“What made you want to do the Camino?” A question posed countless times, and even after five weeks and walking nearly 800 km of the 9th Century pilgrimage to the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela, I still have no answer. I simply knew it was something I have wanted to do for a number of years, ever since I first saw the scallop shell way-markers on the side of the road on holiday in Asturias. I had decided to walk the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela on the west side of Spain.
I started the Camino with trepidation. For me, the first day over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles was going to the be the hardest. I probably hadn’t trained sufficiently, but I knew myself well enough to know that I had plenty of determination to take on whatever that first day presented. It was long and tiring and I was glad of my walking poles which had made a stellar debut performance and practically saved my knees from weeks of pain. I arrived in the monastery in Roncesvalles elated and exhausted.
The first week was arduous, both physically, as I grappled with an infected blister and mentally, as sleeping in crowded hostels with a cacophony of snoring led to little rest. However, the camaraderie kept me going and I met some wonderful people who encouraged me along and distracted me from my tired feet and sore shoulders (I had obviously overpacked and was quickly developing muscles to help me carry the 8.5 kg rucksack I was carrying).
In Navarre, I made a diversion to see the Church of Saint Mary of Eunate, a 12th Century Romanesque church in the middle of nowhere. The origins of the church are shrouded in mystery but some attribute it to the Knights Templar or the Order of Saint John. I sought shelter inside alone, as a storm erupted outside and the wind and rain attacked the tiny alabaster windows. Among the shadows I felt the presence of others who had sheltered there, sick and injured pilgrims, some who recovered and many who died there and were buried in its grounds. I walked on to Puente La Reina in the driving rain and arrived soaked yet grateful to be able to eat the pilgrim dinner with wine.
Crossing the Meseta (in between Burgos and Leon) in 30 degree heat was surprisingly one of the highlights of the Camino. Many people miss this section out but I found it to be the most rewarding part of the trip. I decided to take the 2000 year-old Roman road which lacked shelter and refreshment stops. I walked alone for hours without seeing a single person or dwelling, only gnarled goblin-like trees which seemed to mock my thirst and fatigue. It was the perfect setting for deep contemplation. Through the heavy sunshine and thick heat I heard the footsteps beside me of the millions of pilgrims who had walked the same path before me. After five hours, I was led to a beautiful oasis with a fountain and trough and swings among thick grass where I rested a long while.
Climbing O Cebreiro was actually harder than the first day climbing in the Pyrenees. After the heat of the Meseta I was struggling with the early morning cold wind which left my hands stinging. As I grumbled to myself about the steep climb and every other thing I could possibly think of complaining about, a little robin appeared 50 cm in front of me. He looked back at me then jumped a metre ahead. As I followed him he continued to jump ahead all the way up the mountain until I reached the top where he bid farewell and flew away: his job completed. I left those burdens and many more on the top of that mountain and the sun made an appearance for the long, lighter descent.
As I approached Santiago de Compostela, a friend asked me why I looked so pensive. I admitted that it was not due to anything spiritually enlightening, I had merely been thinking about the possibility of buying a dress to wear for my meeting with my fiance at the airport. I realised my Camino was truly coming to an end and while it had changed me in many ways I was fully aware that it would continue to have an effect on my life for many years to come.