Cleaning out my bedside table drawer today, I came across my credential. This is the document needed to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage way.
There are many routes to walk to Santiago de Compostella, through Spain, France, Portugal, and other routes through Europe.
You can walk from where you want to, even from your front door if you live in Europe.
The most popular route is the Camino Frances. This route is approximately 800km across northern Spain. This starts in St Jean Pied de Port in France, is most popular and has the most amenities. There is no right or wrong place to start.
Why would anyone want to walk 800km?
There are many reasons:
This route is hundreds of years old and millions of pilgrims made their way to Santiago de Compostella to pay homage to St. James whose bones are believed to be buried there.There are numerous tales of how his bones ended up there and ample resources to consult.
I learned about this route in 2008 when reading a newspaper article. It told the story of a journalist walking this route. I was immediately intrigued by this and did an internet search; from that moment I was hooked. I knew that I had to do this.
On April 26, 2008, I boarded a plane for Madrid, Spain. It was a short flight to Pamplona and then to St Jean Pied de Port by taxi. It was exciting and apprehensive beyond measure. I was not a hiker by any means and never did a day’s hike, and was contemplating walking 800km, solo, with a backpack, in a foreign country with minimum knowledge of the language. This walk was going to be for about 34 days. I was 55 years old.
Accommodation on this route is usually in “albergues”, which is like backpackers’ accommodation for pilgrims. Albergues is a great place to stay, and not expensive. It includes a bed to sleep on and ablution facilities and these are dorm-type rooms, sometimes with up to 50 bunk beds in one room. It can get very noisy in a room with that many people. I found myself with other newbie pilgrims like me. We then found a bed, the bathroom, and met our other roommates.
The next morning, we got up early and were ready to tackle the Pyrenees. I had read about this many times, and now I was here, raring to go. I chose to break the hike over the Pyrenees into two stages. The first day was a climb of 8km to Orrison and the second day 17km to Roncesvalles.
Dinnertime at Orrisson was an experience never to be forgotten. I made friends, some of them who would become lifelong friends. We shared the hardships of the first day, finding our feet and learning the rhythm that would become part of our next 30 – 40 days. The bonds that pilgrims form is strong from the start.
So, the journey begins, across Northern Spain to Santiago de Santiago de Compostella. As the days pass, you get the Camino rhythm-walk, sleep, eat, repeat. You forget what day it is. Hills, mountains, sore feet, aching bodies, heat, rain, and thunderstorms become part of the daily routine. Walking an average of 25km per day is tough and is not a walk in the park. The route goes through rugged terrain, sometimes long stretches on tarmac and often, mud. Sometimes, you walk through the beautiful countryside of Northern Spain, beautiful villages, and deserted hamlets and meet the friendly Spanish people. You bond with your fellow pilgrims becomes stronger every day. Most times a pilgrim will tell you their life story within 10 minutes of you meeting them and you will get a Camino name such as Petro from South Africa, Dutch Sisters, green backpack.
You sometimes lose touch with some people, and when you catch up with them a few days later, it is like finding a long-lost friend.
I chose to walk solo and was happy to do so, although sometimes you would share part of the journey with someone. It was so liberating to walk on your own through forests, farmland and landscapes that took your breath away. Your backpack becomes part of you and your walking staff becomes your friend. Those solitary moments are so precious as your thoughts run free, one with nature and with God, thinking about things you may never have had the time to think about in your day-to-day life. Sometimes I would sing out loud, at other times listen to the sound of my feet on the gravel, ever moving forward to the destination. You see and experience so much more when you walk and have the time to stop when you see a pretty flower. You can smell a rose or sit in quiet contemplation in a small church.
The days go by unnoticed, and before you know it, you are within a day’s walk of your destination – Santiago de Compostella.
You are so excited to have reached your destination, but also sad because the walk has ended that had become such a part of your life that you could not imagine going back to reality.
Santiago de Compostella is a beautiful city, and standing in front of the Cathedral is very emotional. You see other pilgrims arrive and congratulations and tears are the order of the day. There are more tears as you say goodbye to friends who have become like family as they leave for their homes. After one last dinner, then it is all over.
I did not want this to end. I headed for the Atlantic Ocean, to Fisterra. This place is known as the end of the earth in medieval times and is a further 90km away. It is a fantastic walk through the beautiful countryside. Elation and a sense of accomplishment is what you feel when you get a glimpse at the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Once you reach the fisherman’s village of Fisterra, the tradition is to go to the lighthouse, and watch the sun set over the horizon at the “end of the world”. It is a sight to behold and to experience with your fellow pilgrims and is something to remember for the rest of your life.
I was hooked and have walked this way two other times. I have also walked the Camino Primitivo in Spain, the Via Podiensis in France, and the Via Francigena in Italy. All these places are spectacular and so special. I have made lifelong friends on these walks and are still in contact with them.
I long to be back on a Camino, as the freedom and rhythm are addictive, the people you meet are super, and the inner peace you experience is indescribable.
I was fortunate and very grateful to have had those unbelievable experiences.
There is always one more Camino to walk – maybe Rome to Jerusalem next……..
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