My Way, My Way
The Camino is not for everyone, but it was for me
By Lidia Pires
There’s a poem by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado that reads: “caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” Translated loosely: “wanderer there is no path, you make one as you go.” There is a path that pilgrims have followed since the Middle Ages: The Camino de Santiago. It is said that the first pilgrim to Santiago was King Alfonso II in the 800s when he was told by Bishop Teodomiro that the body of Santiago (the Apostle James) was found. There are many theories on this, yet I choose to believe that if a king took that route, it’s good enough for me. Every peregrino, or pilgrim, I have talked to said their journey was “life-changing.” I am out to see if that is indeed so.
There are many Caminos which modern pilgrims can follow. The Camino Francés (French Way) is the most popular, starting in Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, France, crossing the Pyrenees and arriving 790 km (490 miles) later---by foot---into Santiago de Compostela. However, to get a Compostela, which is an official certificate given by the Church, you must complete the last 100km. I fly from Madrid to Santiago and get my Credencial (credential) in Santiago. On this, I’ll collect stamps in churches, restaurants, and stores along the way as proof of my journey. It will be as treasured as my real passport which I will also need at every municipal albergue, or refuge (which do not allow anything but peregrinos to come in).
I store my suitcase in Santiago and fill my backpack with essentials. Certain that crossing the Pyrenees would not be the best of choices for me, I take a bus to Sarria where many start, since it is the beginning of the 100 minimum kilometers required to officially be a pilgrim. Yet, though a path has been set, there’s a part of me that needs to do it my way, so I sleep in Sarria and go in reverse to Samos to visit the Benedictine Monastery of San Xulián de Samos. The Camino is well marked through yellow arrows and shells but going in reverse, it is easy to lose your way.
I get lost a few times yet am “rescued” by locals and reach a restaurant where I encounter the true hospitality of Galicians, having overcome their initial reticence of acceptance before embrace. There, exhausted and wondering why I started this in the first place, I get a soda and chat with the owner and locals, where one offers me a ride for the remaining 2 km to the albergue. I thank him but refuse, not because of mistrust but because I am a pilgrim now and will walk this through! After arrival at the albergue (dorm style, a grade below a hostel), 7 hours in after starting the walk, I realize that it’s better to arrive early since I don’t get a lower bunk bed and my vertigo sets in. Someone kindly puts a mattress on the floor, gives me disposable sheets, and I sleep soundly after barely enough energy for a shower and brushing my teeth.
Not having learned that going in reverse may not be the way to go, the next morning, after being woken (you must leave the albergues between 7:30-8:00 am) I visit the monastery and then backpack on to Triacastela. The return to Sarria is not the same as the route I did in reverse. I promptly get lost and again am guided back on my path by an elderly local (after a strange look). Arrival at the albergue is about 7 hours later. The bunk bed is already starting to feel like one of complete luxury.
From Triacastela, I return to Sarria on a beautiful forestry trail, parallel to a river. Though I still haven’t defined what is my purpose in doing this, I feel I must do so. I have realized, however, that breaking my back would very much ruin the Camino and defeat my purpose. The municipal albergues do not allow your backpack to be sent by the many services that take your backpack to the next town and albergue you are going to stay in. There are private albergues that are also geared to pilgrims are a bit more expensive (€12-15 as opposed to €8 per person) but they allow the service to deposit your backpack in wait of your arrival. My back and neck agree that I chose wisely. With nothing to weigh me down, I am free to enjoy the surroundings.
The entrance on foot nine days later, straight to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, was less emotional than expected. The emotions came up when assisting the pilgrims’ mass that night. At the end of the mass, they balanced the botafumeiro, a huge vessel for burning incense that needs eight men to balance it, emanating an aroma that calms me. I then visited St. James the Great’s burial ground.
Some practical considerations for would-be peregrinos. The municipal albergues don’t accept reservations, so there’s a risk you won’t find a place to sleep. The private albergues do. There are plenty of places along the way to eat, such as cafés and local restaurants called mesones. After a long day’s walk, the food was delicious! There are many guidebooks to help you plan a trip but peregrinos swear on those written by John Brierley (see Caminoguides.com).
Along the way, I met so many people from all nations, with diverse reasons for taking this journey. Some did the 790 km, most “just” the last 100 km. I did the last 140 km (the 30 odd km I added on in reverse did not count). I have been grateful for the kindness of total strangers and philosophical conversations along the way, realizing how adaptable I really am. I have learned that I am stronger than I ever thought I’d be, but also that I have limits and to listen to them. I have learned that in our path in life or on the Camino, it is best with someone by your side but only if they have similar values and beliefs. Has it been life-changing? It was not. I would say life-affirming. Beliefs I had were reaffirmed.
When asked at the certificate office where they give you the Compostela if I did the walk for religious or spiritual reasons, I didn’t hesitate in qualifying it as religious. Somehow it was so.