Reflections of a Pilgrim
My journey on the Camino de Santiago
It was the year before I turned thirty, which may or may not have had something to do with it. I had known about this walk for more than ten years, but always thought it was an impossible daydream. I don't think anyone really thought I would go through with it - including myself - until I actually packed up my backpack and left.
This is not meant as a travel guide. It is simply my reflections, hindsight revelations and memories as I see them now - four and a half years later.
Join me on my walk through the north of Spain.
Photo: My husband, whom I in fact met on this walk, took this photo of me walking down the road one early morning. This, and all other photos in this article belong to me.
What is the Camino de Santiago? - A short introduction to The Way
Camino de Santiago is also known as the Way of St. James (or sometimes just The Way), as legend has it St. James was buried in Santiago de Compostela. A cathedral was built on the site of his grave, and in the Medieval Ages Christian pilgrims walked there to be forgiven for their sins.
There are several routes that lead to Santiago, the most popular being the Camino Frances (the French Way).
This route stretches 780 kilometers (about 500 miles) from St. Jean Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, then across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela, following the old Roman trade route to the Atlantic coast in the West. This westernmost point of Spain is known as Finisterre. Many pilgrims in fact choose keep walking after they reach Santiago, making Finisterre (meaning "the end of the world") their final destination.
The Camino Frances is the route I chose for my pilgrimage, and I started in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port on August 15, 2011.
From my research it seems like most fit people spend four weeks on this route if they don't take any days off. Six weeks is recommended if you really want to relax and enjoy it, or if you are not very fit.
Personally I decided to spend eight weeks! Not because I walk very slowly, but because I loved the freedom to stop wherever and whenever I wanted, really have a good look at the sights, and to truly experience it. Some days we walked only 5 to 10 kilometers, because we suddenly came across a cute little village and wanted to spend some time there.
I am glad I took my time, because there is so much to discover!
So why would I want to put myself through this?
When you ask a pilgrim why he or she is on the Camino, they may close up completely. A few may answer your question honestly, some will give you a brief, superficial answer, while others may simply stop talking. My answer when asked was always a shrug and "I heard about it ten years ago and wanted to do it ever since."
The first time I ever heard of the Camino I was 19, and home from school with the flu. I was watching television, when suddenly there was a program about a pilgrimage. I had heard of pilgrims before, of course, but it was a word I associated with the medieval age. It was new to me that people still were willing to leave their creature comforts behind and walk to a place they considered holy.
I listened with a longing in my heart as the route was explained. There was an interview with a man sitting under a tree with a book, who talked about the simple life of a pilgrim. It sounded magical. I started longing for something I had never even heard of before!
In hindsight I have discovered what is probably the biggest reason for my wanting to be a pilgrim. But I will not reveal it yet. You will have to stick with me until the end to find out!
From my journal
Day 2: Orisson - Roncesvalles
This is ridiculously simple and deliciously primitive! Placing one foot in front of the other, drinking water when I'm thirsty, eating something when I get hungry, stopping when I need to catch my breath. The fact that it's simple does not mean that it is easy, though. Already it is pretty hard. Crossing the Pyrenees with a 14 kilo backpack... Yes, I know that's too heavy. Other pilgrims seem to pass me all the time, but they all seem to be looking ahead rather than at the view - which is stunning! Green mountain tops that look like the backs of sleeping dinosaurs. Every crest and corner reveals a new view. I can see little houses in the distance. And everything is just green, green, green. I can hear the sound of bells from cows and goats and sheep and horses further up. I want to stay in this moment forever.
In the beginning there was a backpack - And the dream of a pilgrim-to-be
It is safe to say I devoured practically everything I came across that had something to do with the Camino. I read books, saw television programs, looked at photos online. The sight of a backpack in a travel shop made my heart skip a beat.
Slowly I started collecting things I might need, telling myself and others they were for travelling or hiking. My backpack doubled as a suitcase, a pair of mountain boots were "necessary" for walking the dog, and who doesn't need a lightweight sleeping bag and a sun hat with cooling crystals in the head band?
When finally I decided to do the walk I had most of the things I needed right there in my backpack!
Here are some books for you who also daydream about doing the walk - all these are on my own bookshelf.
"Those who are willing to be vulnerable move along mysteries."
~ Theodore Roethke
And who would have thought....
I would fall in love on the Camino?
Throughout this article you will notice that I sometimes write "we", other times "I". This has a simple, yet beautiful explanation - which makes a lovely story all of its own. I set out on the Camino by myself, and intended to also finish it on my own. But along the way I met a man whom I fell in love with, and as luck would have it he also fell in love with me! With the exception of two days, we walked the whole Camino together. Some days we walked at different speeds, and therefore occasionally discovered things separately.
But we were always looking for the other one at every corner and hilltop, hoping to catch a small glimpse of each other.
The ground beneath your feet
A pilgrim's sigh...
At first it didn't matter to me what sort of ground I was walking on. But already after a few days I started noticing the difference between a soft path in the woods or on the grass, the crunch of my mountain boots against small pebbles or the crash against bigger ones, and the pounding against hard, unforgiving asphalt. Worst of all, however, seemed to be walking on the ancient Roman roads with big, fat blisters under the balls of my feet. As beautiful and fascinating those ancient roads were, I sometimes cursed them loudly...
I loved crossing the mountains. They usually meant there was a longer distance between villages, but the ground was often softer there. My shoes turned out to be too hot to wear in this climate (the temperature stayed in the 30's almost throughout the whole pilgrimage - which people said was unusually hot), and hot feet tend to blister. Hot feet apparently also makes blister patches melt into a sort of hard gel that gives you more blisters - so the ground made a huge difference in how painful walking was for me while this was at its worst.
