“Solvitur ambulando” (It is solved by walking)
– St. Augustine
Every year thousands of Spanish school kids walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, joining the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who flock from all over the world to do the Camino.
It is a fascinating phenomenon, and is attracting not only pilgrims, but filmmakers and celebrities. A couple of years ago we had ‘The Way’ (2010) a film set on the Camino starring Martin Sheen. This October, Oprah Winfrey was on the Camino, adding her two cent’s worth to the show. At the same time business, facilities to cater for the mass tourism the Camino generates expands every year, with entire villages en route being reconstructed or getting substantial makeovers on the back of the revenue that pilgrimage brings.
My interest in walking the Camino was specific. In a world where so many young people are, apparently turning their back on religiosity and spirituality, what is it about the Camino that attracts? Maybe it’s nothing to do with spirituality or religion. The Camino, is, after all, a cheap walking holiday and an ‘accessible’ adventure.
So many people walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela that it no longer feels exotic. Everyone I speak to knows someone else who has done it. I have just completed the Camino Francais – es 800 kilometer walk from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela.
For most of my career September has been about getting back into the classroom, settling into a new timetable and getting to know a new cohort of kids. The rhythms of life as a teacher are not dissimilar to the student and it seemed that for all my life Septembers would always be about post-holiday, autumnal gloom, rapidly displaced by the kind of grafting that numbs you to everything except the endless deadlines.
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or simply ‘Camino’ for short, has become something of a phenomenon in recent years. It has revived a spiritual activity lost for several centuries in the West – peregrination, or walking long distances for a spiritual purpose. The recent explosion in popularity (a few dozen pilgrims completing the Camino in the 1970s to around 200,000 now) is, in part down to celebrity endorsement. Shirley McClean published her spiritual encounter with the Camino in 2000 and more recently Martin Sheen celebrated his love for the Camino in his film ‘The Way’ (2010). Oprah Winfrey was in Spain making a documentary about the Camino this September. There will be even more Americans on the walk next year…
For those who have never heard of the Camino, it is the word used to denote the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Santiago was the number one pilgrim destination in medieval Europe, thanks in part to the presence of the bones of St. James, one of the Apostles in Santiago. I say ‘in part’, because this was a pilgrim destination long before Christianity was on the scene. The original destination was Finisterre – literally, the ‘End of the Earth’, and the route for the dead souls journeying into the West. Even today, the Finisterre coastline is known as the Costa da Morte – the Coast of Death. It was the number one pilgrimage in Europe way back in medieval times.
Unlike other surviving pilgrim destinations in the Christian tradition such as Lourdes, Fatima, Częstochowa, Rome or Jerusalem, this one must be walked to be considered ‘accomplished’. The minimum distance is 100kms – but many pilgrims walk much further, with one of the more popular starting points being St. Jean Pied a Port, some 800kms away, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. More ambitious pilgrims may start at Le Puy-en-Velay in the Massif Central of France. This involves a walk of a mere 1600kms. You can even start in Geneva or Canterbury. There is the Camino Portugues from Porto, the Camino Ingles or the Via de la Plata from Seville and many more routes besides. You choose the route that suits your spiritual needs, inclinations and strength.
I set off from the UK with low expectations. I expected to enjoy some of the walking – although I had read that a lot of it was on roads and rather dull. I had also read that the pilgrim accommodation often left much to be desired. I went expecting to suffer and instead had one of the best experiences of my life.
I went expecting to suffer and instead had one of the best experiences of my life.
It is hard to explain what makes the Camino special. For me companionship was the star quality of the Camino, endlessly varied, socially unstratified, fluid – with folk mixed up and jumbled together en route and every evening in the endlessly varied albergues. Albergues, incidentally, are the pilgrim hostels, typically costing from five to fifteen Euros a night – although some are free – and range from a decent hotel standard to the basic and medieval. Many are run by volunteers, often for spiritual reasons, and the result is usually a warm, hospitable environment, particularly if there is a communal meal in the evening.
