By Lee Williams
I started out on the Camino de Santiago with the conviction that this would not be a journey of faith (I’m a firm agnostic if such a thing is possible) nor would it be a quest or a search for answers. It wouldn’t be a search for anything really, just some time out from the nine to five, a chance to walk and live simply for a couple of weeks.
As with all such convictions, it was, of course, to be proved wrong and not in a way I could have predicted.
The Camino de Santiago, or way of St James, is a pilgrim route across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela, a city recently made famous by the terrible train crash. For centuries devout Christians have headed to Santiago to experience the power of the earthly remains of St James, the apostle who is said to have come to Galicia to preach the gospel after the death of Christ.
Nowadays the Camino is tramped by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims or ‘peregrinos’ every year – a ragtag bag of devout Christians, hiking enthusiasts, adventure seekers and, like myself, people looking to do something a bit different and take some time out from the rat race.
The most popular Camino route starts on the French side of the Pyrenees in the little town of St Jean Pied de Port and stretches some 800km all the way to Santiago de Compostela on the other side of Spain. It takes roughly four weeks to walk the whole route. I only had two weeks so I decided to do the first bit and the last bit and skip out the middle. I knew it was cheating but I figured God or St James wouldn’t hold it against me.
My route led me over the Pyrenees, through the rolling countryside of Navarra to Pamplona, the city of bull running where the ghost of Hemingway still haunts the tabernas, onwards to Rioja through endless miles of vineyards and finally through the misty green celtic landscape of Galicia to Santiago.
On my way I would see fiestas with weirdly mediaeval-feeling street processions, bull running through narrow dusty village streets, and a fountain that dispensed free red wine instead of water (honestly); I would stay in hostels where you slept in bunks or on the floor for six euros a night or in churches which only asked for a voluntary donation and fed you a three-course evening meal and breakfast; I would meet characters like Franz the German who ditched his life, career and family to become a healer after a near-death experience; Raffaello, a southern Italian who looked like a Marx brother and who is the only person I’ve ever met who truly ‘capered’; and Lydia, a Los Angeles-born artist living in Germany whose husband had left her for another woman. But most of all I would get my wish to get away from it all and live more simply.
The life of the peregrino is beautifully basic – you get up with the sun, eat a hasty breakfast and walk through the morning. At some point in the afternoon, depending on your pace, you reach your allotted destination. There you claim your bed, have a shower and wash your clothes by hand before taking a quick siesta. In the evening you explore your surroundings and eat a hearty meal, usually accompanied by a glass of wine and some good company, then it’s back to bed, again with the sun. At first the early nights feel tedious and the early mornings punishing but you soon get used to it and it just feels right. It feels healthy.
Your only enemies are injuries, sore limbs and of course the ubiquitous blisters. You begin to recognise fellow peregrinos amongst a crowd by the way they stand up stiffly from a table with a grimace of pain, or the odd shuffling manner of their walk, or that they consider it normal to perform acts of minor surgery on their own feet in public.
On the Camino, you might spend a whole day walking alone or in company or a mixture of both, picking up and dropping companions as pace and stopping points dictate. It all feels comfortable; people do as they want because everyone knows you will see each other over a glass of wine that evening. Even the people who want to be left alone have a quick ‘olá’ and a ‘buen Camino!’ to exchange. I struggled over the best word to describe the relationship you have with the other peregrinos, then I found it: fellowship. On the Camino you begin to understand the meaning of the word, perhaps for the first time.
And that is the ‘revelation’ that I was so convinced I wouldn’t have. In the end, despite all my convictions, my Camino really was a journey of faith – faith in humanity and that faith was thoroughly restored.
My personal Camino ended on the evening of my arrival in Santiago. I was standing in the plaza in front of the massive cathedral of St James discussing the experience with two other peregrinos whom, fittingly, I had only met that day. We talked about what lessons we had learned and what finishing the Camino meant to each of us. One of my companions said something that lodged in my brain and has stuck with me since – the real ending of the Camino, she said, is not in Santiago but what you take home with you to your ordinary life.
So what did I bring home with me to England? Well, a propensity for smiling at strangers which has earned me a few funny looks; an irrational urge to speak to anyone who is walking in the same direction as me; and a desire to ask inappropriately deep questions within minutes of meeting someone, oh yeah, and a bloody big blister. These will all fade of course; they already have really, which is a shame, except for the blister.
But there is one thought that I hope won’t fade: it is that the Camino is like life – a journey in which everyone is walking in the same direction. Along the way you meet people, some for a few hours, some a few days, some you might stay with for the whole journey; it doesn’t matter; everyone is going to the same place in the end; for some they are going to meet God; for others the destination holds some form of hope, or salvation, or a solution to their problems; for others it’s just the end of the road.
But just like life, it is not the destination that defines the journey to Santiago; it is the quality of each single step along the way.
Your fellow pilgrim, Mary Maddox