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El Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St. James)
The pilgrimage walk from the French Pyrenees village of St. Jean Pied de Port to Finisterre, on the Spanish Atlantic Ocean coast. A 900km (mas o menos) geographical journey of sore feet, beautiful memories and personal strength; through the heartland of N. Spain. An inner journey in search of spiritual enlightenment.
“Give me my scallop-shell of quiet, My staff of faith to walk upon, My scrip of joy, immortal diet, My bottle of salvation, My gown of glory, hope’s true gage; And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage”.
(Sir Walter Raleigh)
Put simply, I was ready for a challenge. For a while I had felt I was treading water on the same ground – perhaps a symptom of turning 40 last year. I knew instinctively that I needed to push myself more both physically and emotionally. I just didn’t feel as though I was living anymore. Really living. I tried to think back to the last time I had sat and watched the sunrise or set. In Buddhist philosophy there is a beautiful message which goes something like this: ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it’s called the present’. I felt like I was running through life without savoring the present and I had let myself fall into a rut. I guess you could say I had hit a spiritual low and I needed something to change in my life. Perhaps this sounds familiar to you too?
A friend who knows me very well recommended that I take a month out and walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and after a few false starts I booked a flight to Bilbao and bussed it along to St Jean Pied de Port, where I began walking upwards into the mountains at the traditional starting point of the Camino Francés.
The modern day Camino roughly follows the ancient pilgrimage route which was taken by early medieval pilgrims. The original purpose was for atonement of sins/crimes committed – back in the day when the church held absolute social authority; if you had committed a sin/crime then you were sent on the pilgrimage to gain forgiveness so that when you then returned back home the slate was clean again for you so to speak. The symbol of the pilgrimage is the scallop shell (either a shell or arrow marks the present day route) and the reason for this is that when pilgrims completed their pilgrimage in Santiago de Compostela they would be given a shell as proof that they had actually made the full journey (pilgrims also had specific stops on the way, usually monasteries, and here they would receive food and shelter and receive confirmation of having visited on their way to Santiago). The more serious the crime the further a pilgrim would be expected to walk; some pilgrims setting out for Santiago from what is now modern day Netherlands for example. Today’s pilgrims receive a pilgrims passport at their departure point and along the way the passport is stamped and once in Santiago they are given a certificate (compostela) of achievement of having completed the pilgrimage. Some pilgrims choose to do a shorter walk and begin their camino halfway through Spain, while some lengthen their Camino and even walk from their home country (such as the 3 Belgians I met who had walked all the way from Brussels), but the standard route is to begin from St Jean and then walk onto Santiago. Finisterre in an additional 95km walk from Santiago and takes the pilgrim to the Atlantic Ocean; this section of the walk is undertaken by only a few pilgrims (myself included).
I met many pilgrims on my Camino and one of the beautiful aspects of the Camino is the realization that I had somehow met my long lost friends – people who loved walking and who like me had chosen to walk the Camino for personal reasons. Because the Camino is an inner journey too you find that pilgrims open up to each other and there is a real sense of mutual respect and understanding on the Camino and with people of all ages mixing and listening to one another; expressing themselves to each other in an open, friendly and non-judgmental environment. Anyone can walk the Camino and although there are pilgrims who walk for religious reasons, the majority are simply everyday individuals who in many cases are in search of some sort of spiritual enlightenment, regardless of religion.
I even met a Frenchman who was traveling the Camino with his 2 young daughters (aged 7 and 9) and the first time he traveled the Camino with his eldest daughter (who then was just 2 years old) he carried her on his shoulders the whole way.
Along the way there are pilgrim hostels (Albergue) in every village, town or city and the price for a night’s stay is normally around 5 Euro, or sometimes simply requiring a donation (Donativo). Some pilgrims (like I often did) also choose to spend some nights sleeping outside in a sleeping bag, where the open night’s sky between sunset and sunrise is often pierced with shooting stars, devoid of any light pollution.
The Camino can be divided into 4 clear sections:
1. St Jean Pied de Port to Burgos (The Past)
The walk began with a steep ascent over a mountain pass and then followed by an equally steep descent down into the very small Spanish village of Roncesvalles – your leg muscles know about it. I broke this journey up on the way up the mountain by beginning my walk in the late afternoon so I could camp out on the side of the foothills and watch the sunset over the Pyrenees. This first stage of the walk takes you through the Basque region and notable places of interest on the way are Pamplona, Puente-la-Reina and the small but (for me) mystical village of Granon. I coincidentally (but of course, there are no accidents) reached Granon on the 25th of July when the country celebrates the feast day of St. James (Santiago Apostol), where I attended mass; the service was dedicated to the pilgrims present and after mass we were all invited on a guided tour of the church chambers with an interpreter present to answer any questions which we had. I write ‘we’ because up until that time I had chosen to walk alone, fast, but after that night in Granon – directly because of a Dutchman and an Italian woman – I chose to slow down, open up and be more sociable. My running through life phase was coming to a close and I had felt the magic of the Camino which I had read about in my pre-trip Camino research online and which I knew was ahead of me somewhere along the path when I first set out on my journey.
