Last Spring, my best friend Claire and I set out on a journey that we’d talked about for a long time – El Camino de Santiago. Sound familiar? You may have seen Martin Sheen take his own Camino in the movie The Way. El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is an 800 km path that begins in St. Jean Pied de Port, France and ends in Finisterre, Spain. Traditionally a religious pilgrimage on foot, El Camino is a trail that stretches across the north of Spain through incredible landscapes and tiny pueblos (villages). Pilgrims can walk or bike their way to Santiago de Compostela, a city in Galicia, Spain where St. James’s remains are kept in the Cathedral. They carry a credencial, a special pilgrim’s passport that gets stamped at all the places along the way. This is used as proof of the pilgrimage upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela where the pilgrim is given their compostela, a document written in latin attesting that they made the journey by foot or bicycle. For many, Santiago is where the journey ends, but it is possible to continue on to Finisterre. This peninsula is the westernmost point of Spain and gets it name from the latin words finis terrae (the end of the world) because Romans believed it to be precisely that.
Claire and I knew we wanted to be pilgrims but only had enough time for a portion of the path so we decided to do 200 km in 10 days during spring break, 2016 and end in Santiago on Easter Sunday. What we didn’t know was how much more we would end up completing, and all the camino magic we would see along the way.
It’s safe to say we were the two most excited English teachers in Madrid as the school bell rang on the Thursday afternoon in March when we started our camino. We met at the train station carrying everything we’d need for the hike in our (matching) Osprey backpacks, including a bottle of wine for the 4 hour train ride to Ponferrada, Spain where we began.
I remember feeling just like my 9 year old self on Christmas Eve; it was hard to sleep that night. We awoke bright and early the next morning to get our first credencial stamp from Ponferrada and find our first yellow shell and arrow, the official trail markers for the pilgrimage. Pilgrims also wear shells tied to their backpacks to identify that they’re walking the camino. Immediately, the people we passed (locals and pilgrims alike) greeted us by saying “buen camino,” the greeting that every pilgrim recognizes. It translates to “have a good walk” and it was just as exciting hearing it the 100th time as it was that very first morning.
We had mapped out our days and determined more or less where we were going to stay each night. There are endless guidebooks that indicate the best places to stay along the way. We quickly realized, however, that if we followed the plan we had made, we were going to arrive to our destination by noon each day! This was a problem because the villages along the way are so tiny that there’s literally nothing to do. We were walking a lot faster than what was recommended, so at lunch on Day 1 we decided to change our whole plan. We wrote it on a napkin to make it official – we were walking to the end of the world!
The interesting thing about the camino is that the only activity you have planned each day is walking. You can walk as fast or as slow as you’d like and you always meet interesting people. The landscape changes dramatically along the path. We walked through farms of chickens and cows, fields of flowers, and vineyards of grapes – each beautiful in their own way.
Pilgrims stay in albergues along the way. These are hostals reserved only for people walking or biking across Spain. It’s really an incredible thing. People arrive exhausted, covered in blisters, limping, hungry, dirty, ready to relax – and of course drink Spanish wine. In my opinion the coolest aspect of it is having only a vague idea of where you’ll be staying that night, and when you get there, walking in and asking if there’s a bed for you. A bed in an albergue costs anywhere from €5-12 and some include a hot meal at night. They come in all shapes and sizes, and range from hotel-style rooms to 50 bunk beds per room. We even stayed in two monasteries during our trip (and unfortunately neither Claire nor I have one single picture of what some of these places looked like.) In the morning, just as the sun rises, a symphony of alarm clocks sings and everyone is up and out!
People walk the camino for a multitude of reasons. Traditionally people walked for religious purposes, but we met people walking because they love Spain, because they love nature, or because they wanted to exercise more. We met families walking together, strangers who had become great friends along the way, and lots of solo wanderers. There were lots of first-time pilgrims like ourselves, and lots of people walking their second, third…tenth camino. There are people who do it in stages and others who walk for about a month straight from start to finish. Sometimes you walk with people for days, and sometimes you go days without seeing them, but somehow the ones that stick out seem to somehow pop up when you least expect it.
