The Way of St James
Whilst living in London, as part of our ‘better me, better you’ lifestyle reinvigoration, himself and I decided it would be a good thing to walk the Camino de Santiago. You know, the 800km walk across the north coast of Spain to Santiago de Compostela? If it was good enough for pilgrims to be attempting this harebrained scheme for the past 1200 years, then surely it was good enough for us?
After doing our research we realised with a walking distance of 15-30km a day between sleepover stops we would only make a third of the distance with our allocated annual leave, so we started at the beginning and set out from St Jean Pied de Port on the French/Spanish border in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It was a gloriously sunny, 20 degree day as we got our crucial Pilgrim’s Passports and scallop shells to attach to our backpacks from the Mayor’s office. We started with a short ten km uphill walk to our first Albergue (hostel for travellers), about halfway up the mountain we were traversing to get into Spain. We arrived in the evening and dined with our fellow pilgrims as the rain started drumming down.
One of the most wonderful aspects of the pilgrimage is the diverse people you meet. All walks of life, all ages, all races, all nationalities and religions are represented. Enjoying the homemade 3 course meals with a new group each night was the satisfying mental aspect of this challenge we had set ourselves up for. Of course the sleeping in dormitory style accommodation was not such an enjoyable social aspect but after half a bottle of Rioja and all that walking, we were asleep before our heads hit the pillows.
The next morning we were up bright and early to conquer the mountain, get into Spain and start the pilgrimage off at its birthplace – Roncesvalles. The Way is marked by scallop shells on stiles so we hadn’t bought a map, presuming that we would keep an eye out for the markers and follow the other hikers. We donned our army issue ponchos (they didn’t last half the day), our shorts (waterproof pants were too heavy to take) and boots and set off with our 3 walking poles between the two of us. Up, and up, and up we went. It started to sleet. It started to snow. We looked at each other. It is nearly summer right? Before we knew it we were trudging through foot deep snow, without long pants on, plastic bags wrapped around our hands to try and keep some feeling in them and wondering what in hell we were doing.
The headlines ran before my eyes, ‘Foolhardy underprepared couple die in Pyrenees snow storm whilst attempting to find themselves on the Camino’. I didn’t want to be those fools. We met a shepherd who warned us not to attempt to cross the peak of the mountain in these conditions. We thought we should probably listen to him. So back we trudged, 17km downhill where we threw in the towel and with stiff knees and screaming Achilles admitted partial defeat and got a taxi to Roncesvalles to start the Camino again.
Traditionally when in Roncesvalles, pilgrims stay in the 200-bed draughty monastery before their walk of introspection. We were too cold. Too miserable. Too wet. We stayed in a guesthouse with a heater to dry our clothes and a hot shower. We slept well. We did go to the traditional blessing of the pilgrims at the gorgeous old church where the priest’s sonorous words echoed around solemnly. If he was speaking Latin or Spanish I don’t know but we felt calm after our tumultuous day and ready to start again.
We carried on with better weather and made the 26km to Larrasoana with a constant upping and downing of hills. At this point we really weren’t sure what we were doing here. Were we having fun? We were too tired and too sore to tell.
It was the third day that my Achilles just gave way and said ‘no more’. We got a lift to the next stop, Pamplona, and checked into a pension with bags of ice and 24hours of bed rest.
The next few towns, Puente la Reina, Estella, Torres del rio and Logrono with a gap of 21km between them each offered beautiful weather and incredible vistas. Passing through old villages built on hills, surrounded by vineyards and paddocks, at times following old Roman roads. It was all so picturesque, at times ornate, and really quite overwhelming to think that we were treading where Roman soldiers trod thousands of years ago. As we left before dawn each morning we stopped at a little hole in the wall and ordered what became our staple fare, a potato and egg omelette on a baguette. Carb loaded and tasty.
After paying usually 3-15 Euro a night for our accommodation we would walk to one of two establishments that offered the Pilgrims Menu upon presentation of your Pilgrims Passport. For not more than 9 Euros we would eat 3 course wholesome meals with half a bottle of wine each. There is nothing like a long day of walking, contemplating, and chatting than sitting down and having hot, steaming food placed in front of you, and a beautiful bottle of Spanish red.
On our next day walking to Najera we stopped in a field of daisies and spent a few lovely hours meditating and frolicking. We really did frolic. I’ve always wanted to frolic in a meadow of flowers and this seemed the perfect opportunity. The next day my Achilles again stubbornly refused to go on so we jumped on a bus to skip an industrial looking city and stayed in a gorgeous little town on the side of another mountain. We said goodbye to some of the wonderful new friends we had made and headed to Burgos, our final stop on this first third (and arguably the best part according to those who’ve walked The Way in its entirety) of the Camino.
Although traditionally a religious endeavour, the people we encountered on the Camino didn’t share their beliefs or lack thereof. Everyone was there for their own private reason. It was enough that we all shared this incredible journey, the hardships and the good times, and all drew our own conclusions from the lesson the Camino taught us. Only being able to take 10% of your bodyweight in baggage makes 5kg consist of very little. Two pairs of knickers, two pairs of socks, toothbrush, water bottle and a few muesli bars plus the clothes I was wearing were the limit. I had never travelled with so little. I had never felt so free. It was exhausting, exhilarating and exciting. I can’t wait to go back and finish the Camino. Perhaps this time I’ll pay a little more attention to the weather though, walk slower, and rest more. Oh, and if you do go, take a rock from your homeland. Halfway along the trek you will come across Cruz de Ferro (The Iron Cross), leaving your rock at the base signifies letting go of something negative. Let’s face it, we can all do with letting go!