After a long time absent from my blog, I’m back! and well, I have been wanting to write this post since a long time ago. It has been two years since I walked the Road of Santiago in Holly Week on 2013, and now that is Easter, it just seems the right time to talk about it.
I knew absolutely nothing about El Camino when I first arrive to Santiago to visit a very good friend. While having dinner with some friends, someone asked me for my Holly Week plans, to which I replied I had no idea, so my friend suggested “why don’t you do the Road? At first, I was not very convinced; but then, the idea got into my head and finally I decided to go.
Back to Madrid, I prepared my self for the physical Road: I bought an really big backpack, a sleeping bag, a pair of sandals, a waterproof coat and a light towel. I was going to take the short version of the Camino Portugués, that started at Tui, the border between Portugal and Spain, and ended in Santiago de Compostela. It was a 6 day plan.
I was really worried for the physical challenge. Since I am not the most athletic girl in the world, I was afraid of walking about 120 km for 6 consecutive days. So, a few weeks after El Camino, I spent a lot of time worrying about what to put into my backpack, or trying to figure out which were the best shoes to walk, trying to find the right backpack, the right clothing, the right tennis shoes… but now I see that I had absolutely no idea kind of experience was ahead of me.
A Brief History
The discovery of the tomb of Santiago Apóstol (Santiago the Apostle) took place in the 9th century. An hermit named Paio saw lights that lead him to a sacred place, where he found a stone tomb containing the rests of Santiago Apostle. Paio, or Pelayo, informed the bishop, Teodomiro, about this huge discovery, who thought of this as a miracle. Later, Bishop Teodomiro informed King Alfonso II about this miraculous event, so the King ordered the construction of a chapel in thit particular place. It was not after reign of Alfonso III when a larger basilica was constructed. Since that day, Galicia has become an important place of pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela became a religious phenomenon in the Middle Ages. First pilgrims walked what is called El Camino del Norte, a route along the Cantabrian Coast. Later, with the expansion of the Reconquest, Sancho the Great of Navarra and Alfonso VI of leon planed an itinerary through the new liberated territory; this new route took place through kingdoms of Navarra, Castilla y León, an it is know as El Camino Francés. Both, El Camino del Norte and El Camino Francés, are the most ancient routes to Santiago de Compostela. There are 9 recognized routes at the present time: Portuguese Way, French Way through Ronccensvalles, French Way Through Somport, North Way, Primitive Way, English Way, Silver Way, Arousa Sea and Ulla River Jacobean Itinerary and Finesterre Way. Nowadays, El Camino de Santiago is recognized by the European Parliament as the First European Cultural Itinerary and declared as a World Heritage Route by UNESCO.
I started El Camino from Tui, not knowing anything about it, not knowing anyone from the group I was in, with a backpack almost my height and my old sneakers.
One of the facts that surprise me the most was how well signalized the Road was, with the famous yellow arrows and the Concha de Vieira. This are two important symbols along the way. The first one, La Flecha Amarilla (yellow arrow) is a recent symbol introduced by Elías Valiña, one of the most important conservatives and promoters of the Camino de Santiago. In 1984, Elías undertook the signage of the French Way with yellow arrows. He also did a lot of cleaning work, recovery of lost sections of the way and the kilometer-long numbering of the way. From that time, almost all the way is really well signposted with yellow arrows that prevent pilgrims from getting lost; La Flecha Amarilla has become one of the most popular modern symbols of the Camino de Santiago.
La Concha de Vieira is also an important symbol. This is actually a very old custom, since it was kind of a trophy for Middle Age pilgrims who ended successfully the pilgrimage. Now, is kind of a “souvenir” for modern pilgrims; they usually place this shell in the front of their backpacks, like a sign that they are pilgrims. This Shell is typical from a prized mollusk fished on Galicia’s coasts. I didn’t stark with the Vieira Shell on my backpack, I bough it on the road.
I believe there are 3 principal motivations for pilgrims to do the Road: religious, personal reasons or sports. For those who make El Camino with religious purposes, you may want to get the Pilgrim Passport, which is document distributed by the general office of Santiago’s Cathedral. This passport is really important if you want to receive the Compostela, which is a diploma accrediting that you at least walked 100 km to visit Santiago’s Cathedral. Pilgrims passport serves to collect stamps, at least 2 per day, from different points in cities you are visiting like restaurants, hostels or churches. You should have several stamps to prove that you walked all the way to Santiago.
As I told you from the begging on this post, I didn’t have an specific motivation to start this Road; but I found a lot of it during the way. First of all, is the perfect occasion to take real vacations; and yes, I know some of you may think what kind of vacations are to walk 20 to 25 km per day during 6 days, but believe me: El Camino disconnects you from the crazy, accelerated and inconstant world we live in. The perfect date between yourself and mother nature. And it is not like if you can not bring you cellphone… is just that… you don’t ever remember you have a cellphone while you are walking! You see, the scenery surrounding you is just so imposing an majestic that gives you a feeling of fullness.
