Looking back on it, the most striking thing about the Camino de Santiago (literally, the Way of Saint James) is the way that it takes you through everything. The Camino was never intended to be a tour; it is simply a more or less straight line from east to west, and as a result runs through places of no importance whatsoever, besides the ones that have made it a European Cultural Route – and, because it runs through them, you have to walk through them. We walked through seven provinces of Spain in rain, snow, wind and blazing sun; we crossed spectacular mountains, monotonous plains, and terrifying dual carriageways; we saw industrial estates and Gothic cathedrals. We never knew what to expect from day to day, and we learned very quickly not to plan too far ahead, and never to work out how much of the total distance was left to walk – it was always horribly daunting!
However, we also found that it never really mattered where we were. The daily routine of eat-walk-eat-walk-eat-sleep varied very little, and the goal of every day was to reach somewhere with food and a bed, whether we were in city or country. If we had exceeded our average of 20km we felt a particular sense of achievement, and if it seemed that our laundry had a reasonable chance of being dry by morning that was even better. (You can always tell a pilgrim by the damp socks safety-pinned to their rucksack!) Whatever the terrain, the most important thing to look out for was the waymarking. Most of the way you follow yellow arrows painted on walls, rocks or trees; in some places there are concrete bollards with blue and yellow shells to point you in the right direction; in the cities there are metal shells set into the pavement. It is surprising how much faith one puts in these markers; we very rarely looked at a map after the first week. Similarly, we just had to trust that at the end of each day’s walk there would be a pilgrim hostel with two beds free, and a shop, or a bar that served food, that was open. There almost always was: we never went without a bed, and we never went hungry.
The pilgrims are a remarkably cosmopolitan group. We walked with people of many nationalities: French, Slovenian, Korean, Australian, Austrian, Scottish, German, Finnish… The majority of them were our age (gap-year) or recently retired; the youngest pilgrim we met was a nine year-old walking with his father. On the whole they were very dedicated; some do the Camino stage by stage over a period of several years, beginning again where they left off the previous year. It is relatively rare to do the whole journey in one long stint, as we did, and we felt very lucky to be able to devote almost two months to it. I will never forget the kindness we met all along the route, not only from fellow pilgrims and hospitaleros (hostel wardens), but from ordinary Spanish citizens. It seemed that every time we were lost, or in trouble, or simply needed a little encouragement, someone would pop up to help. They didn’t seem to mind our execrable Spanish, and often seemed to go a fair distance out of their way to make up for the deficiencies of our guidebook. I owe rather a lot to people whose names I’ll never know.
And then there were the unique little experiences, the quirky things that perhaps didn’t contribute so much to my spiritual development, but are nonetheless unforgettable – the chickens that live in the cathedral at Santo Domingo de la Calzada, for example; the surreal ‘Gaudí building’ in Astorga; the young wild boar that followed its owner into a bar in Triacastela – far more than can be fitted into a short article. I am still unsure exactly what to make of them, but they were part of the experience!
Somehow, after all that, Santiago de Compostela itself avoided being an anticlimax. I was terribly afraid that it would be, after two years’ planning and seven weeks on the road, but in the event it was all we had hoped, and well worth the effort. We had originally intended to catch the bus on to Finisterre, but we decided that we liked Santiago too much, so spent all our time exploring the city or hanging around in the cathedral to see if anyone we knew would turn up. It was the right place to stop.
So – what next? I must confess that I am not entirely sure where I am headed next, but, if the Camino has taught me one thing, it is how to accept uncertainty and to trust that when I need to know the way I will be shown it.