The Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) originated in the 10th century during the decline of Moorish power in Spain. It became one of the main pilgrimage routes of the Middle Ages as Christians walked to Santiago de Compostela to pray at the burial place of St James, the Apostle. Centuries of decline followed due to the Protestant Reformation, the Black Death, wars and political unrest. The Camino survived among academics, local associations and occasional pilgrims. In 1987 the Council of Europe designated the Camino as a European Cultural Route and it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993. Interest in the Camino was reawakening. In 1980, only 209 pilgrims walked to Santiago but by 1990 that number had increased to 4918. In those days it was a wild and challenging undertaking with many risks and much suffering. There were lengthy sections without anywhere to stay or to buy provisions.
I decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela while touring Northern Spain in 1990. I visited Santiago de Compostela and entered the cathedral through the Portico de la Gloria, touching the left foot of St James as so many pilgrims had done over the centuries. Something happened at that moment deep within me; the seeds of my Camino were planted. It was the start of my married life and I vowed to walk the Camino after children had come and grown up. It was to be my thanks for completing the years that were ahead of me. I looked with envy and admiration at the occasional pilgrim sitting in the Cathedral square contemplating the end of their Camino. I also remember seeing pilgrims striding towards their destination along the N634 into Santiago. Wild fires were sweeping through the long grasses of my youth and the Camino seeds were ready to germinate.
Back home, I bought “A Practical Guide for Pilgrims” by the late Prof Millan Bravo Lozano and dipped into it over the years to learn about the rich history of the buildings, places and events that have shaped the way to Santiago. And I saved the occasional newspaper article which appeared as the Camino’s popularity increased. 262,459 pilgrims walked to Santiago and claimed the Compostela in 2015. My time had come.
Towards the end of 2015, I completed a 4 year project and found time to travel. I spent November in Japan following in the footsteps of Matsuo Basho and visited the sparsely populated and beautiful island of Shikoku where I saw pilgrims following the 88 temple pilgrimage. The Camino was at the front of my mind. Early in 2016, I travelled to Ladakh and camped high in the frozen Himalaya in search of the snow leopard. I had time to contemplate my next journey, the greatest of my life. A month after my return, and with a clear calendar, I set off on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela to give thanks for the past 25 years.
The start was how I always imagined it would be. For many years I had walked along my road to the station to catch the train into work, knowing that one day I would instead walk down to the river and continue all the way to Santiago. My intention was always to walk from my front door in the ancient tradition of the pilgrimage. I wanted to walk every step of the way carrying my backpack and avoiding any assistance from cars, buses, trains, horses or donkeys. I would take the boat to Spain, as English pilgrims had done since 1092.
Despite the years of anticipation, my plan was rather vague and my preparation almost non-existent. It hadn’t occurred to me that walking with a backpack for over a thousand kilometres would be difficult. Nor did I believe that I could be susceptible to blisters; I’ve trekked over mountain ranges all over the world and can’t remember a single blister. Hah! Did the Camino have a shock coming my way… The kind people at the Confraternity of St James eyed me with suspicion but provided my pilgrim credentials and I managed to persuade Brittany Ferries to carry me, at great expense, as a foot passenger, one-way. I worked out a route to Portsmouth and booked some inns for each night. And that was about it.
My boat sailed on the evening of 24 April so I left home three days earlier, on 21 April. After two nights at sea, I stepped ashore near Bilbao on 26 April, found a little café and ordered my first café con leche. I then turned my back to Santiago and began walking towards the Pyrenees with the help of my iPhone’s GPS receiver and Google maps. I wanted to visit San Sebastian, the destination of my first ever excursion overseas on a school trip in 1966; it was exactly 50 years ago and I hadn’t been back since then. That section of my Camino triggered a lot of childhood memories and expanded my Camino into a reflection of my whole life. Those weeks of solitary walking allowed adequate contemplation and by the time I reached the main Camino Frances in Pamplona I was ready to join the flow of pilgrims heading towards Santiago.
There is nothing quite like the Camino. It combines a demanding physical challenge of walking across the stunning landscape of Northern Spain with the rich cultural history of Christianity, art and architecture. Introduce some intense bonding with fellow pilgrims and unlimited red wine and you soon understand why the Camino has become so popular around the world. It is a journey of self-discovery. It is a pilgrimage, something we have been doing for over a thousand years.
When I reached Pamplona I shed my solitude and embraced my fellow pilgrims. Our greatest moments were to share our sufferings, our happiness and our celebrations. I saw pilgrims as young as 3, plenty of teens in their colourful trainers, gap year students, career breakers, retired people and little old ladies. There were rich and poor. Pilgrims came from across Europe, the USA, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. All of them were walking to Santiago de Compostela to embrace St James. All of them will be touched by their experiences. And more will follow in their footsteps.
Many pilgrims carry items with them such as the traditional pilgrims scallop shell, a stone to leave at the Cruz de Ferro on Monte Irago and personal mementos that will be taken to their destination or discreetly left along the way. Tiny hand written messages are placed under rocks and yellow ribbons are tied to trees.
I was away for 2 months, walking my Camino. I lived a different life. I didn’t buy a thing. Since returning from Spain I have produced a scrapbook of my pilgrimage to help me collect my thoughts and give some closure to the journey. I now look back at this book and I see the great ancient landscape of Northern Spain unfolding before me. Mountains and plains, rivers and ocean. I see the great cities of Bilbao, San Sebastian, Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon and Santiago with their massive cathedrals. I see the little towns with their precious churches. And I see the abandoned villages, the vineyards and the fields of wheat; the cherry trees; the millions of poppies and the wild flowers. I hear the birds singing to each other as I walked along the way.
But most of all I see my pilgrim friends, now scattered around the world. The moments we shared are past. Encounters before sunrise while taking those first tentative steps out of the Albergue following the yellow arrow westward. Encounters at every bar and restaurant, in churches, city streets and out in the countryside. Riotous gatherings when the wine flowed and intimate moments sharing deep secrets. Encounters in Albergue showers, in neighbouring bunks and in the gardens. Sometimes we needed solitude, to be alone and to take a different path. We met, we parted and we met again.
I walked from my front door for 1052 kilometres to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. I embraced St James and gave him my thanks.