A month ago yesterday, I arrived on foot in Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwestern corner of Spain, after hiking the last 200km of the Camino de Santiago. The experience was, hands down, the most incredible of my life to date. Even a month later I’m finding it really difficult to put it into words. Part of that could be that I went immediately from the Camino to the whirlwhind of moving back to the US, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think I’ll be processing the experience for months, or maybe even years to come.
Maybe you’ve never heard of the Camino and don’t get what all the fuss is about. Maybe you’re curious about it or even considering taking the plunge yourself, and you’re hungry for advice, insight, inspiration. Or maybe you’re a fellow former peregrino (pilgrim) and you know just exactly how I’m feeling. Even though everyone has an entirely different experience on the Camino that is very uniquely their own, there is something that connects every peregrino del Camino.
No matter which category you fall into, I hope I can share a little Camino magic with you today.
So…what IS the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino is a famous pilgrimage of Christian origin that has been around since Medieval times. Legend has it that the remains of St. James were brought from Jerusalem to what is now Santiago de Compostela. For over 1200 years now, people have been making this journey on foot to pay homage to the Saint. The pilgrimage was recently re-popularized by this 2010 film, which rather accurately portrays the fact that nowadays, the tens of thousands of people who set out to do the Camino each year have widely varying reasons for doing so: some religious and some not at all.
There are several routes one can take to reach Santiago. Traditionally, pilgrims set out for Santiago from their own homes, wherever they might be. There are still some people that do that today, but typically people choose a place to begin along one of several routes, based upon the amount of time they’re able to dedicate to the journey. The most famous route begins on the French-Spanish border in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France and heads down through Pamplona, across north central Spain and up into the mountainous terrain of Galicia in the northwest of Spain for the last 200km stretch. From beginning to end, this route takes most pilgrims about a month. Pressed for time, my friend and I did only the last 200km which are, as many have said, “the most difficult, but the most beautiful.”
Who does the Camino de Santiago?
Anyone. Everyone. According to my guidebook, two-thirds are Spanish people, and among the third that are foreigners, the Germans and French dominate. But I met people from everywhere: Australia, South Africa, Japan, the US, Brazil… Most are in the 25-35-year-old range, but the next biggest group is probably the 50-80-year-olds.
Why do people do the Camino de Santiago?
As I said before, modern-day pilgrims’ reasons are quite varied. Some are religious, some are looking for an answer to some question they have in their life, some are doing it in honor or memory of a loved one, others are alt-tourists looking for a more adventurous way to spend their holiday. I personally wanted to do a portion of the Camino as a sort of capstone on my experience of living in Spain for over two years. It was a time for reflection and clarification. You can’t go into the Camino knowing exactly what you’ll get out of it, but I can just about guarantee the one thing you won’t feel at the end is regret for having done it.
What does the Camino de Santiago look like?
If you don’t already know, Spain is a land of incredibly varied landscapes. The main route take you from the rocky Pyrenees into the lush green Basque Country, my beloved former home. There’s a flat, dry stretch through the high plains of north-central Spain and the final third of the journey is once again very mountainous, and quite green.
Sometimes you’re walking on the shoulder of a highway, other times you’re walking along a shady, forested path. You’ll pass through big cities, small towns and tiny villages. You’ll see lots of farm animals and have to dodge a lot of manure.
There’s a video at the end of this post that might give you a better idea of what the Camino looks like.
What does the Camino de Santiago sound like?
Mornings are peaceful. Birds chirping. The crunching of your feet on the rugged paths. The other pilgrims you pass along the way wishing you a “buen camino.” You’ll probably be lost in thought, or maybe having an enlightening conversation with your Camino companion(s) or a random peregrino you’ve just met.
Afternoons are more challenging. You might be noticing the sound of your breath more and thinking you sound tired. Maybe you turn on your iPod to block that out for awhile.
Evenings are joyful and then peaceful once again. You’ll talk and laugh with the other pilgrims over dinner and vino, then face-plant into your pillow at the albergue.
What does the Camino de Santiago smell like?
Manure, mostly. Sometimes flowers.
What does the Camino de Santiago taste like?
Espresso and fresh fruit in the morning. More espresso and Spanish tortilla in later morning. Tuna empanadas or salami bocadillos for lunch. Cold beer pick-me-ups. Three home-cooked courses for dinner, washed down with fantastic Rioja wine.
What does the Camino de Santiago feel like?
The Camino feels like an analogy to life. There are peaks and valleys, easy stretches and treacherous ones. There are times when you feel like you can’t go on and a friend picks you up, and times when you’re the one offering a shoulder to lean on. There are times to be serious and times to laugh and realize life can’t be taken too seriously.
The Camino feels like freedom. Freedom from the modern-day construction of what life is “supposed” to be. A blast to the past, a much simpler time. No responsibilities except putting one foot in front of the other, all day, every day.
The Camino feels like unfettered emotion. The usual day-to-day emotional hindrances are gone, and you’re left to really feel your feelings. You might get really sad about the heart-breaking things of the world and then look up at the landscape around you and cry tears of joy at the beauty of it all.
I leave you with a video I compiled of my footage of the journey. Here you’ll get a sense of the sights and sounds of the Camino. Your sensory imagination will have to fill in the rest.