My Compostela walk
In March 2022, I signed up to walk a part of the Camino Santiago. One of the most common questions I was asked when someone heard of my intentions was what prompted me to do this walk? 100KM + in an unfamiliar country, solo and on a pilgrimage to a cathedral of a saint I hadn’t heard about before.
If I was in a good mood (usually during the start of the day), I would smile and say, “because it’s so beautiful, unique and an amazing opportunity to make and meet new friends, see nature at its best, and to have a conversation with your body, mind, and soul.” If asked during the last 2 or 1 km of the day’s allotted kilometers, I usually said, “because I am crazy!”.
In full honesty, my walk was inspired by a book (The Pilgrim by Paulo Coelho), a movie (The Way), and the fact that I was only 2-hours away from this beautiful country with this beautiful walk. I wanted to do something memorable which was both a solo event yet made you feel part of a community. I am of course referring to the Camino (walk) that leads to Compostela de Santiago (literally compound of stars (Stela). My walk was a total of 115km; starting in Sarria, Spain. It was part of the Camino Frances- one of the many routes available for pilgrims/walkers to take to get to Santiago.
The whole Camino Frances is about 800km. I only had to walk 115km because that’s the minimum amount that earns you a certificate certifying you as a bonafide pilgrim. The walk and the pain is of course as real as you would imagine but still a part of you feels guilty for getting the same certificate as the people who walked more than a month and close to 800+ km. The only consolation I could think of is, “ we all have our individual journeys to walk-both here and in life.”
Some basic and key details if you are interested or get inspired to do this walk:
What is it? At its very core, the route of the Camino de Santiago is a Catholic pilgrimage taking place in Europe (ending in Spain) since the middle ages. In fact, During the Middle Ages, the Camino was responsible for the largest movement of people in Europe: millions of people, both rich and poor, made their way to Santiago de Compostela. The route was nearly lost to history until the past couple of decades when a growing body of literature around the Camino sparked a resurgence of interest in it from outside Europe.
Where is it? When most people talk about “the Camino”, they're referring to just one of many routes to Santiago de Compostela. Also known as the Camino Francés (the French Way), this route starts at St. Jean Pied-du-Port in France, crosses the Pyrenees, and continues westwards across Spain about 60 miles south of the coast. It passes through Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, and a host of smaller towns and villages, and is about 500 miles in length, depending on how many detours you take. Other Spanish routes are the Camino Inglés from Ferrol & A Coruña, the Via de la Plata from Seville and Salamanca, and the Camino Portugues from Oporto.
When should you walk it? Although the walk can take place and does take place throughout the year, the most popular times to walk are April through September. Those months I have heard you need to book your hotels and hostels well in advance. I consider myself lucky to have chosen to do the walk end of March-off peak season. The perks were walking with fewer people, amazingly beautiful weather, and ample places to stay without much notice. Of course, it’s not popular because the sun doesn’t rise till 7.30/8.00 am, most cafes and restaurants are closed and there are fewer people walking if you don’t want to be alone.
What all do you need to walk with? Some things I was very happy that I had with me. A walking stick. Not everyone had one but anyone who did found it useful. Good shoes that you have worn before. Some pain killers. I was taking one a day at the end of the day but, on the last day, I took one 2 hours before the walk finished and it really helped. A raincoat - again, not everyone had one but it’s probably useful..Remember, the song from My Fair Lady, ‘Where is the rain? In Spain, In Spain.” Water bottle or a backpack with a built-in water bag. I used both. I recommend both. There is water available along the way and most places are happy to refill your water bottle. Chocolate, nuts, fruits- you will need some nourishment towards the end of the day. Cash, although most places take credit cards. One tip I got was to wear two pairs of socks to help prevent blisters. Another tip I saw directly was to not carry a lot, especially if you are doing this walk for the first time. Focus on walking and enjoying the walk. You can make it more challenging the next time you do the walk or any other walk. Bandaids, something for blisters is always a good idea. I was so touched and grateful when someone came to my aid and put a blister prevention sticker on my foot one day when I was just observing my foot and eyeing it for any future blisters. And lastly, buy and proudly display your conch shell. The shell visually and by its sound reminds everyone around you including yourself- you are a pilgrim.
How to prepare for the walk? A few friends asked me this question, “How am I preparing for the walk?” I don’t think you need much advance preparation except to enjoy walking. If you don’t then it’s rather a wasted opportunity. Besides that, knowing how to stretch during the walk, I think is essential. I had walked 10, 15, 17, 19, and 20 km on practice walks leading up to my five-day sojourn. Yet, walking the Compostela along with other people is a different experience that you can’t really prepare for. I did get some really good tips from fellow pelegrins (pilgrims) on what to wear (two pairs of socks), what to eat (plenty of carbs and chocolates), how to walk downhill (with bent knees), how to stretch (every 1 hour with socks out of the shoes). Each of the tips was very helpful and much appreciated. I hope you remember them when and if you do the walk.
