ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


El Camino de Santiago, Camino del Norte

The Way of St. James, Northern Route

My last post was nearly 7 weeks ago, which is possibly a record gap for me. I’ve been busy with all kinds of things; moving house, hosting visitors, adopting forlorn Czech pilgrims who’ve had their wallets stolen, and doing the two-day cross-hemispherical hopscotch to Australia. But for the bulk of that time, for most of my “summer”, I literally did nothing but walk.

Caminos across EuropeThe Camino de Santiago has more than one path. It is, in fact, a whole network of ancient pilgrimage routes, which make their way from starting points all over Europe to Santiago de Compostela, a beautiful city in the Northwest corner of Spain. There, it is believed that the remains of St.James are held in the Cathedral, after mysteriously arriving by a boat sent from the Holy Land in the first century. Traditionally the peregrinos (pilgrims) walked the arduous journey in poverty, humbling subsisting on the charity of the folk they met along the way. Their reasons for walking were primarily religious; they walked for penance, to beg forgiveness, to ask favours, to give thanks, to seek answers to questions untold.

These days, the roads to Santiago are busier than ever, although the profile, means, and motivations of the modern day peregrino have changed considerably. The Camino is no longer strictly a Christian tradition. Buddhist monks have been known to do it. Atheists, agnostics, people from the entire width and breath of the religious/spiritual spectrum make the journey. People walk the Camino because they are enthusiasts of nature, culture, food or history. The do it to quit smoking, lose weight, get fit, meditate, escape their crowded city lives and take in the fresh air and inspirational scenery of the open road. There are people running from things (unhappy marriages, stressful jobs), people looking for things (epiphanies, soul-mates, big ideas, exotic bird species), and people hoping put time and distance and reflection between one major life phase and the next. And then there are people who simply just like walking.

The most famous and most traditional route to Santiago is the Camino Francés. The French Route starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees, crosses south through the mountains, then west, all the way to Galicia, through the inner northern provinces of Spain. The French route is mostly flat, dry, windy, and notorious for weather extremes.  It is dotted with tiny towns and ancient churches, monasteries and fortresses. At one point it was the frontier between Christian and Arab Spain. More recently, it was popularised (but not particularly well-represented) in the Hollywood movie “The Way”, starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. Just a couple of weeks ago, The Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took the German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a diplomatic stroll along the final stages of the Camino, followed by a private viewing of the Cathedral (which was bad luck for any real pilgrims who were planning on arriving in Santiago on that date). It seems like everyone’s doing the Camino these days – and most of them are on the French route.

early morning on the road

This was one of the reasons I opted for a quieter path, choosing instead to walk the Camino del Norte, the North Way. I started in Hondaribbia (a small port town next to Irún, on the Basque/French border), and walked the 850-something kms from there until Santiago. It took me exactly a month. From Santiago I then did the 3 day, 90km “extension” to Finisterre, The End of the World, to watch the sunset over the Atlantic.

The Northern Route runs mostly along the coast, and is characterised by beautiful beaches, dramatic cliffs, lush green farmland, pine and eucalyptus forests, and mountainous ups and downs. Compared with the French route, it is said to be physically more demanding, as well as significantly less populated, less frequented, and therefore less accommodating to pilgrims. There were often long distances between towns, and amenities were generally scarce. Although the inadequacies of services and accommodation was frustrating, I think this was more than compensated for by the fact that the Camino del Norte, despite being peak season, didn’t feel crowded. There were mornings where I didn’t see another pilgrim for hours, and I loved that real, sought after sense of being alone, with my thoughts, on the road.

I’m a hot weather person and was pretty upset by the rain and overcast skies of Northern Spain (often complaining about being cold, wet, and “robbed of my summer”), but have to admit, we had pretty ideal weather for walking. At least there was no risk of heatstroke, as there is on the shadeless French Route. And we were lucky enough to have a few glorious, sunny beach afternoons, which were all the more enjoyable for being so hard earned. Dipping our tired feet in the ocean after a long day’s walking was bliss.

So, who were “we”?

I, for one, started the Camino alone, with the clear intention of walking alone. In fact I think we pretty much all did. But the best thing about being alone is that you’re completely free to meet people and modify plans. I’m not quite sure at which point “I” became “we”, but by the end of the Camino “we” were a tight, but relatively fluid (we lost some and gained some) group of about ten peregrinos, originating from all over Spain, Galicia, Catalonia, The Basque Country, Germany, Italy, The Czech Republic, Holland, Australia, Brazil, South Korea and America.

It happened rather organically, as most good things do. At first, in the early weeks, we passed each other on the road, and maybe walked together for an hour or two here or there, before one or the other moved ahead or fell behind, in accordance with the mantra “cada uno a su ritmo”, everyone at their own pace. We might have crossed paths later in the day; over laundry basins, in bars or in supermarkets (baskets laden with bread, cheese, chocolate, and one of every fruit). We started sharing detergent, directions, wine, pegs and Betadine. We began to re-group for coffee breaks, choose the same destinations, make bigger and bigger hostel reservations. In time, we recognised each others’ snores, gave each other massages, and were dressing and disinfecting each others’ swollen blistered feet. We knew who needed space, who needed encouragement, and when to give it. We helped each other “lighten the load” by sharing our cheap wine, chocolate and culinary disasters. We were sometimes a well oiled, walking-machine team, and other times, a stunning (but hilarious) example of disorganisation and incompetence.

