A pilgrim's progress

Zanny Merullo Steffgen, on a personal and vinous journey of discovery along the Camino de Santiago


After the first few days of walking through the Spanish countryside on the Camino de Santiago, I developed a ritual. Once I’d arrived at the destination for the day’s portion of the pilgrimage, I’d line up my backpack outside an albergue (hostel), ease my raw feet out of my hiking boots, and find the nearest café. There I would order a glass of Spanish red, or a pitcher of sangria for my group of friends, and drink to the day’s accomplishments. I’d let the spice-laden Garnacha swirl around my tongue, or the punch of dark fruits in Tempranillo coat my throat, bringing with it a pleasurable distraction from the aches that climbed from my feet up my legs. 

Along with my walking partners (a Canadian, German and Australian I’d met on the first day), or my childhood best friend Isadora who joined me ten days into the trek, I’d sip on wine, snack on patatas bravas, and revel in sensory pleasure until the hostel opened its doors and I could fall into the all-consuming world of dreams that was my midday nap.

I was 19 when I completed the trek, still two years out from a legal glass of wine in my home country, and perhaps that’s why the ritual was so special. The Camino was my way of finishing up a gap year, and it had been a dream of mine to complete it since I’d read about it in National Geographic as a child. There was something that called to me about the lifestyle of the 800 kilometre spiritual journey, even though I was not a practicing Catholic. Each morning we’d begin before sunrise, lacing up our shoes and following yellow arrows that pointed us closer to the sacred town of Santiago de Compostela. For the next twenty-some kilometres, our feet would tap out the rhythm of whatever we were feeling that day—sometimes it was awe or hope for the future, other times we revisited painful memories or wallowed in the difficulty of the undertaking. We traced lines over the green peaks of the Pyrenees, kicked up red dust on the plateaus of the Rioja and Navarra regions, and moved forward robotically through the dry, flat plains of the Meseta. Along the way, we passed from the side of concrete roadways to rocky paths, dirt trails, and the cobblestone streets of sprawling Spanish cities.

“No vino, no Camino,” was one of the first things Jay said to me when we discovered that we were both veterans of the trail. Jay and I met in a Cambodian hostel a few months after my pilgrimage, where we both bartended for room and board then explored ruins in the jungle on our days off. He showed me a picture of him with one of his walking partners, drinking Campo Viejo straight from the bottle. 

“That bottle was opened with a shoe and a concrete bench,” he told me. “Some days, wine was the reward after a long walk. Other days, the walk was the reward because you drank the bottle and didn’t have to carry it the rest of the way.”

It seemed to be a Camino lesson that pleasure and pain were intertwined

Isadora had been my closest friend for over a decade by the time she joined me on the Camino. We had been inseparable since the third grade, had fought our way through adolescence and cautiously waded into adulthood together.

She told me: “For me, the wine was always the most exciting part of pilgrim meals. I was young at the time and not very knowledgeable in the wine world at all, but when I had a glass almost every day for lunch, it made me excited to learn more.”  

The two of us walked together most days, but quickly established a rotating group of pilgrims who we’d see in each town, join for meals, and discuss sections of trail or the intricacies of the Spanish siesta with. 

“Some of my favourite conversations naturally happened over wine at a small café in the middle of the Spanish prairie. I learned to take a deep breath and relax with a glass of wine in the midst of all my physical pain, and was able to create many connections with strangers” Isa reflected.

It seemed to be a Camino lesson that pleasure and pain were intertwined. Like the glorious streaks of pink that painted the sky one morning once we’d summited the first steep hill of the day, or the views that rewarded us just when the silence and solitude had become too much to bear. The glasses of wine we drank along the Camino were doses of comfort on a journey that pushed us mentally, physically, and spiritually to our limits. Wine was built into my Camino experience the same way the Camino has now built itself into my life, after all the changes it prompted and the inner strength it fostered. I can’t think about the first week on the trail without remembering the red-dirt vineyards we wove through, or the free-flowing wine tap a local monastery offered to pilgrims. Perhaps the most memorable glass of wine I drank throughout my 32 days of walking, however, was the Albariño that we paired with Galician cheesy octopus on our last night in Santiago de Compostela. Not only was it crisp and bursting with citrus, it also featured the unmistakable flavour of pride and the tartness of the great unknown that awaited us once we’d traded our backpacks for the burdens of life and returned to “normal” as the people we’d become.

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