Water into Wine: A Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

A lucky wrong turn in Spanish wine country transforms one woman from hiker to pilgrim.


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I didn’t speak Spanish, but the old man who stopped us on the trail that early morning made it clear—we were hiking in the wrong direction along the Camino de Santiago. 

For more than a thousand years, people have been making the pilgrimage, which starts at the France-Spain border and runs nearly 500 miles across Spain before reaching its terminus, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. My boyfriend, Derek, and I had been walking for three days. It was the next adventure on a one-year around-the-world trip that we quit our jobs to take. Ten months after putting in our notices and packing our bags, we were slowly making our way through Rioja  and Navarre.

It was September—harvest time— and the weather was unseasonably and unreasonably hot. That morning we rose in the dark and started walking, trying to get as many miles behind us as possible before the heat forced us to stop. We were an hour in and my feet already ached.

Fuente,” the old man kept repeating, opening and closing his hand so his four fingers met his thumb.

It took a moment before I understood. We had missed the turn that took us to the fountain. We had filled up our water bottles before we set out that morning, but knew we should top them off in order to make it through the scorching 20-mile hike that was ahead. We huffed and turned around.

Half a mile later, we found the fountain in the small town of Ayegui. Jutting out of the side of a stone building were two spigots—one poured water, the other wine. A plaque on the wall read, “Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, drink of this wine and toast to happiness.” 

While we were only on the road for a few days, we had run into several people who drank local wine like it was Red Bull, starting their days with healthy swigs and powering over mountains, through cityscapes and past miles of Spanish countryside with open bottles strapped to their backs. Now, for the first time, I debated whether or not to begin the day with a buzz.

Wanting to possess the strength the fountain promised, I tilted my head under the spigot and turned the lever. A stream of red wine, young, one-dimensional, but still drinkable, filled my mouth. Derek went next. We sat for a while, drinking wine and talking to other pilgrims who arrived, before topping off our water and making our way down the trail. 

Back on the road, the wine did more than soothe the pain in my feet or celebrate the passing of the miles. By having this traditional wine, made from grapes harvested in the very vineyards I was walking past, it felt as if I was truly drinking in Spain’s land and culture. Now, two years later, when I take a single sip of Tempranillo or Garnacha it transports me back to that hillside, where I made best wrong turn of my life. 

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