For me, the unexpected social nature of the Camino was sometimes overwhelming. Aside from walking early in the morning (I was one of the earliest risers), there was very little personal space. In the evenings, the hostels were overcrowded. Many were in remote locations with no more than one bar, and if it was raining, there was simply nowhere else to go. No anonymity and nowhere to write in my notebook or draw or read. I’m an independent person, and being part of a bigger group, waiting for people and making compromises, is not something I’m used to or like doing. But I was under no obligation to join in; at any point I could have (literally) walked off and done my own thing. Yet every afternoon, I kept wanting to meet up with this merry bunch of eclectic wanderers, join in their silly conversation, and discuss backpacks and backaches and blisters with them. In the end, the company, the fun and the moral support was invaluable. Without them I probably wouldn’t have made it to Santiago in such good timing, definitely wouldn’t have made it to Finisterre and I most likely would have come apart at the seams, figuratively speaking.

There is no describing the satisfaction I felt arriving in Santiago de Compostela, and achieving my long-time goal of walking the Camino. Just as there is no way of saying this without it sounding like boasting or narcissism (cos that’s exactly what it is), but I am incredibly proud of my efforts. The Camino, in many parts, wasn’t fun. Sometimes it was hard, sometimes it was boring, sometimes it was incredibly frustrating. The way smelt like dirty livestock or car exhaust. I was allergic to most of the farmland. The entrances and exits to the major cities often passed through outer suburbs and grimy industrial zones. Sometimes there was nowhere to go to the toilet (not even bushes), or to buy food, or to sleep. I ran out of money and didn’t eat well. It rained for days and nothing dried. People got on each others’ nerves. I got sick of myself. We were all constantly tired. And it never helped that every map was different and the next town seemed to always be at least 3km further away than where we thought it was. But as corny as it sounds, these moments of frustration only served to heighten the exhilaration of every positive aspect of the Camino, and to sweeten the glory at the end.

we made it!

The best parts of the Camino are the hardest ones to put in words, especially without sounding clichéd. I loved not just seeing the scenery, but being in it. I loved feeling and smelling the ocean, especially after living so many years inland. I loved the giddy comradely singing about underpants. I loved starting to walk at daybreak, and then suddenly realising it was completely light and I already had 10km under my belt. I loved seeing a landmark in the impossibly far distance, and then suddenly standing under it, knowing I’d walked all that way. I couldn’t get enough of the pristine beaches and freshness of the Cantabrian Sea (compared with the blandness of the Mediterranean), or the dramatic, craggy cliffs, the ragged old stone houses, and the villagers that looked as though their lives hadn’t changed since 200 years ago. I loved the simplicity of walking, of waking up each morning and not having to make any decisions except “how far?”. I loved that the non-Camino world felt so far away, that there weren’t enough power plugs, and therefore it really wasn’t my fault if I didn’t check in to social networks or reply to messages for weeks. I loved the feeling of becoming gradually stronger, my backpack getting lighter, and being more carefree. At the beginning I followed maps and tried to organise where I would sleep each night, but the closer we got to Santiago, the more we left things to chance. Some days we set out walking knowing that there would be no room at the hostels when we arrived (taken up by turigrinos, tourist-pilgrims who catch buses and taxis and cheat their way to a bed in pilgrims’ accommodation). Yet in a group, this was easier to face, we knew that somehow everything would be OK. And it always was.

nothing like seeing your name in latin to make you feel super specialAll peregrinos who cover a distance greater than 100km are eligible to receive a “compostelana”, a fancy looking Latin certificate in recognition of their achievement, (referred to by one of my friends as a “get into heaven free card”. Not quite sure how that works, but I guess it can’t hurt having it!). When applying for the compostelana at the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago, you must fill in a form with personal information, and tick a box to state your reason for doing the Camino. The options are religious, spiritual, or sporting/touristic. For me, after an entire month of walking, it was the first time I had been questioned about my motivations. Unfortunately “all of the above” was not an option.

Strangely enough, the question “why are you doing the Camino?” is never asked on the road. It is taboo in pilgrim etiquette. If someone wants to talk about their reasons for walking, it will eventually come up. You do not ask, and in many cases, you never find out.

I don’t believe the Camino to be a cure-all or the bringer of epiphanies. I find it hard to shake my inner skeptic and I don’t like talk of miracles. You cannot run from yourself, and if you search too desperately for something, you probably won’t find it. However, there is a lot to be said for walking the Camino. It certainly affords one plenty of contemplation time. It is a temporary escape, a respite from daily life, and in some cases, a break from destructive patterns. It presents you with physical and emotional challenges, all kinds of scenery, and all kinds of people. It offers you new perspectives and priorities. The Camino shakes you up. And whilst surely not every pilgrim finds the answer to their questions or achieves their goals, there is no doubt that every pilgrim learns something, learns a lot, along the way. And most of them have fun doing it.

I’m back in Australia now, and what’s left of the Camino is fading fast. This makes me a little bit sad. Like all big things, it completely consumed me at the time (and it was my life in Australia that was a distant haze). People are asking me “how was it?”, or sometimes “what was it?”, and I never quite know what to say. To be honest, I’d rather hear about what they’ve been doing. I worry I can’t sustain their attention long enough (or justify eating up so much conversation time) to give the Camino the rap it deserves. Nor do I want to short change them if they’ve asked an honest question and are genuinely interested in the answer. But getting at least some of it down in writing sure makes me feel a hell of a lot better. There’re some messy scraps in my journal too, but this blog feels clearer, realer, and can be read by others. Some pictures would be a good idea, just as soon as I can upload them the right way up. As would some description on the walking itself and the regions I visited. So it’s not quite all done yet, there’s a little more on the Camino to come…

just follow the yellow arrows