29 Jun “We are following the Milky Way to the End of the Earth, to watch the Sun die in the Sea of the Death”, camino de Santiago
by Amelia Thomas from Canada
The Camino de Santiago – a world famous pilgrimage made by hundreds of thousands of people every year. People from all over the world come to Spain to trek hundreds of kilometers by bike, on foot, by horse, or even by wheelchair! Last year, in 2016, I joined the plethora of adventurous souls looking to find not only beautiful landscapes, delectable Spanish cuisine, and pharmacies specializing in blister pads and Tiger Balm, but to make new friends and to challenge myself in ways that I hadn’t been challenged before.
And the word challenge can be a bit of an understatement. When I told my friends that I planned to walk 800+ km in Northern Spain alone, with a tent on my back, very little Spanish skills, and no itinerary – most told me I was crazy. And I must admit that when I was on the bus from Belgium down to the Basque country in Southern France waiting to take my first steps – I agreed with them! And you might agree with me too, with thoughts of “I could never do that!” or at least “I couldn’t do that alone!”
But if I can do it – so can you. I was able to push through my own fears and doubts to walk over 1000km by the end, which without a doubt, has been one of the best experiences in my life. Here are a few of the things that challenged me, and that I learned not to be afraid of.
Don’t be afraid to Go It Alone
This might seem like an obvious first point, considering that was how I walked my Camino. Don’t get me wrong, there is obviously nothing wrong with adventuring in pairs or in a larger group – but solo travel does have its distinct advantages. I was flexible with my schedule, and didn’t actually start walking until a couple of days after I initially planned. I was able to stop where and when I wanted, without having to compromise with someone else, or wait for a group to finish taking a water break. I could choose to walk or choose to wait. I could spend days with a group I had just met, and when the time came I could go off on my own. Basically, I had complete control over how I lived my experience.
My favourite part about walking alone was the time for reflection. I spent hours upon hours alone with just my thoughts (sometimes music), and a journal. Occasionally I would find Wi-Fi and access to social media – but while I was camping, it was just me and nature. I was able to reflect a lot on things that I had desperately needed time away from my everyday life to think about.
And if you’re not the kind of person who likes to spend that much time alone, you don’t have to challenge yourself at this the whole time you’re walking. I met many new people on the road. If I had been travelling with someone else I don’t know if would have felt the need to introduce myself to so many new people, and join p to provide a break from the mutual solitude (I met lots of others traveling on their own as well). Sometimes I spent a day with them and never saw them again. With others, I would travel with them for days. Sometimes we would part ways, and meet again hundreds of kilometers later – after all, we are all headed to Santiago.
Because I went alone, I was also able to walk away with a major boost in self-confidence. I made it all that way on my own, with the help of strangers and new friends. It is an incredibly empowering feeling.
Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions
One friendly artist I met along the Way explained it like this – The Camino is a metaphor for life. You start, and you don’t know anything. You don’t know how to take care of your feet, you don’t know where the water is good to drink, you don’t know how to speak the language. And as you walk you begin to learn. You learn from people. They teach you new concepts; new skills. As in life, these people may be in your life for a short period of time, or for a long period of time. You may see some people again, and others you meet only briefly. You will experience emotional highs and lows, and by the end it will be you that starts to teach others. When you get to Santiago, and eventually Finisterre (if you so choose), and your journey is over – you ‘die’ – and there is no where left for you to walk. In Finisterre you have literally reached the Western most point in Europe – ad you physically cannot walk any further. The sun sets, and you have nothing left to do but turn around and start a new journey.
Why are you walking the Camino? This can be a very personal question. You will be asked many times. You will ask yourself many times. No matter the reason, don’t forget that the Camino de Santiago is traditionally a spiritual/religious experience. Whether you are a Catholic paying homage to the apostle; following the Milky Way to the end of the earth in the Celtic fashion, or just testing your own fitness – the Way allows you to have ample time for internal reflection. Take advantage of it.
Don’t be afraid to forget all your plans
Maybe don’t even plan at all. Don’t stick to your itinerary. Allow yourself to be free to the opportunities that come your way. Whether you are walking 100km or 1000+km, the best experiences are most often the least expected. So, have the willingness to be flexible.
One thing I know for sure is that I would have missed out on some of the most magical moments of the Camino if I hadn’t decided that I didn’t need to be anywhere at any specific time. At the start of my journey I had a goal. I wanted to average about 25km per day. That would allow me to get to Santiago with an extra seven days to spare before the date I wanted to fly to the UK. I would usually look at a map the night before, and plan which town or albergue I would stop at the following evening. It wasn’t always specific – but I had an idea.
