The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel

How a midlife pilgrimage changed me

Long undertaken by troubled pilgrims, the ancient Camino de Invierno offers a remedy for modern-day travellers too, says Rhonda Carrier


As we tackled the dizzyingly steep route of the Camino de Santiago down into the village of Belesar, the gorgeous views of Galicia’s terraced vineyards made up for our strenuous efforts. Lording it over the placid River Miño, they distracted us from the fact that the arduousnes­s of our descent was soon going to be mirrored by an equally arduous ascent on the other side of the ancient stone bridge.

It might not have seemed quite so intimidati­ng had we not already walked nearly 20 miles. The final four – uphill to Chantada, where we were staying for the night – looked like they might break us.

My friend Tracey and I had begun our week-long Camino in the town of Monforte de Lemos, capital of the Ribeira Sacra wine-making region. (Appropriat­e, since wine is one of the things that helps most menopausal, 50-something, divorcing mothers of teenagers cope with life in general.) And the wine here is delicious, as we discovered in the company of the charming Fabio, of the family-run Algueira winery (adegaalgue­ in the incongruou­sly named municipali­ty of Sober, near Monforte.

A refugee from burnout induced by working in the music industry in London, Fabio returned to his ancestral soil to run this boutique winery and upmarket country restaurant in an area where many of the vineyards – which date back as far as Roman times – have been abandoned. Despite the hugely negative outlook for wine-growing here due to climate change, Fabio is, for the moment at least, looking to develop a selection of the 34 grape varieties in the area, to make them more personalis­ed. He has found his way again.

And finding one’s way is what brings many people to the Camino itself. Where, in days gone by, it was pilgrims who followed this ancient network of routes to seek redemption for their sins at the alleged burial site of St James, in the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, today it is more those who are at some kind of turning point in life – such as Tracey and me – who take the road well-travelled. People in search of answers or guidance as to a new direction.

The Ribeira Sacra region is part of the Camino de Invierno or “Winter Camino” – so-named for being the route taken by pilgrims in winter to avoid the snowy mountains of O Cebreiro on the Camino Frances (the French Way), the best-known and most popular route running along Spain’s northern flank. Wines aside, we chose it because it was quieter, while still jaw-droppingly beautiful in places.

Taking mainly country lanes and forest paths through alternatel­y mistveiled or sun-drenched landscapes, we walked through a seemingly timeless world of gorse, pines, eucalyptus, ferns and mosses, past wild mint growing in cracks in stone walls, marrows ripening by the roadside, somnolent cats, lost-intime chapels and churches (this area has the highest number of Romanesque religious buildings in Europe) and henhouses mounted on stilts to cunningly outwit the local foxes.

Walking has been proven to be beneficial for women in our chapter of life, not least for its ability to counter menopausal symptoms and depression, and enhance both physical self-esteem and satisfacti­on with life. Indeed, Macs Adventure, with whom we travelled, has seen a dramatic spike in inquiries for Camino tours from older women.

The act of putting one foot in front of the other – up and down hillsides, along stony valleys and ridges – is both invigorati­ng and monotonous at once, lulling us into a sense of profound peace. But then again, it might have something to do with how physically demanding it is to walk up to 20 miles a day for a week.

We were connected by phone, of course, in case our families needed us, but we were largely in our own world, tuning in to the sounds of nature – birdsong, rustling trees – or to podcasts or music (whenever my speed increased, Tracey knew it was because I’d turned on some techno music to energise myself ). We also largely ignored the map app that comes as part of the package, as helpful as it was. That said, joining a tour brings plenty of advantages, including prebooked hotels at the end of each day-long stage of the journey (all serving copious breakfasts to set you up for the walk ahead) and transporta­tion of your luggage between stages, so there is no lugging backpacks, as many pilgrims did before us.

We used the Macs app when we went a bit wrong, but part of the fun of the Camino is spotting the yellow arrows and scallop-shell signs that designate the route. It makes it like a quest, of sorts – even if it was mainly a quest to get to our hotel for a hot bath or shower and then to head out for cold beer and tapas. In this untouriste­d region of Spain, making ourselves understood in local restaurant­s and bars felt like an achievemen­t in itself.

As for our fellow pilgrims, those we met at this quieter time of year (early spring) were of different ages and nationalit­ies, all of them on some kind of quest of their own: a young Argentinia­n woman walking alone as she debated her life choices (including whether to have children); a Polish couple coming to terms with infertilit­y; a German writer rememberin­g a long-ago love affair he had while walking the Camino decades ago; and a former soldier suffering from PTSD from his time in Afghanista­n. The walk means many things to many people.

But, for us, the journey was a celebratio­n of friendship – if sometimes also a test of it. Getting a bit lost when not paying attention to the signs, walking at different paces, needing to rest at different points – they could easily be sticky moments when in the company of someone for 24 hours a day, but, in fact, those times only proved the strength of our bond. Chivvying each other along during the tougher moments of the walk made me realise how much friendship and – especially Tracey’s – has kept me moving forwards through a difficult few years. Having recently lost a friend who died suddenly in her 40s, I was feeling particular­ly grateful for the female companions in my life.

The walk reached a poignant end in Santiago de Compostela, the imposing Galician capital. The cathedral, where the route ends, is called “kilometre zero”, and in a sense, for me at least, doing the Camino felt like going back to zero mentally, stripping away daily commitment­s, distractio­ns and worries. I now felt I could recognise – and change – all my unhelpful thought patterns and ways of seeing things.

Standing before the ornate church, I thought about my journey so far. Not the walk, but life, about how the journey is never truly finished because what you want changes over time. While arriving at the cathedral, more than 84 miles from Monforte, felt like an accomplish­ment, what I took most from the experience was the process of reconnecti­ng with nature, switching off my brain and thinking, and pushing through the aches and pains. Enjoying the physical challenge, I learnt to take things step by step, trusting that I am on the right path.

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 ?? The reward: beer and tapas ?? End of the road: Rhonda (left) and
Tracey celebrate outside Santiago cathedral
Tracey taking in the view
The reward: beer and tapas End of the road: Rhonda (left) and Tracey celebrate outside Santiago cathedral Tracey taking in the view

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