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The Camino de Santiago: A journey that restored my faith in humanity

LeeWilliams

camino 300x225 The Camino de Santiago: A journey that restored my faith in humanityI started out on the Camino de Santiago with the conviction that this would not be a journey of faith (I’m a firm agnostic if such a thing is possible) nor would it be a quest or a search for answers. It wouldn’t be a search for anything really, just some time out from the nine to five, a chance to walk and live simply for a couple of weeks.

As with all such convictions, it was, of course, to be proved wrong and not in a way I could have predicted.

The Camino de Santiago, or way of St James, is a pilgrim route across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela, a city recently made famous by the terrible train crash. For centuries devout Christians have headed to Santiago to experience the power of the earthly remains of St James, the apostle who is said to have come to Galicia to preach the gospel after the death of Christ.

Nowadays the Camino is tramped by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims or ‘peregrinos’ every year – a ragtag bag of devout Christians, hiking enthusiasts, adventure seekers and, like myself, people looking to do something a bit different and take some time out from the rat race.

The most popular Camino route starts on the French side of the Pyrenees in the little town of St Jean Pied de Port and stretches some 800km all the way to Santiago de Compostela on the other side of Spain. It takes roughly four weeks to walk the whole route. I only had two weeks so I decided to do the first bit and the last bit and skip out the middle. I knew it was cheating but I figured God or St James wouldn’t hold it against me.

My route led me over the Pyrenees, through the rolling countryside of Navarra to Pamplona, the city of bull running where the ghost of Hemingway still haunts the tabernas, onwards to Rioja through endless miles of vineyards and finally through the misty green celtic landscape of Galicia to Santiago.

On my way I would see fiestas with weirdly mediaeval-feeling street processions, bull running through narrow dusty village streets, and a fountain that dispensed free red wine instead of water (honestly); I would stay in hostels where you slept in bunks or on the floor for six euros a night or in churches which only asked for a voluntary donation and fed you a three-course evening meal and breakfast; I would meet characters like Franz the German who ditched his life, career and family to become a healer after a near-death experience; Raffaello, a southern Italian who looked like a Marx brother and who is the only person I’ve ever met who truly ‘capered’; and Lydia, a Los Angeles-born artist living in Germany whose husband had left her for another woman. But most of all I would get my wish to get away from it all and live more simply.

The life of the peregrino is beautifully basic – you get up with the sun, eat a hasty breakfast and walk through the morning. At some point in the afternoon, depending on your pace, you reach your allotted destination. There you claim your bed, have a shower and wash your clothes by hand before taking a quick siesta. In the evening you explore your surroundings and eat a hearty meal, usually accompanied by a glass of wine and some good company, then it’s back to bed, again with the sun. At first the early nights feel tedious and the early mornings punishing but you soon get used to it and it just feels right. It feels healthy.

Your only enemies are injuries, sore limbs and of course the ubiquitous blisters. You begin to recognise fellow peregrinos amongst a crowd by the way they stand up stiffly from a table with a grimace of pain, or the odd shuffling manner of their walk, or that they consider it normal to perform acts of minor surgery on their own feet in public.

On the Camino, you might spend a whole day walking alone or in company or a mixture of both, picking up and dropping companions as pace and stopping points dictate. It all feels comfortable; people do as they want because everyone knows you will see each other over a glass of wine that evening. Even the people who want to be left alone have a quick ‘olá’ and a ‘buen Camino!’ to exchange. I struggled over the best word to describe the relationship you have with the other peregrinos, then I found it: fellowship. On the Camino you begin to understand the meaning of the word, perhaps for the first time.

And that is the ‘revelation’ that I was so convinced I wouldn’t have. In the end, despite all my convictions, my Camino really was a journey of faith – faith in humanity and that faith was thoroughly restored.

My personal Camino ended on the evening of my arrival in Santiago. I was standing in the plaza in front of the massive cathedral of St James discussing the experience with two other peregrinos whom, fittingly, I had only met that day. We talked about what lessons we had learned and what finishing the Camino meant to each of us. One of my companions said something that lodged in my brain and has stuck with me since – the real ending of the Camino, she said, is not in Santiago but what you take home with you to your ordinary life.

