Ever since I read The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho in the latter part of the last century followed by Shirley MacLaine’s movie-star-incognito account of the route, I have wanted to do El Camino. When Coelho walked it in the 1980s, there were barely any people venturing on the almost-forgotten pilgrim trail. On the other hand, there were allegedly ghosts abound, packs of wild dogs and even an occasional wolf to spice up the route, while lack of signage made one sure to get lost.
Today El Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James is as busy as it was in its hay day – the Middle Ages. Decidedly one of the most popular cross-continent walking routes in the world, the contemporary caminos attract scores of people every year. 2018 was a record year with 327.342 registered pilgrims! Most pilgrims are Spanish, though Italians, Germans, Americans and more surprisingly Koreans are also frequent camino walkers. There are now several different routes to choose from, with starting points in Roncevaux, Lisbon, Seville or San Sebastian, just to mention a few.
Many years after my literary exploration of the pilgrimage, we had an opportunity to do the walk ourselves. As we only had a week off and could therefore only do a partial route, I call our experience El Camino Light. As it is, walkers have no obligation to do the entire way from start to finish. One can begin wherever one desires. To receive la Compostela, the official document proving that one has walked el Camino, pilgrims simply need to walk a minimum of 100 km or bike 200 km along the trails. (One can also do it on horseback or in a wheelchair.) Particularly for national walkers, it is quite common and practical to split the way into chunks, doing a portion each year depending on ones availability, family plans, wallet, physique, desire, or possibly, how many sins one has committed.
Speaking of sinners, though walkers are still called peregrinos or pilgrims, the reasons that most people take to the road now are quite different from that of the original pilgrims. Being the most important Christian pilgrimage after the ones leading to Rome or Jerusalem, the way was primarily shared by devout and repentant sinners. The road to Santiago attracted peasants and beggars, adventurers and dreamers, as well as nobles and royalty. One would also meet criminals whom the court had ordered to make the pilgrimage instead of serving a prison sentence. Doing El Camino was a dangerous proposition, as you also risked being attacked by muggers. And if you survived all the way to Santiago, you would face the challenge of getting back home – most likely on foot.
We prepared for our walk from our Ronda home, spending weeks on online research finding the best socks and the perfect insoles, as el Camino is all about the feet. Or more specifically, ones legs and ones pack. Whether one walks for a month, or a week, one basically needs the same things in the backpack, you just reuse the items more times on a longer camino.
Before our departure, a friend from Delhi asked me why my husband and I wanted to do El Camino, adding that Indian people often believe that they are the only ones making pilgrimages. I thought about it for a moment. Why were we, neither of us Catholic, attracted to doing this Christian pilgrimage? I told her that there were many reasons: our love of walking, history and the outdoors, as well as the challenge and the adventure. We wanted to approach the way like a walking meditation, doing it for friends who couldn’t walk the way themselves. We would dedicate our daily walk to a friend who was sick with cancer, a neighbour with a collapsed lung, and a pal with a diabetic foot. We would walk out if gratitude for being blessed and healthy enough to be there, and to be on this life’s journey at all…
The day before we were scheduled to leave, our friend with cancer passed away, making us feel a stronger urge than ever to begin our Camino.
Spring is a glorious time of the year to travel, making a pleasurable 10-hour drive from the very south to north western Spain. Galicia displayed the most electrifying green landscape as we followed meandering roads towards our starting point, the town of Sarria.
We had chosen to stay in what they call pensiones, where we had our own room and usually our own bathroom. Though some might find this a huge indulgence, we felt the extra couple of euros per night were a worthwhile investment. We saw no need to suffer in bunk beds, sharing room with 20 other pilgrims. After all, we were not doing this to repent our sins, as ours are far too many…
Each day, we walked about 20-30 kilometres, which is the daily average for most of the caminos. Since we didn’t have to hurry in order to get a bed in the next town (our rooms were booked in advance online), we could leave leisurely after daybreak, enjoying not only the walk, seeing where we were going without using head lanterns.
Taking our time, we discovered some magical creatures along the way.
The designer in me went amok as we passed one stunning timeless stone barn after another, complete with black natural slate roves. The yards would have old farm tools, as well as a traditional stilted, wooden granary.
Otherwise, some of the more recent Galician architecture was not as impressive. Most buildings in the towns we passed seemed to have been slapped together right after the Spanish Civil War with little maintenance since. Though there were some lovely restored or reproduced homes using slate and stone, many recent houses had an Edward Scissorhands meets 1971 American Dream home feel. I regret to say, once a snob, always a snob…
Spring is still relatively cool and wet in Galicia, so we did not meet as many pilgrims on the trail as we would have had in the summer months. Being Semana Santa (Easter), we were happily surprised to see many Spanish families with younger children on the trail. (Almost 1/3 of the Santiago pilgrims are under 30.) We didn’t meet anyone talking in tongues or doing the Camino bare feet while whipping themselves, which one might expect after watching the 2010 Hollywood movie The Way. Our trail mates were quite ordinary people, happy to be there, enjoying the walk. Actually one of the most memorable things about el Camino was our trail-mates. Most walkers would greet you as you laboured along. As everybody was moving in the same direction, we would run into the same people at least every couple of days. If we didn’t know their names, we called each other by nationality. Hola Portugal. Como estás, Brazil? We became known as los Mexicanos, since my husband had the emblem of his former military college in Mexico on his pack.
