hat brings you joy?” asks Benny as we sat down to another pilgrim’s meal in the bar of a small Spanish village. We shared red wine and fresh bread while waiting for a bowl of lentils and a choice of fish or meat — simple but satisfying after a long day’s walk.
We are modern-day pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago (or The Way of St. James as it is called in English, the same title of the recent movie starring Martin Sheen) to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where it is believed the body of the apostle St. James is buried — just as the first Christian pilgrims had done more than 1,000 years earlier.
The Way is not a single trail — there is a collection of old pilgrimage routes covering Europe, all having Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain as their final destination.
But the best known is the Camino Frances, starting in St Jean Pied de Port (near Biarritz) in France and finishing nearly 800 kilometres later.
It was the route chosen by Charlemagne, El Cid, Roldan and Suero de Quinones; crossing the north of the Iberian Peninsula, through the rolling hills of the Basque Country, the hot, flat, empty “meseta” of Navarra, La Rioja, and Castilla y Leon, and the green hills of Galicia.
In the Middle Ages the route was highly travelled,
Q & A: Another view of walking The Way. but reformation and unrest in the 16th century resulted in a slow decline. The late 1980s, however, saw a sudden rise in interest in the Camino and since then a growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe walk the route; looking perhaps for a road to a new type of spiritualism or a path to personal awareness and growth.
It takes roughly 30 days to walk the Camino Frances, at an average of 28 km a day with no detours or rest days and no margin of error for injury. Five weeks is a more graceful time allowance, but still leaves little opportunity for exploration.
Benny is purposeful in his pilgrimage. He studies and writes every day, sharing his thoughts and asking others to share theirs. I, on the other hand, was walking the Camino with no particular agenda, but was open to whatever may come along.
In fact, the idea to “do” the Camino was not mine at all, but that of my 26 year old daughter, who like many young people we encountered along the way, was looking for a “jump start” in life.
We became known as the “Canadian mother and daughter,” but there were other mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons. There were friends, husbands and wives, and many walking on there own.
But whether walking solo or with someone else, you meet your “self ” and find you are never alone — surely a purpose of pilgrimage, perhaps of life itself. People choose to do the Camino for any number of reasons — mid-life crisis, a need for a time to reflect, to get “unstuck,” to move forward after a loss, or to contemplate a new purpose. They are all ages, all religions, and all nationalities.
It is hard to conceive a safer environment within which to reflect on life and its direction. The people along the Camino have been welcoming pilgrims for centuries (although one should always take the usual precautions).
We met many for whom this Camino was not their first. One South African woman was a self-proclaimed “Camino junkie,” this being her seventh journey.
The French route includes the major cities of Pamplona, Burgos and León, the large towns of Logroño in the Rioja, Astorga, and Ponferrada, and a host of small villages that dot the landscape.
The path itself is as varied as the people who walk it. And don’t be fooled by the word “walk” — there is a lot of vertical terrain.
The first day from St. Jean takes you through the Pyrenees Mountains, climbing 1,400 metres over 28 kilometres.
It was the 10th day of what would be a 32-day journey for me, and the rhythm and simplicity of Camino life was taking hold — find a bed, have a shower, massage your feet, wash your socks and enjoy a meal.
Such is the allure of the Camino — just you and your backpack, cut off from the rest of life for a time, being only in the moment.
The weather was unseasonably warm (35C) for the second week of September. We spent the day walking through orchards of olives, almonds and f igs. A few days earlier it was f ields of grapevines and corn.
Walking El Camino Frances you follow the sun during the day and The Milky Way at night. Often we would start our day at 6 a.m., the moon still in the sky in front of us and the sun rising to our back.
But I don’t want to romanticize it. It wasn’t easy. I remember every moment of the f irst 10 days — every hill, every bunkbed, and every incessant snorer (as you were most often in large bunk rooms of 20 to 100 people). Those days often ended commiserating with others over a cerveza and asking, “Why are we doing this?”
You learn preparedness, attention to detail and to help your fellow pilgrim. At f irst our packs felt heavy and cumbersome — as does anything unfamiliar. But you take time to make adjustments and put one foot in front of the other, and your body adjusts. By the time we reached Galicia, we were “one” with our packs and felt we could run up the hills.
The Galicia scallop shell, once proof of the ancient pilgrim journey, now identifies the modern day traveller. The familiar yel- low arrow — painted on trees, rocks, poles and buildings — guides pilgrims (peregrinos as they are called in Spanish) along the way.
To stay at pilgrim hostels (albergues) and to receive a compostela (certificate of completion of pilgrimage to Santiago) you need a pilgrim passport credential as proof you are a pilgrim and have walked the route. It is a cherished piece of paper, perhaps the single most important keepsake of the journey.
