We are on our way home from an amazing week on the Camino de Santiago - one hundred miles, more or less, on foot on the Camino Frances from the Galician town of Sarria in Spain to the medieval city of Santiago de Compostela.
I think I will be reflecting on this experience for a long time, but I thought it might be interesting (at least to me) to try to capture some preliminary thoughts in writing, and to share them, before they become indelibly intermixed with the experiences of every day.
I’m not sure what I expected. But whatever my expectations were, they were exceeded in just about every way that I can contemplate.
To begin, the Camino is a lot of walking. And there are a lot of hills. Somehow the uphills seem longer and more steep than the downhills. Much of the way is very rural and the path is shaded by large trees that you begin to view as your friends.
A good bit of the way is also very, very old. More than a thousand years old. These parts are typically constructed of large, flat stones fitted together (more or less) and smoothed by thousands of footsteps, horse hooves, dog paws, and nowadays, bike wheels, stroller wheels, and even wheelchairs.
Other parts are covered with the soft, loamy surface of leaves, red soil, pine needles, and plants, typically accompanied by the kind, overarching branches of oak, eucalyptus, and other trees, and typically far from any kind of civilization. Often these made a green and brown tunnel, and the sunlight that managed to penetrate the canopy made a mosaic pattern on the ground. The air smelled deep green. These were my favorites.
So the Camino is a lot of walking, but that’s one of the best parts about it. It’s always engaging, it’s never dull. Every single step brings you closer to your destination. No two kilometers are the same. And after the first day - heck, after the first couple of hours and big hills - you just know you can do this.
It is said that it’s not a real Camino unless you have rain. And on our first day, we achieved real Camino status with several hours of light rain. Starting out is exciting, invigorating, energizing, everything is new - so what’s a little rain? It kept us fresh, it made us a little silly, and it showed us that a little (or more than a little) rain would not get between us and our Camino. It was only when I looked at some photos a few days later that I realized that we were soaked - smiling and happy but soaked!
The Camino is also about milestones - literally and figuratively. Literally, because every few hundred meters there is a marker indicating the direction to Santiago de Compostela. These friendly and distinct markers with blue and yellow symbols become your allies and your friends. You seek them out at junctions to be sure you are going the right way. And they quietly cheer you on as you watch the numbers descend. 100 kilometers to go! That was worth a photo. 90 kilometers, 80 kilometers, 70 kilometers! Halfway at 56.5 kilometers or something like that - one of our group was quite precise. I took a picture each time we got below another ten.
And figuratively because, well, it’s the Camino! For many people, this is something they think about for some time. In one way it’s just like going for a walk. A really really long walk. But it’s also following in the footsteps of people who were moved by something deep to set off for the unknown, for the city that was considered nearly the end of the earth, without maps or guides or means of communication, to achieve forgiveness of their sins. And maybe adventure? Who knows.
Next, the Camino is both a very individual and a profoundly collective experience. It’s individual because you decide to do this, on your own feet, in your own head, with your own thoughts and goals. You may converse constantly within yourself. You’re immersed in the woods, the meadows, up and down (and up and up) the rolling hills. You negotiate with yourself about when it’s time to pause at a small refugio for water, a coffee or bocadilla (sandwich), or a bathroom (or all of the above). You find yourself thinking about everything, something, someone, or nothing. Sometimes all at once. Songs may get stuck in your head for kilometers at a time, and you may sing them out loud, sometimes on purpose but usually not. I thought a lot about events and especially about people in my life, including from years or decades ago, again sometimes on purpose but usually not.
But this may also be the most collective thing I have ever done. In the last 100 miles of the Camino Frances or Jacobean Way, pretty much all the Caminos join together - as they have for centuries. You can’t help but think about the pilgrims from centuries ago, traversing this path without any comfort or certainty, motivated solely by their faith. I can’t say that I somehow “felt their presence” in some sort of mystical way, but I can say for sure that for me, it added immeasurably to the experience to know that I was one among hundreds of thousands or more who have literally followed this path. On our last evening, we toasted the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that have come before us - and the hundreds of thousands that will come after as well. It’s hard to imagine how different our experience is from that of a medieval “peregrino,” and similarly, how different the experience will be hundreds of years from now.
And of course you are never alone. Not in any way. Many walk with family (❤️Margaret❤️) and friends. Some are with groups - groups from school, groups from church, groups for a cause. There were groups from Germany, France, Italy, Australia, Spain of course, and groups from all over the US.
A group of about 200 whom we often encountered were walking to call attention to childhood cancer, and they included people with cancer, families, and caregivers.
Another group of about 90 that we regularly saw on the route were high school students from Sevilla who have prepared for the Camino for the past two years. One of their projects was to interview several pilgrims each day to learn where they were from, what motivated them to walk, and what advice they would give. When I was interviewed, I answered without pausing - “open your eyes, open your ears, open your mind, open your heart.” Later I added, “listen with your eyes, look with your ears, feel with your mind, think with your heart”. That’s the Camino. You think about the same things but in different ways, you make connections that never occurred to you before (and that may seem silly afterwards).