The first time I forgot my plans was on the very first evening, when a kind lady saw me walking late into the evening and invited me to her place for a full home cooked meal and a bed to sleep in – and asked that I pay only what I could.
The second time I forgot all my plans, I met some of the best people I think I could have met – the first pilgrims I had met who were camping rather than staying at hostels, and I was able to spend days with them. They walked at a far slower pace than I had been previously, and while we were together we would wake up with the sun, build a fire and cook breakfast, and then maybe leave camp sometime slightly before noon. The first day this happened I was incredibly anxious. For two weeks I had been up with an alarm clock and on my way before the sun rose – so that I could make as many miles as I possibly could.
Another time I forgot all my plans (I started doing this far more often, so I lost count), I walked into the city of Lugo during their jazz festival, and got to see two concerts for five euros. The Maureen Choi Quartet, and Jonathan Kreisberg. I love jazz.
After meeting my camping friends I came to one major realisation – something I think had known but quickly forgotten. If the main objective of walking the Camino was to get to Santiago…. Why wouldn’t I just fly there? The journey is the objective. So take your time! It doesn’t even matter if you make it to the end of the road or not. It’s about what you learn from the experience.
Don’t be afraid to listen to your body
Your body will hurt. You will get blisters. Your feet will feel so swollen in the morning that you realise you aren’t wearing hiking boots – you are wearing smelly foot prisons. Blister pads will become your best friend. They aren’t expensive, and can be found in any farmacia along the way. But if you don’t have the extra cash – bring a roll of electrical tape. That works too!
If you feel like you can’t walk – don’t walk. I’m not talking about stiff morning muscles that start to feel better after a few minutes of exercise – I’m talking about you’ve pushed yourself to the limit and can’t walk any further type of pain. Twice I had to hop in a car for a few kilometers because I hadn’t listened to my body. I pushed myself to the point of utter exhaustion, all in order to satisfy my ego and break personal records that I had set for myself.
Maybe you don’t need to hear this, but I am extremely competitive, and if you’re anything like me, then you probably wont listen to this warning anyways. I’m lucky I didn’t injure myself further. So don’t worry if you have to take a cab, a bus, or hitchhike to a suitable stopping point – it’s not cheating.
Don’t be afraid to pack lightly
I carried waaaay too much. That being said, I wasn’t just travelling in Spain. I had a few stops in Holland and the UK before and after my Camino, so I wanted to have more than just my hiking clothes. But while I was walking I really only used one pair of clothes to walk in, and one pair to sleep in. I had a few pair of socks, and some really good rain gear. I found a really good trick was to wash underwear and socks daily (usually in taberna WC’s) and hang them from my bag to dry. I also had my tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat. And I had my trumpet and camera. It was mostly the extra clothes that added the extra weight – and I wish that I hadn’t brought my good camera. It’s extremely heavy, and I ended up using almost exclusively my phone to take pictures! So if you think you may not need it – don’t take it. You’d be surprised at how little you actually need. And if you forget something, most likely you will find it! The Camino has a strange way of providing.
Don’t be afraid to walk a lesser known Camino
When most people think of the Camino de Santiago – they think about the Camino Frances. By far the most popular of the ways to Santiago, it in turn happens to also be the most crowded. Even in the off-season. I walked the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo. In October and November. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. After hearing tales from pilgrims I met who switched Caminos (from the Frances to the Norte) – it was far less crowded, and far more beautiful. After doing extensive research I chose the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo over the Frances because of the stunning coastal and mountain landscapes, the extra time in the Basque Country (I got to see the Guggenheim!), the scarcity of people, and the more difficult routes (exchanging the Meseta for the Ruta de los Hospitales) – like I said, I’m competitive!
But my Camino is definitely not your Camino, and if you didn’t know – you can basically start from anywhere. Try walking the Camino Portuguese or Camino Ingles. Walk from Paris. Walk from Warsaw. Walk from Amsterdam. I met people who started their trek in all these locations. Traditionally the Camino starts at your front door. So start there. The beginning may not be as social as the magical nights spent at the crowded albergues of the Camino Frances – but hey, maybe you end up there as well!
Don’t be afraid to go out of your way
There are many interesting things off the main/official Camino. Many that relate to culture and Spain’s rich history. On the Camino del Norte I took an afternoon off to spend at the Guggenheim in Bilbao. It allowed me to rest my tired legs as well as to see one of the most interesting displays of architecture in Spain. And sitting on the terrace eating pintxos in the sun wasn’t half bad either.
