Starting the Journey
There are no footprints on the path through the thick red mud. I watch an 85-year-old man in hand-knit woolen socks nimbly work his way up the trail. If he can do it, so can I.
Such is the strength gained on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient path that crosses northern Spain, beginning in St. Jean Pied De Port, France, and ending 496 miles (798 km) later at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Many people smitten with the walk continue to Finisterre, land’s end at the Atlantic Ocean coast.
On the beach is a huge bonfire and it is a tradition to burn traveling clothes upon arrival, a custom that is easy to understand after 30 days walking in the same clothes for the benefit of carrying a light backpack.
Walking the full length of the Camino usually takes 30 to 40 days, depending on weather, injuries and foot stamina. Some walk shorter sections of the Camino.
Most choose to walk in the spring or fall during cooler weather and because crowds increase in the summer as more students arrive. The Camino also can be walked in winter, but with limited facilities available.
The Patron Saint of Spain
Pilgrims, as walkers are named, have treaded this historic route since the 10th century. St. James, the patron saint of Spain, was said to have been brought by ship to the Galician region of Spain after his death.
A coffin was built for his remains that can be viewed in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
In the days of kings and queens, tens of thousands of pilgrims walked across Spain and other European countries to make this coveted pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago.
Many towns and villages grew across the countryside to provide rooms and food. It became, and still is, an economy built around the journey.
It is difficult to lose our way, as scallop shell symbols and yellow painted arrows guide us through cross sections of Spanish life. Pilgrims can almost always be seen on the path ahead.
The path consists of every walking surface, from ancient Roman stone roads to brief sections of highway shoulders. Most often we walk on quiet country tracks that wind across fields of wheat and grapevines.
One can watch the growing and harvesting of white asparagus in spring and experience grape harvesting in the fall.
The Camino takes us through picturesque cities such as Pamplona, Burgos and León. Many pilgrims stop for rest days to explore the historical sights.
Pilgrims walk, cycle, and ride the Camino on horseback. Tours are also available, combining hiking with busing to make the journey accessible to a wider range of walkers.
However, most choose to find their way with a good guidebook and the symbols of the Camino.
Walking through the Countryside
Local residents of the towns and countryside along the Camino have been welcoming and caring for pilgrims for centuries.
As we walk through one farmyard, a stout, elderly woman appears with a plate of hot crepes, sits us down and treats us.
Of course, we can make a small donation, but there is no pressure. One albergue, or hostel, host spends her evening treating foot ailments for grateful pilgrims. There is always a Camino Angel to help when trouble afflicts the traveler.
Historically, modestly dressed pilgrims walked this path, without the sophisticated quick-dry garb and sturdy hiking boots of modern walkers.
Accommodation is provided in albergues, or Hospitals for Peregrinos, as they were historically named, and have existed since the faithful began walking this route around 950 A.D.
Housed in everything from ancient monasteries to sports complexes, an albergue provides modest accommodation and is available only for those walking the Camino.
At a cost of 6 to 10 Euros (US $9 – $14) per night, it makes this an affordable trip for many.
After walking a typical day of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) and arriving at the door of the albergue, pilgrims present their Camino passport (credential) to be stamped by the host.
Most albergues provide bunk beds in close quarters. Even a simple bed becomes a luxury after a few walking days.
It is difficult to resist the urge to race some days, to ensure a spot at an albergue, as reservations are unheard of.
But an important lesson to learn while walking the Camino is that trusting souls are always cared for. Also available in some towns and cities are hotels and small inns.
After a rainy, cold and particularly long walk one day, we arrive at the albergue to find the last bed had just been given.
We are taken to a church annex, where we receive mats on the floor, a hot dinner and breakfast. Donation only, please.
Having Early Dinner
After dinner we travel through a secret tunnel to the church to participate in a special service for pilgrims in an ancient choir loft and treated to a tour of the spectacular golden church.
It is traditional in Spain to eat dinner at 10 p.m, by which time most pilgrims are deeply asleep.
The restaurateurs along the Camino have accommodated pilgrims with special meals served between 7:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Three courses and red wine are served, often on white tablecloths for about US $12.00.
During the day, walkers may stop for a bocadillo, or snack, consisting of fresh crusty bread stuffed with ham and cheese, among other local delicacies.
The tapas, bite-sized treats made of local ingredients, can be meals in themselves. Bakeshops tempt with hot chocolate-filled croissants. One memorable dinner is served by the kind host of the albergue.
It consists of a local specialty of garlic soup, bread and fruit, all for a small donation.
Seated at a long table, the humble meal serves to remind us of the frugal meals enjoyed by pilgrims of the past. It is typical to share dinner with a varied group of pilgrims.
Several languages might be spoken all at once, with everyone translating the bits they understand to help one other. Lots of red wine, laughter and stories are shared and friendships grow as the meal disappears.
The Camino is a great leveler, as humility and compassion grow within each pilgrim. Blisters can fell a former marathon runner, while a demure 70-year-old woman hikes past blister free – for the moment.
Everyone cares for, encourages and supports each other along the way. Strong international friendships bloom.
Meeting with Amazing People
It is an excellent walk for women traveling alone since there are many others to join with along the way.
Takako, a retired teacher from Japan, walks every step of the Camino alone, meeting only a few pilgrims who share her language.
But everyone she meets adores her. Small in stature, she wears all white clothes to protect herself from the sun’s rays.
With the day’s map hanging from her neck, she walks slowly and steadily, at times gesturing that she can’t continue. A passing pilgrim always embraces her and tells her to keep going.
After weeks of wondering, “where is Takako?” we find her on the last night, at a celebratory pilgrim’s dinner in Santiago, surrounded by fellow admiring pilgrims.
Excitement mounts as we come closer to Santiago de Compostela. The last morning we walk into Santiago to the large, busy square in front of the famous cathedral. At noon each day, a pilgrim’s mass is held for the arriving walkers.
A large incense ball called the Botafumeiro swings over the heads of awe-struck pilgrims.
Its size and weight requires six priests to pull ropes to move the silver ball across the width of the cathedral. Joy and sadness is felt as travelers exchange the last fleeting glances with their momentary friends.
If You Go
Pilgrimage to Santiago
Janet Feduck is a life long traveler whose “base camp” is in Elora, north of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her passion is to travel the world in a very adventurous way and inspire others to step out as well. She has visited remote corners of 33 countries on this amazing earth.