I sometimes would ask our co-walkers why they were doing el Camino. A woman from Toronto told me she was doing is as a Social Media Cleanse. It was probably the best reason I heard, though most of the peregrinos had their mobile in hand to take photos, check out the next village, send WhatsApps to friends and to verify their mileage, calories or daily steps.
The youngest pilgrim we met en route was 6-year-old Amor. She walked with a huge staff, accompanied by her older sister, two cousins, parents and an uncle. We had great admirations for the youngsters and their brave guardians, taking to the trail as a family in a time when most kids get their ‘exercise’ through online battles. Amor would boldly ask us our names, where we came from and how old we were, which to her of course might as well have been from the Middle Ages. I never knew her sisters name, but I imagined it would be Paz, as what better companions to have on a pilgrim trail than Paz y Amor (Peace and Love)!
Walking anywhere these days except possibly in the jungles of Borneo one is bound to have to cross over or walk along a few sections of highway. We were grateful to find that most days we were on old farm roads and country trails. The Camino crossed ancient bridges and lead along beautiful moss-covered stone fences.
Each day we needed to get our passes stamped twice to prove that we had actually walked the way. Most frequently, these were stamped in hostels and restaurants. However, a couple of times we passed a ‘stamp station’, once in a chapel where a blind man urged the pilgrims to lead his hands so he would stamp the correct space. Another time, a former Romanian Paralympic athlete had set up a rickety table by a river, offering stamps against a symbolic donation. I didn’t really care if their stories and afflictions were true, as they offered a welcome diversion for road-wary pilgrims.
As far as The Way is concerned, the trails we walked were usually wide and fairly level, certainly compared to the rocky mountain paths we are used to in Andalucía. Most sections were well marked and decently serviced, passing villages with hostels and eateries every few kilometres. Even tiny hamlets would have a pilgrim shop selling beverages, rain covers, walking sticks, trail snacks and cheap Camino souvenirs. And then there was the occasional oasis…
As we had chosen the most frequented Camino Francés, we were hard pressed to get lost at all – unless, like me, one has a natural tendency to choose el camino malo or the wrong way. There were stone markers every kilometre, sometimes made into shrines by passing pilgrims.
In addition, there were yellow arrows painted on houses and fences.
Likewise, we could follow the symbol of the camino, the shell, which would be embedded into the pavement in more urban areas.
We still managed to do a few unintended detours and some rutas complementarias, but when you think about it, what is the right way anyway, especially in a land where all roads seem to lead to Santiago de Compostela?
Though the scalloped shell has been the symbol of el Camino since the pilgrim route began, it actually predates the way as the symbol of the Roman goddess Venus. If you remember the famous Botticelli painting, it was from this same scalloped shell that the goddess rose from the sea. Be this as it may, El Camino has become synonymous with the shell, which one can see dangling from virtually all the pilgrim packs.
No camino is complete without a bit of hardship, so of course we were bound to hit a storm. On day two, with a 30 km of road ahead of us, it began dripping, then falling and finally pouring down. Fighting wind blasts and trotting in mud, our knee-length one-size-fits-all rain ponchos or chubasqueros came into good use. As I said, el Camino is all about the feet. In spite of all our preparations, I had forgotten to pre-wash some of my double anti-blister socks, so my heels became open wounds. But what would a pilgrimage be without a bit of pain and suffering?
When the rain eased up, the Eucalyptus trees released their refreshing scent, clearing our sinuses and spurring us on. At other times, the Eau de Camino would have quite a strong bovine aroma, as we passed farms and fields with the large Galician cattle.
The region, by the way, produces Spain’s best beef, so that even I who always order fish and vegetables would break down and have an enormous steak, cooked on a stone griddle, on day four of our walk. (This time. there was only meat on the menu…)
We knew we were near the end when we reached Monte do Gozo (Hill of Joy) from where we could see Santiago de Compostela at a distance. The city has spread out, so we had to walk through an extensive commercial suburb area with crossing motorways, loosing the sense of the pilgrim path until we entered the old town and finally could discern the tower of La Santa Apostólica y Metropolitana Iglesia Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. That was our roads end, or rather the Office of the diocese, where we would receive our final stamp of the journey.
Speaking for us, Santiago was a bit of a let down. Not so much because the cathedral was under construction and we could not see the famous pendulous botafumeiro incense dispenser at work, but because of the people. Being used to the warmth of the Andalucians, the Galicians we had met thus far had been polite, but not exactly overly friendly. Here in Santiago de Compostela however, many locals we met were downright rude. Not that we deserved applauds for our achievement, but we hadn’t expected an almost Paris-style coldness and disinterest. Granted, there are thousands of pilgrims passing through town, so locals might be fed up of seeing yet another backpacker, but pilgrims are still the main business of the town. Alas. I say no more.
What was special about El Camino was the walk, not the destination. Maybe I had felt different if I was Catholic, but to me, it was not a religious experience. It was a human experience. There was a special feeling of communion as we the pilgrims moved in the same direction. The daily walking, step ahead of step, hour by hour, sometimes in pain, intrigued me. If it weren’t for my blisters, I would have wanted to walk on, possibly forever. Your life at home did not exist anymore, all you could think about was the way and the road in front of you.
On a more spiritual level, I see the camino as an analogy for life. We all go in the same direction. Whichever faith or religious belief we may hold, our final destination is the same. There will always be people before us and there will always be someone who will come after us. We can choose to walk quickly or slowly, but whatever speed we go at, at one point we will get to the end. Like it or not, when it comes to life, we are all on the same camino…