The last few kilometres were tough; it was early afternoon as we entered Santiago de Compostela the sun was high in the sky. We were eager to reach the cathedral but the town centre route seemed to take us on a slightly disorientating route. The familiar wooden Camino signs of the last stage gave way to subtle bronze shell icons embedded in the pavement. Occasionally we would look down, to make sure were on the right path – we really didn’t want to get lost so close to our destination.
Being passed by heavy lorries, buses and cars came as a slight shock after days away from traffic.
Then turning a corner, we caught our first glimpse of the Cathedral spires, so it wasn’t far now. Passing the Monastery of San Martín Pinario and through the arch, we entered the iconic Obradoiro square.
That’s when the emotion hit me, totally unexpected. Tears just welled up in side and I started to cry.
Sounds silly doesn’t it? I’d only completed 120 Km of the Camino Frances, a fraction of the 800 kilometre cross-country pilgrimage route, yet this short week on The Way has really gotten under my skin.
I had always wanted to experience the Camino, since discovering what it was about a decade ago. I had since visited Northern Spain a number of times and somehow Galicia found a special place in my heart.
At first I had few expectations about my journey (see my earlier post). In fact I was a little flippant about the supposed spiritual awakening that so many talked of, and was instead simply looking forward to a week away in a fantastic part of Spain, staying in some beautiful guest houses and hotels.
Yet somehow the Camino touched me. Each day we pushed ourselves – we had a goal, to complete the daily ‘etape’ or stage of the Camino, keeping us on schedule for our arrival at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Although the destination was what kept us going, this last week was all about the journey; the beautiful scenery, the villages and hamlets along the way, meeting fellow ‘pilgrims’ or peregrinos, our hosts at the different over-night stops – and more than anything the time to talk, think and reflect. Each day we would walk between 4 to 6 hours. Normally in daily life a small portion of a day like this might go by unremarkably, forgotton, lost for ever. Yet on the Camino time is different, it seems to slow down, to last longer. Moments are savoured in a different way, distractions are minimised.
It’s hard to explain how the mysticism of The Way can work its magic so quickly. Despite the popularity and tourism of the route through Galicia, especially the last 100 – 120 km, it is still a journey through nature, where it’s still possible even in June to walk for hours without seeing anyone, get lost in conversation or personal thought whilst surrounded by lush countryside.
For days the route would pass through woodlands with banks and walls covered in moss, fox gloves and other flowers. Or across farmland and hay meadows, where at times we’d share the road or track with dairy cows on their way to being milked.
When we did meet people, from so many different nations and cultures, there was an almost immediately connection, through a shared experience and passion for The Way. Some were in their fourth week, having started the Camino at the beginning, whilst others were only a few days in – like us full of energy, and enthusiasm. Over the days we would continue to bump into these fellow ‘peregrinos’, creating a feeling of camaraderie and even friendship.
I found that by the early afternoon each day, by the fourth or fifth hour of walking my mind was peaceful, I was really ‘in the moment’, enjoying the natural environment and focusing on getting to my destination.
This daily routine of waking early, enjoying a simple breakfast and setting off when the early morning mist was still lingering over the hay meadows was the perfect antidote to work and modern life. By extracting oneself from a typical daily routine of working, cooking, driving a car, answering emails and taking calls, and replacing that for a week with the beauty of the Camino was a real disconnect. Everything in this new routine and new daily experience seemed to combine to create a unique environment that somehow quickly lifts you out of the false perspective of modern life into a place that is special.
I still had my iPhone and a small laptop – since I’m self-employed I felt I wanted to stay connected – yet even the odd issues that would occasionally intrude felt different. I hope I can keep hold of that new perspective, that special feeling of being able to live in the moment.
I also truly enjoyed simple pleasures with a renewed gratitude – the cold lunchtime beer; the hot shower at the end of the day’s walking, the hearty evening home cooked meal.
By planning our Camino stages, making each part manageable yet still challenging (between 20 – 28k a day), and by choosing interesting and authentic accommodation, I think we really discovered the best of the Camino.
For many this is a journey of faith, and for me it evolved into a journey of faith in myself. Each completed day built self-confidence and gave me a great sense of accomplishment. With the final day, arriving at the Cathedral, came the fulfilment of our week’s goal – and sudden surge of mixed emotions: joy of arriving, relief of a safe and enjoyable journey and just a little sadness that our adventure was over so soon.
I’m definitely fired up to do more – a week seems so short and with the renewed confidence in the joy of the long, and at times challenging walk, I want to go back and discover more. In the meantime I will try to keep the spirit of the journey with me and apply it to daily life.
I really would recommend the Camino – for me it came at a great time, when I am setting new goals in my life. I’m just left wanting more – I miss that Camino feeling!