You have to be fairly motivated to walk the Camino de Santiago from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in North West Spain – as it is 800km. Usually 800km with your rucksack on your back with everything you need for a month. Sleeping in hostels with strangers, communal showers, and no privacy.
To many this does not sound like a holiday or a good use of their precious time, however more than 100,000 people walk one of these routes each year – and the numbers are growing. Pilgrims, as they are called, come from all over the world and put themselves through physical hardship subjecting their body to walking between 25 and 30km a day – day after day. It really is quite a feat.
So why walk the Camino de Santiago?
This appears to be the main reason for most. They have reached a point in their life where they need time to think, time to get away from their life as it is. Many times I asked pilgrims why they were on the Camino and the simple answer was just getting away from everything.
And on the Camino you do. The pace of life is slower, you are not subjected to advertising, and social media and the internet seems like another world. Imagine for a month not being in a taxi, a car, bus or any other mode of transport – only walking. You don’t have TV, ubiquitous email and cell calls.
There seems to be little that compares with walking for a month. People come out the other end often wanting to make changes to their own life, and having a sense of being refreshed – being washed clean of the daily cynicism that can surround us by hearing too much news.
I went more than a month, twice, without my daily morning check of email and news sites, something I find almost impossible at home.
And it is. The real problem is not walking 25 or 30km, it is doing this day after day. You discover if your boots really do fit, if they don’t you learn very quickly how to repair your feet of all the blisters that grow.
Apart from looking after your feet the main challenge is to have your backpack as light as possible. The first time I walked my rucksack was 13kg starting out, far too heavy. The next time I had this down to 6kg and life was much better and I was happier. Most of the time there are no washing machines and you hand wash what you wore that day in the evening.
If you manage to just walk in the day and not think about all the days ahead, walk at your own pace, do your own Camino – there can be a tremendous sense of accomplishment at the end. However there can also be an anti-climax. What next, is often a common thought? What no more walking?
Yes, people do still walk the Camino de Santiago for religious reasons. There are “holy years” on the Camino where the feast day of St James falls on a Sunday. During a holy year a special door in the Cathedral in Santiago is opened and all pilgrims can have an Indulgence for the forgiveness of sins. The next holy year is not until 2021, during the previous ones the amount of pilgrims on the route increases dramatically.
In the Pilgrim’s office in Santiago you can request a Compostela if you meet certain requirements. A Compostela is a Latin document that states that the person has walked at least the last 100km or cycled at least the last 200km for religious or spiritual reason to Santiago. There is also another certificate for those that do not fall into these categories that states the achievement of finishing the walk – most people religious or not ask for the Compostela – it appears personal spirituality is alive and well along the Camino
No matter your reason for taking on one of the Camino routes most people enjoy the Camino. I talked about matters to strangers that I wouldn’t discuss normally, and others were the same. Friendships build as often you find yourself walking at the same pace as others, and groups form that end up calling themselves a Camino family. For me I was especially lucky as I met my wife to be there.