‘Changing the way you do routine things allows a new person to grow inside of you’ Paulo Coelho – The Pilgrimage.
Standing beside the Bodegas Irache Fuente del Vino (wine fountain) in the chill of the morning, we watched powerful sunlight creep up Mount Montejurra, shining gold, revealing its features with exceptional clarity. Vast blue skies stretched away to either side. It was day three and the Camino was feeling easier. The huge concern I’d felt after every twinge in my foot had been needless and my muscles, incredibly achey for the first few days, felt better. We moved forward to the tap with our empty water bottles and I looked across at the vivid greens of the wheat fields set below rubble-straw hills. Yes, I’d extend my flight a few more days and walk on.
1. Excellent quality walking shoes or boots (at least half a size too big, as your feet will swell).
2. Merino wool hiking socks (don’t skimp on these).
3. A small backpack (30-35 litres) with a waterproof cover.
4. Two changes of lightweight, easy-dry, clothes to walk in.
5. A lightweight waterproof.
6. A travel towel
7. A lightweight sleeping bag.
8. A lightweight fleece.
Additional items mean additional weight, everything else you need can be bought en route so weigh their benefits carefully. Also consider the volume of the things you pack as well as their weight.
At 791 km in length, the Camino de Santiago is one of the longest continually-marked hiking routes in the world. Originally following roman trade routes, pilgrims have walked a network of routes across the Pyrenees and northern Spain since 800AD. These pilgrims have journeyed to reach the shrine of the apostle, in Santiago de Compostella, on the coast of the Atlantic. Whether a religious pilgrim, a trekking enthusiast, a backpacker or even a mountain biker, the backdrop of rolling hills, vineyards and sleepy, sun-bleached villages mean the Camino is for you. People often walk the route to make decisions in their lives, recover from bereavement or to reflect on their own personal development. However, whether as a group or a lone traveller, the social side of the Camino is just as important.
The scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. The route is dotted with thousands of glazed tiles set into concrete plinths with the simple shell deign in yellow on a blue background. Sometimes simple yellow arrows are scrawled onto trees and rocks where extra clarification is needed. No one is sure of the shell’s origin but the emblem is linked to St James, known as Santiago in Spain. Travellers have also likened the scallop shell’s converging lines to many different paths leading towards Santiago. And it’s true, no one’s journey along this road, saturated in ancient Christian iconography and religious mysticism, can ever be the same as someone else’s.
One of my favourite aspects of the Camino was the group I walked with. A large number of pilgrims start the Camino on the same day as you. People pull muscles, get blisters the size of ripe grapes or simply opt to take a rest day here and there, but, as you hike the trail, staying in the huge dormitories at municipal (state run) albergues (guest houses), faces will start to become familiar as you pass (or are overtaken) by those you’ve cooked or drunk next to in the days before. Unless you choose to walk alone, a more select group are likely to become your hiking family. These are the people you walk with each day, prepare meals with in the evening and trust well enough to put a needle and thread through your blisters each night.
Accommodation is ridiculously cheap. The municipal albergues range from $5-10 per night for a bunkbed inside a large dormitory. Some are even situated inside the lofty naves of converted churches. Private rooms and smaller guest house dorms are also in abundance at almost every town or village along the way. The summer months bring far more pilgrims to the trail so you need to pre-book some days in advance as you march along the Camino. The cheaper options don’t come with sheets or blankets so budget travellers will rely heavily on their sleeping bags. Every hostel comes with kitchen facilities so its easy, and cheap to cook with your hiking family. Tinned and bottled lentils are also available everywhere, offering a high-protein, veggie addition to pasta sauces and risottos. In addition, the Spanish seem just as obsessed with alternative milks (soya, almond etc) as the English are becoming. You can buy small Tupperware containers to carry leftovers for lunch the next day and the villages you pass through have small shops selling crisps, fresh bread and drinks.
The Camino has its own routine. In small towns, many guesthouse lock their doors at 10 pm to avoid raving pilgrims entering in the large dorms late, but in larger cities the rules are more relaxed (your chance for a fiesta!). At around 7 am each morning, alarms start to sound and the murmur and clatter from the dark silhouettes of waking pilgrims around you increases in volume as people get ready, in the gloom, for their day on the road. Unless you’re intending to walk over 30 km a day (some people do), there’s not much point in rushing out. We found it better to cook an enormous breakfast and then stand outside a cafe warming up with a coffee as the sun rises, in order to avoid the hordes of pilgrims setting off at the same time. You eventually overtake a lot of these walkers as people rest in sleepy village cafes or sit alongside the road to rest. If you average 25 km a day you still normally arrive at your endpoint before 4 pm, even with regular rests and deviations towards anything that looks interesting. Once you arrive, you fill your evenings popping blisters, finding shops or supermarkets for dinner and playing cards. A few drinks with pilgrims at the hostel or in bars in larger villages is also pretty normal before lights-out.
Blister plasters, sun cream, replacement hiking gear, soap, food, washing powder and other items can all be purchased on the road, usually on a daily basis. Injuries are common, myself suffering from tendinitis in the back of the knee. Listen to your body and take rest days when you need them, pack light and move little, unless you have to, in the evenings. Few people are used to walking large distances daily, or carrying a backpack day-in day-out and it catches up with you after three or four days. Avoid running and jogging to catch people up. It may feel fine at the time but small twinges are amplified, days later, by your continual pacing. Stretching regularly, at least every morning and evening, is important and can prevent injuries from developing in the first place.
Each day, the Camino is a delight to walk. From hour to hour the backdrops change completely as you turn corners, dip into valleys, or rise over ridges. As you follow the shell-patterned tiles, the features of the fields and mountains, even the bright colours of the coats and backpacks of the pilgrims winding their way ahead of you, are intensified under the Spanish sun. You’ll pass through vineyards and wheat fields, crunch along arid, cactus strewn hillsides and wander through cool, quiet, pine forests. Throughout the trip, mountains are visible, still iced with snow during early April. The full route should take you around 35 days but you should allow extra time for rest days. It is also very easy to dip in and out of the Camino, as I have done, at any large town or city, depending on your time frame.
Many guidebooks give you recommended stages, along with information on the elevations covered over each walking day and the names of villages you pass through. You can even download several apps to tell you the distances between towns and what amenities are available in each. The Camino is often broken into overall sections between large cities and a plethora of information about what to expect throughout each part is available online. For example, what to expect when you cover the dry and unchanging planes of the Tierra de Campos between Burgos and Leon.
Whatever the section, however, the joy is always the same. The idea that you are walking a very special route, along which millions have travelled before you for over a millennia is majestic. Alongside the feeling of triumph gained from covering hundreds of miles under your own volition, carrying everything you need, makes each day immensely satisfying. The conversations and thoughts you have each day, as time loses any real meaning, will ensure that the magic of the Camino de Santiago ambles on with you for the rest of your days.
A first class writer, a second class basketball player and most of all a best friend to the Veggie Vagabonds. If he’s not inspiring future generations in UK classrooms, then he’s either exploring the world, playing the guitar or planning for his first book which will be coming to you soon.