And I’m leaving tomorrow.
Yeah, I keep getting thoughts that I’ve lost my mind.
But doing the Camino de Santiago (The Way to St. James) is something I vowed to do before I left Spain, and the time has finally come to do it!
What is it?
Originally, and still, the Camino de Santiago was/is a Christian pilgrimage. Legend has it that St. James’s remains were taken from Jerusalem to Santiago de Compostela in a boat, where they were then buried. The earliest pilgrimages to the shrine dates to the 9th century, and it had become very popular by the 12th century. In 1993, because of its historical and cultural importance, the Camino was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Today, although many people still do it for religious reasons, many do it for other reasons, such as the personal reflection that comes with walking alone for hours, the landscape, the physical challenge, the disconnection from the world, the camaraderie formed along the way – all the reasons for which I’m doing it.
I first learned about it in Spanish class in university, and it sounded intriguing, but daunting, not something I saw myself doing. But the more I read about it, the more documentaries I watched, but most importantly, once I came to Spain, the more people I talked to sharpened my interest and held it. My first trip in Spain after arriving here in September was to Logroño, one of the cities on the camino francés, and that trip solidified my desire to do it before leaving Spain.
Everyone has said it was without a doubt one of the best things they had ever done and that it was a life changing experience. The great thing that everyone always talks about is how personalized it is, how it’s a great time to reflect on the solitary road, but at the same time meet lifelong friends. You can start anywhere from the French border and walk 800 km (or further – some cross the Pyrenees!) to 100 kilometres away from Santiago de Compostela (the ending point) in order to get a Compostela, saying that you officially completed the route.
Now, although I say solitary, it’s not a teeny trail where you never see a single soul or pass through civilization. There are a main cities as well as smaller towns along the route and there are other pilgrims along the road to bond with over blisters.
How do you do it?
The nice thing about the camino is that you don’t have to prepare much, since you don’t have to book accommodation in advance, and you’re not supposed to pack a lot!
1) Pack as little as possible
2) Get a ‘pilgrim’s passport’ which allows you to stay in special pilgrims’ hostels (called albergues)
3) Get to your starting point the night before you want to start walking
4) START WALKING (there’s a marked trail/road)
5) Keep walking
6) Make friends!
7) Walk some more
8) Arrive at Santiago de Compostela!
9) Attend the mass where they read out your name and nationality
Where is it?
So this is approximately the walk that I’m going to do, along the Northern coast of Spain, starting in Irun which is a town in Spain, but right on the French border. This route passes through four regions in Spain (Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia). It should take me about 5 weeks. The traditional route, called the Camino Francés (French Way), also starts in France, but a little more to the south (passing through the cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, Leon).
I wanted to do the northern route for a few reasons:
1) More varied/prettier (in my opinion) landscape – ocean, forests, green!
2) Fewer people – during the summer months apparently the traditional one gets super crowded
3) LESS HOT – this is a big one
4) I have only been to the northern coast once (to Bilbao) and loved it so I want to see more! It’s so different from what people think of as ‘traditional Spain’ with olive trees, flamenco dancing and arid landscapes. Each northern region is so different…in Basque Country they speak a completely different language, in Asturias they drink cider poured from above the head, and in Galicia they play bagpipes, in line with the strong celtic tradition there. I don’t know much about Cantabria, but I guess I’ll learn!
What are you bringing?
Here’s what I’m taking for 5 weeks:
Backpack rain cover
Lightweight zip off hiking pants
2 pairs socks/underwear
Cotton skirt/tank top for nights
Camera (pretty much everyone has advised me against taking it since it’s heavy but I’m stubborn)
Notebook + Pen
Scallop Shell – symbol of pilgrims on the camino
The scallop shell was originally taken back by the first pilgrims as a souvenir from Santiago, but since then it has acquired more meaning and purpose than a simple souvenir. The grooves can be seen to represent the different paths of the pilgrims who then all end up in once place. Wearing a shell shows that you’re a pilgrim, and larger ones used to (and still can) have practical purposes: as a bowl for water or food. The shell symbol is also used to mark the route.
If you want to read more about the Northern Camino, check out the guide that I’ll be taking. Buen Camino!