So what did I bring home with me to England? Well, a propensity for smiling at strangers which has earned me a few funny looks; an irrational urge to speak to anyone who is walking in the same direction as me; and a desire to ask inappropriately deep questions within minutes of meeting someone, oh yeah, and a bloody big blister.  These will all fade of course; they already have really, which is a shame, except for the blister.

But there is one thought that I hope won’t fade: it is that the Camino is like life – a journey in which everyone is walking in the same direction. Along the way you meet people, some for a few hours, some a few days, some you might stay with for the whole journey; it doesn’t matter; everyone is going to the same place in the end; for some they are going to meet God; for others the destination holds some form of hope, or salvation, or a solution to their problems; for others it’s just the end of the road.

But just like life, it is not the destination that defines the journey to Santiago; it is the quality of each single step along the way.

  • psitch

    I did the full St Jean to Santiago in 2003. I suffered so badly from blisters that I ended up on double antibiotics and 1200 mgms of Ibruprofen a day. The emergency hospital that I went to in Fromista started mentioning the severity of my blisters to people so often that I became known as the Englishman with the bad feet.
    Notwithstanding the agony of getting started each morning I walked the whole 750km in 30 days with one rest day. It was and remains one of the most defining experiences of my life from the beauty of setting off early every morning, The depth of the sleep at the end of the day, the pilgrim’s masses in the many churches, the peace of the countryside and bustle of the cities, the joy of the companionship of the Camino and the unforgettable midday mass at the end of the journey in the cathedral.
    On my return to the UK I was fast tracked by the Bishop to confirmation. I was sad and glad that unlike the millions who made the pilgrimage in the middle ages that I then didn’t have to walk home.
    It’s a pity that you only did the beginning and the end as the rhythm of the Camino really clicks in during the flat landscape after Logrono through to Astorga.
    I still think of all the folk I met.

  • MacTurk

    I did the full Camino some years ago. The route may best be described as “Climb over the Pyrenees, then turn right and walk until you get to Santiago de Compostella”.

    The main problem, for me, was breaking sandals. The best part was the fact that you had a sort of family which you saw most days, because the vast majority of perigrinos are not used to hiking, and tend to move quite slowly.

    The worst part was the rain in Galicia.

    I would heartily recommend it to everyone. A wonderful experience.

  • blewyn

    Out here in the back of Queensland it’s normal for people to wave a finger (in a friendly way) at cars heading towards them, and to say hello and smile at people on the street. Very healthy, and as you, I do get some funny looks when giving total strangers a ‘hello’ back in the city :-) Better to be seen as a bit of a nutter than a grump though eh…

  • Old Git Tom

    Well done & said, Lee. As you stated, there is no end to the Santiago road, nor any beginning, either. There are many roads, one destination. You can find ancient routes from Scandinavia, Scotland, England, France, wherever. For me, special memories of Parthenay & SW France, but (nearly) e/one gets their necklace of moments to carry forever. The magic is very old. & not religious in any sectarian way. It’s in the rythm of the road, of hot sun & starry nites. The Santiago area has monuments placed by stone age pilgrims. In Santiago, I met an African Moslem. In Navarre there was a ‘casbah’. I went by bike, but however, take your time. Even when the going gets tough enuf to break you, you’ll spring back renewed.

  • rustle

    “Santiago de Compostela, a city recently made famous by the terrible train crash.” I think it was quite famous a long-long time before that, didn’t Antoni Gaudi build something there?

  • Working Nomad

    dont spread the word, it will be ruined by chavs

  • Paddyman

    I hear that in front of the cathedral there stood a statue of St James the Moorslayer but it has been removed.

  • Helen Oakes

    WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF A ‘CHAV’?

  • Colin Boylan

    My wife Mary and I finished the full 500 mile Camino, in memory of our granddaughter Rachel, on 2nd July 2013 . We raised over £8000 for the Northern Ireland Children’s Kidney Fund and Roddensvale Special School. The Camino is about the people you meet and the relationships you make. I was totally surprised by the financial, and spiritual generosity of people. It was a real humbling experience. You can read about our experience on candmcamino.blogspot.


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