El Camino de Santiago
The Unique Sign-posted Adventure
The smell of sun cream in the morning and Vapo-Rub in the evening. These, much like the troublesome blister on the underside of your fine-yesterday foot, are all to be found on the Camino de Santiago. While it may be a tough, 'long walk,' it also provides laughter, stories, instant friendships and memories that never leave you. Whether it’s washing your clothes in a church tower, walking for a whole morning with someone and only communicating using the seven German words you know, or an eccentric host who is eager to impress upon you the history of their beautiful village, the Camino is a wonderful microcosm, filled with fascinating stories. Waiting eagerly for the arrival of BBC Two’s Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago, it gives me a chance to reflect upon my own experiences. This is perhaps to stop myself from booking a flight and getting my walking boots on!
Silhouetted pilgrims outside of Pamplona
Santiago literally translates to Saint James, and it is to his burial place that thousands of pilgrims make the journey each year. Originally a Roman trading route, after it was known that the saint was buried at the cathedral, people have been gently plodding the various routes by foot or horse for over a thousand years. The history of the Camino makes embarking on the journey incredibly special. You may not be a big believer in God, organised religion or even that there’s anything more to life than death, but to walk in the footsteps of those driven by a whole-hearted belief, nobles, peasants, kings alike, makes you feel very grateful, that you are a part of the Camino’s history, just as it is a part of yours. This lengthy history can be felt with every weary footstep along the route, from mealtimes discussing what those before would have eaten, to referencing the true pilgrim who completely forsakes luxury and lives only from what they are given. Bikes may have replaced the humble horse, but the fascination with medieval pilgrims remains.
It is here that I must admit something. While this is both a religiously and historically significant journey walked by pauper and priest for centuries, I only ended up walking the route after watching The Way, a film following five pilgrims on the Camino. The film is directed by Emilio Estevez and brilliantly acted by a cast including Martin Sheen and James Nesbitt. Call me a plastic pilgrim (and you would be completely right to do so), but while my brother and father trudged the long path, splitting the route into stages lasting a couple of weeks at a time, I had no interest in sharing a room with strangers, just to go for a long walk. The film, coupled with stories I’d heard around the dinner table completely changed my mind. It showed me gritty adventure and I loved it. The next time they booked flights I made my voice heard, 'I want to come to Santiago.' I joined them for the last stage: Pomferrada to Santiago and it sparked my love of the journey.
The Camino is no cat-walk, nevertheless, my brother and father rocked their outfits.
With illusions of meeting new friends, potentially partying with some local gypsies and having an emotional realisation at the shrine to Saint James, I was prepared. I had a new pair of walking boots, a sensible wide-brimmed hat, and an idealised notion that was very quickly dashed. 'Boots here,' spoke the gruff hostel owner, 'curfew at ten, lights on at six.' This warm welcome was an introduction to what was essentially my holiday. When four in the morning came, the bright light from a face torch flickered across my face. Then another. Whispered voices in German rose from all around me and then some sudden, aggressive shh-ing. The day had begun for the eager pilgrim.
That frustrating shh-ing in the darkness belong to friends you’re yet to make. They’re fellow pilgrims and they make the Camino exactly what it is: a cultural melting pot made up of people from all occupations, countries and backgrounds. Friendships in our everyday lives are built over an abundance of time. We discuss weekend plans and the latest Netflix series until one of you finally suggests going for a drink. On the Camino however, they’re forged over a couple of miles, while washing clothes or at a pilgrim’s meal on great long benches. The reason? You’re all walking the same path, you have that in common. That conversation might be the last time you see them, and that’s okay because on the Camino, the purpose of meeting someone doesn’t seem flippant. Destiny as a concept steadily becomes feesable, and the small moments you spend with another pilgrim are learnedly treasured.
For me, a particularly poignant moment came on my third Camino trip in a town called Santo Domingo. I was washing my clothes next to an Irishman named James when he told me that he’d done some bad things. He didn’t elaborate much and I decided not to push him on it, but he said that he walked to find some sort of forgiveness. 'We walk the Camino the same way we live life, we build towards something at the end of it.' As Jack points out in The Way, there are metaphors everywhere on the Camino de Santiago, and the more you stop to think about it, the more they ring true. The road, much like life is long, filled with tough, tiresome situations, but also with beautiful, laugh-out loud moments that more than make up for the aching in your bones and the stones rattling in your shoe.
For anyone wanting sign-posted adventure, an exploration of Spain or simply just something different from a sun-lounger and John Grisham novel holiday, then walk the Camino de Santiago – The Way of Saint James. Simply dip your toe in and buy the John Brierley guidebook, learn a little Spanish and spend a week walking some of the most breath-taking parts of Spain and making friends with complete strangers.
Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago starts Friday 16th March on BBC Two and follows seven celebrities as they walk this medieval pilgrimage.
Three very tired pilgrims outside Santiago Cathedral