An article I wrote back in 2007 about the Camino de Santiago. A friend is currently walking the full Camino Frances to Santiago which reminded me of it.
Six years ago, I walked the Camino – albeit the last leg of it. I’d been wanting to experience it for a while. I was at the time working on a piece on pilgrimages for a Newsweek article with Christopher Dickey, so it seemed a good opportunity. And it turned out to be a wonderful experience – as nearly all pilgrimages are.
Below is my account of that journey along the Camino de Santiago which appeared in the Register.
Your Feet May Falter But Your Soul Will Soar
The Long Walk to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007
For some years, I’d been hearing people praise the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the oldest Christian pilgrimage route in the world. In fact, so popular has “The Way” become that it’s now bearing its heaviest foot traffic since medieval times.
So earlier this year I traveled to the region to sample the pilgrimage for myself. Like so many pilgrims who beat the path before me, I found it to be a richly rewarding experience and a great aid to spiritual growth.
There are five main routes to the beautiful and ancient city of Santiago de Compostela, whose Romanesque cathedral — the final destination of the pilgrimage — contains the remains of St. James the Apostle. The Church celebrates his feast on July 25. (Camino de Santiago means the Way of St. James.)
Connections from five other routes allow a few especially ambitious and athletic pilgrims to walk all the way from Paris or Lisbon.
The oldest and most popular route is the Camino Francés (French Way). This starts in the small town of St. Jean Pied de Port, near Lourdes on the French border, and ends in Santiago some 543 miles — and not a few blisters — later. By foot the trip takes most pilgrims three to four weeks to complete.
For most of us, it’s not practical to take so much time away from work and other commitments and so many pilgrims start nearer Santiago. Popular launching points include the beautiful cathedral towns of Burgos (a 316-mile walk), Leon (207 miles) and Astorga (169 miles).
Having only a few days to spare, I started in the town of Sarria. At about 80 miles from Santiago, it’s the minimum span one must traverse to obtain a Compostela — a signed certificate proving you walked the Camino.
But although relatively short, it’s not wanting for variety. The terrain mixes hills, lakes and forests with Galician towns, hamlets and picturesque little churches. The region is rural and gets plenty of rain in the colder months, making the land very fertile. The people are also culturally rich and, being Celts, they’re proud of their heritage. Occasionally you’ll come across the sound of bagpipes or the sight of tartan kilts.
Yet, as interesting as these aspects of the Camino are, it is the journey itself that captures the heart.
Like Life Itself
It is said that the Camino, like life’s “journey”, is different for each traveler. Even two people walking side by side won’t get the exact same things out of it.
Some make the trek to test themselves, others to grow spiritually. For most Catholics, the experience is an opportunity to simply get alone with God. Opportunities abound to pray, take stock of one’s life and renew one’s commitment to following Christ.
Many come away saying they have been changed by the walk. Perhaps that’s because the Camino is really one great metaphor for life. One moment you are strolling with ease along a straight and smooth tarmac road; the next, you find yourself carefully negotiating a meandering and rocky passage. There are literal ups and downs: steep hills to climb and, in the valleys, precarious rivers to cross.
The weather was entirely unpredictable when I walked in the spring – everything from sun to showers, and rainstorms to hail. But whatever the challenges to the journey, I found if you simply put one foot in front of the other — however much your feet are telling you to stop — and simply trust the signs, you will be guided to your destination.
And another thing I noticed was a palpable sense of divine Providence.
Along the Camino, large yellow arrows, usually impossible to miss, guide you along the way – but not always. On at least one occasion I got lost. I prayed and almost immediately a farmer came walking up the path and pointed me in the right direction.
Speak to other pilgrims and you will hear of similar experiences, usually involving a kind Spaniard or fellow pilgrim pointing the way back onto the Camino.
A strong camaraderie and sense of solidarity with other pilgrims are also important parts of the pilgrim experience here.
“The Camino allows everyone to give the best of themselves,” said Canadian pilgrim Peter Andreacchi, on his third month-long Camino walk. “The facades are removed as no one is out to exploit one another. And the emotions all come out. It builds bridges between people and cultures.”
People of all ages walk the Camino. Vincent Estridge of Bradford, England, was on his second three-week pilgrimage on the Way of St. James — at the age of 79.
“The Camino is really a revelation, a personal revelation to each of us,” he said. “As long as I’m healthy enough, I’ll keep on doing it.”
And they come back, year after year, despite, or perhaps because of, the physical challenges.
“Something attracts you back to the Camino,” one fellow traveler told me. “After a while you get this irresistible pull.”
Paolo and Gabrielle De Ambrosis, a retired couple from Milan in their 60s, were on their sixth 500-mile Camino in as many years. They said they had made the trip out of gratitude to God for their blessings that first motivated them — and for other reasons, too.
“During this month you can avoid everything: news, soccer, television,” said Paolo. “You remember instead what is important in your life. … It puts everything in perspective.”
Along the way, the Camino has government-run albergue (inexpensive hostels that sleep 10 or more to a room). Some avoid these in order to get a good night’s rest, but others love them for their fraternal atmosphere. Spending the night in one of these facilities is like living out a scene from The Canterbury Tales with plenty of camaraderie and consumption of the odd ale or two.
But being immersed in the humanity of one’s brother pilgrims is all part of the enriching Camino pilgrimage experience.
I eventually arrived at Santiago cathedral after 3½ days of solid walking. My feet were in pain, but I felt greatly relieved to have made it.
And as Providence would have it, I’d arrived just in time for Mass.
For pilgrimage routes, see santiago-compostela.net.
Planning Your Visit
Don’t book your trip until you’ve read a good guidebook. For the Camino Francés, try A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierley (Findhorn Press, 2006). It has all the info you need, including detailed maps and daily spiritual meditations, and it’s light enough to carry with you along the way.