The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route located in the north of Spain. It runs for approximately 800km from St Jean Pied de Port in France, over the Pyrennes, to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. This is one of several routes that merge on Santiago where the remains of St James are reputedly buried. There is a further (optional) 100km from Santiago to Finisterre on the coast. I walked the entire 900km (or thereabouts) in 2016.
Pilgrims walk The Way for many reasons, not least for spiritual or religious ones. There are those who just want to do a long walk and those that have come to a point in their lives when they need some time for reflection on the past and a look forward to the future. Having hiked several 4 -5 day trails, I wanted to go a bit further (and why do things by halves?!) but I was also, I thought, at the end of one era of my life and was ready to start the next.
I had never had a particular burning desire to undertake this pilgrimage but had heard about it many times and, whilst I was travelling, had met several people who had walked it and encouraged me to do so. I began my research, read some books, watched the film and pondered on it….
Originally I intended to walk it in September 2015. I was scheduled to return home to N.Z. to establish myself once again after two years of being a nomad. However, I was experiencing problems with my knee and thought it unwise to walk 800km at that point in time. As it happened, I had to return to England in March 2016 as a consequence of my father’s ill health. As he improved, I decided that I would take the opportunity of being in Europe to walk the Camino. I had had acupuncture on my knee, which seemed to have cured the problem for the moment and it seemed like as good a time as any.
I had, of course, arrived in England without any of the correct equipment as it hadn’t been my intention to go for a long walk. I set about purchasing backpack, boots, walking poles, sleeping bag and generally duplicating all the hiking equipment that I had left in N.Z. At the end of April I flew to Biarritz, this being the nearest airport from which to start. From Biarritz I took the bus to Bayonne where I stayed a couple of nights before heading for St Jean.
The pilgrimage began inauspiciously. I arrived at Bayonne station to find that there was a strike and no trains were running. This was a little problematic as nor were there any buses! However, I, together with an international collection of three other pilgrims, took a taxi and arrived in St Jean at about midday. In true French fashion, everywhere was closed for lunch, including the hostel I had booked. This was my introduction to hostel opening hours.
I had a wander around the town and waited for the Pilgrims Office to open at 2pm so that I could purchase, at a cost of €2, my Credencial. This document is essential as it has to be produced if you want to stay at the hostels along The Way and be charged at the pilgrim’s rate. Stamps from the hostels, churches and some businesses are collected in it each day and there may be as few or as many as the pilgrim chooses. However, for the last 100km, which is all anyone needs to walk to be awarded the Compostela, two stamps each day must be gathered to prove that the pilgrim has actually walked the total distance (and not cheated by catching a bus!)
At the end, It is a wonderful record to keep of the path travelled, although sadly mine managed to get a little wet when my water bottle leaked and parts of it are not quite so legible! You can also buy the traditional Camino shell to hang on your pack either at the Pilgrim’s office or one of the many souvenir or supply shops in St Jean. The Pilgrim’s Office also gives you a list of the albergues along the Way.
I stayed for one night and had my first hostel experience. I was cold, there was a lot of snoring, noisy arrivals after the lights were out and the hostel manager was decidedly grumpy. Things could only improve!
The following day broke bright and sunny. I had breakfast, packed my bag and commenced my pilgrimage!