My Camino assumed a life of its own, with unexpected turns and diversions along the way – not only is the walk an exercise in physical discipline and consideration, but also one of self-management and flexibility.
Looking back on that journey is rather like looking at reflections in a twirling mirror ball. So many facets, on so many levels. Living in the NOW for 70 glorious days, with everything I needed to sustain me contained in a pack on my back. I shared the physical and emotional journey with like- minded travellers I met along the way, was inspired and uplifted by the searchings and teachings of some very special people with whom I connected, and enjoyed the extraordinary ‘Camino moments’; the synergies that possibly occur in my everyday life, but here on the Camino, I had time to notice!
On 7th August, 2010, I set off from Le Puy en Velay, the home of lace, lentils and the Black Virgin. Neither religious motivation, nor even the wish to undertake a modern day ‘pilgrimage’, whatever that means, had been the catalyst for this journey. I simply wanted to do something very different from anything I had ever done before, and this journey certainly filled that criteria.
I didn’t have a lot of money, and I had read about this centuries old trail. My Camino assumed a life of its own, with unexpected turns and diversions along the way – not only is the walk an exercise in physical discipline and consideration, but also one of self-management and flexibility. I was rarely sure where I would walk to the next day, or sleep the next night, yet I was comfortable with that situation. I met people along the way whom I would find challenging or confronting, and others who would set my spirits soaring. Not being attached to an outcome – ‘go with the flow’ was to become my mantra, always following the golden coquille shell (scallop shell) on its blue background or the yellow arrows. Both became most important to me. Occasionally, wandering alone, I would wonder if perhaps I had taken the wrong turn, and as if by osmosis within seconds I would catch sight of one or other of these symbols. They were my ‘guides’ which would unfailingly lead me over the long distance to Cape Finisterre, a further 80km walk from Santiago, and my final destination. While the origin of the pilgrimage to Finisterre is uncertain, it is likely it dates back to Celtic times, when it was thought to be the ‘end of the earth’.
Along the Way, nature’s beauty speaks profoundly. Rough, chalky limestone plateaus, centuries old oak forests, peaceful flowing rivers, berry laden juniper bushes, rocky pathways, squirrels scolding, bells tinkling on the sheep and cattle grazing high in the mountains, the mist rising slowly across the valley. Every day I was topped up by this richness and variety. Centuries old fortresses, cathedrals, castles and abbeys, originally built in remote and extreme locations as defence strongholds during the Hundred Years War, or Religious Wars were astonishing, the life and work of the locals in tiny villages that had changed little in a century.
I passed through wheat fields, along ancient walled lanes, shady beech or oak forests and sometimes along hot tar roads: at each turn there was yet another reminder of the significance of this pathway. Ancient stone bridges, streams that have bubbled along for thousands of years, soothing the feet of millions of weary travellers. And they did it the hard way. Not for them the light-weight backpack, clothing, and durable walking boots designed for comfort and support!
One of the highlights on most days was stopping at a bar or restaurant along the way for a refreshing panache – beer mixed with limonade (a French-style lemonade) – and seeing familiar faces, of special friends and fellow pelerines.
Another was a treasure-trove of gastronomic delights at local markets; stalls flowing around the town square and spilling down narrow streets – a glorious medley of colour, textures and the aromas of all manner of regional specialities. Only the freshest produce. Huge cheese wheels, tables groaning with fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, foie gras, cured meats, stacked salamis, artisan baguettes and huge pans of mouth-watering paella.
In my wanders in the French town of Figeac’s Saturday market I thought I heard the strains of Mozart. Hunched over his portable and rather tinny keyboard, the musician caressed the keys, creating music which caused goose bumps. Not only was Nigel’s music beautiful but he was beautiful to watch. Judging by the donations being thrown into his large black felt hat, others felt the same way, generously rewarding his talent!
