For our Lent Course this year we looked at the film “The Way” and considered what it meant to us. At our Patronal Service, Rachel told us about her experience of walking the Camino de Santiago. Here is her presentation.
Camino de Santiago – 2015
What is the Santiago de Compostela?
In May of this year I spent 32 days walking 800 kilometres or 500 miles across the top of Northern Spain, and following in the footsteps of millions of Pilgrims throughout the centuries. This ancient pilgrimage known as ‘The Way of St James’ or in Spanish ‘el Camino de Santiago’, originates from a legend dating back to the year 813, when a vision revealed the whereabouts of a tomb containing what is believed to be the body of James the Great, one of Jesus’ disciples. News of the tomb spread and soon pilgrims from all over Europe began to make the long walk to Santiago. The pilgrimage to Santiago became so popular that St James became the patron saint of Pilgrims and his symbol was a scallop shell, a shell commonly found on the Galician coastline where the journey ends and carried on the backpacks of pilgrims today as a sign of their pilgrimage.
How did you hear about this pilgrimage trail?
I first heard about the Camino de Santiago from a colleague at work. He had visited Santiago and had witnessed pilgrims entering the city at the end of their long journey, carrying wooden starves and backpacks, looking weathered but happy. A couple of years past and I was chatting to my Mum about a lent course she was studying with her Home Group all about ‘The Way of St James’ and my interest was piqued once again. It was Mum then that recommended I watch a well known film all about the walk called ‘The Way’ starring Martin Sheen, which I would thoroughly recommend, as it really does capture the true sprit of the Camino.
What appealed to you about it?
What appealed to me most about the walk was first that it was labelled as a ‘pilgrimage’ rather than just a walking holiday, so it seemed to give it more significance than other travelling adventures I’d been on. Secondly that at one point in my life I had planned to travel to Santiago in Chile to teach English. For various reason’s this didn’t happen, but now to be heading to another Santiago, one that was this time in Spain not South America felt to me like a godly sign that I should go.
Was there lots of planning research before you went?
Did you speak to others or watch ‘The Way’?
Planning and organisation aren’t really my strong points; however I making started making preparations by joining The 20 & 30s Hampshire Ramblers walking group. The ramblers group is a great way to meet new people and I was able to pick up some excellent walking advice, about what shoes to wear and the importance of decent walking socks! I then purchased a book by a man named ‘John Brierley’, which contained detailed maps and advice about the pilgrimage. John’s book seemed to be the ‘go to’ book that the majority of Pilgrims had. Not only does John describe the walking terrain each day, provide you with maps and accommodation advice but he also writes a daily personal reflection that was sometimes thought provoking and other times hilariously eccentric. I also sought advice from friends experienced at hiking about what equipment to take, in essence the lighter and more waterproof the better, and I learnt all about the layering system of clothes and how to prevent blisters on your feet with the wonders of compeed!
How long did you plan it would take?
When I first heard about the Camino I had no intention of walking the whole route. Given it’s an 800 kilometre trek across the whole of Spain and my only experience of serious walking was a 4 day Duke of Edinburgh hike in my 2nd year of college, I didn’t think I was really up for the challenge. I also wasn’t sure that I even liked walking that much! Circumstances however made it possible that I could take 5 weeks off work, using accumulated annual leave and by taking advantage of two May bank holiday weekends. Knowing as I do how difficult it can be for people with a full time job to have large chunks of time off work, it seemed ungrateful not to use it to walk the whole route. It was a bit of a shock then to find that I was now committed to walking the full 800 kilometres!
At first I told myself I wouldn’t take it too seriously. If one day I didn’t feel like walking I’d have a rest day and catch up by bus. Perhaps I would treat Sunday as a day of rest and stay in a nice comfortable hotel or I would use the backpack carrying service to send my bag ahead of me and give my shoulders a rest. All of these options are available and used widely by many Pilgrims; however once I started my journey I knew that I wanted to travel the whole way using just my own two feet and carrying everything I needed with me.
Starting the Journey
The day arrived when I caught a plane to Biarritz airport in France. The route I was taking starts in a beautiful small French town called St Jean Pied de Port and the first day is a climb of 1500 metres up and over the Pyrenees into Spain. Not really knowing what to do I set off at 6.30am thinking there would be lots of Pilgrims walking at this same time, however to my horror no one seemed to be around. I was just facing the scary realisation that I might actually have to walk the first day over the Pyrenees alone and raising a thought to God about what I should do, when a girl came running down the path, having seen me pass, who was also walking alone. She was an American called Jen, about my own age, and we became quick friends and ended up walking the whole 32 days together! Silently I gave a massive prayer of thanks to God for sending Jen my way and letting me know I wasn’t alone after all. From there I relaxed and gave the trip over to God, trusting that he had things in hand, and really to my amazement everything seemed to work out fine after that!
Aside from all the breath-taking views and beautiful scenery, for me the high moments of my adventure were meeting people from all around the world and sharing in the Camino community. I met so many pilgrims with different characters and nationalities. Some pilgrims I became great friends with and bumped into regularly along the way, others I only saw a couple of times before they fell behind or went ahead of me. You learn that every pilgrim has their own story or reason for being there and to appreciate the time spent with each person, as you might not ever see them again.
Most of my low moments passed fairly quickly as there always seemed to be someone around to cheer me up if I was feeling tired or low in spirit. I never did find out if its common for people on the Camino to hit a ‘wall’ as you might do running a marathon, but if it is then for me I hit that wall on day 26 – only 6 days before the end. Again however it was prove that God was really with me as the hardest day for me coincided with one of the most beautiful sights we saw on the Camino when we reached the summit of a mountain, to see hills as far as the eye could see covered in the most beautiful mystical rolling cloud and fog. It really was quite a sight!
How did you feel arriving at Santiago?
By some miracle of planning, the day I reached the end of my journey at Santiago was also the day I turned the grand old age of 30! On this day we got up even earlier than usual, at 5am, in order that we could make the Pilgrims mass held everyday in the Cathedral at midday. Walking into a busy and noisy city can take some adjustment as it’s so different from the quiet and tranquillity of the countryside, but as soon as you reach the heart of Santiago or catch a glimpse of the towering cathedral you really do feel a great sense of achieving your goal. The buzz of the city is infectious. There is music on the streets and crowds of Pilgrims gathered around, greeting each other in welcome and jubilation for making it to the end!
Would you do it again or any other part?
The great thing about the Camino de Santiago is that it’s a great leveller. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, male or female, experienced or not experienced at walking, every person has their own struggles along the way and it’s a great achievement for all to reach the end. There are many different routes you can take to Santiago. I walked part of the French route as it’s the most popular, but equally I would one day like to walk the route that runs up through Portugal. Ultimately whichever direction you go to get to Santiago doesn’t really matter, it’s the journey and the Trust you place in God to get you there that really counts.