January 2010, I was facing my 8th year of a demanding job, and as December turned again into a new year, I started to dream about sunshine and traveling; wishing longingly for something different. My two friends and I had sat together in the pub at Christmas and asked ourselves what we wanted to bring into our lives in the coming year. We stated that we wanted to do something that connected with the earth. The universe must have been listening that night, for, as if by magic, I was made redundant; just in time to join my two friends who were aspiring to walk 500 miles across Spain along the Camino De Santiago. The Camino means ‘the way’ and it stretches from the border of France and Spain in the Pyrenees to the sea on the west coast of Spain.
Hundreds of millions of people have walked the same footsteps over thousands of years, as it is an ancient pilgrim path.
Every pilgrim traditionally carries a scallop shell which is the symbol of the pilgrimage. It is said that the shells were given to pilgrims as they arrived at Santiago or Finisterre to prove they had completed it, as they were abundant along the shores. Over time the tradition changed and shells were worn to give people safe passage, if there were wars going on in France. People would carry different symbols to signify which pilgrimage they were on: Rome, Jerusalem or Santiago. They say that, like the modern day pilgrim passport, the shell gave the ancient pilgrims of the past access to a bed and some food. It also looks to me like the rays of the sun, which links to the Celtic Camino who walked it to worship the sun…ending their journey at a place called Finisterre, which means literally ‘the end of the world’. This beautiful place was where we ended our journey. It is the most westerly point of Spain, a beautiful outcrop, flanked by two gorgeous beaches. The Celts not only traveled here to worship the sun but to ponder what they believed to be ‘the end of the world’, whilst Christians walked this way for over a thousand of years, after the excitement drummed up by the ‘miracles’ of the Apostle St James.
Throughout the medieval period it was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages undertaken. Indeed, it was only these pilgrimages—to Jerusalem, to Rome, and to Santiago de Compostela—which could result in a plenary indulgence, which frees a person from the penance due for sins. But as well as Christians and Celts, seekers of every kind are found along the way. My friends and I were drawn from the latter; spiritual seekers, perhaps adventurers, looking for something. Many people we met seemed to be in some kind of transition in their lives, and they were looking for a direction, sometimes a healing. For some people it was about going back to basics, and connect with nature, for some it was to experience freedom or a gypsy lifestyle, to test ones endurance, to get over a death or bond with partners, friends and family. I was intrigued to be part of something so ancient…and wondered what I would learn on my journey. They say that the real Camino begins when you finish the 500 miles….
We saw the influences of the Celts in the music and round stone buildings, and the influences of the Knights Templar’s in Templar Castles where they would see off the Moors and thieves who would attack the pilgrims. One town we stayed was even named ‘Jacques De Molay’, who was the leader of the Templars when they were turned upon and put to death by a vengeful pope.
We certainly saw the influence of the Church, there was a church in every village, town, some bedecked in gold that we wondered had been taken from the Aztecs by the Spanish.
My first impressions were that it could be painful on the feet, but that it was a wonderful change from the office! Waking up each day in a new village, in a different bed. We stayed in Albergues, the french word for hostel, which were unique; each with their own individual character. They ranged from ‘hospitals’ which offered free room and food to pilgrims, as was the custom with medieval pilgrims, to a church, a sports hall, a nunnery, even a motel or two. Commonly there were rooms filled with bunk beds for between 2 and several hundred people. We paid between 5 and 10 euros per night.
My friend and I walked between 10 and 17 miles per day, pretty much seven days a week. I dropped almost two dress sizes! Most pilgrims rise early, usually at 6am, to get most of the walking done by about 2pm. Along ‘The Way’ there were many magical moments interspersed with long hours of keeping your head down and trudging on, with sore feet and at times a degree of exhaustion, carrying the burden of your rucksack….a bit like life really! The rucksack symbolized your ‘sins’ or your ‘knapsack of errors’; just like the one carried by fool in the tarot card. Many centuries ago some pilgrims even walked with a huge wooden cross on their backs, mirroring the pain of Jesus.
I met one soul along the way, who said that the Camino is the path of the heart and will. I’m not sure exactly what that meant but I knew that I had spent a fair amount of time in my late twenties strengthening my will, and, on reflection I had spent 7 years in strengthening my heart in practical and heartfelt ‘service’ administrating a counselling service for people with drug and alcohol problems.
At one point, inspired by my disciplined friend, we took to eating salads, sometimes with a Spanish omelet, with fruit for breakfast and nuts for lunch. We seemed to walk better on the light, raw food. One morning, soon after starting this light food, I awoke with a gentle voice in my head giving me some words of wisdom about my life. At one point too an eagle or hawk seemed to mark our arrival to our destination each day. It happened so often that my friend and I both thought it too coincidental.
Whilst you find yourself alone frequently along the way, there are also millions of people who cycle and walk the Camino each year.
Visually, it was beautiful to see a country on foot. You have time, if not always the energy to take in your surroundings. Poppies lined many of the pathways, and unripened fields of wheat filled your eyes in all directions. Many old church towers had been taken over by heron nests.
There were endless little old villages, practically ghost-towns, with just a few old people still living there. The crumbling buildings, some made of adobe, took you back in time. It was amazing how many of the Spanish still had a smile for you, despite the millions of pilgrims that they must have seen pass through their villages throughout their lives.