As an individual and a human being the Camino experience strips you down to basics. Your possessions consist of what you can carry on your back, you hang your washing out with that of a hundred other pilgrims, you sleep on disposable paper sheets and break bread with whoever you happen to find yourself with at the end of the day. Common purpose, common destination and yes, common values and outlook on life conspire towards ready friendship and open conversation.
Conversations are rarely casual. It was as if the compression of the time you had with your companions forced the need to get to the nub of things. The lingua franca tends to be English. I spent days and evenings with Americans, Australians, Brazilians, British, Canadians, Danes, Dutch, Germans, a Finn, French, a Hungarian, Irish, Italians, Koreans, Mexicans, New Zealanders, Slovaks, South Africans, Spanish, Swedes. These were people I conversed with and got to know. No doubt there were many other nationalities besides who I exchanged a ‘Buen Camino’ with (the standard greeting) whose name and nationality did not make it to my diary.
You do engage honestly and emotionally, with fellow peregrinos, and become emotionally attached to those you walk with. It was a truly sad when time conspired to scatter my companions, quite literally, to the four corners of the globe, with little to remember them by but photographs and a few notes. For me, the Camino was not elitist, nationalistic, racist, sexist or ageist. Everyone is, quite simply, peregrino. Age was no more a barrier than nationality. I had happy companionship with eighteen-year-olds, twenty-five-year-olds, seventy-eight year olds and even an American gentleman of ninety-one. And yes, he did the full 800 kilometres.
Why folk walk the Camino is always interesting. Many people I talked to described themselves as in transition. Career breaks, retirement, relationship breakdown, looking for a new direction, looking for post-college career inspiration, compulsive travelers or folk simply looking to break out of a way of life that has been going on for too long. Many, of course, were doing it out of a sense of adventure, for a cheap holiday, to engage in some speed-dating or for religious reasons.
Walking. The Camino Francais, the most popular of all the routes and the one I walked gives you a true cross-section of what Spain has to offer. It is an ancient road and follows the route it has always followed – even if this means trudging at the side of busy roads or walking through ugly suburbs and areas of industrial development. Getting lost takes some effort. We were issued with a little A4 map in St. Jean Pied a Port and that was all that was necessary. The entire way is cunningly marked with Yellow Arrows. I am used to misty, mountainous walks in the UK, where it is necessary to consult the map and compass frequently to keep out of trouble (nowadays those damnable GPS devices). The yellow arrows are painted on walls, trees, posts of every description, and embedded in the sidewalks. You consult the map only to determine where the next coffee house is or to choose a destination for the end of the day. You stop worrying about where you are and how far you have to go. You walk until you are tired and then find somewhere to sleep. And the yellow arrows point the way to the albergues situated a little off the route.
This means that walking the Camino is much more of a right-brain activity. It allows all the head-space in the world for quiet reflection or indeed, no reflection at all, other than on the simple comforts or discomforts of the road. One can focus on the scenery (or lack of it in some of the scruffier urban landscapes). We did, in fact, out of sheer carelessness lose our way fairly regularly. But you don’t stay lost for long. The locals know exactly where the Camino runs and will soon put you right.
How long does it take? John Brierley’s book on the Camino has become something of a bible and he divides the walk into thirty-three ‘days’. Each day ends in a decent-sized town or village with accommodation and places to eat and replenish groceries. The length of each stretch varies between twenty and thirty kilometers. There are some genuinely tough days. The walk from St. Jean Pied a Port to Roncesvalles and the walk from Villafranca to O’Cebreiro both involve more than 1200 metres of ascent – but none are so demanding as to require anything more than an average level of fitness. The main problems were blisters and knees – not exhaustion. We walked with a French couple in their mid-seventies on the first day and they made it through the mountains without difficulty. It is all down to pace, a sensible weight in your backpack and looking after your feet and joints.
This isn’t to say the Camino doesn’t have it’s casualties and yes, fatalities. Occasional roadside memorials alert you to the fact that not all peregrinos make it to Santiago. I didn’t keep a count but I suspect there are several dozen memorials to those who have died along the way. Whilst I was walking news filtered along the way that two peregrinos had been struck and killed by a car. Nothing in life that is truly worthwhile is without risk.
