The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. The most popular route is the Camino Francés which stretches 780 km (nearly 500 miles) from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz in France to Santiago. This route is fed by three major French routes and also joined along its route by routes from various places in Spain, Portugal, England and further away.
The network is similar to a river system – small brooks join together to make streams, and the streams join together to make rivers, most of which join together to make the Camino Francés. During the middle ages, people walked out of their front doors and started off to Santiago, which was how the network grew up.
Some people set out on the Camino for spiritual reasons; many others find spiritual reasons along the Way as they meet other pilgrims, attend pilgrim masses in churches and monasteries and cathedrals, and see the large infrastructure of buildings provided for pilgrims over many centuries.
The first I ever heard of the Camino was when I watched a movie with Martin Sheen called “The Way.” (“Camino” means, literally “way” or “road” in Spanish.) My sister-in-law recommended it. I was fascinated and intrigued and determined to someday “make the road” myself. It has been in the back of my mind ever since…and after I retired last year and my plans to go volunteer in Africa did not come to pass, I began to plan in earnest.
I decided to take the French Way (the most common and popular, with the best infrastructure.) And rather than worrying about hiking up and over the Pyrenees, I determined that I would start in Pamplona. I choose the beginning of April…when it was warming up, but still not really packed and crowded with pilgrims. Rather than follow the typical “stages” of walking (most of which were further than I wanted to walk in a day, anyway) i created my own itinerary with shorter days, for the most part. And contrary to what many pilgrims do, I booked almost every accommodation ahead of time.
Because the Camino connects towns and villages, there are plenty of places to stop and rest and plenty of people willing and able to help you on your journey. And…if I become truly exhausted (or my feet get too blistered) there is always the option of calling a taxi to take me into the next village. By my calculations, I will be walking about 432 miles in total…and I’ve given myself 38 days in which to do it.
I’ve been walking each day, and I splurged and purchased a new backpack. (I already had a couple I was considering, but one was a bit too small and one was a bit too big. So I now have the Goldilocks of backpacks.) There is an over-abundance of information and advice available for walking the Camino, but my best info came from a wonderful woman named Annie Carvalho who had both a Facebook page and a blog. She’s a little older than I am, has walked almost all the routes numerous times and was able to present practical, matter-of-fact advice and suggestions for almost every question.
As to the “why” I am doing this…well, I am not yet sure. Because I can – and because it’s there of course. But also because there is something very appealing about 6 weeks of simply getting up every morning and walking from one place to the next, with no other agenda or goal in mind. People walk for all sorts of reasons and everyone walks their own walk. I expect to be tired, achy and sore at the end of every day. I expect to meet all different kinds of people from many different places. I expect to walk in the rain and the sun and who knows what other kind of weather. And I expect – I hope – to embrace the journey and add a bit of blessedness to my life.