It’s been a month since I came home from Santiago de Compostela after completing the 790km of the Camino Frances. I started walking on the 17th of August and arrived in the square in front of Saint Iago’s cathedral five weeks later (as pictured below) at 9.30am on the 21st September.
It was quite a journey which took me to places I would never have seen had I not been walking; a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of Northern Spain. Most of the Camino was footpaths, farmers’ tracks, and in some places, steep bare rock. It took me from the crisp Alpine scenery of the Pyrenees after leaving St. Jean Pied de Port, to the meadows and pine forests of Navarre; the vineyards of Rioja where the grapes off the vines are so sweet; the very distant horizons and dry vast country of the Meseta in Castille and Leon; and, at last, the green, green grass of almost home in Galicia.
There are as many reasons for walking the Camino as there are people walking it. After supper at the first albergue (hostel) in Orisson it’s a tradition that everyone gets up in turn and gives his or her reason for doing the Camino. One was there because he liked walking. Jan from Johannesburg was there because his wife, Anne, wanted to to do the Camino, and whatever Anne wanted to do, he had to do too! By the time he got to Burgos Jan had a badly infected blister and being a stubborn South African, he bought a bike and cycled beside his wife all along the Camino! Some lucky kid was gifted the bike when he got to Santiago.
Alec told us that he and his wife had always dreamed of walking the Camino. Sadly she passed earlier this year so he was taking her ashes to be scattered on the sea at Finisterre. The Camino meant so much to him.
I told my fellow pilgrims I was walking to fulfil a promise to raise money for Tŷ Hafan made by a much cherished family member who had passed far too soon.
An often cited reason was, “I want to find myself..”, I was never quite sure what was meant by this, or even if it meant the same thing to all. The greatest gift of the Camino is time.
Most spend five to six hours a day walking, on their own. Walking, to the clacking rhythm of trekking poles or the patter of boots, across a huge vastness of both time and space. You have no choice but to think. Initially you think of the small niggly things that worry you in your normal life, but soon you leave them behind. I found myself conversing a lot with my father. Conversations we should have had when he was still alive. Sometimes, usually around the 22km mark, when I was tired and cursing another bloody steep hill, I’d hear him say in Welsh ‘Come on, this is nothing, you’ll get over this no problem.’ encouraging, as he always did when I was a boy. With a smile I’d get to the crest. If you can, you should always put smiles not tears on memories. If this what they meant about ‘finding yourself’ I’m all for it.
What was clear, is that the Camino existed as much in our minds as did this line of dirt or tarmac that we all trod on. Often, over the communal evening meal in an albergue someone would admit, perhaps with a tinge of guilt, that they had decided to have an unexpected rest day, they would be gently reminded that this was their Camino, no need for justifications. They’d reply ‘Yeah, it’s my Camino.’
Apart from what it eats along the way, a snail carries everything it needs on it’s back. Such was my existence for five weeks. I needed nothing else. It’s a liberating experience. This is easy to say from the comfort of expensive Hoka trekking shoes, carrying lightweight, waterproof rucksacks and mobile phone apps that chart your every step and nudge you back onto the Camino when you’ve strayed. I was vividly aware of the thousands and thousands of pilgrims who have trodden the same path down the centuries without the benefit of the equipment that I had. To have dropped your earthenware water bottle in the middle of the heat of the Meseta could have meant death. When I dropped my plastic bottle, it merely bounced.
I might be stating the obvious, but I couldn’t help but draw parallels between life and the Camino. Both are journeys, and you’re never certain how either will end, you can only hope. But one thing I did learn: if you have a steep mountain path in front of you that goes on forever through the clouds, you can only shorten your steps, don’t look up, don’t look back. Just look at your feet and plod. Glance up occasionally to check you’re on the path. Keep plodding. You’ll get there, you’ll get through that cloud, you’ll get to see the view, and you’ll never have to climb that mountain again, unless you want to. It’s gone, behind you. Just like all your mistakes.
Whether you want to or not, your Camino family will find you. They’ll support you, laugh with you, sometimes laugh at you, but never out of malice. They’ll shed tears with you. There’s no telling where you’ll meet them. Some you’ll meet that first night in Orisson, and your Camino may cross several times during the journey. You’ll greet and share a drink or a meal like best friends who haven’t seen each other for years. Others you’ll meet whilst walking, another might one of the twenty or so you could be sharing a room with in an albergue.
However it happens, a group will emerge that will be your Camino family and your friends for life. Jim from New York and Beth from Baltimore two really good friends I made that first night. Beth actually accused me of snoring. As for Jim’s snoring, the albergue must have had advance warning, there were no glass panes in the windows! Enrique from Brazil and Owen from Ireland. Aussie Chris and her cousin Debs, South African Jane, Australian Cathy, Calamity Jane, Brighton Richard and Alisha, Irish Kate No.1, Irish Kate No.2 (in order of appearance), I mustn’t forget the lovely ladies of Korea, Matheus the Belgian fisherman and of course, my good friend Bobby. Bobby was doing the Camino because he wanted to get his head around a very complicated love life. Indeed, such was the complication that he’s now contemplating doing the Portuguese Camino, followed by the Camino del Norte and then possibly the Via de la Plata, the longest Camino, all the way from Seville! With Bobby’s penchant for adding even more complications, I expect he’ll be walking when he’s a 100.
Before turning in for the night, the most common topic of discussion was The Pilgrims’ Plague – blisters! Taking my boots off one night in Belorado my left foot looked as if it had leprosy with a heel blister the size of Wales. With a safety-pin, I became an expert at blister popping but despite acquired skills with pin, iodine and tea tree oil a small blister on my left pinky did get very painfully infected. I was obliged to visit Leon’s A&E department. Whilst I sat in the waiting room I swore to myself that this would be my first and last Camino. Never again. Two hours later I was in the hotel room with my antibiotics. For that Camino saving moment, the doctor and staff of Leon’s A&E have my eternal gratitude.
This brings me to another huge thank you. My initial target back in July was £5,000. The total now stands at a huge £11,547! To the 281 whose generosity could make a stone weep – thank you so much.
I am now researching the possibility of doing the Camino Portuguese next year. Enough said!
Huw’s fundraising page will remain open for donations until November 15. Click here to donate.