It crept up on me over time, more than a decade ago now. I almost didn’t notice. Just a word dropped here and there in conversations. The Camino. Hadn’t heard of it. Someone who knew it said it was a historic hiking route in Spain. Oh! Now I’m curious – as I’m a keen hiker. Google did the rest.
Turns out they were talking about the Camino Francés. It’s one of the routes Christian pilgrims and many others, collectively known as ‘peregrinos’, take to the purported burial place of the remains of St. James the Apostle. That’s in the crypt of the cathedral in the city Santiago de Compostela, north western Spain.
The marked route stretches almost 800km from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago. Normally, more than 100,000 people every year, from dozens of countries, ranging from their teens to their 80’s, walk some or all of the Camino Francés. History and lore suggests people have been making this pilgrimage journey for more than a thousand years.
I read an inspiring book about a father and daughter Camino adventure. I went to one of their presentations, spoke with them afterwards, and bought one of the popular guides. It all captured my imagination.
That was it! I was due a few weeks’ leave from work. I decided I was going. I was dealing with a lot of change and a Camino adventure seemed like the perfect opportunity to clear my head and consider some fresh perspectives. Now thoughts turned to how to tackle it all.
Peter and Natasha Murtagh, authors of the book ‘Buen Camino!’ I mentioned earlier, advised me to try the section from Leon to Santiago. This was the final 320km stretch of the route and perfect for a 2-week stint. I gave myself about three months to research and plan it all, get the right gear, and build the hiking endurance I needed.
Deciding to do the trip brought with it an exciting focus, an anticipation. New places, new people, new experiences.
I got all the practical help and advice I needed from experienced people on the Camino De Santiago forum. Whatever question I had, such as the best maps and guides,
ways to prevent blisters, food and accommodation, how much cash to carry, packing lists, and so on, the answers and suggestions rolled in. And I love outdoor shops so had huge fun shopping for the gear, boots, bits and pieces, etc.
The training went well. Two or three times per week I would pack a rucksack with about 6 or 7kg and walk the circumference of Phoenix Park in Dublin, about 14 or 15km. I found it challenging at first. After some weeks it was a breeze and would often do two laps. And I always carried and practiced my list of Spanish words and phrases. All set, and the day eventually arrived!
It was late at night when I arrived at the small hotel in Leon, close to the famous route marked with the distinctive yellow arrows showing ‘The Way’.
I set off early next morning, before 7am, using Google Maps and GPS to zero in on the Camino route. I was thrilled to find my first yellow arrow, just in front of the magnificent Leon cathedral. I also saw my first ‘live’ peregrinos! I thought, ‘wow, this is it, I’m on my way’! [Picture at end.] I was taking it easy, soaking up the sights around Leon. A great guy, Bruno from Germany, caught up and introduced himself. We walked together for a few hours, he was a surgeon. He asked me if I had thought about writing a book. Wonderful guy.
The first day was about 24km, and it was hot. A shower and ice-cold beer at the end was never so good. But it was exhilarating to get Day 1 done, have some dinner and get some good sleep for Day 2.
The days passed, early starts, usually before 7am, and averaging about 27km per day. I remember if we had a short day of, say, 18km, thinking, ‘oh, only 18km today, so easy’! Some months earlier that would have been torture.
I felt part of a wonderful group of people, maybe 20 or 30, that started, or reached Leon from
further back, at the same time. I always had delightful company on the trail, over breakfast, at coffee stops on the way, and for dinner after the day’s walk.
I remember so many faces, and the names of the special few, including Bruno from Germany, Hasse from Sweden, Peter and James the father and son from Australia, and of course Tania who came all the way from Brazil by herself to walk the Camino. Everyone had a motive, reason, a story for being there. Everyone I met felt relaxed and at ease about sharing meaningful parts of their life journey. The lives of my new friends were among the threads that wove themselves into the tapestry of the experience.
And another realisation dawned on me – all I needed to make this journey was what I could carry. My mind couldn’t have been further from the trappings of everyday life. It was so refreshing, liberating. Ok, a credit card and some cash also helped! But the idea is as prescient today as it has been for millennia, if we choose to embrace it.
I didn’t want it to end. The feeling comes back even now, eleven years later, if I look at a
photograph I took of my new comrades in the journey of life leaving Santiago to go home.
The Camino Francés has become much more crowded in recent years. Best advice is to avoid peak months and read the latest Camino De Santiago forum information.
Writer: George Hannan
'First yellow arrow and first peregrino'.
'Bruno, Hasse on high road in Galicia, early morning'
'Santiago Cathedral at sunset'