The Camino de Santiago is a massive network of ancient pilgrim trails that stretch across Europe and come together in northwestern Spain. The routes converge at The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, an impressive three spired Romanesque Church that has been designated a World Heritage site. Here lies the tomb of St. James, an apostle of Jesus, who was martyred in the year 44 A.D. while spreading the Gospel. Pilgrims have walked the Camino for more than 1,200 years. Today, people from all over the world walk for religious, cultural and social reasons, as well as for sport.
T.R. Love, our beloved Pink Magazine Partini photographer, had two friends trek the route. In hearing their stories, T.R. was fascinated and decided to take on the challenge. He began training in June of this year, gradually increasing his distance and pace. On September 17, he flew to Paris, took a train to Bayonne, and caught a shuttle train to his starting point in St. Jean Pied dePort at the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains in Southwest France. Sporting a backpack with the minimum essentials—sleeping bag, a change of clothes, soap and drinking water—he eagerly began his 500-mile, 35-day journey. His cherished guidebook, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierly, was his compass for deciding how far he would walk each day and where he would spend the night. Most of the stages of the walk are on decent paths and fairly flat. The main difficulty is that few of us have walked continuously for 33 days straight. Good hiking shoes, socks and liners are a must. T.R. forgot his sock liners one day and paid the price—huge painful blisters.
There is a large infrastructure of lodging along the route. The albuergues are similar to hostels with several bunk beds and communal bathrooms. Some are run by religious orders and others are private. Meals are offered at some. There are grocery stores, restaurants and bars at most locations. In each town there are Catholic churches of varied sizes and grandiosity. Every traveler purchases an empty passport book at the beginning of their journey. The book gets a personalized stamp in each town along the way, at either the church or the albuergue, as proof of walking the distances.
T.R.’s day typically began at 6:30 a.m. Heading out the door into the dark with his headlamp on high beam, he walked in the dark for the first 45 minutes. Sunrise was a welcome sight. He met up with the same hundred or so travelers each day. The trail was very safe and people were extremely considerate of each other. Conversation was enjoyed at the beginning and end of the day’s walk, with much time for solitude and introspection along the way. He walked for five to six hours, an average of 15 miles each day. When he arrived in a town around 1 p.m., he would find an albuergue, set up his bunk bed, take a shower, then launder his clothes and hang them to dry. The unpredictability of each day was refreshing: a new town, fellow travelers to share experiences with at the restaurants and bars in the afternoon and evening and a different place to lay his head each night.
For the first ten days, T.R. was filled with energy and enthusiasm. The next ten days were a different story; weariness and boredom set in as he trekked through the plains and undulating hills. There was little scenery and very few towns. There was no protection from the elements—rain, wind and scorching sun. The last part was the hardest. The Cruz de Ferro (iron cross) marks the highest point along the French route and is a symbolic stop where each hiker drops off a stone that (s)he has been carrying from the beginning of their journey. The stone represents the burdens that (s)he wants to release. During the four-hour downhill trek, T.R. twisted his ankle and had to slow down. Despite the discomfort, he felt invigorated realizing that he had completed two-thirds of the route. At this point he was certain that he was going to reach the Santiago de Compestela. Upon arrival he went to the Pilgrim’s Office with his colorfully stamped passport to receive his credential, the certificate of completion of the Camino. Inspired by the people he met and the resilience of the human spirit, T.R. truly felt a closer bond with humanity.
This was a year worth of adventures consolidated into four and a half weeks. Every day, every town was filled with unique experiences. T.R. made new friends from all over the world. He says he will probably do it again, from a different starting point next time and he highly recommends this adventure to everyone.
Reflection on the Camino: Best vacation I ever had (first two thirds).
Next adventure: Will think about it next year.
Advice for anyone who walks the Camino: “Keep going. Don’t stop walking.”