The rather impressionistic looking photo above was taken on my first morning waking up on the Camino de Santiago. I had planned my arrival in Spain so that I would have several weeks to travel the 800 or so kilometers from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela before starting my internship.
Many things changed in the meantime, and I found myself with just a little over a week before I was required to be in Valladolid for my first teachers’ meeting. Undaunted, I decided to start at Ponferrada, the site of a famous castle used by the Knights Templar to protect people traveling on the Camino.
The websites and guidebooks I consulted convinced me that I could easily walk the distance from Ponferrada to Santiago de Compostela in the ten days that I had. And, seriously, what better place to start than a castle in Spain?
The next hitch in my plans came when I received notification that my flight had been changed to 12 hours later than originally scheduled. Even if I had been willing to walk all night, with jet lag and minimal sleep, it would have been unwise. I was not a seasoned pathfinder to begin with, and felt certain that looking for a trail in the dark was a bad idea.
I made my way from the airport in Madrid as far as Leon, a grand city in the Castile-Leon region of Spain. (I would soon be spending most of my time in that autonomous region, since Valladolid is located there. But that is another story.) I found a place to spend the night, and on my way, I stumbled upon the Plaza San Marcos. This place is not only an attraction because of the museum and hotel located there, it is somewhat of a landmark for people on the Camino de Santiago due to its location on the way and its appearance in a motion picture about the Camino.
So, what is the Camino de Santiago, anyway, and what did I think I was doing there?
Well, first of all, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Route, so designated in 1993 and, I believe, the first hiking trail to be recognized as such. Although it has been a destination for over a thousand years for Pilgrims (“Peregrinos”) wishing to visit the remains of the Apostle James at the cathedral that bears his name, it is also believed to have been a sacred journey for Celtic people long before Christianity reached that part of Europe. The path to Santiago is aligned with the Milky Way, which many believe is the source of the name Compostela, from the words Campo de las Estrellas or Field of Stars.
While the route was one of three major Catholic pilgrimages for centuries, with Jerusalem and Rome being the other two, the Camino had declined in popularity in recent years. In 1985, only 690 people completed enough of the Camino to earn the “Compostela,” a certificate issued at the end of the journey. In today’s busy world, it seemed, taking a month or more away from other pursuits to seek spiritual renewal was a fool’s errand for people without goals or ambition.
Clearly something has shifted. In 2016, the Oficina del Peregrino counted 277,915 people who completed at least the final 100 kilometers of the Camino that are required in order to receive a certificate. For spiritual seekers, this is called a Compostela. A certificate of completion is issued to those who declare a secular motivation (for more information, see https://oficinadelperegrino.com).
It became clear as I encountered many of the peregrinos on the way, that on the one hand there are as many reasons for this journey as there are individuals. On the other hand, one of the books I read in preparation for my journey put this idea as well as anyone could:
“Somehow the idea grabbed him, captured his attention, and it kept coming back to him as something important to do. It was an internal pull; something drawing him on….This kind of answer, which I hear often as I walk along with these young people, touches one of the inscrutable mysteries of the contemporary camino….They are not closed to spiritual realities at all, or they would not find themselves, as Matthew puts it, ‘grabbed’ and ‘pulled’ into the Camino’s field of gravity.” (Codd, Kevin A. To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Santiago de Compostela)
That being said, even for the peregrinos who walk the Camino as true pilgrims, or even just as a meditative journey, the experience is definitely not all sackcloth and ashes. One of my favorite things about walking the Camino was meeting great people from all over the world; I made friends from places as diverse as Poland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Israel and India, to name just a few. A highlight of my trip was the moment when I was called upon to assist a Hindu couple who spoke no Spanish as they struggled to order vegetarian food in a bar in Ribadiso.
And speaking of the food … naturally everything tastes better when you’ve been walking in the open air all day, but I still believe the cuisine would have been amazing anyway.