As you walk along, there are times where you don’t see anyone ahead of you - but you know they are there, in a good way. And unlike any other hike or walk anywhere, absolutely everyone is going in the same direction. Imagine a great flow of humanity walking, striding, rolling, and riding along - all in the same direction, like water running downhill. That’s the Camino.
Sometimes you are passed, usually to the left, and you are greeted with a cheery “buen Camino!,” to which you respond in kind. Sometimes you pass a group and you initiate the greeting.
You always remember your first “buen Camino.” It makes you realize that you are embarked on something different and special. It connects you and means you have been recognized. It creates a tiny but real bond. For us, it was actually in Sarria, on the day before we began. We explored all over the town, the modern part and the old part too. We followed a steep road out of the town past a church and to a monastery, and walked silently (as instructed by the caretaker) around the Romanesque cloister. Just us, no one else. And as we continued around the hillside to loop back into town, a pilgrim with a backpack, a wide-brimmed hat, a walking stick and a shell passed us - “buen Camino” he said, and we responded the same. And somehow at that moment it came together that we really were about to embark on something different. Not just a seven-day hiking trip - though definitely that. Not just a visit deep into Galicia - though definitely that too. And not just a chance to work on my fledgling Spanish - claro que si. But there is something unifying about the experience that is both more complex and more simple, that pulls all of these threads into one splendid ribbon that is something much more than its individual parts.
So the Camino is this amazing, continuous, flowing experience. The steps blend, the paths blend, the days blend. But here is another aspect of the Camino. Like a huge mosaic, or a pointillist masterpiece painting, it is composed of individual moments, encounters, vistas, and realizations.
Many moments come with collecting stamps on your pilgrim’s credential, or “passport,” that demonstrates that you have traveled the Camino route. You receive this at the outset of your journey (and you are cautioned not to lose it, as it can’t be replaced). Upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela, you present this credential to the pilgrim’s office to receive your “Compostela,” a beautiful illuminated document that states (in Latin) that you have completed the pilgrimage. Two per day is the minimum, we never collected less than five. Some of these moments are pretty straightforward - at a small refugio cafe, there will be a “silla,” or stamp, and an ink pad. One touch on the pad, one touch on the passport, and off you go with a cheery “buen Camino” exchanged with the family who owns the enterprise (and probably lives behind or upstairs).
Others are more unique. Early in our walk, we passed a tiny town - really, just a place where two gravel roads intersected with a couple of refugios and a very small, very old church. Inside was a blind man, maybe a priest, who placed “temple stamps” (stamps) on the pilgrims’ passports. He spoke with each pilgrim, let their hand guide his with the stamp, said a blessing, and smiled - or even laughed - with great warmth. You could imagine that he had somehow been in that tiny church for decades, drawing on the warmth and goodwill of the pilgrim visitors and sharing his own. Maybe even he has been there for centuries. That’s just how the Camino is.
Later in our walk, toward the end, and deep in a eucalyptus forest, we encountered a makeshift stand with a father and his son. They had two tables laden with Camino souvenir crafts and mementos, including shells, small charms, bracelets, refrigerator magnets, and other similar things. Many of these were familiar from small shops and stands along the way. Somehow, this seemed like the time to make a purchase. So we got in the queue.
Margaret picked out two charms - a silver shell and a round bead with the cross of Saint James. I added a refrigerator magnet in the signature blue and yellow of the Camino, with lines representing all of the routes converging in the shell pattern. We handed them to the father with big smiles and “estos tres, por favor”. To our delight, the father passed them to his son and he made them into necklaces, on fine leather strands with silver clasps.
As the son worked his magic, we spoke about their lives on the Camino. The father explained that he emigrated from Colombia to Spain many years earlier looking for work, stability, and a better life. His son was born in Spain, they saw 2,000 to 3,000 pilgrims a day, things were good. And things were better in Colombia now as well - with time, things can improve. We agreed on the importance of doing things with your children, and also on the happiness that comes with work that helps others.
When the necklaces - which we did not expect - were finished, the father stamped our Camino passports, and then lit a candle, placed a drop of wax on each of our Camino passports, and affixed a tiny silver charm to each. On mine, it was a tiny pair of feet, on Margaret’s, the classic Camino shell. Of course it’s a business but it’s also a labor of love. We shook hands, I thanked them, we took a photo. I’ve never been more moved by a souvenir purchase - a true Camino experience.
So are there religious moments, moments of great and profound insights? As I looked forward to our Camino, I wondered about how religion, and especially organized religion, would fit into the Camino experience. Would it define it, would it be comfortable or not so much, would it be drowned out by some Camino-commercialism?
Not to worry. Based on what I saw, and heard, and felt, religion and faith can be a quiet but constant part of the Camino experience - but this is utterly up to the individual, and they don’t need to be. I’m sure that it is possible to walk the Camino as a pure expression of organized religion, presumably like the medieval pilgrims that walked to Santiago de Compostela to purge their life’s sins. I saw by example of some in our group that it’s possible to be immersed in the Camino as a confirmed nonbeliever. For me, the Camino was an opportunity to share, immediately and across time, an experience of discovery and connection that is informed, significantly but not exclusively, by faith. And each of these experiences of the Camino seems equally intense, equally profound, equally valid.
