What Does it Mean to ‘Walk the Camino’?
September 9, 2022
What is the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela?
Religious pilgrimages were, and still are, present in many philosophies from Buddhism and Islam to Judaism and Christianity. Perhaps the world’s best known pilgrimages today end in Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, Medina and Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is known as the:
- Camino de Santiago
- Way of St James
- Walking the Camino
Santiago de Compostela became a centre for pilgrimage after the 9th century discovery of the body of one of the twelve apostles, one of Jesus’ inner circle, St. James. Although it was a pretty punishing and difficult undertaking in those times, pilgrims began to arrive in large numbers soon after. The Frenchman Bretenaldo who walked the Camino around the year 920, is generally considered to be the first known foreign pilgrim to journey to Santiago.
The pilgrimage to Santiago had a big influence on the areas it traversed. New towns were created with infrastructure being provided that made the pilgrimage easier. Rules were established to protect the pilgrims and institutions, from hospitals to the security provided by the Order of the Knights of Santiago, were founded.
Why Would You Want to Walk the Camino?
A couple of times during my recent walk (when it was super hot and my feet were aching), I did ask myself this question!!!
Pilgrimage, in the distant past, was mainly inspired by religious conviction, a ‘way to perfection’ and to ask for God’s grace or to atone for something. Today the reasons people take the pilgrimage are many and varied. Perhaps spiritual, but more likely an escape from the pressures of the day to day, a digital detox, a physical challenge, fun or simply the opportunity to walk through a beautiful landscape scattered with cathedrals and medieval monasteries. It is no longer solely for the religious among us.
Why did I do it?
- Mostly curiosity about the experience I had read so much about.
- An opportunity to add another first to my list (when was the last time you did something for the first time?).
- The adventure and the physical challenge of walking 128km in 6 days, something I had never done.
- And also my aunt, Sue, was very keen to do it for her 70th birthday and it was special to share her amazing achievement!
It’s the People You Meet
Walking for 6+ hours each day was also a wonderful opportunity to spend time with our fellow pilgrims, people from all over the world. Learning from them and about them and their lives, different and the same as our own. They bought new perspectives and it was interesting understanding each person’s motivation for this pilgrimage.
Among those we met were a:
- mother and her 11 year old son from Romania (amazing kid to walk so far!)
- group of three guys, all friends, from the Netherlands
- newly married couple from Italy, and
- a woman in her late 60’s and her husband and adult daughter from the US
Pilgrims today come in all shapes, sizes, ages, genders, nationalities, professions etc. Some even carrying their drying laundry on the back of their pack as they walk!!!
Symbols of the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela
While today’s pilgrims don’t wear the cape and hat of the past, they are relatively easy to spot as they are often decorated somewhere with a large scallop shell. This is, perhaps, the most recognisable symbol of the Camino pilgrim. Today, it is usually tied on the back of the pilgrim’s backpack.
The shell is also the symbol used to signify the path/the Way. Every time you see one of these it is reassurance that you are still on track. If you walk for some time without seeing one it is SUCH a relief when one appears!!! What did they do centuries ago when they lost the Way??? I would love to know how many of these signs there are across Europe. It would be thousands and thousands I think.
The other consistent symbol of the Camino pilgrimage is the Cross of St James. It is the symbol of the Order of the Knights of Santiago who were created to protect pilgrims over the centuries. The sword is supposedly what St James was killed with, and the colour, red to symbolise his spilt blood.
All Roads Lead to Santiago de Compostela
The Camino routes are of varying length and difficulty and you can start anywhere along them. However, if you want to earn your Compostela (certificate) when you reach Santiago you need to have walked at least 100km, cycled 200km or ridden 100 km on horse back.
There are several different routes but the main ones are –
Camino Frances (The French Way) – this is the most popular due to varied scenery and good infrastructure. Starts at St-Jean Pied-du-Port. If you walk the full route it takes about 35 days. Length of entire route: 780km/485m.
Camino Portugues (The Portuguese Way) – starts in Lisbon and splits in two – the coastal route and the central route. Length of entire route: 600km/370m. (We did the last 128km of the Coastal route).
Camino del Norte (The Northern Way) – starts in Irun and travels the coast of Northern Spain. Length of entire route: 466km/290m.
Via de la Plata – starts in Seville and follows the old Roman road north. If you are interested in Roman history this is the route to choose. Walking the full distance on this route will take about 44 days. Length of entire route: 1000km/620m. (Gulp!!!)
Camino Ingles (The English Way) – starts at either La Coruna or Ferrol as English pilgrims arrive off the boat. Length of entire route: 120km/75m.
Camino Primitivo (The Original Route) – The most direct route from Oveido to Santiago. However, it is quite challenging due to the amount of hill climbing. Length of entire route: 315km/195m.
We Were Lucky for Two Reasons!
- The Holy Door of the Cathedral only opens during the Compostelan Holy Years, which is when the 25th of July falls on a Sunday. This happens every five, six or eleven years, except in exceptional cases due to leap years, the Holy Door of the Cathedral is opened. It was opened in 2021 and, due to Covid, the Pope (yep!) granted an extension! So we got to walk through THE door – said to grant those who pass through it – absolution of their sins.
2. We saw the Botafumeiro in action! The Botafumeiro is a famous thurible (a brass, bronze and silver container than burns incense) in the Cathedral. It is suspended from a pulley mechanism operated by eight men (the current mechanism was installed in 1604!!!). The thurible weighs 80kgs and swings as high as 21m (am glad I was not under it!). The Botafumeiro is used on religious occasions and sometimes during the daily pilgrim’s mass. While we did not expect to see it, we had our fingers crossed and were lucky as it was in action during our pilgrim’s mass (which you can attend at the end of your walk).
My Take Aways………….
Would I do it again? Yes! What did I learn…….
- Practically, your feet are THE most important asset you have. Make sure your hiking boots fit and are worn in and you have all the kit you need to look after your feet (there are plenty of great videos from those experienced in this area e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cP81PY4rkFM). Walking in pain is NO FUN! Saying that, the pharmacists along the route had plenty of blister packs (Compeed) and anything else you might need.
- Carpe diem – make the most of each day! There is much scenic beauty to take in, interesting people to meet, different food to try and some weird and wonderful showers to work out!
- Encourage others and take encouragement yourself. I found some of the signs very funny! And people even left notes for us at the sign posts.
- Soak up the excitement, relief and sheer joy when you reach the Cathedral. The spirit floating around the square in front of the Cathedral was palpable. A mass of humanity celebrating together – a special group of people who have met this challenge. Or you can do what we did, put your feet up and just watch the world go past!
- Take some quiet time to reflect. I went back to the Cathedral square very early the next morning before the first pilgrims of the day arrived. It was serene, calm and very beautiful.
If you are thinking about walking the Camino in your Third Age and have any questions or need some encouragement feel free to reach out – firstname.lastname@example.org. At the time of writing I have only walked one of the routes so am not an expert but if you need a cheer squad, I am here! 😊