I have a friend who texted me often on my way, and he mentioned how much he missed the Camino food he remembered from his pilgrimage a few years ago. Chocolate and churros were his favorite — they are wonderful. Not your mom’s hot chocolate — this is a small cup of something closer to the best chocolate syrup you ever had, heated and not too sweet, with a cylinder of fried dough to dip into it. A close second for me was the Tarta de Santiago, a cake made of almond meal and dusted with powdered sugar. This and a cup of the fantastic café con leche found everywhere in Spain, gave me the strength to walk without stopping for lunch one day when I really needed to cover some ground.
Prices are very reasonable, and the quality was consistently good wherever I ate. Even small groceries and service station convenience stores sell artisan cheeses and charcuterie, and freshly baked bread for the peregrino who wishes to dine al fresco at any place one chooses to stop.
I cannot leave the topic of food without also mentioning the Spanish Tortilla de Patata, something of a national treasure, like a quiche filled with potatoes. And the pulpo. If you have never eaten an octopus, you have really missed something good. Galicia has a beautiful coast and a fine fishing tradition, so of course the seafood is excellent!
Have you ever stopped a stranger to ask for directions, only to be told, “Go straight ahead for about 400 meters, then turn right at the castle?”
The first time this happened to me, I stopped dead in my tracks. The castle?!!! There is a reason that the region of Castile & Leon is so named. It is truly a land of castles; I think every town must have one, each like something from a fairy tale.
Much of the Camino de Frances, the most common route followed, runs through this area. A popular saying is that the first third of the Camino strengthens your body, the second your mind, and the third your spirit. If you appreciate history, and architecture in particular, you can feast your eyes and mind on some of the most inspiring edifices that the world has to offer, from ancient Roman to modern.
In addition to castles, the churches and other public buildings, and even private homes, are just gorgeous. Seeing them while walking, even at a brisk pace, lends more to appreciation of the view than flying past in a tour bus or high speed train.
Please don’t think that my fairy tale adventure ended when I crossed the border into Galicia. It is simply that here I crossed (on horseback, no less!) from the land of medieval castles and Roman viaducts into Tolkein’s Middle Earth.
If I ever write a fantasy, Galicia will be running through my mind as I create the setting. The houses are called pallozas, and they are round. Another characteristic structure is the horreo, a structure built on pedestals to prevent mice from eating the grain stored within. Although modern silos are now used, the horreos are still kept in good repair and some can be seen that are clearly ornamental, a link with Galicia’s heritage of farming and cheese making. Even with other hikers passing by, with modern clothing and gear, it was natural to become immersed in the beauty of the landscape and the simplicity of the buildings, and to dream of a simpler life.
As I mentioned earlier, my initial time on the Camino was cut short by a number of situations beyond my control. I also found that, although I could have walked rapidly enough to cover about 3 miles in an hour, once I started out, I really didn’t want to. I found myself wanting to stop for photos, or to go into each small village iglesia and light a candle, or to have a coffee and get to know my fellow travelers.
At a couple of villages, I decided to stop early and get a bed in a refugio (hostel) and take time for sightseeing. Since I knew I would be in Spain for three months, I asked myself, what was the hurry? People had warned me that the Camino has a way of adjusting one’s priorities and I was finding this to be true.
I ended up doing the Camino de Santiago in three stages, starting with Ponferrada to O’Cebreiro in September. Then in October, I took the bus to return to where I left off, and went on to Portomarin. For the final stage, I took a long weekend in November and finished my Camino, ending in Santiago de Compostela. After stopping at the Pilgrim’s Office to collect my Compostela, I got a hotel room for the night. The following morning, I attended the Pilgrim’s Mass in the Cathedral, did some sightseeing in Santiago de Compostela, bought gifts for family and friends, and caught the train back to Valladolid.
One guidebook advises not to rush back to ordinary life after experiencing the Camino, but I needed to return right away to my work as an intern at the International Immersion Institute. As a result, I think I will be reflecting on the experience and its impact on my life little by little as I have free time to think about it.
I could say so much more, and I have hundreds of photos to choose from — if I were writing on a different day, I imagine I might choose completely different words and pictures. At the very least, I must say that this has been the best possible way that I could have found to fully experience and appreciate so much of what Spain has to offer. I definitely recommend it.