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Hooked on the Camino: The man who is planning his fourth (and fifth) pilgrimage

Eduardo and Merinda

Family time: Eduardo and Merinda Cruz on the Camino de Santiago Compostela (The Way of St James).

WE all may know a couple starting 2017 with their minds on planning a wedding; what are the chances of them heading off on a five-week walk straight after their big day?

That’s what young Brisbane man Eduardo Cruz and his wife Merinda did – 35 days walking across Spain.

But they didn’t do it on their own.

They took their mums and dads, and a sister with them. And their six-month-old son Roque went along for the ride in a stroller.

Their honeymoon was to complete the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St James).

Starting from St Jean Pied de Port, in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southern France, they walked 770km (most of it, anyway), over the Pyrenees mountain range and then through Spain to finish at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The Camino is one of the most popular pilgrimages in the world, drawing hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Eduardo and Merinda have done it twice, and Eduardo finished his third on January 11 – this time on a bicycle.

“I know this is my third but there’ll be a fourth and a fifth. It’s going to keep going …,” Eduardo said before leaving Brisbane on December 29 to head for Salamanca, where he was to start the Camino for the third time.

Trekking the Camino

Pilgrims and lovers: Eduardo Cruz with his wife Merinda on their first trek of the Camino in 2013, a year before their wedding and second pilgrimage in 2014.

His fascination with the Camino started in 2013 when he and Merinda decided to tackle the pilgrimage in the middle of the northern winter, in February.

The snowfall was so heavy then that they could not go to the usual starting point at St Jean in France.

“Everyone was saying, ‘You can’t go there, because you’re going to die. If you go to the Pyrennes, you’re gonna get stuck in snow’,” Eduardo said.

So they went to Roncesvalles, in Spain – “that’s the first village that you hit when you’re crossing the Pyrennes, if you start in France, … at St Jean”.

“We show up there, and I’ve never seen snow, and the snow’s (so deep),” Eduardo said.

“And I’m (saying to myself) ‘I’m gonna die’ – because you’ve got to walk the path, so I’m saying ‘We’ve got to go through these snow-covered fields. I’m not gonna make this’. This is my monologue. ‘I can’t do this’.

“And there’s this church (in Roncesvalles) built back in the thirteenth century – the actual building and all the monastery and everything was built specifically to house pilgrims.

“So then, the day that we’re about to set off, the priest comes out and says, ‘Okay, it’s going to be hard’, and gives us a blessing, and says, ‘Don’t take the path. It’s too snowy. You’ve got to go the road’.

“So we walked eight hours on the road, and made it all the way down.

“And it was like, ‘Thank God’ – because we were going to go the path, but the priest said, ‘You can’t go the path; you know you’re going to get into trouble’. So it was good.”

After that they were ready for whatever lay ahead on the rest of the trek, and the impact – spiritually, physically and emotionally – changed their lives.

“(After returning from that Camino, we said) ‘You know what? Let’s get married. Let’s go get married there (in the church at Roncesvalles),” Eduardo said.

“So then we got everything moving, and then we got married in 2014 on the fourth of October, which we found out it’s St Francis’ Day.”

But Eduardo and Merinda took their plan even further.

They decided that if they were going to invite their families to a wedding in a church at the start of the Camino, they would also offer them the chance to experience the pilgrimage for themselves.

“We said to all our family, ‘You know what? The first Camino, we didn’t get to cross the Pyrennes, because there was too much snow’,” Eduardo said.

“So then we got 14 people to meet us all in France, and then, ‘Righto, we’re all walking across the Pyrennes’.

“Family and friends – 14 of us – walked across the Pryennes. There was a line of us walking up the mountain.

“So we started at St Jean and then it took us two days to get to Roncesvalles, and we got to Roncesvalles on the third of October, and then we got married the following day – on the fourth – and on the fifth of October we kept going … on the Camino.”

It was tough, but they made it.

“Our immediate family (came with us) – my mum and dad and my sister, and then my mother-in-law and my father-in-law, … and my son, who was six months old, so we pushed him up the Pyrennes with this stroller which we’ve still got,” Eduardo said.

“So we got through the second camino with him.”

Family time: Eduardo and Merinda Cruz and baby Roque on the Camino de Santiago Compostela (The Way of St James).

It made for unique wedding memories.

“Honestly, it was amazing, because you get married one day and your whole family walks together …,” Eduardo said.

“You know, we had our dinner and everything but we went, ‘Nah, we’re gonna get to know each other’ – because you have your usual dinner here or there, but the families spent a whole month together.

“And I mean, we’re walking together, we’re drinking together, we’re doing stupid things together, and the bond between the two families now, because of that time that we spent, it’s amazing.

“When do you ever get to do that?

“That was brilliant, and when we got to Santiago, everyone was crying.

“The day after, they did a special mention for us at the pilgrims’ Mass.

“They said, ‘We want to say a special mention to Eduardo and Merinda, they just got married, they’ve travelled from Australia and their whole family’s here …’

“Both my in-laws were so emotional. We are the only Australian couple to ever get married (there). The priest said no other Australian couple has ever been married in Roncesvalles.

“But we weren’t seeking any of that stuff, but to have that …

“I’m going to be able to tell Roque, ‘Mate, let me tell you something …’

“‘You have a bond here. We are now permanently connected to a place where millions of pilgrims go through every year’.

“To have that – to be able to say, ‘Yep, I got married there. That’s where we started off … with our honeymoon on the Camino’.”

Written by: Peter Bugden

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