We passed through hills, fields and the Mesa, which was the flat lands of rhe Riocha vine growing region. We passed through cities like Burgos: the only time we took the bus, as do many other pilgrims, to avoid the 15 mile trudge through industrialised suburbs. We had some adventures along the way, once we couldn’t find anywhere to stay, it was late and we were tired and we had to walk on for several miles, uncertain of a bed for the night. We found an almost deserted village, with an equally deserted hostel. Luckily when we rang the number on the door, someone came and let us in. As there were no shops in the village to buy food, we managed to manifest a meal out of what we could find in the kitchen. This turned out to pasta in garlic and oil – it tasted divine! One night we slept out in a field which made it feel like we were hobbits wandering through Middle Earth.
The End of the Camino
The last 100 miles of the journey for some reason seem to act like a funnel and you encounter more fellow pilgrims than at any other time; to whom you traditionally say ‘Buen Camino’ as you pass; meaning ‘have a good Camino’. It took my friend and I two months to walk the Camino, although some amazing people manage it in a month: I would think this would be people that are determined to finish and with little time or experienced walkers/athletes!
At the end of the Camino, I reached Santiago and went to the Pilgrim Office, showing my pilgrim’s passport stamped by every Albergue (hostel) I had stayed in. This was my proof that I walked it and I was given my certificate of completion. I was glad to have reached the end, and to have completed this unique challenge. I remembered admiring Fiona Walker who walked across Africa, and I had marvelled at her achievement walking across a continent, and what an adventure it must have been! Well now I had my own adventure too in walking across an entire country, if not an continent.
My friend and I attended the mass at the glorious cathedral in Santiago, where a great censer of burning frankincense swung through the air above the heads of the pilgrims; a ritual re-enacted for more than 800 years.
I felt a bit of a fraud as I am not religious as such, but we had earned our place there and it is quite an experience – if you’re interested in watching this ritual, and don’t fancy a 500 mile walk first, here is the Youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=My7LfjFXL4E
Santiago Old Town is a UNESCO world heritage site and is filled with beautiful, narrow cobbled streets. I loved it! When we left Santiago we chose to continue on to end our journey at Finisterre; as many people do. It was about a tough 30 mile walk, from Santiago to Finisterre and, warned by a friend, we decided to get the bus most of the way, and walked in the last few miles. We were kind to ourselves!
When we got to Finisterre we walked across the beach and settled in our lodgings and then watched the sun go down; a traditional ending of the Camino.
The idea of watching the sunset in Finisterre links to the ancient Celts who ended their journey there to honour the sun and visit what they believed was the end of the world. Finisterre was a most beautiful place, with two beaches.
One of my friends found an amazing place for us to stay when we got to Finisterre: with a view of one of the beaches and what with dogs, cats and horses, I was in heaven.
The horses had been ridden along the Camino from Italy by the woman who owned the house, 10 years previously, and she had never left! I also encountered the hardy, and sometimes gruff Galician people, who are thought to descend, in part, from the Celts who settled there after their long walk. We watched Spain win the World Cup excitedly after a celebratory meal in a restaurant to mark the end of our journey. There on Finisterre beach we collected scallop shells; the symbol of the pilgrimage, and my friend carved an amazing sword out of a piece of driftwood with the shape of a scallop shell in the handle.
As well as spiritual aspirations, and the physical challenges, there were tough emotional times too along the Camino. I struggled with the competitive energy between myself and one of my friends, and the fact that I walked much slower and couldn’t always find my voice to have a say in decisions. I was forced to ‘own my power’ several times during the journey – difficult lessons but necessary sometimes! From such lessons we can sometimes shift gears in life. This I did, by finally acknowledging to myself some of my difficult feelings and I bought a ticket home, a little earlier than planned, to attend the Glastonbury Symposium: my favourite event of the year.
After the Camino
They say that the Camino really begins after the 500 miles. Two years on, my mind sometimes takes me unbidden to half-remembered places from the Camino, as if trying to recall some beautiful fragment of soul. Have I made any shifts as a result of the walk? Have I been absolved of my sins as the Catholics believe?
Looking back now, I think the Camino for me was part of the expression of a life-long search for spiritual meaning and healing for my wounds amid the apparently mundane and disconnected world. Of course everyone walks it for a different reason. Some people were there trying to find themselves after bringing up children, or seeking a new direction in their lives: one woman we met was trying to decide whether to become a nun. I never found out what she decided. Some people had walked the Camino many times, often with family, because they love it. I was just one more seeking soul in a great sea of souls.
Upon my return to England, I immediately had the opportunity to write an article on crop circles for a magazine; something that could not have been a better gift had I have dreamed it up myself. In the two years following the Camino I experienced the magic of free time and learning new things: such as art when I wasn’t artistic, yoga when I was not very bendy and raw food and fasting, when I love my food! On reflection, these pursuits since my return from the Camino have helped me connect with nature via the sense of well-being and energy I found from them. This links to the initial intention we had that fateful day in the pub, which was to connect with nature. Additionally, the yoga, raw food and fasting as well as the painting turned out to be preparation for a spiritual initiation: which has been my biggest dream. Since that initiation in December 2012, I have been grateful to have healed many past emotional patterns, which had trapped me in difficult relationships for many years. I now feel it is possible to have a good relationship: another dream! My writing has flowered recently too, and it now feels possible to fulfil my dream to write a book. Life is still life with all its challenges of course and it is only now, two years on from the Camino de Santiago that I can reflect more fully on how much I have transformed. How much of it is attributable to the Camino? I don’t know…but with so many dreams coming true or on their way to fruition, it would be hard not to feel that the Camino did perhaps lift some of the blockages, karma or ‘sins’ from my shoulders. Whatever the truth, I see the Camino as similar to the journey of life, and when we walk it with intention and with something of the sacred in our heart, life cannot but help answer us in some form or another.