By: Brian Hallett
One of the world’s great walks starts wherever you want it to, and whenever you want to do it. You can make it as long as you like, though 100 kilometres is regarded as a minimum. And if you complete it in particular years, all your sins are forgiven – or so the believers say.
This is the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a web of trails blazed across Europe in the Middle Ages by pilgrims slogging their way towards the remains of the apostle St James, interred in the cathedral of Santiago in northwest Spain.
If you’re looking for a travel experience beyond a Bali beach break or a guided package tour, this iconic walk could be for you. Those who take on the challenge will join a fascinating mix of people from all over the world: dedicated pilgrims on spiritual journeys, retirees defying the years, Spanish youths who’ll place the achievement high on their CVs, fugitives from love gone wrong, others walking off grief (as portrayed by Martin Sheen in the 2010 movie The Way), or those who just like the idea of a long hike through a fascinating culture and landscape.
Traditionalists start their Camino from home, simply walking out the front door. For a few, that start can be as far away as Germany, Italy or beyond and involve trudging through snow while crossing the Pyrenees and other ranges.
Rebecca and I tackled the Camino’s route français across northern Spain, the path of choice for medieval pilgrims from France keen to stay clear of unsympathetic Moors who dominated southern Spain for much of that country’s history. We chose April, to avoid the crowds and heat of summer and to dodge the cold tail of winter.
We allocated 16 days of 25km for a total of 400km. The closest starting point for this distance is the city of León. There, arriving by train, we posted our luggage on to Santiago, leaving only essential needs in the backpacks we’d tote for the walk. At León Cathedral we collected our Camino passports, which were to be stamped at overnight stops to verify our pilgrim status and thus earn the coveted “Compostela” certificate awarded to those who walk at least 100km (riding a bicycle or horse requires 200km). Next morning we took the first steps that begin every journey.
Pre-trip practice tramping around city streets had taught us just how critical weight would be. We’d bought lightweight hiking boots and, with ruthless inventories, managed to keep our packs down to about eight kilos each, not including water.
Like all pilgrims, we displayed a scallop shell. Traditionally a scoop for water along the way, the shell’s fluted grooves converge on a single point – a metaphor for the journey. Like all pilgrims, we greeted fellow travellers with “Buen Camino”.
Along the route are refugios, basic dormitories maintained for pilgrims bearing the Camino passport and charging a token tariff for overnight unisex accommodation, with tiered bunks, blankets (no sheets, so we carried silk liners) and showers.
Every pilgrim should try a refugio as part of the experience. In the warmer months they can be full by mid-afternoon, though, so it’s sensible to have the option of one of the pensiones along the way – a blessed break from snoring neighbours, stinky socks and bathroom queues.
Then there’s the walking: a serious distance with a relentless rhythm, along paths, roads and bridges, across plains, silent forests, rolling hills and steep mountains.
After two days and 50km, our legs stiffened whenever we took a break. Climbing steps became a painful challenge. And our boots were threatening to cause blisters, so we shrugged off the indignity of limping around overnight villages in socks and sandals. If you tackle the Camino, you too may well don this fashion clanger.
After three or four days, things changed. Yes, we were tired and our backpacks pulled at our shoulders. But gradually our legs found their mojo. Gradually the walking became effortless, with a feeling that this is the way life should be: self-contained, reduced to essentials, renewing.
Once over the mountain range crowned with the village of O Cebreiro, a misty cluster of stone and shingle dwellings, the countryside of Galicia opens to a patchwork of green valleys, farms defined by dry stone walls and lines of poplars, haystacks, jewelled streams and time-warp hamlets, each with its chapel, cemetery, slatted bins of drying corncobs and, with luck, a tiny taverna serving jugs of wine and bocadillos (bread rolls) stuffed with jamón, the smoky, dry-cured ham of Spain.
Locals along the way rarely speak English, but smiles and gestures resolve most situations. And though there’s real camaraderie when you meet travellers at refugios and taverna stops, for most of the walk you’re quite alone; after all, everyone is travelling in the same direction and at similar speed, so someone a kilometre or two ahead is likely to keep that distance all day.
Towns on the way offer their own proud differences. Melide, as an example, claims to serve Spain’s best octopus, so we indulged at a cosy pulperia where men hauled our lunch from simmering vats, sliced the tentacles with shears, piled them on wooden platters and served them with olive oil, salt, bread and deep saucers of red wine. Delicioso!
On and on. Always looking for the scallop shell symbol or yellow arrows daubed on barn walls, rocks or trees. Sometimes missing those signs, getting lost, backtracking, picking up the trail again, counting down the kilometres etched into stone waymarks.
All too soon the end drew near, and a moving experience awaited us on arrival at our destination, Santiago.
Every afternoon, a pilgrims’ mass is held in the cathedral, a colossal baroque pile that rivals the great churches of Italy and France. Rebecca and I walked in while that mass was underway. Backpacks on, staffs in hand, tanned and dusty, mission accomplished, we felt we’d earned the majesty of the occasion.
Seven priests with scallop shell symbols prominent on their vestments conducted the mass. A nun pierced the soaring Romanesque interior with her soprano lead, joined by an exuberant response from the choir. Unique to this cathedral, eight red-robed monks hauled a massive thurible – the botafumeiro – swinging from a vaulted ceiling pulley so it just cleared the heads of the congregation in a mighty arc, spilling incense smoke in its wake. Legend has it this was originally installed to mask the odour of hundreds of unwashed pilgrims.
After the mass, we stepped out into dazzling Spanish sunlight and a festival filling the plaza. Dancers wearing caricature heads twirled for the crowd as a brass band of old blokes in well-worn tunics plunged through a medley of local favourites.
Our next stop was the Camino office where, after careful scrutiny of our pilgrim passports, we were given our Compostela certificates. Thus registered, in Latin, our names, origin and start-point were read out by the priest at the next pilgrims’ mass, together with the names of the 60 or so who’d completed their Camino the day before.
Santiago is a great place to relax after the journey. The old quarter surrounding the cathedral is a labyrinth of narrow streets lined with inviting restaurants, bars and the sort of all-night festive atmosphere you find only in Spain. Rebecca and I toasted our achievement – as the bar mirror revealed two figures somewhat leaner than those that had taken the train to León from Bordeaux after a fortnight of duck confit, foie gras and soft cheese.
The Camino is unique: unstructured, challenging, an encounter with a vibrant culture and a landscape that varies from melancholy to uplifting. It brings you to earth in a way that’s hard to find in a sanitised world, and it’s spiritually rewarding if you’re that way inclined.
Camino Fast Facts
Getting there: It’s a four-hour train trip from Madrid north to León.
When to go: April to June is best: it’s generally cool to warm and dry. December to February is wet and cold. July and August are hot and crowded.
Getting started: There’s a wealth of information online. Start with Lonely Planet’s Walking the Camino: our tips. A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierley is a lightweight guide covering routes, maps, refugios and alternative accommodation.