It is said you are chasing your shadow when walking The Camino, as the route takes you east to west across northern Spain. Most of your walking is done is the morning, and your shadow stretches out before you, guiding you on your path to Santiago. My Camino started in Leon, Spain and I walked 320km to Santiago in 10 days. While having started on my own, I completed my journey with six friends I met along The Way. I didn't have a map, but trusted the yellow arrows painted on rocks, trees, walls and asphalt to get me there.
The Camino is at times, a dirt trail, an asphalt road, a cobble stone sidewalk, or a gravel path. It takes you through towns, villages, mountains and meadows. At times it stretches to the horizon without reprieve from the unrelenting sun, and at other times is shaded by a canopy of leaves. What is consistent is the walking. Each morning would start at sunrise, sometimes before. You then walk for 20-35 kilometers, and each afternoon you stop to stay the night at an albergue (refuge) that provides basic, and usually shared, accommodations for the night. It's a social time when you can relax with a beer, take off your shoes and wash your clothes before sleeping the night and doing it all over again the next day.
After ten days of walking (for me), we made it to Santiago, arriving on a Saturday. One woman had been walking for 2 months and covered over 1500 kilometers! The Compestela de Santiago cathedral is the final destination and resting place of St. James the apostle. There is a large square in front of the cathedral where the peregrinos assemble to celebrate and reflect on the journey. It is an emotional experience. We sat in the square looking up at the spires before us, smiles mixed with hugs and tears for the journey coming to an end. It was fun to watch others arrive on foot, on bike, sometimes alone, and others in large groups - all celebrating their unique journey.
The landscape is varied, taking you through vineyards and farmland, small villages and cities. You constantly search for the yellow arrows or scalloped shell (symbol of The Camino) to guide your way. There are many churches, cathedrals and monasteries to visit along the journey. Some of them are very simple constructions to serve the village, others are magnificent cathedrals of stained glass and Gothic arches. You receive a stamp in your "pilgrim's passport" as evidence of your visit. To receive your Compestela at the end of the journey, you present your passport to the church to certify you have completed your pilgrimage.
We attended the pilgrim's Mass the next day, and what an experience it was! Although I didn't understand what was being said, the spectacle of the space, the organ music and singing, the shafts of light through vaulted windows, the hundreds of pilgrims, all combined to be a powerful experience. The Mass culminated in the swinging of the botafumeiro filled with burning incense. It is suspended from a pulley mechanism in the dome on the roof of the church. The current pulley mechanism was installed in 1604 and the tradition dates back to the 11th century. The rope is pulled by 8 tiraboleiros in red robes building speed until it gets nearly horizontal above the pilgrims 21 meters below. The burning incense was intended to mask the smell of the unwashed pilgrims, but also provides a dramatic conclusion to the service.
The people you meet along The Way are amazing. Everyone is friendly and open to conversation. "Buen Camino" is the greeting shared, whether just passing along the trail or leaving good friends after sharing a meal. There is a wonderful spirit of community, of sharing in a powerful physical and emotional journey. Each evening you share a meal and a communal sleeping room with people you may have never met previously, but these people are not strangers. They are part of The Camino, and there is a trust and support that brings everyone together.
Some pilgrims opt to continue walking to the coast and the 0km marker of The Camino. We opted to take a bus to Finisterre, which was at one time considered the end of the earth, and its beaches are where scalloped shells that are the symbol of The Camino originate. A lighthouse is perched on the western-most point and here we completed our journey as the sunset on the horizon.
It was in the town of Portomarin that I met friends with whom I would share the last few days of my journey. Most of them had started walking in France, at St. Jean Pied de Port, many weeks earlier, and they invited me to join them. It was a great feeling to have a small group with which to share the experience. Everyone remained positive through blisters and unrelenting heat, sore knees and sweaty clothes. We were in it together and supported each other through the long days of walking.
People walk The Way for many different reasons, many are religious or spiritual, some in the memory of loved ones, some just enjoy the beauty of the countryside, but in the end, everyone walks their own Camino. It is a powerful shared, yet also very personal experience, having many hours of time each day to think and walk, yet also meet new people from around the world. I hope to walk The Camino again someday, maybe with some of the friends I met, and surely with new ones I'll meet along The Way.