“Buen Camino” is the familiar greeting, from pilgrim to pilgrim or as you walk through villages and farmyards.
Sometimes we walked by ourselves, other times with fellow travellers, everyone having their own pace, but often arriving at the same spot by night. We talked, laughed and sometimes sang (particularly when the day became long).
Little moments became huge memories — the farmer tossing a cob of corn from the f ield, the old woman coming out of her humble abode offering fresh crepes.
That evening waiting for our pilgrim meal would be the last time I saw Benny, but I did contact him when I returned home with the answer to his question. “What brings me joy?” Well, Benny, when I walked into Santiago de Compostela with my daughter on Oct. 5, 2011, her face full of pride from such an accomplishment and a knowing look that she was now stronger from her Camino experience, my heart was truly f illed with joy.
There are probably as many reasons to walk the Camino de Santiago trail in northern Spain as there are people doing it.
Those numbers are growing remarkably: in 1985, 690 pilgrims arrived at the end-point cathedral in Santiago; by 2010 the number had grown to more than 270,000.
With the 2011 movie release of The Way (currently showing at Canyon Meadows) focusing on the famous walk, interest is sure to spike again.
For some insights into walking the walk, we caught up with Ann Kirkland, the owner of the learning vacations company Classical Pursuits in Toronto.
For more, you can read her blog posts at classicalpursuits. com/ blog /2011 /01/11 / takingmy-soul-for-a-strollmy-caminochronicle.
Q: I understand you walked the Camino de Santiago recently. When did you do it and why?
A: I went in the fall of 2010 as a 65th birthday present to myself. I had f irst learned about the Camino in 2007 when I took a Classical Pursuits group to Galicia, the part of Spain where the Camino concludes. One of the books we read was Off the Road by Jack Hitt. It was an irreverent account of the Camino by a cynical journalist who was paid by Harpers to walk and write about his experience. The book certainly did not inspire me to try it myself, but seeing the many pilgrims arrive on foot in Santiago de Compostela, dirty, tanned and glowing, did.
Q: What route did you follow and how long did it take?
A: I walked the most common route, the Camino Frances, starting in Saint-jean-pieddu-port in the Basque part of southwest France. I was gone a total of six weeks and walked for f ive, taking two pre-planned rest days along the way. Q: What surprised you? A: What surprised me was how easy it was. I was anxious that I would f ind it too arduous, that I would get injured, that the gain would be in the pain. In fact, compared with my life at home, walking the Camino was about the most mentally relaxed time I can remember since childhood. I had no idea how much energy I expend trying to juggle the many strands of daily life, the endless big and little decisions, to-do lists, lurching from one task to another, and how liberating it was to be freed from all that. Compared with what I left behind, the physical demands of the Camino were not hard. Q: What was the hardest part? A: The hardest part in the beginning was gaining confidence. The day before I started walking, I looked up at the Pyrenees, doubting my ability to get up and over them on my own steam. After I did that, I thought of something the next day that appeared to be an even bigger challenge. It took me a little time to gain conf idence that I would be f ine and just relax and enjoy the variety each day brought. Q: Where did you sleep? A: Unlike most who walk the Camino, I chose to stay in private rooms with my own bath. There is a plentiful supply of dirt-cheap albergues (hostels) that offer basic shared accommodation and, often, communal meals and great conviviality.
Q: Why didn’t you stay at these hostels?
A: Alas, I am a better walker than I am a sleeper. If earplugs were sufficient to allow me to sleep among snorers, I would have made that choice. I was easily able, through an outfitter in Glasgow, to book private rooms in advance. Lots of others did the same thing. I think the best option, if money and sleeping were not determinative, would be to generally use albergues and opt for a hotel or private room when-
Cever one felt so inclined.
Q: Would you recommend the journey?
A: For many, yes. The Camino is apt to be most rewarding to those who do like to walk, are reasonably f it, enjoy the countryside and are pretty non-judgmental. The more open you are to the different people and ideas you encounter, especially yourself, the richer the experience.
While being a conventional Catholic is by no means a prerequisite, an openness to a nonmaterial dimension of life is a definite bonus.
Q: What are some top tips for people considering doing the Camino on their own.
A: Read a few recommended accounts of those who have walked the Camino, but only a few. Way too many pilgrims have written not very good books. And your experience will be different from all of them.
Do train and pack light. There is tons of information on the Internet and online discussion groups. It is also very helpful to gather up all your questions and pose them to several people who have walked.
There will be mixed and sometimes conflicting advice (water bottle versus camelback or various tips about foot care). Take in a reasonable amount of information, then decide for yourself. Good gear matters.
Don’t worry. Go with an open mind and an open heart.
Two pilgrims rest on the stairs of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral at end of the Way of Saint James. The Way of St. James pilgrimage route, which ends in the medieval Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, is attracting record numbers.