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Walking the Camino de Santiago

Walking the Camino de Santiago is more than a simple hike. For many, it’s a spiritual exercise that binds its pilgrims together

Walking the Camino de Santiago
Hiker heading into the Pyrenees from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Image: Chris van Hove

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“There’s nothing in Santiago.” Anya pauses, turning to look outside. An hour earlier I’d knocked on her door in the small village of Agés, asking for a place to stay. Although we were complete strangers, she’d given me and my husband a place to sleep on her floor, offered us a hot shower, and made us tea.

On her kitchen table is a map of Spain, covered with a clear plastic tablecloth and a series of snaking, highlighted lines on it, each leading to Santiago. They mark the pilgrimage she’s made three times. Finally, she sips her tea and turns back to us, settling on what she wants to say.
“There’s nothing in Santiago,” she explains. “It’s only the journey, the way.”

Given I was a couple of hundred miles into my 560-mile pilgrimage across Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago, I could have found her words disconcerting. Yet they were strangely reassuring; in the face of gale-force winds, blisters the size of digestive biscuits and death by bed bugs, it was the journey that counted.

Since the 12th century, travellers have walked the way of St James to the cathedral in Santiago, believing it would absolve them of their sins. In late spring, desperate for a break from my routine, I joined them. Walking with my husband, we each carry our possessions in a seven-kilo pack, sleeping in the rafters of a church one night and the floor of a stranger’s house the next, devouring tortilla and café con leche at the first village cafe we’d stumble into each morning.

The travel is slow, the challenges are humbling and the path is shared with many others, but the camino represents a different kind of adventure; a way of travel lost to the modern world but one increasingly valued by the curious, restless, religious, nostalgic and heavy-hearted.

Our journey on the Camino Francés starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France. After crossing the Pyrenees in wild weather, our first night is spent in a cavernous 120-bed dorm.

Known as an albergue, the purpose-built pilgrim accommodation was actually an overflow from the newly constructed pilgrim dorms across the road. Exhausted and covered in mud, I didn’t care. One of the volunteers takes off my boots, offers me a cookie, carries my pack to my bunk and stamps my credential, or pilgrim’s passport.

A concertina of memories, the credential is as precious to the peregrino as a government-issued passport. Stamped (and occasionally hand-drawn) at each stop, it marks your progress, gains you access to the albergues and, when presented on arrival at Santiago, qualifies you for the Compostela, or certificate of completion of walking the Camino de Santiago.

Following the bright yellow arrows that mark the way, we cross mountains and scramble across the ruins of a Roman bridge; getting to know a landscape footstep by footstep, from the red scorched earth of La Rioja to the waving wheat fields of the meseta (plateau) and lush green landscapes of Galicia; eating wild cherries plucked from overhanging branches, resting our swollen feet in rivers, snoozing under trees and treading a path that has existed for more than eight centuries.

Of course, that path is often less than picturesque; but the way always surprises us. Everything we read in the guidebooks indicates the road into León will be a filthy, congested disappointment. However, in the distance we hear what sounds like a drumming circle. Over the rise we find a 1,600-strong herd of sheep, goats and dogs being shepherded along the path.

The camino version of a traffic jam, we walk with the herd to the outskirts of the city, chatting with the shepherds in broken Spanish about their life, and enjoying one of our best days on the road.

In Castrojeriz, we stumble upon the Hospital Del Alma, which translates as the Hospital for the Soul, set up by a fellow peregrino called Mau. If I’d blinked, I’d have missed the rusted bike, dried flowers, and small tray of chocolate and biscuits set on a chair by an open door. Inside, the space offered respite and rest — coffee and biscuits, and a garden and art gallery.

“My door is always open,” Mau tells me, “because so many have always been closed.”

We begin to make an effort to stay in donativos — these are albergues built and run by volunteers where you pay by donation and share an evening meal. One of the hosts, who’s walked the camino twice, explains the concept best: the food we ate that evening was purchased with money donated by the previous night’s pilgrims; a humbling thought when we leave our offering in the box the next morning.

While the Camino Francés — the French Way — is one of the best-supported and busiest pilgrimage routes to Santiago, the sensation of walking the ancient pilgrimage route isn’t diminished by the path being well trodden; rather, it’s enhanced by the company you keep.

I walk with a family from California whose happiness is infectious; only later does their mother quietly share that she has a brain tumour.
I walk with a war veteran who is doing the camino to put his demons to rest. I speak to him late one night about the walk.

“These have been some of the happiest days of my life,” he tells me, before excusing himself for the night. I learn quickly not to ask people why they’re walking, but instead if they’re enjoying the walk. Asking why is just too personal.

Slowly, it stops mattering where we are. What matters is who we’re walking with.

People we haven’t seen for weeks call out to us by name; pilgrims catch us up and fall behind, friends disappear around a bend, never to be seen again.

Each night, we share a meal with increasingly familiar faces, until one evening we feast on purple octopus at a table with 20 peregrinos we’ve walked with for weeks. Sawdust on the floor, wine in hand, fingers greasy from the food, I know each pilgrim by name, but better still I can call them a friend.

By the time we arrive at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and see the famous botafumeiro (the brass incense burner) swing at the pilgrim’s mass, we feel a little empty. Anya had been right; it was the journey, the way, all along. And with that in mind, we keep going. Jamming our compostela — the certificate of completion of the Camino de Santiago — into the bottom of our pack, we meet our friends outside the cathedral and continue on to the ocean at Cape Finisterre.

Home can wait. Our journey isn’t finished yet.

Hikers resting by the Porta Santa (holy door), walking the Camino de Santiago

Hikers resting by the Porta Santa (holy door) of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Image: Chris van Hove

Be prepared

PACK LIGHT
Aim to carry no more than 10% of your body weight, including water. Take clothes to cope with everything from snow to 40C days, but if you’re missing gear there are stores along the way.

WALKING POLES
Highly recommended, walking poles can take a lot of stress off your lower body. Attached to your pack, they’re also excellent for drying socks.

DIFFERENT PATHs
All roads lead to Santiago, but there are many different camino routes. Consider taking the Via de la Plata from Seville, the Camino Portugués from Lisbon, or the Camino del Norte along the top of Spain.

ACCEPT CROWDS
More than 400 people set out from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port during spring, with the crowd intensifying at Sarria on the last 68 miles in to Santiago (the minimum distance to receive the compostela). Consider walking outside the recommended stretches in your guidebook, passing through big cities and staying in smaller villages — and accept everyone’s right to the camino, even the cyclists.

How to do it

Eurostar travels from London St Pancras to Gare du Nord from €50.50 (£44). Connecting via the metro, there’s a daily TGV train from Paris-Montparnasse to Bayonne; from Bayonne it’s a 30-minute coach ride to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, from €77 (£67.30).
Caminoways.com has guided tours; its Classic Camino trip costs €452 (£393) and includes the 68-mile walk from Sarria to Santiago, which qualifies for the Compostela.

Published in the Trips of a Lifetime guide, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)