Marching the Camino in 1965 (without rifles)

by Gareth Thomas



I was thirteen in 1965.  Compostela Holy Year meant nothing, nor had I heard of Saint James the apostle, but Capitán Nuñez gained our attention by sellotaping the Jacobeo 1965 poster to the blackboard, with a saint in a sort of cowboy hat with a shell.


“You will march across Galicia in uniform with camp fires and singing,” he said. “Thousands of you from all over Spain!”


At the teacher’s desk in his army uniform, under a framed photo of the Generalissimo, Capitán Nuñez taught us history: a simple subject as history mostly happened in the 1930s and was a battle against communism.  He also organised our escuadra of the uniformed Catholic youth movement, OJE.  


I cycled home quickly that day and pleaded with my parents to let me go.  The speed with which they processed the idea surprised me and I began to believe in the Apostle’s intercession.  But their thinking was probably more mercenary: if I was marching across Galicia, I would not be bringing home mangy stray cats and dying seagulls, nor cooking poisonous fish caught in the harbour, nor setting fire to the shed with my chemistry set.  They were delighted how little it would cost for two weeks without me. 


“2500 pesetas?” said my father, working at his Imperial typewriter on a Z Cars script for the BBC.  “That’s only fifteen pounds. Agreed!  But why Compostela?”


“It’s to do with an apostle, which is a kind of saint in a cowboy hat with a shell on it. His birthday only happens on a year with a Sunday in it.  We’ll spend all night on a boat and two days on a bus, then march and sit round camp fires singing.  Then we go to a big church with a burning dustbin on a rope that swings around the place filling it with smoke, and there’s a fiesta and fireworks and we can eat all the paella we want. Girls aren’t allowed to go and it will be super!”


It was the easiest deal I ever did with my father. He put the money in a brown envelope for Capitán Nuñez.


The Organización Juvenil Española was modelled on the Scouts. It looked - with its blue uniform and red beret – just like the fascist Falange Española, but it was quite separate, apart from the people leading it.  On Saturdays we went to Es Codolar beach where we fired ancient Martini .22 calibre rifles at cardboard targets, while vintage Heinkel bombers of the Spanish air force flew low across the beach to land at Ibiza airfield, their big truck-sized undercarriage wheels almost touching the roof of our lock-up corrugated iron shed. 


Capitán Nuñez pronounced us all marksmen and said we could stop a communist invasion of Ibiza.  We didn’t care about that, but our comrade Joaquín shot a jellyfish and became an instant hero. It was better than the Boy Scouts because we didn’t have to learn boring obscurities about not flying a Union Jack upside-down, or help old ladies across the road. 

The invaders turned out not to be communists, but English package holiday tourists, flying in direct jets from Luton, for which the runway was soon extended. To sanitize the look of the airport, the Heinkels were banished: sold to the film producers of The Battle of Britain, to become the photogenic Luftwaffe over Kent.


“You won’t be carrying rifles there, will you?” My father had found Compostela in his atlas. “I hope Capitán Nuñez isn’t plotting a coup d’etat in the cathedral, supported by thirteen-year olds with vintage Martini rifles.”


“No, he didn’t mention rifles,” I said. “Capitán Nuñez says they finished shooting people on the mainland ages ago as it was leading to rural depopulation.”


“I don’t like the way he teaches you to salute. We fought a war against that sort of thing.”  My father was never much amused by Capitán Nuñez, who had demanded at parents’ evening that my father should hand back Gibraltar.  “So, in a nutshell,” he said, “this Compostela jamboree is just a long walk and a church parade?”


“Yes, probably like last year’s but with better fireworks.”


In 1964 there had been a celebration of 25 Años de Paz - a quarter century after the Spanish Civil War - and we marched around the town behind the steel-helmeted soldiers and brass bands. After the parade we were scolded by a girl in our class called Inés: “Bright red berets look stupid on boys!” She ruined our day but later Joaquín saw Inés on Figueretes beach told her she looked fat in a swimsuit. That is how the youth were inspired by 25 Years of Peace.


