A little over a week ago I finished walking the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in the far northwest corner of Spain. For me it was a wonderful experience of spending 28 days walking through a beautiful landscape that was always changing; meeting people from over thirty countries; becoming friends with many of them and forming a “Camino” family that gained and lost members as the walk progressed; and finally participating in a shared experience with many many others.
Everyone walking the Camino will have their own Camino experience and reason for doing it. Some will do it for religious or spiritual reasons; others will do it to have some space to think about what they want to do with their life; and many others will do it just to go on a long walk. All of their reasons are good.
Regardless of why someone may start the Camino, it would be very difficult for someone not to develop some sense awareness or spiritual awakening when they have spent a month or more walking every day, day after day, all day long, through fields, hills, mountains, and communities while listening to birds and spotting animals throughout the day.
Over the next few blog posts I hope to share with you some of the aspects of what makes the Camino so special. In this blog post I would like to show some of the landscape that you will pass on your way to Santiago. In other posts I’ll address what it’s like to be a Peregrino on the Camino, how every day was special, stairways along the Camino, and many other topics.
As mentioned earlier, I started the Camino at St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. It is a medieval town with a restored wall, battlements, and gates. It felt like a movie set and I half expected to see Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole dressed as knights, being welcomed by a cheering throng, as they triumphantly entered town on horseback.
I officially started walking the Camino the next morning and began by going over an old Roman bridge. The route I took followed lightly used roads through beautiful French countryside. Later in the morning, the route crossed into Spain and began climbing to the top of the Pyrenees. In many places the Camino was a footpath, much like the Appalachian Trail, and almost as steep as an elevator.
The first night on the Camino was spent at the top of the Pyrenees in a huge albergue in the abbey town of Roncevalles. There must have been over two hundred people staying at the albergue. What’s funny is that I saw only a handful of people on my walk to Roncesvalles. Albergues and what it’s like to stay at one will be discussed in a future blog post.
The next morning was almost like rush hour as everyone poured out of the albergue onto the Camino. Fortunately the crowd quickly stretched out and the walk became quite peaceful as it went through sheep and horses country in the foothills of the Pyrenees. (Animals and their smells will be part of the Camino all the way to Santiago.)
On the third day of walking, I reached Pamplona. In addition to its famous running of the bulls, Pamplona is an amazing medieval city of narrow canyon-like streets with activity going on in every direction. I even managed to find the Hemingway statue next to the bullring and signboard advertising “Better Call Saul.”
West of Pamplona the crowds on the Camino thinned out and on most days I had long periods of time where I had the Camino to myself. At this point the Camino goes through beautiful hilly farm country. When I went through in April, the canola was in full bloom and I could see yellow flowers far into the horizon. Along the Camino itself the wild flowers were blooming. No word other than special can describe the experience.
If you only have a week or so to walk on the Camino, I would recommend that you start in Pamplona and head west.
Most of the towns in this part of the Camino are built on hill tops. I typically would walk up a hill to reach a town and as I went down the hill on my way out of town I usually could see the next town (or two) in front of me. It’s almost like you can see and plan on where you’ll be eating your next snack or meal.
When I left the town of Cirauqui I was actually walking on a real Roman road. How cool is that?
The Camino enters the province of La Rioja just before it reaches the city of Logroño. This is Spain’s “wine country.” Although there have been and will be vineyards all along the entire Camino, they are non-stop in La Rioja.
I also saw my first stork in Logroño. From here I saw storks every day until I reached the mountains many days to west. I loved watching the baby storks frantically clicking their beaks begging for food from their mothers.
Storks weren’t the only birds. Every day was walking through birdsong and even though I never saw one I could hear cuckoo birds all day long. On many days the birdsong was augmented by the croaking of frogs jumping in the drainage ditches along the Camino.
The Camino eventually reaches the city of Burgos with its enormous cathedral. Soon after leaving Burgos, the Camino enters the “Meseta.” The Meseta is Spain’s central plateau and is generally flat. Here there were horizon to horizon farm fields. Some people found the farm fields boring. I found the fields going on forever calming and meditative.
Towns now, rather being on the tops of hills, were now in the dips of the Meseta. Here one could walk an entire afternoon wondering if they’ll ever reach an albergue, and then all of a sudden stumble on a dip in the land and find a town and albergue right in front of them.
After passing through the Meseta, the Camino reaches the city of Leon, and to no surprise, Leon also has a huge cathedral. A couple of days later the Camino begins to climb into mountains.
When I went through the mountains, the flowers were amazing. There were wildflowers at my feet and the mountains were covered with a purple flower which I assumed to be a type of heather. Whatever it was the purple hills and mountains were breathtaking.
Here the Camino followed amazing mountain footpaths. They eventually lead to another wine producing area of Spain. When I reached the town of Villafranca, the Camino began to climb another set of mountains, and again there were mountain footpaths. At the top of this mountain the Camino entered the province of Galicia. Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and I was now getting very close.
With Galicia being on the Atlantic Ocean it is the wettest part of Spain. This was the one area where I had to wear raingear for some part of the day several days in a row. Because of the rain the landscape of Galicia is very much like the British Isles.
When the Camino reaches the town of Sarria in Galicia there are now only be 115 kilometers to go until Santiago, and it is here where the character of the Camino changes dramatically. Up until this point most people walking the Camino have been on a long walk going from albergue to albergue. For many of them it has been a lifestyle of walking rather than a vacation.
But not everyone can take a month or more to do a long walk on the Camino, and many people who only have a week or so choose to start in Sarria. They start in Sarria because it is the closest town to the 100 kilometer mark from Santiago, and to qualify for an official certificate of pilgrimage (a Compostela) from the cathedral in Santiago, a pilgrim has to walk the last 100 kilometers of the Camino.
All of a sudden everything becomes crowded and you now have two different mindsets on the Camino. It’s very much like business travelers and vacation travelers on the same airplane. While the business traveler is quiet and preparing for his or her upcoming meeting, the vacationer is living it up by drinking a Bloody Mary at 8:00 in the morning.
It’s not that one way is better than the other. It’s just that the change was so abrupt after being one way for so long. And the truth is that someone else’s Camino experience is every bit as valuable as mine.
With that being said there was still plenty of beautiful Galician countryside to walk through and Santiago was now only a few days away. And after 28 days and 490 miles of walking, I reached Santiago, obtained my Compostela, and attended the Pilgrim Mass at noon.
And I have to say that when they start swinging the Botafumeiro (giant incense burner) at the end of the Mass, it is spectacular. But even if there wasn’t a certificate and the swinging Botafumeiro, the walk itself and the opportunity to be outdoors walking all day long and meeting great people was wonderful and worth well more than the price of admission.
The pictures in this blog post are only the tip of the iceberg. I’ll be sharing other pictures in future posts.