Gail Delahunt shares her experiences joining a group walking part of the Camino de Santiago from St Jean Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in the north west corner of Spain and discovers there’s much more to following a pilgrim route than taking a long hike.
I was recently given an amazing opportunity to walk part of the Camino de Santiago for an Irish tour operator called ‘Follow the Camino’, to understand what the Camino is really about and to pass my experiences on to others. Follow the Camino organised the tour for myself and a small group, including our bilingual guide, hotels, meals, airport and luggage transfer.
Our guide was always on hand with great local knowledge of places to see and the best food to try for each of us. The Camino Frances (literally the French Way, because it leads to Santiago from France) got its name from the Codex Calixtinus – the first ever guidebook written by Aymeric Picaud in the 12th century which attracted most of the pilgrims traveling to Santiago to Compostela from Central and Eastern Europe.
The Camino Frances has a challenging start, leaving St Jean Pied-de-Port to cross the Pyrenees, but it was well worth it. The view of the Pyrenees is spectacular, the misty fog slowly moving through the valleys while the sound of cowbells echoes everywhere.
As we ascended the steep hills, our guide pointed out the magnificent Greenfinch vultures flying over the valleys. A sense of community began to grow within the group and stories began to flow. Along the way there are cairns with photographs, letters and little ornaments in memory of loved ones who have passed away. It was very touching to see such declarations of love becoming part of this ancient landscape.
Eventually we crossed the border from France into Spain. The Camino waymarks guided us down the winding trek downhill through the thick shaded forest, with autumn leaves three inches deep on the trail, into wide vast mountain views of the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. We found a pilgrim shelter – a little hut with firewood supplied for lighting a fire in the hearth inside and a solar panel on the roof. Eventually we reached the monumental area of Orreaga-Roncesvalles with its historic pilgrim hostel, we spent a night in a nearby hotel.
When we reached the historic city of Pamplona, a local tour guide gave us a detailed history of the city and the main festival of the year the famous ‘San Fermin: Running of the Bulls’ (from 7 to 12 July every year). They also told us how to avoid getting attacked by bulls as they run through the city. We visited the spectacular Cathedral de Santa Maria and Church of San Saturnino. The Cathedral is one of the most symbolic monuments with a highly Gothic interior. The most memorable aspect for me was the markings on the wooden floor to mark the tombs below. Those people wanted to be buried close to God and they couldn’t get any closer than being buried in the church.
After Pamplona, I travelled by car to Sarria and joined a different group to walk the final leg to Santiago de Compostela. I continued following the arrows and scallop shells swept along in my own cloud of thoughts and appreciation of the quietness while walking through forests, up steep hills, across large plains and into small Spanish villages. I am not sure, however, whether walking the Camino left enough time to really appreciate the cultural differences of the local people, especially being surrounded by fellow pilgrims. It was very peaceful just following the rhythm of our footsteps. Each pilgrim passed was happily greeted ‘Buen Camino’ (which translates as ‘good path’ but El Camino is clearly so much more than a path in this context!).
Each day, we made sure we had our pilgrim passport stamped at least twice along the way. At the end of each walk, we would have time to freshen up, relax and drink something refreshing while we enjoyed the pilgrim gathering, then meet for dinner, which was usually at 8pm, and chat about the day’s walk and plans for the next.
On my second to last day, it was an overwhelming experience to reach the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. I attended the pilgrim mass and watched the ‘botafumeiro’ (the swinging of the thurible filled with incense) while, it seemed, an angel sang. The cathedral itself, with its elaborate facade, was extraordinary. In the heart of the building is a gold statue of St James and underneath the statue an underground walkway to the tomb. And there is so much more in the cathedral that makes it a must-see.
I went to the pilgrim office early on the last day to avoid the long queue. There I received my ‘compostela’ or pilgrim certificate for completing over 100km on the Camino de Santiago. It was very emotional saying goodbye to my new Camino family and friends but everyone promised to keep in touch.
So is the Camino primarily a walking challenge? The Camino is for young and old alike.
It is certainly a challenging experience which could see you walking from 4 to 7 hours per day. (The pace is up to you: take care to plan to walk at whatever speed is right for you to fully immerse yourself in the surroundings.) Good preparation is essential whether you are walking for 5 days or 5 weeks and the right equipment – such as the proper footwear and well-fitting rucksack – is a must.
But the Camino is to a large extent about forging new relationships with strangers from all over the world. When you walk the Camino you will be sure to make some lifelong friends. Your conversations could be only brief or go on for days as you walk together. Paths will cross and re-cross with other groups as you go along. After only a couple of days I got to know a group of Americans who started their beer break at 10am and others from all over the world including Australia and the UK.
Along the route, I met different types of pilgrims and learned that people walk the Camino for a variety of reasons; several for the challenge, others for spiritual pilgrimage and all for the beauty, peace and fulfilment. It seems that the real reason for your journey usually reveals itself as you go along the Camino. The most amazing thing was the broad age range and background of people that I met – such as an Englishman who had just recovered from a stroke, a brave Irishman battling MS and an 83 year-old American woman. All walks of life seemed to meet on this one road in Spain.
One of the most powerful aspects of the Camino for me is that it is a great leveller. However inequalities may increase around the world, everyone goes through the same pain and seeks the same peace and bringing a yacht or a fast car or big TV on the Camino is not possible and very little use. All types of people from around the world discover their common humanity, and forget their material differences. It can be eye opening and comforting to realise that we have more in common than we think. Everyone enjoys the same basic house wine, food and accommodation as well as peaceful isolation and self-fulfilment. This is the key to the pilgrimage and one of the main reasons that people have a life-changing experience.
I have travelled all around the world including Thailand, Morocco, Australia and California but this is the one walking experience that I would recommend anyone to take part in. I’m already planning my next Camino – the Portuguese Way.
Camino Frances Fact File
Up to 80% of pilgrims have walked or cycled the French way which makes it the most popular route.
For quieter alternative routes, it's worth considering one of the Northern Caminos – The Caminos Norte, Primitivo and Inglés
The popularity of the way allows for various budget options starting as low as €40 per day depending on the simplicity to slightly more luxury. The best example is food; usually we enjoyed the pilgrims menu, a 3 course meal and wine for €10 to €12 compared to the more simple dishes (chicken, chips, salads, yogurts and cakes).
Best time to go
Spring (March/April) It’s less busy and beautiful spring flowers are blossoming. The hotels are opening and the flights and ferry are operating at least on a limited basis. Cool conditions for walking although nights are likely to be cold and rain plentiful especially in the mountain areas and Galicia.
Summer (May to Mid-September) It can be very hot, busy and accommodation is booked out especially in July and August. Even water is in short supply. This is the busiest time of the year on the Camino Frances especially. Book in advance.
Autumn (Late September/October) More stable weather than the spring. The heat is more bearable compared to the summer and the snow hasn’t arrived yet but the hostels are still open.
Follow the Camino offers walking and cycling packages on the Camino with 5% off for early bookings.