There are many ways to get to Santiago de Compostela, the town which boasts having the remains of St. James the Apostle reposed in a silver coffin in the cathedral basement. For over a millennium, pilgrims set off from towns throughout Europe in hopes of arriving in Santiago. Among Christians, this is the third most popular pilgrimage, after Rome and Jerusalem. Nowadays, the Camino de Santiago is a European Cultural Itinerary, attracting over 140,000 pilgrims from around the world each year. Though people still walk it for religious reasons, many modern-day pilgrims hike for the adventure, health, and sport.
As with many pilgrims, this was my first long walk, though my husband had walked 2176 miles on the Appalachian trail. We hiked the most traveled route, the Camino Frances, crossing the Pyrenees from France to Spain, and then proceeding westward for 790 kilometers (500 miles). Many people walk the distance in thirty days; it took us forty-three days, though I often wish we had taken longer and seen some of the attractions that we rushed by. We are both in our 60s and met people younger and older than we. About forty percent of the pilgrims are female, most hiking alone, or at least starting alone before finding a Camino buddy.
The Camino offers a variety of terrain. The majestic Pyrenees in the east, the arid Meseta or central plain, then the Montes de León in the west with the highest elevation on the Camino at1515 m (4970 ft.). For most pilgrims on the Camino Frances, the eastern part is the most difficult. After the first week of walking up and down hills, the body adjusts and the aches and pains disappear. We went slowly that first week and by the end of the trip we were hiking 40 km (26 miles) per day.
Hiking the Camino differs from other hikes in that you only need to carry personal items, water, and perhaps a picnic lunch. In a day’s walk, you go through several towns where you can find food, water, and lodging. Additionally, taxis can take your backpack from one town to another. Those who use this service carry a minimal pack. I taxied my pack one day as I recovered from tendonitis.
Pilgrims are open and friendships develop quickly, perhaps because everyone shares a common goal, similar pains and aches, and, often, meals. It makes no difference if you are poor or rich, young or old, religious or not. Speaking a common language is helpful but not a requirement. I made friends with people from all over the world and still keep in touch with them more than a year after completing the Camino.
Accommodations on the Camino vary. Most pilgrims stay in albergues (hostels) that offer a bunk, shower, and a place to wash clothes. If you wish more private or elegant settings, you can stay in guest houses (pensiones), inns and hotels. Some albergues have kitchens available and pilgrims often pool resources to cook a communal meal. Some of my most memorable moments are associated with cooking and eating shared meals. Most restaurants feature a Pilgrim’s Menu, a specially priced meal. For about 7 to 10 €, you can choose from several options for the first and second dish, bread (without butter), dessert, and water or wine. The portions are ample and the wine superb. Of course, you can order á la carte, but it will cost more.
Dennis and I carried an MSR Hubba-Hubba two-person tent that weighed 3 lbs. 11 oz. We stayed on albergue grounds or in campgrounds. We took the tent because Dennis is a ham radio operator and wanted to make radio contact with other hams while on the Camino. Having the tent also provided a night away from the albergue’s night noises: snoring, people getting up to use the bathroom, people groaning or talking in their sleep. The foam earplugs kept popping out of my ears; before my next Camino adventure, I will visit an audiologist to be fitted for sound-canceling earplugs. In addition to having a reprieve from the noise, the tent provided us privacy and a chance for quiet time. The disadvantages to carrying the tent, aside from the extra weight, is missing the camaraderie that the albergue provides.
The Camino is stunning; photos do not capture its beauty: the formidable Pyrenees, with each switchback offering a more magnificent vista than the previous; the contrast of the Meseta’s parched soil with the green and purple of the vineyards, the gold of the sunflowers, and the deep blue sky; the western mountains, with its gnarly trees, green fields, and quaint farms.
Many people are changed by the Camino. I am not the same person I was prior to walking it. My values have changed. What was important before, no longer is, even after a year. The Camino is addictive. I long to return, but next time I will follow the Camino Portugués, the Portuguese Way.
There is the expression “the Camino provides.” If you are considering hiking the Camino de Santiago, go without expectations and see what the Camino provides you. You may be surprised by the outcome.
Jane V. Blanchard is the author of Women of the Way: Embracing the Camino. The book is available on most online stores. To order a signed copy, click here.