This is the itinerary we ended up following (for a total of just under 300 km):
Ponferrada > Villafranca del Bierzo > O Cebreiro > Samos > Ferreiros > Palas de Rei > Arzúa > Santiago > Negreira > Olveiroa > Finisterre
Since we added on so much, this meant we stayed in places “off the beaten path,” meaning not the popular bigger cities that the guidebooks suggested. They were the tiniest of tiny places but it was in these places where we had the sweetest moments with our fellow pilgrims. My favorite place we stayed was Ferreiros, population 25 and 100 km outside of Santiago. Blink and you’ll miss it, literally. We stopped here almost by accident because I had gotten a blister a few hours before and that combined with what was rapidly becoming a camino-stopping knee injury meant I just could not walk anymore. So we ate dinner in the only place available to us, and spent the evening drinking wine with the sweetest Australian mother and son duo. We shared lots of camino stories, like how we all got bamboozled by “The Pancake Lady” – a woman not a day younger than 90 who ran out of her kitchen with a plate of hot pancakes and insisted we eat one. Then, mid-bite, she asked us for money (insert you’re choice of DOH! emoji here). Our night in Ferreiros was really hygge.
As we got closer to Santiago my knee made my walk more and more difficult. There was a point when I actually thought I was going to have to stop, just 20 km outside of Santiago, and the thought was devastating. But Claire kept me motivated, and just when I thought I couldn’t go any further, we met the Australians again and walked with them for a short while. Seeing them again after 3 days gave me the extra push of energy I needed, and somehow Claire and I finished the 40 km day at the Santiago Cathedral. We saw the Australians one last time while getting our compostelas and we made vague plans to celebrate with wine later that day, but unfortunately since none of us knew where we were staying, we never ended up seeing them again. I still think about them and wish I could have told them how much seeing their smiling faces helped me to make it that last stretch.
We took a rest day in Santiago and stayed in the Parador de Santiago – a special treat from Claire’s parents and one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed. We found a sweet family from North Carolina that we had met a few days earlier, and we shared an evening of celebration with them in the hotel bar. I was hopeful that resting my knee would heal it enough for me to keep going to the end of the world, but unfortunately the rest only made the pain and stiffness worse. So the last 3 days of my camino were a combination of buses and taxis while Claire walked, and each evening we met up again. Watching her set off without me that first morning was heartbreaking, but the NC family invited me to lunch with them so I didn’t have to eat alone that day. Their kindness truly lifted my spirits and it’s something I will never forget!
Reunited after a long day of walking (see right) and sitting (see left).
On our last walking day, I was determined to get back on my feet so I took a bus half way to Finisterre, giving Claire plenty of a head start so we could meet somewhere along the way and finish our journey together. It had been a rough 3 days of feeling like the camino had defeated me, but I did find a strange sense of peace when I finally saw the ocean and had some time to reflect on what we had accomplished. In that moment I realized that it wasn’t about finishing the camino that made it special; it’s the walking in between that makes the journey worth all the soreness and endless kilometers.
As I watched the waves crash on this beautiful beach in Galicia, Spain, I listened to what had been our theme song throughout the whole trip, which says “if I were you I’d have a little trust.” (Pause your reading and listen to We Don’t Eat by James Vincent McMorrow.) These lyrics had guided us along the path each time we thought we were lost, and in this moment, I cried as I enjoyed the incredible scenery and the amazing feeling of relief and accomplishment for making it as far as I had, regardless of the means of arriving.
I was so thankful to walk the last 15 km into Finisterre with Claire, and that night we enjoyed the biggest seafood dinner I’ve ever seen. Here we are at km 0 with our napkin from day 1 and a very full credencial.
The next day we took a bus back to Santiago to attend the Pilgrim’s Mass at the cathedral before heading back to Madrid. We had already vowed to walk our second camino together, and in May we set out again to walk another 200 km from Pamplona to Burgos, this time with Jaime by our side. Our itinerary for this part was:
Pamplona > Lorca > Los Arcos (where we took a short bus ride to) Logroño > Azofra > Belorado > San Juan de Ortega > Burgos
There are so many things I learned along the way, and as I sit here writing this 7 months later, it’s still difficult to articulate all the things the camino taught me. What stands out most is the incredibly liberating sensation of only having a vague idea of where you’re going, and I think this really resonantes with how things are in my life at the moment. Since I left Spain in June I haven’t really had a what’s next plan. As a 28-year old American, that can be really scary because our society really values having a plan. At the end of the day though, do things ever turn out as planned? Many things in my life have taught me that the answer to that question is a definite no.
In total I’ve walked about 500 km of the entire Camino de Santiago and I definitely intend on finishing it someday. My time on the camino has such a special place in my heart. These days I am practically living out of my Fjallraven Kånken backpack, and I carry a yellow arrow pin on it that reminds me everyday to keep going, with or without a plan.