El Camino de Santiago…Es Mi Camino
Ah, The Camino. In a word, increíble. This past June, the second school was out, I set off on my first truly solo adventure to walk the Camino de Santiago through Spain. Backpack painstakingly packed and hiking boots broken in, I made my way to the foothills of the Pyrenees in Southern France to begin a 500 mile pilgrimage to the tomb of the apostle St. James (Santiago) in the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela.
The pilgrimage has existed for over 1,000 years. The story starts long before that though, after the death of Christ, when the apostle James set off to the Iberian Peninsula to spread Christianity. When he returned to Jerusalem, he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa. Legend has it that James’ followers sent his body off in a boat, which guided by angels made its way to the northwestern coast of Spain. In the 9th century a man discovered three bodies, in a field below a dazzling display of stars. The local bishop declared them to be those of St. James and two of his followers and built a shrine at the sight to honor Santiago.
News traveled of what had beeen found in the “field of stars”, and soon believers started making pilgrimage to the site. The Middle Ages marked the peak of the pilgrimage when walking to such a holy place offered the pilgrim complete forgiveness of sin and assured him a place in Heaven.
In the early days, there were no organized trails, as there are now; the pilgrim merely walked out his door and started walking west. Today, there are many routes to Santiago throughout Europe, the most popular being the Camino Francés which starts in the foothills of the French Pyrenees in St. Jean Pied de Port. Although to receive the compostela, the official document of completion, one must only walk the last 100k, I decided I wanted to start at the beginning.
Just like in the movies and books I had read about the Camino, I soon became part of a pilgrim family. We hailed from all across the United States, Canada, Spain, the U.K., Sweden, Ireland, France, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.
We woke up around 6:00 a.m. every morning and were out the door by 7:00, hiking poles tapping upon the cobblestoned streets of the pueblos we called home for the night. Five or so kilometers later we would stop for breakfast in a small town. Packs and poles lined up outside the café, we ordered our tortillas and rested our feet for a bit. A few hours later we would stop for lunch, consisting of more often than not, a bocadillo de jamón, we enjoyed while airing out our feet before the hardest part of the days walk.
Sometimes we walked alone, sometimes as a group, but always weaving in and out of our fellow pilgrims with a, “Buen Camino,” the typical greeting of The Way. No one was a stranger. The last 10k of our 20- 30k daily walks was the most physically challenging. We all battled daily aches and pains in one way or another. From painful blisters, to knee and joint pain, to debilitating tendonitis, sometimes someone couldn’t continue on by their own two feet. Our one amigo became quite familiar with the Spanish bus system. Our running joke whenever some took a bus or drank a little too much Rioja, for example, was to say, “Es mi Camino,” meaning we could
walk do the Camino any way we pleased. And that I would do. Since I had to be back in the States to finish my masters, I only had twelve days to walk the month long pilgrimage. I’d make it as far as Burgos this time around, with plans to finish next summer.
Once we arrived at our destination, we found an albergue to stay in for the night. These pilgrim hostels varied in “luxury,” and ranged from five to ten euros for the night, sometimes by donation only. Boots were stored away from the sleeping areas, bunks assigned, and showers taken. We dressed in the clothes we would walk in the following day and washed what we had just worn. Day after day, the same routine. Yet our favorite part of the routine were the afternoons spent chatting in English and Spanish on the terrazas, sipping Rioja from the vineyards we had just walked through, playing Uno, and just enjoying one another’s company and pilgrim camaraderie.
Ten p.m. always came to soon and found us racing back to the albergue before the doors locked for the night. The roncadores, snorers, would already be out in full force, but the wine relaxed us enough to get some shut-eye before we awoke again and walked on west to Santiago.
Stay tuned for more to come on The Camino de Santiago.