In July our OJE escuadra of twelve boys plus Capitán Nuñez sailed overnight on the Rey Jaime I, an old ship smelling of diesel oil.  Our bus waited at the Barcelona quayside and we travelled to Burgos where we learned two hundred older boys had passed through two weeks earlier, marching from Roncesvalles.  We would start in Galicia, so we travelled another day in the bus. 


After we drove past the Galicia sign, climbing a steep mountain, we camped in a green field and there were hundreds of us at ‘El Cebrero’ (not called O Cebreiro then, for Gallego was a banned language). The older boys were still climbing up looking exhausted.  Next morning, after open-air Mass, I had my introduction to the Way of Saint James: marching in formation.  I still had no idea of what was the point, except the promise of fireworks and an apostle in a cowboy hat.


As we passed through villages, there seemed mainly widows dressed in black.  They turned their backs on us.  At Samos, after the long descent we camped in the monastery grounds and following morning Mass next day we marched through the town, a poor place smelling of drains. Again, people turned their backs except an immobile amputee sitting at his door, who spat as we passed by.


“They’re not like people at home,” whispered Joaquín. We were in a sweet shop before leaving Samos and the shopkeeper had not spoken a word. “They don’t like us at all.”


In ‘Puertomarin’ (Portomarin now, in Gallego) we toured the town, learning how the historic buildings had been moved stone-by-stone uphill, so the valley could be flooded for a reservoir, just two years earlier.  Capitán Nuñez said this feat of civil engineering showed how the Generalissimo inspired the nation.


“Why?” I asked. “Did he help carry the buildings up the hill?”


He glared at me. The people of ‘Puertomarin’ ignored us. Joaquin remarked again on the coldness of the locals.  Capitán Nuñez explained that they were peasants, probably republicans, and we shouldn’t give them any further thought.


With the benefit of another half century of life experience, my advice to pilgrims setting out on the Camino de Santiago and hoping for positive encounters with local people would be simple.  Don’t march through Galicia in a paramilitary parade of blueshirts looking like fachas.  It doesn’t go down well with the locals, particularly when they’ve had their language suppressed and their houses deluged under a hundred metres of water.


We arrived in Compostela exactly on the 25th July, the Feast of Saint James, groups converging from all directions. Squares and narrow streets were filled with blue shirts and red berets. We sat on the steps in hundreds for the national cine-news cameras, then queued to pass through the Holy Door and file up the steps to embrace the saint.  I had been misinformed: the Apóstol was not wearing a cowboy hat.  But the fireworks and paella lived up to all expectations and the songs of Spanish youth rang out in the junior seminary and surrounding fields of tents overlooking the city.  Back in Ibiza the following week, we saw ourselves in a five-minute newsreel at the Cine Católico before watching Charlie Chaplin and Bugs Bunny, and I gave no further thought to religion for the next twenty years.


That Holy Year was over half a century ago, but I know two other peregrinos here in the province of Alicante, who marched in 1965 and still walk the local Caminos routes.  Looking back, we all agree it made good propaganda for an authoritarian regime in its twilight years: those images of uniformed youth, parading Catholic values.  José Maria and Paco both walked all the way from Roncesvalles with OJE, but they said my memory had exaggerated the numbers. I mainly recalled the newsreels and thought there had been thousands of us.  But they are sure their core group marching from Roncesvalles in 1965 numbered only two hundred.  We younger members just doubled those ranks in the last stages through Galicia. 


The cine-newsreels cleverly edited the event to seem like the whole nation’s youth were on the march, but there were no more than four hundred in Compostela.  Now, like old curmudgeons everywhere, we grumble about the way pilgrims have changed.


Peregrinos today turn it into sport. Power-walking with Nordic poles and sending their baggage ahead, or riding mountain bikes with thirty gears…!” complains José Maria, former army medic now retired. “Would you believe it? A special forces relay team from my old base in Alicante recently ran to Compostela. A running relay race with 4x4 support vehicles! That’s not pilgrimage!” 


“Terrible!” I agree. “In our day, we marched the Camino in formation. That was proper pilgrimage.”


Jajaja, English irony!” laughs José Maria. “You had Capitán Nuñez; we had our Teniente Llorca.  He said our Camino Crusade will keep Spain Catholic!”


“Didn’t work, did it?” remarks Paco, a retired Alicante policeman. “Some fool painted those yellow arrows and the hippies arrived.