The Camino de Santiago
I first heard of the Camino de Santiago from an elderly Israeli man. I was on the Offa’s Dyke Trail, setting up my tent in a campsite near Hay on Wye while he recited tales of his 500 mile ‘pilgrimage’ from the French border to the western coast of Spain: stories of sleeping in monasteries, of fountains of wine and of thousands of people from all over the world following a single trail for redemption.
I didn’t want redemption, but I did want fountains of wine, so I waited to finish university then set off to St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to begin ‘my Camino’.
The Camino was my first proper long distance trail, and the first time I had the satisfaction of watching a landscape change around me. I started in the green points of the Pyrenees then two days later was in burnt red land outside of Pamplona. I walked through endless vineyards in Rioja country, across the vast Spanish sierra, found more mountains above Astorga and then discovered a Welsh home away from home in the hills of Galicia.
The Israeli man was a man of his word. I was part of an endless line of people slowly making their way across the country. People of every nationality, all with the same purpose of reaching the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
There were thousands on the trail, but, I found myself walking with the same group of around 50 people all having fallen into the same pace as each other.
Each night after the day’s walk, we would be reunited in the albergues, hostels that line the way exclusively for pilgrims. There you would pay a pittance or even nothing, for a bunk or just a space on the floor.
Sometimes these were monasteries, sometimes these were people’s houses. My favourite Albergue was a cow shed.
In these we would all eat together, drink together and share our trail tales.
The pilgrimage to Santiago to the shrine of St James’, has been made since 44AD. Cities, towns, cathedrals and monuments have thus formed along the entire way as a result of the millions of pilgrims through the ages. I passed the cathedrals of Pamplona, Leon, Burgos and Astorga, crossed ancient bridges (some stretching for several hundred metres) and of course slept in countless buildings dating back hundreds of years.
Regular readers of my blog will know that one highlight of my walk around Wales last year, were the coastal pubs. The Camino was instead about wine, and while in Wales I found an abundance of good ale in places like Pembrokeshire and on Anglesey, it never quite got as good as this….the fountain of free wine for thirsty pilgrims.
Of course, I was walking through some of the most famous wine country in the world and by walking in October I had unknowingly picked the best time to visit- harvest. This is an important time in the cultural calendar for the Spanish people, and it seemed every town I passed through was holding a fiesta. In each I was greeted warmly by the celebrating locals and often had a glass of vino tinto thrust into my hand.
Though I didn’t walk the Camino for religious reasons, I was still awestruck when I finally made it to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. It was an overwhelming feeling, suddenly turning a corner and seeing it for the first time, thinking about the millions of people who over the centuries had made the same journey to reach it. One by one, all of us who had walked together in the past few weeks, arrived to celebrate together.
But for me, this wasn’t the end. The cathedral lies only a few days walk from, the coast at Muxia and Finisterre, ‘the end of the world’. I wanted to walk to the sea, put my feet in the water and know I had walked the entire length of Spain.
It took me 44 days to walk the Camino de Santiago. Apart from travel to and from the beginning and end of the trail, it required very little prior planning. Accommodation is so frequent and the trail so well waymarked that looking back it was a relaxing holiday in comparison to my walk around Wales, but still, it was a great adventure that I know i’ll have to repeat one day.
Summer is around the corner, so if you are looking for adventure, I recommend you keep it in mind.