A pilgrim’s tale: Walking the Camino de Santiago, northern Spain
All my friends know how much I love walking but even they were left almost speechless when I told them I was off to walk the 790km Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.
Their responses varied from the supportive: “That’s fantastic – I’m so jealous”; to the incredulous: “Why on earth would you want to do that?”
Why indeed? The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage that I first heard about nearly 25 years ago and was recently popularised in the movie The Way, which starred Martin Sheen. It has been an important pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, and its history had always attracted me. I knew when the time was right, I’d walk it.
And this year, that time arrived. I gave my clients plenty of notice that I’d be away, filled the freezer with meals for my 18-year-old who I was leaving in charge of the house and cat, and clutching just one change of clothes, walking boots and a sleeping bag, took off.
And I wasn’t disappointed. There are a number of “Caminos” and I chose to walk the most popular – the Camino Frances, also known as the Way of St James. The Way follows a route that finishes at the shrine of the apostle St James in the cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostela.
I began my journey in the French town of St Jean Pied de Pont at the foot of the Pyrenees – the traditional starting point for pilgrims all over the world.
Many pilgrims decide to give this town a miss as the first day sees a walk of 27kms over the mountains to the Spanish town of Roncesvalles, but I was determined to “go the distance”.
The first day is a great leveller. By the time I arrived at Roncesvalles, the only topic of conversation was feet, specifically whether you had any blisters. This question was asked even before finding out about someone’s nationality or even their name.
Unfortunately blisters ended the Camino dream for many pilgrims and the lesson here is to go slowly for the first few days and let your feet get used to the walking.
The pilgrimage takes you through incredibly diverse regions and scenery. From the rich red of the Rioja region to the mountainous and rainy Galicia. One of things I loved is that I never knew where I was going to be at the end of the day. Some pilgrims book ahead but I preferred to see how the day went. There is a wide variety of accommodation on the route although most people prefer to stay at pilgrims’ hostels known as albergues.
To be allowed to stay in an albergue, you need a credencial, also known as a pilgrim’s passport. This document is stamped with the official St James stamp of each town or albergue where you stay. It’s very important to get this stamped as when you arrive in Santiago it provides the Pilgrims’ Office there with proof of your journey. This proof is necessary if you want to get a compostela, which is a certificate that shows you completed the pilgrimage.
One of the attractions of the Camino was meeting people from all over the world. There were many times when I wished I’d learned another language – especially German, which every second person I met seemed to speak. But I soon learned that a smile and body language was all you needed to communicate. Some of my most hilarious conversations were conducted without a word spoken.
The Way has so many highlights: jaw-dropping scenery, mouth-watering food, and cultural and historic monuments. But for me, it was the camaraderie I found with my fellow walkers that I will always remember. Buen Camino.