My sister, Penny, recently finished hiking the pilgrimage trail in Spain, El Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of Saint James). This is an ancient pilgrimage to the Catholic Church in Compostela, Spain, where the bone of the apostle of the disciple James are preported to be buried. There are in fact many routes of this pilgrimage from the south, the East and the North and along the west coast of the Iberian peninsula. Penny followed the main route from France.
Here is an interactive map of the route.
Last year, Penny, travelled part of the Camino with her daughter, Elizabeth. This year she returned to hike the rest of it. Her husband, David, joined her for two weeks at the beginning and she met up with Elizabeth along the way to take a few days off to spend time together. Otherwise, she was a solitary pilgrim for most of her 42 days on the trail.
Below is a sellection of photos taken along the Way.
I asked my sister to write a little about her experience. Here is what she wrote:
"Everyone's Camino experience is personal; no two are alike. The Way is a metaphor for the journey of life. It has many trials and tribulations but at the same time many joys and successes.
I think most people could do this hike; but, it is not easy. I think one of the secrets for success is to discover what the best speed is for you and to stick to it. David and I settled on 15 km a day. That was below the average but it was best for us.
Much of the Camino is up and downhill; sometimes just a slow steady climb that seems to last for hours. The terrain underfoot is varied but a lot of it is pavement or gravel; both very hard on the feet. The nicest is to walk on a cushy woodland path. Occasionally, the downhill of a mountain is sheer rock. This was very tough for me but I just took my time and descended carefully and slowly. I used walking sticks even in cities as I can fall very easily and one of my goals was to not have any falls.
The climate can also be a challenge depending on when you go. In the summer you have to cope with extreme heat; spring and fall you can get rain; winter is dangerous in the mountains and on the plateau it is windy and cold. So one has to think about one's feet, the weather and the terrain. I was very lucky and had only a few days of rain and only one day when it rained heavily all day. Some days in Sept. were too hot for David and me. I had a couple of days when I knew I had had too much sun. As I walked West and into Oct the weather became Fall with cool mornings and nights but warm afternoons - very pleasant.
It is so liberating to get off the treadmill for awhile and have time to think. I think this is what I appreciated the most. You have time to reflect on your life - where you have been and where you are going. While David was with me we had time to communicate at a deeper level and rediscover how well we work as a team. There is nothing else to think about but putting one foot in front of the other, what and where you will eat and where you will sleep. All we needed was carried on our backs. We were out of the loop of the 24 hour daily soap opera that the news has become. What a joy! After only a few days we had completely relaxed and any tension in our faces was gone. This of course had the happy effect of making us look younger.
When life is stripped down to the basics and you walk through pain and discomfort you have the opportunity to reflect on what is truly important in this life. Many are on the Camino to find healing from a broken relationship or to reorient the direction their life and/or career has taken. A close bond develops with perfect strangers because of a common purpose and shared goals. The camaraderie is tangible because everyone wants to help the others achieve their goal.
The Camino isn't just any old hike. It has both antiquity and a spiritual component that sets it apart from other hikes. I'd say most people on the Camino are not religious in an institutional way but many are searching for spiritual meaning to their lives. Even those who don't start out with this purpose find themselves falling under the spell of the ancient pilgrims who passed this way. The antiquity is what first attracted me but by the time I started it I also wanted to enhance my spiritual life and put some of life's blows into a broader perspective. Now I have learned the Camino is even older than what I knew. The bones of the oldest European man (1.3 million years) have been found near Burgos at Atapuerca on the Camino. Moreover the director of the project believes they have not yet made their biggest discoveries. So people have wandered along at least some of this path for over a million years, as well as Celts and Romans etc. At a deep gut level one starts to feel connected with all the humanity that has preceded us for longer than we can get our head around. We realize that we are just a speck in the Grand Plan, whatever that may be.
The Camino is so rich in art and architecture. Every little village has a church, frequently dating from the 11th or 12th century with much history behind it. There are many rivers in this part of Spain so there are also many Roman and medieval bridges gracing the rivers. Medieval monasteries and hospitals run by religious orders dotted the Camino at one time and today some still stand but are used for other purposes. Famous people have passed this way; Charlemagne as a warrior and St. Francis Assisi as a pilgrim. Millions of peasants a year followed the Camino to Santiago before the Reformation. There are ancient accounts of the pilgrimage that people still refer to today. Myths, legends and historical facts abound along the Camino and this all works to make the Camino feel a sacred path.
For the first time in many years I feel truly rested and at peace. It is a wonderful feeling. Walking the Camino is one of those trips that becomes even better when one's memory has time to think about the experience more. I truly hope the effects of my experience will be lasting."
Saint James has become quite a controversial icon in recent years. He is known as
Santiago Matamoros (Saint James the Moorslayer). In a time when Muslims are becoming prominant in Europe, those who see them as a threat call upon this patron saint of Spain to rally opposition to Muslim expansion into Europe. Years before Saint James showed as a "Spirit Warrior on a white steed" to inspire the Christians who drove the Muslims out of Spain in 1492. Those who want to welcome Muslim into western Europe are somewhat embarassed by Santiago Matamoros and try to downplay his role in the persecution of Muslims so many centuries ago.
I look forward to discussing , in person, the pilgrimage with Penny in all its aspects from a trip across some interesting georgraphy filled with interesting history and the personal and spiritual experience for her and others.