The Camino of St. James describes a series of pilgrimage routes with starting points throughout Europe, all ending at the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Since the middle ages, pilgrims have traveled the path to the burial place of St. James the Great hoping to earn the special blessings promised to those who complete the pilgrimage.
The Camino serves as the backdrop for the 2010 movie, The Way, written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen.
Three years ago, our college friend, Ellen, walked The Camino with a few pals. Upon her return, Ellen shared the story of her experience with our group.
One by one, everyone chimed in saying, “We should do that.”
Before we knew it we had a date, a plan, and reservations with a tour company.
We were going to walk The Camino.
The first and most important thing we did to prepare for the trip was to hire the super fabulous tour company, Spanish Steps. This was the same company that Ellen used for her first trip.
I can not say enough wonderful things about Spanish Steps or about our super amazing, rock star guides, Monica and Olga.
Many people who take on The Camino walk hundreds of miles over weeks and weeks, staying in hostels or albergues. For those of us interested in more of a “glamping” experience, a tour company is the way to go.
Spanish Steps arranged our lodging for each night including a private breakfast and dinner and provided a bus to take us to and from the trail each day. The bus also met us at several checkpoints throughout the day to replenish our water and snacks and, if necessary, give us a ride to the next checkpoint.
Most importantly, Spanish Steps blessed us with Olga and Monica.
Our plan with Spanish Steps was to walk the final 110km of The Camino over five days, ending in Santiago de Compostela and the Cathedral of St. James. (By the way, Spanish Steps now does the trip in 7 days.)
Pilgrims must walk at least 100km to earn the Compostela or certificate of accomplishment.
On day one, we all donned our team shirts and were ready to go. Olga and Monica gave each of us a shell, a pilgrim’s passport and a map of the day’s journey.
The scallop shell is the symbol of The Camino. There are many stories about the role of the shell in The Camino’s history – from mythology surrounding the death of St. James to the shell’s practical use as a water scoop for pilgrims. The shell symbol can be found on all of The Camino markers along the way.
In order to receive a Compostela at the end of The Camino, pilgrims must “prove” that they walked along the path for at least the required 100km. This proof comes in the form of stamps in one’s pilgrim passport.
Stamps can be attained in bars and churches along the way. As you can see, we spent a great deal of time in bars and churches. Mostly bars. More on that later.
Our maps showed the part of the trail we would cover each day including locations of the checkpoints where the bus would be waiting, mileage from point to point so we could keep track of our progress, a description of the sights and scenery we would see along the way and where to find the ever so important bars and churches.
And the even more important “facilities”.
The spirit of The Camino dictates that each person must do it for their own reasons, at their own pace, and in their own way.
Right from the start, our group of 13 transitioned into two groups: the fast group and the slow group.
Monica and Olga took turns walking with each group so they could get to know us as individuals. Almost immediately they understood our capabilities and needs and used this insight to make sure that each of us got the very most we could out of our experience.
Olga and Monica encouraged us, translated for us, shared lots of stories and lots of laughs with us. Their presence was the secret sauce that made our time on The Camino extra special and we will be forever grateful for that.
Each day we walked up to 15 miles. The terrain varied from paths through farmland to rocky, muddy trails to streets through tiny or not so tiny towns.
Along the way we would stop for lunch – almost always including some wine and beer.
Because of the area’s proximity to the coast and the bounty of available fresh seafood, we enjoyed lots of treats like scallops
and more pulpo (octopus) than you can imagine.
Sometimes we would enjoy leisurely sit-down lunches and other times we would make a quick stop in a bar for a snack or sandwich and always to get a passport stamp.
One day we popped into a bar for what was intended to be a quick stop and ran into our innkeeper, José.
José insisted on treating us to a bottle of wine so that particular stop turned out to be more leisurely than originally planned.
All part of going with the flow on The Camino.
At the insistence of Olga and Monica, we stopped at Casa Tia Dolores to take part in the beer ceremony, something not to be missed.
We came across another bar in which hung hundreds of t-shirts left by pilgrims over the years. At the end of our stay, we all signed one of our blue shirts which our guides are going to drop off at the bar on their next tour.
At the end of each day, the slow group would finally catch up with the fast group and we would head to our B&B for the night. After freshening up and changing out of our dusty trail clothes, we would meet for cocktail hour
before sitting down to a delicious dinner.
One night, Monica treated us to a presentation of the Queimada ritual of the region.
After sleeping soundly, we were up every morning and off on the trail again.
Along The Camino, we saw many beautiful churches both big and small.
Most of the smaller churches were not open but when they were we took the opportunity to collect another stamp in our pilgrim passport.
We walked through the woods, across rivers and among the local people carrying on their day to day life.
We met people from dozens and dozens of different countries. Families and long-time friends. College students and senior citizens. Some who were “glamping” like us and many who had already been on the trail for a month having started their pilgrimage in the Pyrenees.
Along the way, we greeted fellow pilgrims with the call of The Camino.
That wish for a “Good Camino” was the universal language of the trail, uniting and inspiring all of us.
Our friends, Byff and Ernie, were particularly good at striking up conversations with once-strangers-now-friends. They taught a group of Spanish students the good old camp song, On Top of Spaghetti.
The students repaid the kindness by performing the Macarena for us.
Love and a feeling of community were everywhere.
On the final day, we ascended to Monte del Gozo (Mount of Joy), so named because it is the point at which pilgrims get their first glimpse of the city of Santiago.
We were on the home stretch.
Completing the final 4.5 km, we reached our destination: Santiago de Compostela and the Cathedral of St. James.
The feeling of relief, accomplishment, camaraderie, and sheer joy was overwhelming.
After five days and well over 100 km, we had earned our Compostela.
Upon returning home, and talking incessantly about our experience, the question most people ask is, “How hard was it to walk The Camino?”
The answer is that The Camino is hard but doable.
Doable, especially if you have the support of Spanish Steps, guidance by the incredible Olga and Monica, and the loving encouragement of this team.
It was a Buen Camino, indeed.
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