Just outside the mediaeval town of Santiallana del Mar lie the Caves of Altamira and the adjoining museum. At only three euros for entry (and a storage room for your backpack!), it is well worth the extra five kilometre round trip to see some of the world’s oldest cave paintings. Santiallana del Mar itself is also extremely beautiful, so an afternoon spent in this area is not an afternoon wasted.
On the Camino Primitvo, just outside of Oviedo, is a UNESCO world Heritage site – the Pre-Romanesque Monuments of Oviedo and The Kingdom of the Asturias. These buildings are not far out of the way, and date back to the 9th century.
Maybe it’s not for you to visit these ‘touristic’ sites. But I don’t know when I’m going to be in the north of Spain again – so it was well worth it for me!
This next stop isn’t out of the way, but it’s a necessary stop on the Camino del Norte. Just after the Basque town of Markina-Xemein is the Monasterio de Zenarruza – which has been hosting pilgrims for over 900 years. They have a small room that sleep up to eight pilgrims, and they provide dinner and breakfast. For the first time in my life, I got to hear monks chanting at their nightly service. Although I am not religious, I am very musical – and this experience is one I will never forget.
Don’t be afraid to learn something new
I didn’t speak Spanish when I started. After 37 days I could hold a decent conversation. I also spent at least an hour a day listening to audio lessons on the Welsh language. Languages are a passion of mine – so I used a small part of my time alone to teach myself a new skill!
Don’t be afraid to say goodbye
Chances are you will unexpectedly run into your new friends again. If their path calls for you to split off from yours, let them go. Exchange phone numbers, emails, Instagram hashtags – because just by being pilgrims you’ll always have something in common to connect over. But even without planning, most pilgrims end up reconnecting at the Mass at the Catedral de Santiago. I spent my whole last day walking alone, only to find myself going for a celebratory dinner and dance with a group of solo travelers who I had met individually at various points along the way. The same thing happened after I came back to Santiago after continuing on to Finisterre. Everyone ends up in Santiago.
Don’t be afraid to travel on a dime
I walked the Camino after just gradating university. So I can’t say that I was traveling on an extensive budget. Because I had my tent, I planned on spending around ten euros a day. I wouldn’t need to pay for accommodation. However, when the weather was bad, or I craved a shower – I was able to do so. Most albergues cost somewhere between five and ten euros – with the more expensive ones being twelve or thirteen. A lot of places also offer a ‘pilgrim’s menu’ where you get a three-course meal (including a drink) for about nine euros. Tabernas sell coffee and beer for very cheap as well.
But I would recommend to spend at least a few days avoiding all the comforts of a home cooked meal and a bed. It’s here – pushing your boundaries that you’ll have the best experiences. I had my best meal – cooked over a fire, consisting of ingredients almost exclusively from nature, and made with love and kindness from pilgrims only wanting to share. The road is often lined with trees ripe with the likes of figs, apples, kiwis and chestnuts. Mushrooms and chard grow wild (make sure you know your mushrooms before eating them!)
I had my best sleeps – one was in a pasture left empty for the winter; at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Cantabrian Sea, roasting chestnuts over an open fire and yes – singing Christmas Carols to go along with it. Another was sneaking into an abandoned house to lie on a bed of hay, sipping a shared mug of tea and watching our ‘HD flatscreen’ of stars.
Don’t underestimate the kindness of the locals. More than once I met someone who kindly offered me to join them for dinner and a night’s rest only in exchange for stories. There are also many churches that allow you to stay outside or even have designated rooms for free or by donation. Other albergues are ran by donation and kindess as well.
Hands down, the best days I had were the days where I spent the least amount of money. Sometimes they were more challenging, but by far more rewarding.
I knew almost nothing about what I was doing when I started my Camino. I didn’t even know that I had to follow the yellow arrows. But by the end I had learned a lot about what it takes to walk long distances, and a lot about myself. The Camino de Santiago is an adventure that is accessible to anyone. You can make it your own journey. You can travel cheaply, or spend your nights in comfort. You can walk 100km, or 2000km. I met pilgrims who were older than 80, and younger than 10. The main thing I learned is that everyone can do it in their own way, that everyone has their own experience, and that what you go looking for on the Camino may not be what you find. The key is to just be open, and not be afraid to challenge yourself – because it is on the brink of our own boundaries that we really can learn what we are capable of.