2. Burgos to Leon – The Meseta (The Now)
Many people opt to avoid this stage of the Camino because the landscape tends to be flat; the widely held assumption is that being able to see the horizon stretched out in front of you and visibly seeing a day or two’s walk ahead can play with your mind a little. I personally enjoyed the meseta stage the most. Maybe it was because of the friends I was walking with through that semi-desert landscape, it might also have been because of the contrast of the brown, gold, green, yellow of the crops in the fields with the white path shining a clear way through. My pleasure of this stage might also have been a manifestation of the ego – taking pleasure in the fact that here I was committed to walking the meseta while many others opted for the seemingly more comfortable and convenient train or bus ride through it. Towards the end of the meseta we stopped into a bar for a well-deserved coffee break in the village Reliegos, famously run by the ‘Elvis Presley of the Camino’. Here I chatted to the Frenchman traveling with his 2 daughters and I was so inspired by his story of when he traveled the Camino with no money (he has walked it nine times to date) that I decided that I would walk the third stage of the Camino without any money. Another challenge ahead.
3. Leon to Santiago (The Future and Reflection)
After a fiesta in Leon, of which the memory will stay with me forever I hope, I said my goodbyes to Gerardina (who had a pre-booked flight back to Italy) and also said my farewells to my traveling companions; I now needed to walk alone again and anyway – we all followed the same path and I knew we would meet up again either on the Camino or coincidentally later in life. The Camino allows you to think on a different level like this. So off I went with not a cent or Euro and I soon found myself hungry, but content with my fasting and focused. I picked fruit from wild trees and fruit from gardens (only when the branches grew over the sides of fencing – never taking directly from someone’s property). I went to bars and restaurants and politely asked for bread, mostly being successful in my cause. I realized how much I consume. How much we all consume. I realized that though I was perhaps walking 40-45km a day I still only needed the bare minimum to energize my body and my mind and soul felt the better for it. Meseta transformed into gently ascending landscape, which in turn transformed into steep mountainous terrain. I was treading the historical landscape of the Knights Templar and a fitting stop for the night as I ascended over a particularly grueling mountain pass was the 2 building hamlet of Manjarin, a night’s stay at a Donativo Albergue run by a self-appointed group of modern day Knight Templars. Here I was surprised to meet up with some traveling companions who had gone on ahead a week before (the Belgians who had walked all the way from Belgium) and we all sat together while the owners of the Albergue, surrounded in Templar mystique, cooked up a communal meal. In today’s world we often eat on the go or alone and seem to have forgotten the beauty perhaps of giving thanks before eating. Eating together. My walk then took me into the rolling hills of Galicia until disaster struck… At around 2am in the morning while I was sleeping out in a bus stop my rucksack was taken from under my head by a guy with very fast legs and a waiting car to take everything I had away in less than 3 minutes. Among my belongings my passport had been taken. I experienced in about the same time as it took for the crime to take place a myriad of emotions; shock, a sense of loss, sadness and anger. Then reflection. They hadn’t taken my health. I was on a spiritual journey so I should learn from the experience. What could be learned by this experience? I relaxed and knew the answer clearly. I chose to walk on. Not to turn back. Now I really was committed to walking the Camino without any funds because without a passport or credit card I wasn’t going to be able to fetch any. I felt immensely strong as I walked into Santiago – with just my garden shoes on, shorts and (washed but not dry yet) wet t-shirt hung on my walking stick like a pilgrim’s flag. Perhaps the theft of my passport was a sign. My identity taken and a new one waiting to be unearthed.
4. Santiago to Finisterre (Rebirth)
The walk from Santiago to Finisterre was by far the most difficult stage and took everything I had physically and mentally not to turn round and conclude that finishing at Santiago might be a better option. I had no sleeping bag to keep me warm in the cold and often wet Galician night. No sunscreen to protect my skin from the searing daytime sun. The 5 Euros I had procured from a priest in Santiago had gone on a bottle of water and toothpaste and toothbrush. I walked that 95km in just over 24 hours. My feet were terribly sore from walking in my garden shoes, with a recurring inflammation in my left foot. I also missed my children terribly. I soldiered on. The Camino had given me strength. I can’t express the joy I felt when walking over a hill I gradually caught sight of the ocean; the deep blue of the sea caressing the lighter blue of the horizon ahead. As I hobbled round the path there was a man beside his car selling handmade jewelry beads, etc. I stopped to speak to him and was thankful for the biscuit jar on his table which he offered to me. I only took a few, despite my intense hunger. We chatted and I of course explained my story of my stolen rucksack and then continued on. On the way some pilgrims had offered me money because of my loss but I politely turned down the offer – I was stronger now than to accept charity from other pilgrims (although the offers genuinely touched me). The last part of this stage was perhaps even harder mentally because when you eventually walk to the sea you then have another 25km to walk to Finisterre. I stopped into a hostel for @ use and the owner (Guthmann), who it turned out was a friend of the man selling the beads up in the hills, knew my story and gave me some clothes and a sleeping bag which had been left over the years from fellow pilgrims. I reached the beach at Finisterre and swam in the sea. It felt like a baptism. At Finisterre town I stopped by a restaurant to ask for bread and the Latvian girl at the bar said I could choose anything from the menu. I walked the last 5km to the lighthouse at Finisterre and began to watch the sunset. 0km to go. I had reached my destination. Three S.Koreans who I had briefly met along the way came with full smiles and hugged me; they spoke almost no word of English but the look in our eyes and our smiles expressed more than words. I didn’t actually stop for the sunset over the ocean because for me the sun hasn’t set over my Camino. I slept in the sleeping bag next to a church and the next day began my long journey back, going again via the hostel to again thank Guthmann before hitching back and taking trains home.
Would I recommend you walk the Camino?
Yes. Absolutely. It is a true experience of a lifetime.
Did I find spiritual enlightenment?
No. But I am further towards it now than I was when I left for my Camino.
Did I learn anything?
Definitely. I have learned that there is strength in humility. I am stronger. I now live more in the present. I believe there is hope and the people I met on my Camino have given me this new hope. We have given each other this new hope.