Anyone who has read this far might be curious about how all of this works as a practical matter. So here are a few small notes on that.
To receive the Compostela, you have to travel 100 kilometers by foot, 150 on horseback, or 200 on bicycle. Most people walk. We saw many bicycle pilgrims each day, typically in small groups whizzing by with a “buen caminooooo!” We saw lots of evidence of horses, but no pilgrims on horseback - not one.
Towns from small to tiny dot the route. We stayed in charming and varied small inns and hotels each night that cater to the peregrinos. The smallest had maybe a dozen rooms, the largest maybe three dozen. Others carry backpacks and sleep in the pilgrims’ hostels, this is a very thrifty way to travel. According to one of the books I read, some people bring a tent and camp out in a field - hopefully without livestock!
Many people carry a daypack and utilize a transport service to take their bag from place to place. We did this and it was terrific.
We booked our Camino through a small local travel company, and they planned the route, booked our accommodation, and arranged for the transport of our bags each day to our next stop.
We opted for a guide, and she was delightful and knowledgeable on all aspects of the enterprise. This was her sixth Camino, and she provided both a lot of information and lovely local context to our Camino adventure. Our group was nine in total, from Spain, the US, Bristol in the UK (by way of South Africa), and Argentina. We typically walked in groups of two to four.
Everything worked well. As just one example, when we arrived each evening at the property, we were handed our keys and our bags were already in our rooms. You can be pretty tired after six or more hours of walking, and this was quite a luxury indeed.
The properties were quite varied, from country elegant (the first night, a former parador, we had a large room with a deck, an elegant dining room and a gorgeous swimming pool), to quaint (a fifteenth century stone house with foot-thick walls, exposed beam ceilings), to rustic (split log cabin style rooms and dining hall). Always quiet, welcoming, comfortable. A footsore pilgrim needs a long hot shower and a good rest - and a balcony with a beautiful countryside view doesn’t hurt!
Meals are easy. Our arrangements included excellent dinners - always three courses with regional Galician specialties every night. Shellfish fans had lots to enjoy as shellfish is quite a speciality of the region. Many of the fruits and vegetables are sourced locally - we passed farms on both sides of the route nearly all of the way. Hunks of crusty bread, often still warm from the oven, and olive oil accompanied dinner and breakfast. Breakfasts were served buffet style and it was always possible to get an extra piece of fruit for a morning snack. The local apples are superb.
A big surprise was the presence of so many small refugios - cafes, restaurants, fruit stands - along the way. One or more an hour, and never too far from one to the next. These were wonderful for refilling water bottles, using the “servicios” (clean and pleasant), getting a coffee or snack, and of course, adding stamps to the pilgrim passport.
Two moments that every pilgrim experiences come on the last day. The first is at the crest - the last big crest! - of the last band of hills before arriving at Santiago Compostela. It comes soon after a campground and dormitory with many small food stands, laundry and athletic facilities, and a generally festive atmosphere - after all, by this point there are still some miles to go but you are almost there! There’s a large monument on the top of the hill, the path wraps past the shops and stands and around the monument.
And suddenly - there it is! The three large towers of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. They reach high above the red clay roofs of the town, dominating the distant skyline. You can’t help but think how moving this must have been for pilgrims a thousand years ago who traveled from all over Europe on foot or maybe horseback just to see and touch this site.
And the second is when you are done. When you reach the Praza do Obradoiro - the workers plaza, so named not so much in their honor as because this is where they lived while the cathedral was under construction. By tradition, you approach this slowly, and in silence. The last half kilometer or so passes through the narrow streets of the old city, and much of your company on the way is, like you, a silent pilgrim. There’s a downhill into a plaza in front of a grand gothic building and from a distance you think - are we there? We are there? But not yet, this is a Benedictine monastery that remains active to this day. Instead you continue to the left, down a narrow stone-paved street, under a deep arch where a bagpiper plays Celtic tunes, and turn left.
And then you are there. Kilometer zero, the end of the Camino de Santiago, the destination of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims over hundreds of years, from popes and the deeply devout, to the questioning, to the committed nonbeliever. It’s powerful.
You smile - heck, you grin from ear to ear. You hug someone, hopefully someone you know. Maybe you tear up a little bit, or maybe you just plain weep. People cheer and sing. Some dance. Many just sit down in the middle of the vast space, and some lay down (collapse?), tired and footsore and happy. I looked at Margaret, thanked her, and said “we did it! Buen Camino!” And there were some group hugs for sure.
So, all in, and from somewhere south of Greenland at 40,000 feet, here’s my Camino summary. This was the experience of a lifetime in many ways, joyful and demanding, fleeting and slow, and maybe just a little bit transformative. That I won’t know for a while. But I recommend it highly and I’m already looking forward to the next. Hopefully this wasn’t just my Camino, it was my first Camino. I’m keeping my shell to bring on my next and I’ll wear it with pride and happiness.
Buen Camino! —ESS