Finally, my experience
There was so much that happened on the walk that I promised myself I would journal and share it once I am back home. I wanted to both share and memorialize it for myself. I will try and keep this short for better reading and also because two weeks later I only remember the highlights.
Day 1 (22 km)- I started around 8.30 am after debating the whole night-should I start early or have breakfast and leave. In the end, I decided to have breakfast and I was so pleased I did. Not only is it important to have a good breakfast before the start of the walk but also it was one of the best breakfasts I had in my whole stay. Day 1 was also special because I got to walk with two strangers who by the end of the trip had become good friends. One was a very experienced man from Slovenia who was doing this walk for the 7th time and the other was a lady from Malaga. She and I were both doing the walk for the first time and were so appreciative for all the tips we got from our experienced friend. Getting to our destination end of the day was tiring. It seemed at times like time, the road, the day..everything was unending but it finally did end. We made it. I made it unharmed to the completion point of day 1.
Day 2 (24 km)- The location of my hotel supposedly gave me a 20 minutes headstart on the day’s walk. When you are walking 7 hours a day, every shaved minute helps, especially towards the end. After walking 10 minutes in the wrong direction (and losing my precious headstart), I finally was on the right track- walking through a beautiful forest all alone. I sometimes saw the silhouette of the sole pilgrim walking about 10 minutes ahead of me. I couldn’t believe by 10 am also I was still all on my own. By the third hour though, a whole group of people were walking the path. I got to eat and drink all day guilt-free. Lots of coke, tea, coffee, and orange juice. Empanadas (pies with fillings) were a staple as was cheesecake, almond tortas, and many other kinds of delicious snacks. Towards the end of the day, I kept running into a few familiar faces. One person, in particular, I noticed sitting when I was walking and passing me when I was resting. Finally, at one of the last stops, he crossed me again and we smiled at each other. I was really tired but there was still 1 km to go. He stopped, looked at me, and said, “get up. Let’s walk together.” I was both mad and grateful. After what felt like a long time, I saw my hotel and we parted ways. And thus ended Day 2. With soreness, new friends, and lots of beauty around me. I was slowly getting used to this routine. Day 3 (29 km)- I was both not looking forward to and also impatient to get over this day. I knew it would be hard; walking almost 30 km. I didn’t realize just how hard. I managed to get the first 15 km done by 1 pm. I think I was developing a blister but met a very nice fellow walker who gave me all his medical supplies to help with it. After that nice experience, I got lost in the one city our walk went through. I later found out many other people had similar experiences. It being a Sunday most places were closed which made the walk a bit harder..nowhere to take a break, use the restroom, etc. By the 25th km, my feet were hurting bad. By the 27th km, I felt I was walking all alone and was very sure I was one of the last people walking the route that day. I think I was walking 10 minutes, rest 5 minutes. Suddenly this young girl showed up asking me if I was ok. To me, she was god-sent. We both walked the last km together and gave each other much-needed company and support. It was a lovely ending to a difficult day. A lot to feel proud of and thankful for. Day 4 (17.5 km)- Although it was almost half the distance to walk, it wasn’t any easier. I am not sure why. Maybe I was still tired from the previous day, maybe it was a little hotter to walk in, maybe I don’t know. Somehow I made it to the hostel for that day and not too soon. It started pouring a few minutes after I reached the hotel. One more day and I would be done..Day 5 (20.5 km)- By now the pattern was set. Every morning my speed was about 4 km/hour and by the end of the day, it was about 1 km/hour. The last day was special not only because it was the last day but also because I was lucky enough to walk it with 4 other people. Three of them were a cute family consisting of a couple and the guy’s mother. She was amazing, smoking one cigarette an hour but marching on nonetheless. The fourth person was my friend from the first day. I was so happy to be ending the walk with her. We all would sing, take breaks, get lost, and help each other climb the hills and in the end, we made it! To the Church of St. James in Santiago de Compostela..our final destination. We had a wonderful dinner to celebrate and felt so proud and lucky to have started and ended this walk as planned.
I spent one more night in Santiago before heading back to my normal life after this extraordinary experience. I would recommend this to anyone looking to spend time alone and feel good about themselves and the world we live in. I am not sure yet how all this walk has changed me but I am sure I am more confident about my physical self after this journey.