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 containing 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 the Camino routes in Spain each year – and the numbers keep growing. Pilgrims, as they are called, come from all over the world and put themselves through physical hardship, subjecting their bodies to the rigors of walking between 25 and 30km a day – day after day. It really is quite a feat in our modern convenience orientated life.
So why walk the Camino de Santiago?
This appears to be the main reason for most. Many of us have reached a point in life where we need time to think, time to get away from 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 seem 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 mobile phones.
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 lives, 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 this does not cover the changes in my life since walking the Camino de Santiago.
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 the blisters on your feet.
Apart from looking after your feet, the main challenge is to have your backpack as light as possible. The first time I walked the Camino my rucksack was 13kg at the start in St Jean; far too heavy. The next time I had the weight down to 6kg; walking was much easier and I was happier. Sometimes there are no washing machines, so you hand wash the clothes you wore for walking – I haven’t ever hand-washed clothes at home.
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? I felt a bit lost not walking – I was so used to walking all day every day.
Yes, lots of people 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, the door of Forgiveness in Santiago Cathedral is opened. During a Holy Year, all pilgrims can have a plenary indulgence for the forgiveness of sins – this is dependant on certain conditions. The next holy year is not until 2021, however, 2016 has been declared the Holy Year of Mercy. During the previous Holy Years, the number of pilgrims on the route increases dramatically.
In the Pilgrim’s office in Santiago, you can request a Compostela if you meet certain requirements – walk the last 100km or cycle the last 200km. The Compostela is a Latin document that states you have walked at least the last 100km or cycled at least the last 200km for religious or spiritual reasons to Santiago. There is a different certificate for those that do not fall into these categories; this is a certificate of achievement for finishing the walk. Most people religious or not ask for the Compostela – it appears personal spirituality is alive and well along the Camino.
Because it is There and I am a Walker
I have walked other long-distance routes, the West Highland Way and the Wicklow Way. There was never any big deal on why I was walking these – they were there and I like multiday hiking routes. Getting away from the city and spending time walking in the countryside does wonder for my head. A long walk on at the weekend has me set up for the week ahead. A long walk on the Camino has me set up for many months ahead.
No matter your reasons for taking on the challenge of the Camino, most people thoroughly enjoy their Camino experience. I talked to almost strangers about subject matters that I wouldn’t discuss normally; other pilgrims were the same. Friendships build as you find yourself walking at the same pace as others; groups form that end up calling themselves a Camino family. For me, I was especially lucky as I met my wife to be there.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.