If I can give you one valuable piece of advice, it is this: buy your shoes well in advance of the trip, and wear them as much as you can. Get to know them to avoid uncomfortable surprises while on the pilgrimage!
The guidebook commonly referred to as "The Bible"
The simple beauty of a sunrise
Somewhere along the way I stopped writing in my journal. I even started taking fewer photos. I reached a point where I for the first time in my life was truly living in the moment, rather than trying to capture the moment so that I could re-live it later.
I started to appreciate the actual walking. Little things like a raptor soaring in the clear blue sky high above us, or fresh bread with thick Spanish omelet and a glass of coca cola – suddenly these became the really BIG things. Every moment was filled with new impressions. New people, new landscapes, new architecture, new smells. Even walking in the rain – clammy underneath my rain jacket and my trousers soaked through – was all right.
Everything was broken down to the basic needs - food, water and a place to sleep for the night. Everything else was a bonus. The goal was no longer important. Or, the walk itself became the goal. Time slowed down and there was no rush to do anything. Only a few times did we get up particularly early to walk, following our long, thin shadows down the road. But when we did, the sunrise was always beautiful, always made us stop and stare back at the town or village we had just left, with the sun rising up behind it.
A light-hearted "guidebook" to the Camino de Santiago
We were lucky enough to meet Paul Huschilt and his friends in the Pyrenees and stayed in touch with them for a little while. He told us he was writing this book and I have been waiting impatiently for it to be published. Well, now it is here and I read the whole thing in two days.
The Spanish word Ultreya means "Onward" and has traditionally been used by pilgrims to greet and encourage each other on the Camino. You will also hear "Buen Camino" a lot, both from locals and other pilgrims, wishing you a good pilgrimage.
I never had any doubt that I would make it the whole way. Not even when I found myself sitting on a bed at the Jesus y Maria pilgrim's hostel in Pamplona, too tired to get up and too tired to lie down. My whole body ached and I had blisters under my heels so thick they started to form new blisters of their own! This may have been very arrogant of me, but I also believe it was this stubbornness that made it possible for me to push myself and walk ever onwards.
"Your backpack is too heavy. You carry too much responsibility in life. You have to learn to let go."
~ Orietta, the woman running a hostel in Viloria, said to me.
How about you?
Would you consider going on the Camino de Santiago?
Creag and Morwenna - And their music
We met Creag and Morwenna in Galicia - he was carrying a guitar, she a harp on her back. We talked briefly at a crossroads, discussing which way to go, as our guide books did not offer any guidence and there were no signs. We eventually turned left, and soon discovered the familiar yellow arrow that assured us we were on the right track. Later that night we stayed in a hostel in Las Angustias, where the rooms were built around an 18th Century church. There, Creag and Morwenna played for us, and the sounds of their harp and guitar was so beautiful it moved me to tears. I feel so lucky to have been there!
In this video they show their own photos from the Camino, accompanied by their music.
Arriving in Santiago de Compostela
I expected to arrive Santiago with a big cheer and my chest swelling with pride and happiness. But truth be told, I think we both were filled with mixed and conflicting feelings as we walked those final steps onto the big square in front of the Cathedral.
We were there. It was over. That was it.
As much as I was looking forward to coming home to my friends and family, to give them all the presents I had collected along the way, show them photos and tell them about the walk (not to mention showing off how much weight I had lost) I just couldn't shake this one feeling: I didn't want it to be over!
Of course, for us a big part of the ambivalence came from knowing that we would soon have to say goodbye to each other. Being from opposite sides of the world (Norway and Australia), there was no way of knowing when - or if - we would get to meet again.
However, I am excited to let you know that this of course ended very well, and we are now married and living together in Melbourne, Australia. In 2015 we also welcomed a beautiful baby boy into the world, and our happiness is now complete. The lesson from the Camino has stayed with us, and we are enjoying every (wakeful) moment with our son. Our dream is to take him with us and walk the Camino again when he gets older.
This photo is taken at the pilgrim's mass we attended in the Santiago Cathedral.
Online resources on the Camino de Santiago
- Camino Adventures
This is a terrific site for planning your pilgrimage. It provides you with all the information you need, including maps, a packing list, and recommendations on guide books. I really wish I knew about this site before I planned my own journey.
- Camino Forums
A forum where you can ask questions and read about other people's experiences and advice. You can also meet people here who are planning on walking at the same time as you. I learned quite a few things here that I was grateful for on my pilgrimage.
- The Confraternity of Saint James
The Confraternity of St. James is a pilgrim's association, based in London, England. They publish guidebooks on the Camino and you can buy your credential (pilgrim's passport) from their website.
I promised earlier that I would tell you my reason for going on a pilgrimage. It did not occur to me until I came back from the Camino, and had a look at all the things I owned. Suddenly it felt like all these things owned me, and I felt claustrophobic in my own home. I have always been a collector of many things, and had a hard time letting go of them.
I suddenly remembered Orietta's words from the hostel in Viloria (quoted above), and discovered she was right. What attracted me to do the pilgrimage in the first place, I realised, was the simplicity. The thought of only owning what I could carry on my back. Any unnecessary item literally weighs you down and makes it harder to move forward.
This is the reality in life as well - only not as immediately obvious. This revelation has changed my life, and will continue to influence me for the rest of my days.
Thank you for reading!
Walk with meClick thumbnail to view full-size
You don't choose a life, you live one. - Camino de Santiago on DVD
This is my compostela, the certificate pilgrims receive at the pilgrim's office in Santiago de Compostela as proof that they have walked the pilgrimage. It is written in Latin (even with a Latin form of your name), and it was stamped and rolled up into a paper tube for my safekeeping.
I received it with a feeling of pride unlike anything I have experienced before, and one thought in my head: "If I can do this, I can do anything!"
Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.
© 2013 Aibrean82