Along the way, there are moments to walk alone and moments to walk with other people. I believe is important to have those alone walks to live like your “inner Way”,to meditate, to think, to enjoy what you are looking around, to reflect. This is really valuable time; but there is also company time, in which you get to know other pilgrims, different stories. Since I was doing the Road with a group, I get to know many people an their stories. Many of them had made the Road before, but some others don’t. You certainly learn a lot about other peoples experiences or motivations; one thing I learned for sure is that everyone has its own load, and, sometimes you get so frustrated and drown in your daily routine that egocentric thoughts begin to appear in your mind: you hate your life, you hate your job, you hate your country, your boss.. everyone. But then, when you open up, share your feeling and listen to others, your problems begin to get smaller, and you start appreciating what you have back at home.
This feeling becomes much stronger if you add the physical challenge. Of course is beautiful to walk around all that breathtaking landscape, but after walking 23 to 30 km per day, blister appear all over your feet, your back starts to hurt because of the backpack, you get all wet because, of course it would rain!! is Galicia!!, and then you arrive to the hostal but, you won’t have a comfortable bed of course, it’s only the floor and your sleeping back.
What I’m trying to tell you is that all the experience is aligned so that you can appreciate everything you have in your life. Also the atmosphere you feel while doing the Road is really nice and kind (most of the time), everyone is willing to open themselves, to talk, to share, to help. Even local people people who live in the mountains or in small towns along the way, always show a lot of support to all pilgrims, they give you food, they let you in their houses to use the bathroom and they encourage you.
The Road supposes to end when you arrive to Santiago, specifically to Plaza del Obradoiro. Arriving here is an amazing feeling; first of all, because this is were your journey ends, and then, because Santiago de Compostela is such a beautiful city! ❤
Is a tradition for Pilgrims to assist to the Pilgrim Mass. This is a very peculiar Mass because of the Botafumeiro, which is basically a giant censer (incense expeller), that was used in the past to aromatize all arriving pilgrims (because of course, you don’t arrive to the Cathedral smelling like roses). When I said giant, I mean it. You need like 6 or 8 people to start moving it, and then it goes from one corner of the Cathedral to another, it is really amazing! I can’t imagine what a tragedy would be to get hit by the Botafumeiro, imagine a mass of 80 kg at a speed of 68 km per hour, crazy! (If you are interested in watching the Botafumeiro in action, click here 🙂 )
After finishing the Road comes a feeling of emptiness. I believe is normal; having to say goodbye to mother nature and to all the people with whom you have been walking is nostalgic. And here is the tricky part. All that reflection, motivation and good energy that the Road gave you, you have to make it last, it has to be a positive impact in your daily routine. It is just till you finish, and that you recapitulate everything you had lived for the past 6 days that you realice that to goal was not arriving Santiago, the goal was living your Way. After all, this experience reminds me what Plato said: “An unexamined life is not worth living “
Some tips from my own experience (if you are planning to do the Road and you are not a pro in trekking like me)
I though I needed a lot of physical preparation in order to complete the Road; well, you don’t. The motivation that the Road represent itself is like your fuel, its what makes you keep walking. So,what you need to walk El Camino de Santiago is a big back pack (that will become you best friend, a love-hate relationship), a pair of shoes that you have been using for a really long time (don’t even think to buy new shoes 2 or 3 months after the road!), a sleeping bag and comfortable clothes.
- Choose really well what you will put into your backpack, because you will be walking with it for an entire week, nearly about 8 hours a day.
- After walking for 8 hours, the best way to help your feet is to let them breath by wearing sandals.
- Wear you socks backwards, because in this way, seams won’t hurt you and you will have less possibility of getting ampoules.
- Bring a pad for your sleeping bag. If you sleep in the floor (like I did almost all the Road) you will freeze at night because the floor is really cold; a pad will help you isolate heat.
- Eat a lot 🙂
- Put away your phone!
- Don’t worry too much! there is always a lot of assistance and people is always willing to help you if you forgot something or you start feeling sick.
Xunta de Galicia (2016). El Camino en la Actualidad. http://www.caminodesantiago.gal/es/descubre/el-camino-en-la-actualidad
Xunta de Galicia (2016). Cómo Hacer el Camino. http://www.caminodesantiago.gal/es/descubre/el-camino-en-la-actualidad/como-hacer-el-camino
Santiago de Compostela Turismo (2016). The Portuguese Wat. http://www.santiagoturismo.com/caminos/camino-portugues
Santiago de Compostela Turismo(2016). Historia y tradición apostólica. http://www.santiagoturismo.com/historia/historia-e-tradicion-apostolica
Conrad Rudolph (2004). Pilgrimage to the end of the world: Road to Santiago de Compostela. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/731278.html
Fundacion Eroski (2016). El Camino del Norte. http://caminodesantiago.consumer.es/los-caminos-de-santiago/del-norte/
Camino Travel Center (ND). Camino de Santiago. http://caminotravelcenter.com/camino-de-santiago/