After more than 20 years in the planning, in May this year, myself and my four closest girlfriends (plus one husband) finally embarked on our long awaited European adventure including walking the final stages of ‘The Camino Way of St James’ in Spain. The Camino began as a pilgrimage to the relics of St James the Apostle, who is buried in the beautiful Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Ever since his grave was discovered in AD800, hundreds of thousands have walked the 800km path across Northern Spain, making ‘The Camino’ the most famous pilgrimage in the world.
The most popular route travelled is the Camino Frances (French Way) which begins in St Jean Pied de Port in the southwest of France and has 32 stages. You don’t have to walk the whole 800km which takes between 4 & 6 weeks, however many people do. Many others walk The Camino in stages, going back each year until completed. We walked the final stages - from Sarria to Santiago - 115km which passes through Galacia, the green and lush agricultural area in the Northwest corner of Spain. There are no set rules – you can walk as far in a day as you wish and can even do it by bike, all the time following the open Scallop shell signs and yellow arrow, placed over a thousand years on rocks, embedded into concrete paths, even on gates to show the way to Santiago.
Before beginning your Camino, you need to get a Pilgrims Passport or Credential. This Passport has spaces for stamps which you collect along the way at cafes, bars, restaurants and your accommodation to prove you have walked the correct amount of kms. You need at least 2 stamps per day but we collected so many more as they are a great reminder of where we stopped for coffee, lunch and of course stayed overnight. When you reach Santiago de Compostela, your Credential is checked and verified. There is a minimum requirement that you must complete the last 100kms of The Way and get the allocated amount of stamps to be granted a Compostela Certificate which is highly valued. When you reach the big square in front of the beautiful imposing Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, you get a wonderful sense of achievement.
The final celebration of attending the Pilgrim Mass in the Cathedral where the famous Botafumeiro is swung, was spine tingling. The Botafumeiro is a large thurible (incense burner) which weighs 53kg and measures 1.50 metres high that hangs from the main dome of the Cathedral and operates on a system of pulleys. It is swung by eight robbed monks at great speed, high into the air from side to side to sound of incredible organ music. Now that was an experience of a lifetime – something we all can’ t wait to see again.
The true Way is walked carrying your belongings on your back and sleeping in Refugios or Albergues which are hostels for pilgrims only. You need a Pilgrims Passport to enter and are only allowed one night’s stay unless you are injured. It is first come first served so sometimes in busy periods, pilgrims get up early so they can make it to the next stop before all the beds at the nicer hostels are taken. We like many others, opted to have pre-booked accommodation at local rural Casa’s & quaint hotels and also had our main luggage transferred each day to the next stopover. We only carried our day packs, rain coats and walking sticks which I would highly recommend. They keep you balanced and offer great support when climbing up or coming down hills.
‘Buen Camino‘ is the most frequently spoken phrase along the Camino. When you pass a fellow pilgrim you say it and in turn they say it back. It means ‘Good Path or Good Road ‘.
You don’t have to be religious, a fitness fanatic or crazy. People walk as Pilgrims, others to re-assess, reflect, take time out from our busy world or simple just to enjoy the beauty, scenery and surreal calmness as you pass through simple villages, some that are over 1500 years old. There is certainly a spiritual dimension – whatever that means to each person. I can honestly say, this walk is a great life experience. We met the locals, experienced their culture, food, wine & hospitality plus met some of the most amazing fellow pilgrims who each had their own story.
I definitely plan to return and walk further stages of the Camino Way.