Mike Wood, Perth, WA
There is something about all the world’s long distance trails that implies pilgrimage, whether or not they include churches or religious sites. A long trail involves introspection and contemplation, promotes meditation and forces you to commit to the completion of the journey. You become immersed in that journey and the destination becomes a far off event that seems never likely to arrive—until suddenly it does, often with an impact that can be overwhelming.
The Camino de Santiago is an ancient route from St Jean De Pied Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and is probably the best known of Europe’s many pilgrimage routes. Pilgrims journey from all over Europe with the tomb of St James, one of the twelve apostles, in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela as their ultimate goal. The trail from France to Spain is often called the French Way, or sometimes just The Way, and has become the main walk route over the Pyrenees Mountains that separate the two countries.
In the mid-1980s the trail was declared the first European cultural route, and later on gained UNESCO world heritage status. Since then the numbers completing the journey have increased annually and in 2010, the holy year of St James, 250,000 people completed the pilgrimage.
The Spanish have been welcoming pilgrims for 1000 years and we found the people we met along The Way to be very friendly and accommodating. The pilgrimage contributes greatly to the economy of this rural area of Spain and those who walk the Camino are very welcomed and respected. The section that our group from the Peregrine Travel Centre WA undertook was from the Spanish town of Sarria to Santiago de Compostela, a walk of 120km. The rules of the pilgrimage state that you must complete a minimum of 100km if walking, or 200km if cycling, for your journey to be considered a pilgrimage and for your sins to be washed away.
After spending a few days in Barcelona, taking in the architecture of Gaudi and the vibrancy of the city, we journeyed to Sarria. At our hotel we were provided with trip notes that described in detail our journey—six days of actual walking. Our luggage was transported each day by vehicle, so we needed to carry only daypacks with water bottles and a few other essentials.
The Way is not a wilderness walk; there are farms and villages, many with ancient churches complete with graveyards, scattered along the route. Pilgrims may purchase passports at the start of their journey for a few euros, and each church, café and hotel along the way has a passport stamp available. It is important that all pilgrims stamp their passports two or three times a day to prove to the church authorities in Santiago that you have undertaken an entire pilgrimage, at which point they will issue you a certificate, beautifully written in Latin.
Our group was very keen to get going on the first morning; it didn’t get really light until 8.00am, so it was nice to walk in the dawn glow at a respectable hour. A wonderful part of this time was searching for our morning coffee stop, and of course the quality of the coffee was excellent. We were a mixed group of eleven, aged between mid-thirties and mid-seventies, all of whom enjoyed walking and active holidays. Some had done serious treks in the Himalaya while others had only done day walks around Perth, but everyone handled The Way extremely well.
The route varies between farm tracks through fields of crops, country laneways where a farmer’s tractor may come trundling along or bitumen roads that meander through villages where farm gates are open for pilgrims to peer inside. Occasionally the route may be a dirt pathway alongside a busy road with moderate traffic, until suddenly the path leaves the road and descends into a cool, calm beech forest. I enjoyed the diversity of the trail, the rural nature of the surroundings and the feeling that we were seeing the real Spain at ground level and at the right speed.
Another extremely enjoyable aspect was the evenings spent in cafés in the villages and towns where we were spending the night. A cold beer or vino tinto at a table outside a café with fellow pilgrims felt well deserved, and offered the chance to catch up and hear stories of the day, discuss what was coming up the next day and to better get to know each other.
There were many other pilgrims on the trail, probably several hundred on any given day. The Way is well marked with yellow arrows and yellow scallop shells, symbols of the pilgrims’ journey from the ocean, so it was difficult to get lost. We had pre-booked comfortable three-star hotels, so when we arrived for the night our rooms were always ready and our luggage had been delivered.
The movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen, which features the Camino Trail, came out in 2010, and locals told us that since then business had been excellent, as many more people have now heard about the pilgrimage.
The weather in October was excellent, not too hot and with very little rain. Remote cafés and hotels were still open and there was a joyous enthusiasm from everyone on the trail. Light walking clothing and footwear were sufficient, our loads were light and the food and wine available along the trail were magnificent—it is worth doing the trail just for the culinary experience! Pilgrims were split roughly 50/50 between men and women and while most were walking we did see a few cyclists.
The Way is a walk that anyone can do; it is peaceful, historical, cultural, spiritual, well-marked and we found it to be very safe. If you want to see the real Spain at ground level then follow The Way!