Today, one year ago to the day, I was walking 300km+ of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. Apart from my journal writing and some social posts en route, I’ve not written about it much. A year down the line seemed like an appropriate point to revisit the experience.
How I came to hear about the Spanish pilgrimage remains a mystery. All I do know is that by my early twenties, I knew about it, and I wanted to do it. In March 2008, at the crisp tail en of winter, I boarded the flight to Madrid armed with a backpack and a bicycle. I caught a bus to Leon, and hit the road right as a 6-day arctic front rolled in.
Cold, exposure and inadequate wet weather gear forced me to abandon the journey and head south to stay warm.
By 2014, life had delivered ample reasons for me to want to re-attempt the journey. On 16 October I set off, this time on foot, to walk a section of The Way that has been walked by Jacobeans, adventurers and spiritual travellers of all descriptions for over a thousand years.
Being more of a commonsense deist, my reasons were not particularly religious. I needed a reset; a recalibrate, and the Camino by all accounts was the place to do this.
The Way is not some earth shatteringly transformative experience; on the contrary.
It’s a subtle balm. You walk, for miles on end, talking to yourself, to locals, and to other pilgrims. Some days you don’t see anyone; other days you just walk. Yet gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, something loosens inside you.
Internal space expands; you breathe easier and sleep more deeply. Your Real Life recedes with each mile. Each day, all you have to worry about is walking the distance you set out to walk. And if it takes all freaking day to get there, so be it.
The route itself is beautiful; the people you meet open.
When I picked up my Credencial, or pilgrim’s passport, ahead of the trip, it was accompanied by a printed pilgrim’s prayer:
… Go, your steps will be your words,
the journey your song,
your fatigue your prayer
and your silence will at last speak.
With the others;
but out of yourself,
you, that think yourself surrounded by unfriendliness
will find joy…
And joy I did find, through the aches and pains and miles beneath the sun, wind and weather. Far more than I could have fathomed existed.
I made no significant decisions during my pilgrimage; none, in any event, that hadn’t already been taken. Yet by the time I got home, I was far more calm equipped and ready to do so than in many a year before.
No experience is ever quite the way you imagine it. In subtle ways, in ways that surprise, frustrate and delight you, it will be different to the brochure in your mind.
I’m sure everyone’s walk is different. Just as every person whom I met had different motivations for doing it. But you’ll have fun, you’ll have a real adventure. You’ll be physically and mentally challenged, and most importantly you’ll spend time with yourself in a way you never could at home.
You’ll know if it’s calling to you. And if it is, you should go. It will be one of the best decisions you make.
PS: You can check some of my favourite pics from the trip on Instagram at bothmaandre. Get in touch if you’re thinking about doing it and want some advice.