The Trail Takes You

By Becca Hensley / November 7, 2013

(Spiritual) Walking to Enlightenment in Europe.


“It’s not a highway,” warns Norbert Parucha as we take off, hiking at warp speed. Guiding us along the Ammergau Alps Meditation Trail in southern Germany, Parucha, more conscience than coach, reminds us to “Stop, smell, look, listen.” He’s seen our kind before—city slickers who mean well, but struggle in their efforts to cast off the shackles of urbanity and silence the cacophony that comes from being perpetually connected by every manner of electronic invention. “Meld into the euphony of nature,” he suggests, gently. “Listen to your interior dialogue and your personal wisdom.”

That is, after all, why we are here. After the death of my mother, my daughter and I have left the external world behind for a few days to hike into nature, to walk along an undulating trail carved into the Alp’s foothills, south of Munich. We want to mull over memories, contemplate our grief, and pursue the answers to questions we can’t quite formulate. Patrucha, a therapist and proponent of the practice of spiritual walking, conceived of the well-marked, 52-mile Ammergau walk, which links inspirational manmade sites, like the UNESCO recognized Wieskirche, with meditative ancient ruins and natural landmarks.

Ammergau Alps Meditation Trail: Germany

Cleaved into bottle-green belts of pine trees, pungent Alpine moors, verdant valleys, limpid lakes and gentle hills, the route vaunts 15 stations, each marked with a ruminative quote and a meditation. Non-denominational, the words hail from Chinese poets, Christian mystics, Roman philosophers, Native American chieftains

and Buddhist priests. The trail can be navigated without a guide, though Petrucha leads groups on five-day treks that begin with yoga and end with sunset musings.

Petrucha knows something about pain and grief. He became a pilgrim on the Santiago de Compostela walk after the untimely death of his wife. Knowing how it helped, he thrives on passing that experience on to others—regardless of their reasons for taking to the road. And this trail’s thought-provoking symbol,

a burning heart, says it all. It represents our longing, the pain we endure in life, and the answers we seek, according to Petrucha. What we learn by the end of our hike is that the fire is not meant to be quelled—but contemplated.

Santiago de Compostela: Spain

For centuries, the hike to Santiago de Compostela, in northern Spain, has attracted pilgrims wishing to pay homage to the relics of the apostle, St. James— though some evidence exists to prove that these pathways were trekked by pagans long before the Christians trod them. Still, 1,000 years ago, a peripatetic French monk wrote what experts consider to be the first travel guide when he recorded details of his walk to the then-remote village of Santiago in a tome called Codex Calixtinus. Back then, sauntering along the trail attracted mostly the penitent— those seeking miracles, atonement, or fleeing the Black Plague. Today, the ruminative hike draws thousands a day during the summer months.

And yet, the routes to Santiago are so abundant and diverse, hailing from all over Europe, that pilgrims often find themselves utterly alone on the trail.

While some take one long journey, a commitment that can take months, many walk the trail in five- or 10-day chunks, returning throughout the years until at least they reach the cathedral in Santiago. And, once they’ve at last arrived, many pilgrims simply begin the walk again. Every hike, it is said, leads to enlightenment.

Even amongst other hikers, even amid conversations, the mind takes over and delves deeply into the soul. Hikers today undertake these walks as an impulse to grow, for self-understanding, to bond with others, and to discover a sense of purpose. Some are true believers. Some hike to heal. For others, the rove is simply a vacation. Part of the appeal is the pace, the connection with others and the simple lifestyle while in ambulation. On foot, the world slows down and the senses awaken. While many pilgrims follow the ancient tradition of sleeping beneath the stars, staying in simple hostels or as monastery guests en route, some tourists choose a more upscale approach. Nowadays, hotels and eateries of every price range can be found along the path. While guidebooks abound, the trail, marked with the symbol of the scallop shell, makes meandering without a map or GPS device more than possible.

Chemin de St Jacques: France

The routes to Santiago undulate across Europe. They stem from Scandinavia, Poland—even Northern Africa. But one of the most scenic is the 16,000 km section that runs from Le Puy in south-central France through the Pyrenees. Known as the Chemin de St Jacques, it boasts varied terrain: hilly, rocky, awash in meadows, shaded woods, and old Roman ruins.

There’s much to see along the way—

and this part of France is known for its cuisine and history. After a few days on the road, I end up in Conques, where I stay in a converted windmill and have the mayor as my dinner companion. He takes me to tour the village at midnight when the village is dense with silence. As we walk, the moon casts a light as rich and sparkling as gold dust over the town’s Romanesque Abbey, most famous for its tympanum that depicts The Last Judgment—a sight that brought ancient pilgrims here. Amid the quiet, a soft riff of rock music wafts through the air. The mayor smiles and we follow the sound to the cathedral’s monastery where, as in former times, modern-day pilgrims can find an affordable night’s stay.

Computers occupy corners. And a telephone urgently rings. The modern era seems sadly palpable. But outside, in a mound on the patio, bunches of muddy hiking boots await tomorrow’s trek. Beside them, a wall festooned with walking sticks speaks to another time. The walk, it seems, will continue tomorrow. I think of the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.”


     Trails may be hiked, biked or driven

Ammergauer Alpen Meditation Trail:

Santiage de Compostela Treks:

St. Jacques de Compostelle Trails in France:

Becca Hensley

Becca Hensley

Award winning travel writer Becca Hensley can’t resist the unexplored alley, that glass of champagne in an unknown bar or taking the train far beyond her planned stop. Travel Editor for Austin Monthly and San Antonio Magazine, her work appears in myriad magazines and newspapers including Washington Flyer, National Geographic Traveler, Toronto Star, Fodors, Dallas Morning News, Coastal Living, Smart Luxury Travel and more. Reared in Mexico, Europe and the US, she now resides in Austin.
Becca Hensley

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