What will I see? Once through the suburbs and industrial parks of the larger towns you are often rewarded with magnificent, ancient city centres and some stupendous architecture – Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, Astorga, Santiago are all magnificent as are many of the smaller towns and villages too. Burgos is a case in point, with its jewel of a cathedral. It’s vaulted ceilings are the most beautiful I have seen. Every chapel contains a gilded altar that is a true masterpiece of medieval or baroque art. The statuary isn’t the kitsch, sentimental plaster saints I grew up with, but splendid masterpieces of high gothic. The Madonnas communicate mystery and love with their eyes gazing on eternity, the crucifixes reflect the true brutality and agony of this awful death and the saints combine the power of the icon with a fluid artistry that truly brings them to life. These churches are old, bedded deep in the landscape, rich with the devotion of a thousand years and untainted by the whitewashed hands of Puritan zealots and reformers. This is raw, superstitious Catholicism, with its ever-present confessionals and holy relics. It is the Catholicism of my childhood.
Outside, the sun shines on stork’s nests perched atop church towers or the crumbling gatehouses of ancient medieval defences. The streets are narrow and claustrophobic, the squares bright and spacious and everywhere, richly carved stonework catches the eye.
The Meseta. The Meseta might be described as the heart of the Camino or as the anvil. Peregrinos tend to love it or hate it with not many folk in the middle. From the romantic city of Burgos, the capital of Castile, to Astorga on the borders of Galicia, is 220 kilometres of hot, dry plateau, ringed by mountains. The Meseta is generally hot and dusty through the summer and the pilgrim road lacks shade for much of the way. The walking is easy, being flat, but is often hard underfoot and one rapidly develops a craving for anything that looks like a tree. The pilgrim can see his path for many miles ahead, running, Roman style, in an arrow straight line across the plain. There is a temptation to get each day over quickly, resulting in peregrinos getting out of bed at four and clambouring for the nuns to release them from the (sometimes locked) albergues before 5am. Sleeping in dormitories means that everyone suffers from the flashing torches and the seemingly endless rustle of bags being packed as the night-riders prepare to depart. The local Spanish seem to do it the least – they enjoy their evenings so are often late to bed. I will not risk the accusation of xenophobia by naming and shaming the nationalities who were the serial offenders…
Some peregrinos choose to miss out the Meseta altogether. A goodly number of pilgrims ‘bus’ from Burgos to Leon, particularly if their time to do the Camino is restricted, thus missing out the Meseta altogether.
And yet the Meseta, looking back feels like the very soul of the Camino. We may all be happily distracted by beautiful and endlessly changing countryside, complete with babbling streams and endless, shady verdure. The Meseta is stark and vast, setting the challenge before you and demanding that one simply walks. And keep walking, putting one foot in front of the other until the road is done with you. The Meseta is wide open and arid. The crops are monotonous –cereal crops mainly – that are harvested or wilted to death by mid-September, leaning a landscape that feels barren. There are few trees and the road is hot and dusty even in September.
On the Meseta you learn not to mark the journey by the moving landscape but by the passage of time. “We should reach our destination in six hours at a steady pace.” No point in rushing and be ready to stop and savour the shade wherever you can find it. The Meseta strips life’s little experiences down, denying excitement and variety, demanding attention to bodily needs like water and covering your head and meticulous care of blisters. You are unlikely to die on the Meseta but if you are careless you will suffer.
Galicia. Galicia is the mountainous heartland of the Camino and your journey’s end. Galicia announces itself dramatically, requiring an ascent of 1,200 metres and a night in a mountain village at 1,300 metres. Despite the mountainous ruggedness, this is far from barren countryside. Here, sheep and cattle graze in abundance, the grass is lush and there is much ancient woodland. The road is high and the view often spectacular. Galicia has typical Atlantic weather, however, and enjoys more than its fair share of rainfall (hence all that verdant countryside). Galicia, like Ireland, is known for its rain but all the more beautiful because of it.
