On the road: Walking the Camino de Santiago

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Three summers ago my mum and I had an awesome adventure; we walked the last third of the Spanish Camino de Santiago, carrying what we needed on our backs and stopping to sleep and eat where and when we wanted to. It was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had and this is a feature I wrote about our trip for a university project.  

The inhabitants of the Santiago suburbs are quite used to seeing people like us traipsing through their midst. Grubby, tired and slightly dazed, it’s the first time in nearly two weeks that we have seen a city.

The last few kilometres, past the airport and over a flyover are a long and anticlimactic end to a walk of over 250 kilometres from Oviedo. When we finally reach the touristy old town the crowds are overwhelming and the cathedral is underwhelming but after all, the destination isn’t really what the Camino de Santiago is all about.

Together with Rome and Jerusalem, the Santiago de Compostela completed a trifecta of the most important medieval sites of pilgrimage. Legend holds that the body of St James, one of the 12 apostles, was carried from Jerusalem to Spain, where he was buried on the site of the old city of Santiago.

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In more recent years the number of people undertaking the pilgrimage has been swelled by the film, “The Way”. A saccharine exploration of the ‘spiritual journey’ undertaken walking the Camino, the film has, regardless, encouraged a resurgence in popularity for the route.

The traditional Catholic contingent, walking for religious reasons, has been somewhat overshadowed of late. Most of the tens of thousands of peregrinos who take part in the pilgrimage every year do so now for non-religious reasons. Years on which St. James’ day fall on a Sunday are declared by the cathedral to be a holy year and see greater numbers of religious pilgrims.

Although there are many routes, the French Way remains by far the most popular. Running through the north of Spain from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, the route avoids the more unpredictable weather of the Northern Way.

Completing the whole of the French way takes an average of six weeks, an infeasible commitment for most people. Our starting point of Astorga is two weeks’ walk from Santiago, a third of the whole distance. Gaudi’s episcopal palace towers over a square in the centre, dominating the small town.

To receive a compostela or certificate of completion it’s necessary to collects stamps from hostels and churches along the way, as well as starting no less than 100km from Santiago. That means that the first task is to collect a credencial or pilgrim passport in which to document these. Astorga isn’t a common starting place and the pilgrim office of the local church isn’t busy, making it an easy task.

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Setting out on the first day, all concern about losing the path is swiftly allayed when we see a straggling line of pilgrims stretching as far as the eye can see in front. As the morning draws on, the straggling line becomes more spread out and company sparser, but all of the paths are very well marked by the inevitable shell signs and yellow arrows.

Originally brought back by medieval pilgrims to prove their mettle, the scallop shell has become a symbol of the Camino de Santiago. It can be found on signs at regular intervals along the route as well as hanging from pilgrims’ backpacks as a sign for those in the know.

The flat, dry landscape punctuated with fields of poppies of the first day soon gives way to more lush, mountain greenery as we make our way upwards. At 1505m, Irago is the highest point on the Camino and the scenery is almost alpine as we pass through fields of cows, complete with bells and scrubby shrubs.

Having initially been quick off the mark, our pace has dwindled to a hobble by day three as blisters take hold. Luckily the going is flat and easy on the plateau but the relief with which we fall into the Albergue at Cacabelos is palpable.

Getting into the swing of things…

By the middle section of the trip we are starting to come across the same faces time after time. Although we walk faster than the average, we find that we are doing the same distances as people walking slower, who catch us up in the hostel each night.

The routine that we had settled into of waking, walking, eating and sleeping was incredibly relaxing and therapeutic. Some days we would barely talk, concentrating solely on putting one foot in front of the other. On others, we’d have long and involved conversations with people we had just met and get to the albergue hoarse.

We arrive in Galicia on our fifth day of walking and find the weather in early June is far less predictable. On several mornings we are greeted by heavy fog and drizzle, making six am starts less palatable.

The last town in which it is possible to join the Camino and receive a compostela is Sarria, just over 100km from Santiago. As we leave the town we hit a bottleneck of walkers and for the first time in our walk are always able to see at least one other group. The demographic also change; school groups and those travelling without packs become more common, diluting the stalwart of retirees.

Having finally conquered our blisters and tendonitis, the end being in sight becomes a disappointment. Our last few days break the 30km barrier and we find ourselves loathe to stop, having finally established a rhythm to our days.

The home strait

Monte del Gozo is a long haul uphill on the final morning but from the top it is possible to see the Santiago suburbs. The crown of the hill is busy with people, many of whom have joined the trail for the last day.

When we arrive in Santiago we sit down in the square outside against a wall and watch other peregrinos arrive. Most look relieved; one school group runs in screaming at the top of their lungs.

Collecting our compostela, we have to tick a box indicating our reasons for taking part in the pilgrimage. The options given are: religious, religious and other and other. We’re told later that those who tick ‘other’ have a compostelate given in Spanish at the cathedral asking for blessing of this heathen.

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Albergues on the Camino start from €5 for a shared dorm. Hotels and B&Bs are also available at a slightly higher price. Flights to Oviedo (Asturias Airport) start at £37 from London and return flights from Santiago are available from £18. We travelled in June, when temperatures were a little cooler and crowds slightly lighter than in July & August.