybe a kitchen. Everyone is tired. Most people want to get an early night. Some people snore. Some people get up to prepare for walking at four in the morning. Dealing with this is an exercise in the practical love that comes out of praying. It is also part of learning basic pilgrim attitudes. These seem to me to revolve around gratitude; to be grateful for the love and care expressed in so many ways, while accepting the difficulties and discomforts with grace.
Another key aspect of praying and prayerful attitudes that came out of the pilgrimage was trust. Going off to another country to undertake a challenge that was greater than anything I had done before was a risk. I had to learn to trust myself and my abilities, to trust others (and also to discern when it was right not to trust others), and to trust God. This could be seen, for example, in finding accommodation each night. At home know that I will always be sheltered and comfortable. On the Camino I did not know where I would spend the next night. As I walked, I relaxed and the anxiety about whether I would get a bed slipped away. This is an attitude I must work to keep now.
You wrote in your blog: “I do not know what I feel about finishing. I have both loved and hated the Pilgrimage; it has been one of the best and one of the most difficult things I have done. My friend John sent me a text a couple of days ago saying that the benefits will emerge over the next few decades.” How do you feel about it now, more than a year later? What benefits have continued to emerge.
When I came back, people said that I had grown. I think it has made me more confident and stronger (if I can do that, I can probably do anything …). The things that we touched on above about faith, trust and pace are also important and continue to emerge. I learned, and continue to learn, important lessons about my need to rely on God and others rather than myself; on the being realistic about possibility and its limits; and about what my limits are.
 Alan Ecclestone, A Staircase for Silence, DLT, 1977, p13.
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If you’re interested in the Camino de Levante, the Confraternity of Saint James has some good information.