Learning from the Camino
Peregrination or wandering for a spiritual purpose is long-embedded in every significant spiritual tradition, including Celtic Christianity. It harks back to our remote ancestry, before agriculture and the concept of land ownership took hold and the politics of greed and possession grew in men’s hearts. City life has been with us for 10,000 years – but so have the longings that confined horizons produce. Movement is essential for well-being and travel opens up the inner horizons as well as the outer one.
Walking makes you vulnerable and vulnerability enables the wanderer to touch the things that matter the most. Living in a house and traveling by car insulate us from what matters. To travel by coach or train is too see the world through plate glass. To travel by air is not to see it at all. You don’t have to walk 500 miles to experience the benefits. Mindful walking of even a couple of miles, alone or in company, in fine weather or bad, takes one out of the protective bubble and into the physicality of life. It is of particular value to those who find themselves who work, socialize and play through screens and keypads. A walk is always an adventure, fraught with the possibility of the unexpected. Walking is not TV or Cinema. Stimulation is balanced with the normal discomforts associated with using our bodies – heat regulation and sweat, breathlessness, discomfort in the knees, fear of attack by persons, dogs or livestock.
The Camino confirmed what I already knew – that walking is not only good for you physically, it is true spiritual practice. Unlike most other spiritual practices it requires no training and is tied to no religious tradition. Like all spiritual practice, however, the benefit is enhanced by regularity and routine. The best forms of spiritual practice become so deeply embedded that one no longer needs to concentrate or reflect on the process. Rather, one is absorbed by it. Reflection is important, but its place lies after the exercise. Thus one sees the seasoned walker reflecting by writing his or her journal of an evening, or sharing the best and the worst of the day with friends over a bottle of wine.
Reflection should not be deep or over-analytical. It should not be judgmental of those you have encountered. The glory of the Camino lies in celebrating your companions along the way precisely as you find them.
Learning to Let Go. Six hundred miles and five weeks on the road living out of a backpack is long enough and tough enough to affect your head space. You begin to conceive of a life that could always be like this. Where possessions are an encumbrance because they weigh and have to be carried and where the shade of a few trees is a treasure and a delight. You experience contentment stripped of all the things that you thought you needed to be who you are. Your career, wealth, home, clothes make no difference at all to your significance as an individual and your capacity to be fulfilled on a daily basis. No one is ahead of the crowd on the Camino. If you walk ahead you leave your friends behind.
The Return. Of course you have to go back to an old life – unless you are in the fortunate position not to have to work for a living, catch up on the simple business of keeping your affairs in order or picking up relationships you have left behind. The walk is over and after a couple of weeks of waking up in the same bed and back to the old routines, the Camino feels like it was all a dream.
I have a couple of pages of email addresses, a pile of notes and several hundred photographs. But they are not tangible, like the earnest conversations I enjoyed on the road and the real affection of the countless embraces as you re-met folk you had walked with before, shared a dormitory or broke bread with. The clarity of purpose and the joys of the open road are gone, and life is observed, once more, through a double-glazed window or a computer screen.
The companions of the road are gone, and it seems hard to penetrate their lives now, even with an email. The gulf of distance, daily commitments and old relationships reassert themselves. I mean to email, I will email, but I have so much work I must see to first. Those I would love to see again are equally, if not more restricted. And without the physicality of contact the emotional bonds begin to weaken.
Each morning, however, I walk 3 miles, rain or shine, and in gloom now the days are drawing in. I am wearing the same boots I wore on the Camino. I greet familiar people and familiar dogs. It is quiet, homespun. Life is ordinary again and the horizons familiar and finite. But life is not the same. The decisions I needed to make are made and I am more at peace with where I find myself. I am making the life transition I needed to make with good heart, thanks to a successful pilgrimage. I needed healing and that is what I found.
As for Oprah, I hope that she gets the Camino and paints it as it is, warts and all. For the Camino is life and walking it is its own reward.