Special people make the experience more exquisite. A knock-about larrikin priest from Melbourne was celebrating 40 years’ service to the church, and put Catholicism into a different perspective for me; a charming Frenchman who at 60, after 35 years flying for Air France was transitioning to become a lay priest, immersed himself in the history, architecture and art of the many cathedrals, chapels, churches and monasteries along the Way. A Canadian philanthropist, who has set up a Foundation in Canada and funds important drug re-habilitation programs for homeless youth, was walking the Camino in preparation for a return journey the following year, expecting to have the company of three young people who have successfully kicked the habit. I enjoyed walking along with three young women (a German, Korean and American) in their early 20s, all travelling solo and walking the Camino after completing their respective studies, reflecting on where they really want to go with their lives. A petit German woman Anita, in her late 60s, who became a walking and dinner companion, and will remain a lifelong friend, had walked 1200km already when I met her, having started in Nuremberg in Germany – this was the second time Anita had walked the Camino.
Every day was different, a combination of peaceful solitary time, convivial company and an irresistible smorgasbord of organic produce; fig trees with laden branches, wild raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, apricots, pears and apples growing by the wayside, all begging to be picked; passing by vineyards (with the sweetest grapes you could imagine), olive trees dripping in fruit, almond plantations, fresh walnuts (without a hint of the slight after-taste of packet walnuts). Dinner each night was a gay affair – traditional meals made from locally grown produce, excellent regional wines (no matter how much I drank I did not once have a hangover or sinusitis so often associated with many of our Australian wines – must be the preservatives I think), vegetables from the garden and other delicious local fare, and of course fantastic company.
While there are as many different reasons for walking the Camino as there are walkers doing it, even the most sceptical would find it difficult not to be touched by the personal change that occurs for most, no matter the reason for first starting on the Way. For me, it was the catalyst for finishing relationships which had done their time, identifying and strengthening those that were important, clarity and a vastly different approach to work and lifestyle, a huge improvement in my physical and emotional well-being. As a result, I have had the confidence to travel solo earlier this year through Romania, Croatia and France, again on a shoe string and without speaking the local language. Who knows what lies ahead, but I know it will be an amazing journey, wherever I go.
No need for martyrdom on the Camino these days
On the Camino one can get by on little more than $25 a day if frugal. Walking each day between 20 and 30km, the trail led from one village or town to another. Accommodation is very affordable – at best, the charge for staying in some gites is by donation only – the majority of gites offer very comfortable and clean dormitory accommodation. At the higher end, if I wanted a private room and ensuite as a treat, my daily spend would be around AUD$50. No matter the price, a most delicious three course meal – always made from locally grown produce and showcasing recipes of the region, and the local wine, was available for around $1. The traditional breakfast – baquette, croissant, cheese and jam (usually home-made) and washed down with a huge bowl of coffee – was included in the accommodation tariff. I met one cheery New Zealand woman who has been travelling around Europe for the previous ten months, following local pilgrim trails and getting by on about AUD$20 a day – definitely cheaper than living at home for her!
When I climbed up the long hill out of Le Puy on that first day, I was a well-covered, and not particularly fit 62 year-old grandmother. I was quite clear that walking 14km a day was enough for starters. I could not know then, that nine weeks later, and 11 kilos lighter, I would walk 45km on the final day before arriving in Santiago.
The Camino wanders through mostly magnificent, ever changing scenery. It also includes some challenging stretches: walking for long periods alongside busy motorways, kilometres trudging through the outskirts of the bigger towns we passed through, and crossing the flat, endless messeta in Spain for seven days (I have to admit to not being a dedicated pilgrim, as I caught a bus for part of this!) These challenges are all part of the bigger experience though. Some peregrines (pilgrims) walk every inch of the way, others walk a section each year during their summer holidays, some, like me, will choose transport to travel certain sections, and still others only walk the last 100km into Santiago de Compostela, to qualify as an official pilgrim and receive their credential. Everyone does their Camino differently.
My pack was far heavier than the recommended 8 to 10 kilos and I had to make some changes. Whittling my belongings down I did my bit to help the French economy, sending 6km of excess baggage back to Australia!
Although on a fairly tight budget, on some days, it also made sense to pay the seven Euros to have my pack transported with a local portage company from one destination to the next (and, on the odd occasion, even myself!). On hot days, carrying a pack was like having a shower in an overcoat, while a light day pack was far more manageable when descending steep, narrow rocky tracks, or climbing straight up 1000 metres at a stretch. I decided my physical wellbeing surpassed the need for martyrdom.
Merilyn Newnham is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. She organises training walks for people who are wanting to set off on longer hikes or treks with a reasonable degree of preparation and fitness.
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