I expected nothing more than a long walk from my pilgrimage on the Camino Frances, looking back not very imaginative I believe. The few years before I first walked the Camino had seen some major changes in my life. I had at long last abandoned the accountancy career I didn’t enjoy much and had enrolled as a mature student at university studying English Literature and Philosophy – a dream come true.
I enjoyed hill walking at the weekends, but I hadn’t untaken a long multi-day walk for many years. A friend at university in a low period of his life had packed his rucksack and walked from Amsterdam to Santiago de Compostela. He talked about this experience quite a bit and I thought it was interesting but also mad. He slept outside, in church portals, and once he was in Spain in pilgrim’s hostels.
Darragh, my friend, went on and on about this Camino route and kept telling me how much I would enjoy it. I just thought about sharing dorms with many others each night, that single aspect was my biggest hurdle. But, after a couple of months hearing the stories I thought I would give it a go. I decided that if I did not like it I would just find something else in Spain to do for the rest of the summer.
What is the Camino de Santiago
In the 9th century the remains of St James, one of Jesus’ apostles was discovered where now the city of Santiago de Compostela sits. Legend has it that his body was transported to Spain from the Middle East. Once in Spain oxen were used to pull the stone boat away from the coast. My inquisitive mind wonders why nothing then happened for the next 900 years?
The remains after discovery were declared the remains of Santiago, (St James), by the bishop at the time. This coincides with an on-going Christian Muslim war for the control of Spain. Pilgrims started walking to Santiago and the route became the third most popular middle ages pilgrimage route after Rome and Jerusalem. The church expected the Kings and Queens along the Camino routes to protect pilgrims and thus the popularity of the routes also marked the decline of the Moor occupation of Spain.
Many routes developed over the years between the 9th and 16th century. These form the basis for the modern routes; Camino Frances the most popular, the Northern Routes along the north coast of Spain, and the Camino Portugues from Lisbon, there are many more routes but these are the most walked with the best infrastructure. Due to political unrest and the reformation the Camino fell from popularity from the 16th century onward.
I first walked the Camino in 2004, in 2005, and again in 2012, you can read more on my blog.
My Experience of the Camino
Today there are 1,000’s of blogs about the Camino, loads of information websites, and two main Camino Forums. When I first walked information was hard to get before setting off. I purchased a guidebook that I discovered was out of date, but it was good enough.
Perhaps not knowing what the pilgrimage held for me was better, as my expectations were very different to many setting out today. I expected loneliness, peace and quiet, and very long periods on my own. Because of this, I had packed three books that were tombs and would last me more than a month - the downside is they were heavy.
I started in St Jean Pied de Port in the South of France and was surprised to see many others starting at the same time. My backpack was too heavy at 15 kg - 9 kg more than it would be the following year. I was overweight, smoked, and was unfit - not a great combination to start a walk of 800 km.
I found the first week painful, but my worries about sharing a dorm at night disappeared after one night. For the first time in many years, I slept like the proverbial baby, and have slept well ever since. Being physically exhausted from walking all day made for great sleep - but remember the ear plugs, they help.
I was completely wrong about all the lonely time I would have. Even back then it was crowded at some points, though that was a Holy Year. A Holy Year on the Camino is when St James’ day, (25th July), fall on a Sunday.
Each day I walked different distances between 20 and 30 kilometres, and so did many others. I got to know people from seeing them most nights and I never ate alone.
If you are a student on a tight budget and you like walking this could be a great way to spend a summer and cheaply. It is possible to by on €30 per day for everything, but that will be tight. Though there were days the first time around that I spent much less. Hostels cost about €10 per night, about €10 per evening meal, and if you go easy on the drink the other ten will pay for lunch and breakfast. Some days I would buy food in a shop and cook in the hostel or I would pick hostels that had communal evening meals.
A Week in Spain After the Camino
After I finished the Camino the first time I head across country to the Costa del Sol for a holiday with family. I pretty much hated that holiday. I had become so chilled from walking every day that being dumped right into a tourist resort was too much, (yes, I know first world problems).
The second time after walking to Santiago de Compostela we hired a car between three of us and drove first to Finisterra to watch the setting of the sun on the coast and then slowly drove back along the Camino Frances.
Next time, because I am sure there will be a next time, I will try and find the money and time for a quiet beach somewhere in Portugal.
The Camino Changes You
Well, it does if you are open to change. Walking between six and eight hours every day is somewhat like meditation - you develop a rhythm. I wondered about my life, what had brought me to this point, why was I walking this even though it was sore at times, why had I began to care so much about the people I met along the way.
Some of the changes I attribute to walking the Camino are:
I met my other half 11 years ago and now we have a two year old
I built a website about the Camino and a forum.
This led to a new career in web marketing
Plus I now live in another country
I picked up a religious leaflet one hot day while walking the Meseta. The idea behind the leaflet was - while walking the Camino de Santiago you have direction - there are yellow arrows to follow each step of the way - but what about afterwards once you are home, why gives you direction? I am not religious in any way, but I thought about this and found something in me that gives me direction - most of the time.