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Walking the Camino de Santiago, Spain

Posted by adam@cowsystems.com at 05:14 on Wednesday 04 November 2009

By Imogen:

The end of a relationship marked the time for some self-discovery and endorphin releasing exercise. A friend of mine, who had walked the camino after the loss of a close family member had described his experience as 'life-changing'. That, the radiance of his skin and the stone in weight that he lost whilst there, was enough to convince me. I had pondered the idea quietly for some time. Like the convalescence in beautiful surroundings advised after an illness or operation, I had the camino saved up as some sort of therapy. Although I only had a week to walk (not the 33 days required to complete the full passage), I was assured that I would want to return to complete the rest another time and that a camino made up of stages was totally acceptable to the modern day pilgrim. Despite being initially scared off by John Brierley's rather religious guide book, I started to plan...

What became evident about this adventure was that the only real planning needed was how to get there and back. I was reassured by every past pilgrim I met, that the rest is easy and awaits you. One of the attractions of the walk for me was the prospect of passing through different landscapes and climates on foot... a slow movement. So the idea of the flying to the starting point seemed all wrong. And so, my adventure began in Kings Cross, London where I took the Eurostar to Paris and from there, the SNCF to Bayonne where I would catch a small train up into the Pyrenees to the beginning of the Camino Francais. Waiting for the train from Bayonne I became slowly aware that I was surrounded by several other apprehensive looking rucksack-laden individuals. I was surrounded by pilgrims.

A month before my August departure, I had developed a pain in my hip and had begun to worry whether I was going to be up to walking at all. So doubtful was I, that in a moment of panic I had booked a hotel in Bayonne for my first night to assess the situation when there. However, my intrigue took over and 10 minutes after arriving in Bayonne I found myself stepping on to the rickety four-carriage train up to the medieval village of St Jean-Pied-du-Port. Without a clue as to where to go, I followed a stream of others up a cobbled hill to the 'official camino office' identified by the symbol of the scallop shell. Here, I was asked to submit my details and pay two euros in exchange for a pilgrims passport and a summary of the first day's climb. A climb, I was told that was to be the most difficult walk of the entire pilgrimage. With the official aubergue (hostel) full, the office volunteers advised me and a Spanish girl I had met in the office, to return at 9pm. Arrangements wou

ld be made. This, I was to learn, was the 'way of the camino'... room will always be made for a pilgrim. That night, we were led up a hillside by torchlight to an abandoned and derelict boarding school on the side of the mountain. For six euros each, the overspill of sixteen of us were given a children's bed, a hot shower and instructions to rise at 6am to begin the 1500 meter climb of the first day. I was apprehensive and excited. 

Morning came and at 6.15am, grateful for my head-torch, my new-found Spanish comrade and I set off in the dark back to the village to grab a quick croissant and coffee from the bakery and some supplies for lunch. It became quickly obvious that my rucksack was far too full and that ignoring the 10 kilo maximum advice for the sake of some essential luxuries (books) had been foolish. We climbed up the paths through the dark, heads down and determined, until the sun rose and unveiled the clouds that we were drenched in and obscured the views that we had been looking forward to. Six hours of uphill and the crossing of the border of France into Spain was rewarded with the lunch we had brought. We emerged into the most glorious sun and sat proudly on the summit surrounded by wild horses and watched over by eagles as hungry as we. With shaky legs and stiff knees we descended the last hour to the village of Roncesvalles in Spain, where the sight of a large auberge in an old stone church welcomed a steady stream of exhausted and still hungry pilgrims. The local restaurant offered a 'pilgrims supper' of heavy carbohydrates for nine euros and an opportunity to dine with other weary pilgrims. By 8pm, showered and fed, exhausted and aching, I crawled into one of the one hundred and fifty bunkbeds and fell asleep comforted by the quiet din of the church around me. 

The next few days followed with 6am rises, pouring rain in woodlands and forests and baking sunshine that dried out the sodden clothes on my back. Daily, I passed a French woman in her late 60's who had decided to walk to Santiago de Compostella from her front door in the north-west of France with nothing hardier than a pair of leather sandals on her small feet. She had covered nearly 800km before even arriving at the official start of the Camino Francaise. Some walked in pairs, some alone, some intending to walk the full 800 odd km to the end, some with just enough time for a few days picking up from where they had left off on previous trips. The solidarity shared between walkers was encouraging and at times essential to keep each other going when joints ached and spirits weakened. And when the August temperatures became stifling, there was often a river to dip in during the midday heat and if not a water-tap to refill bottles and cool one's neck. The early starts ensured that the day's work/walk was generally finished by 2 or 3pm leaving afternoons for washing clothes, reading and the important task of tending to one's blistered feet. The daily aroma of 'TCP' and 'Deep Heat' became a familiar one. 

As we ventured into more rural Spain the auberges were often smaller, accommodating sometimes as few as 25 pilgrims a night and were run by former pilgrim volunteers from all over Europe. For a small donation only, a simple supper and breakfast was provided in addition to a mattress on the floor. For those who chose to go, an evening mass was held in the local church. I passed through terrain that morphed from the steep mountains of the Pyrenees into the woody and rural areas of Navarra. To the medieval walled city of Pamplona where my auberge doubled as a museum, to the lush green vineyards of Rioja. Like Hansel and Gretal, my task was to focus on the scallop shells and yellow arrows and with this it was impossible to get lost. There was no need for guide books or maps, just a will to rise every morning to cover the 25 odd kilometre each day to the next destination. After only one week's walking I had made a handful of friends, walked over 100 miles of stunning Spanish countryside, visited several Spanish towns and tasted some delicious local food and wine. And it had cost me next to nothing, nor had it cost anyone or anything else much either. It was satisfying to know that the personal footprints I had left behind me had outnumbered those of the carbon variety. I left with a sense of achievement, a mending heart and a positive stride in my step with plans to return to complete another stretch of the Camino at a later date. Perhaps next time I will return in a different season when the Spanish landscape might show me another side to its character.

Getting there
Imogen travelled by train on Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord then train from Paris Montparnasse to Bayonne. To book contact RailEurope: tel: 08448 484 064, raileurope.co.uk.

For links to places to stay, transport, images and books about walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela see:

caminosantiagocompostela.com | caminodesantiago.me.uk | santiago-compostela.net | caminoguides.com | turgalicia.es


Blogs posts categorised as 'Reviews' have been written with the support of one or more of the following: accommodation owner, activity provider, operator, equipment supplier, tourist board, protected landscape authority or other destination-focussed authority. The reviewer retains full editorial control of the work, which has been written in the reviewer's own words based on their experience of the accommodation, activity, equipment or destination.

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