Recently, I completed one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done: walking the Camino Frances. I walked from Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Google says it’s about 500 miles, but I didn’t focus on the length; instead, I focused on getting to the next albergue, the next village, the next tree, even the next step. I didn’t realize Santiago de Compostela was within reach until I hit the last 100 kilometers (about 62 miles). Walking in to the square in front of the cathedral was one of the most surreal moments of my life – but more on that in a little bit.
The Camino challenged me physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and even had me questioning my sanity at least once every single day. I’d been told that the Camino would change me, but laughed the thought off until it started happening. The Camino was a truly transformative experience. Since getting home, friends and family have asked me, “How was the trip?” My reply has generally been, “Indescribable.” It kind of seems like a cop-out answer, but it’s true. Today, I’ve decided to try and put my experience into words.
A Bit About the Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage that ends in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James the Greater (one of the disciples) are buried. The story goes that a shepherd named Pelayo found the remains of a body in a field that he was led to by the milky way. The local bishop declared that the remains belonged to Saint James and built a church at the spot. Word spread throughout Europe and pilgrims have walked to the spot since the 9th century. Throughout the years, the church grew into the magnificent Cathedral de Santiago Compostela that it is today.
Now, thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino each year. The Camino isn’t just one route, but the journey from wherever you take your first steps to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims come from all over the world, are all different ages, have varying fitness levels, and each get to Santiago de Compostela in different ways. Most pilgrims walk, while others bike or ride horses.
Some routes are more popular than others. About half of all pilgrims start their Camino in Sarria, which is just over 100km from Santiago de Compostela on the French route. There’s also the Northern Route, Portuguese, Primitivo, Ingles, and more, all ending in the same spot. Where you start often depends on how much time you have to walk, your fitness level, the time of year, and personal preferences.
So Why Walk?
Pilgrims all walk for different reasons. Some walk for religious reasons, some for adventure, some because they saw it in movies or TV shows and felt inspired, some who just really like walking, and more. Everyone walked for personal reasons, which became a conversation starter among pilgrims. One thing that became clear to me after a week was that most pilgrims were at some sort of transition phase in life – a few were in between school or jobs, some had just lost a loved one, one man had recently been diagnosed with cancer, a woman had just entered remission.
Regardless of the reason for walking, everyone connected over the day-to-day life on the Way. We bonded over blister prevention tips, sunburn care, packing methods, and more during shared meals at albergues each night. Strangers would quickly become friends, especially after seeing each others faces day after day on the trail.
I started my walk in Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port in France. I walked around 800km through wine country, rolling hills, over mountains, down into valleys, and on areas flat as a pancake over 33 days. It didn’t hit me until a friend said it about halfway through the Camino, but I walked across a country. There were days when I felt invincible and days where I wanted to just give up and fly home. No matter the feeling, I walked.
The first few days were the hardest; heck, day 2 I found myself having an anxiety attack halfway up a mountain, in the cold rain, with no cell phone signal and no sign of civilization. Thankfully, the ever present yellow arrows pointed my way along the path and I made it to my destination for the night before it filled up.
By the end of the first week, I’d found my “Camino Legs” and was going about 25km per day. Walking buddies, intriguing podcasts, and good music (thanks, Lizzo!) made some days fly by, while other days felt like they’d never end (looking at you, every day along the Meseta).
Lessons in Planning
I found myself learning many, many things about the Camino, life, and myself along the Way. My first lesson was that the guidebooks lie. Seriously! The Camino guidebook and app would always list different lengths for the same route, and my Apple Watch would have a different distance than either estimate by the end of the day; sometimes, it would be 5-10km difference!
Which brings me to my next lesson: you can only plan so much. I’d originally planned on making it from Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in 34 days. Things like “rest days” and “reliable WiFi” didn’t seem like things I should be concerned about, as all of the things I’d read said they wouldn’t really be issues. Guess what? They became issues. I ended up taking 3 rest days along the way, which meant I needed to make up for lost walking time, which meant taking buses and trains. Was alternate transport part of my plan? No! Did I at times feel like I was somehow cheating for taking them? Yes! But I needed to do the Camino the way that worked for me.
Lessons in Food
A good portion of the Camino runs through farmland. In Spain, this land is basically either for livestock or wine. I learned two unexpected lessons from the livestock along the way.
First, I learned to know what you’re eating. The first few days on the Camino walk you through an area where horses with bells around their necks run free. Wondering why they have bells? So their owners can find them to turn into meat. YUP. I was so thankful for my meat allergy, because I don’t think I’d be mentally okay if I found out I’d eaten horse.
Horses came back into play towards the end of my walk. I woke up one morning before climbing a mountain and found myself feeling pretty sick. I sent my main bag ahead, loaded up my day pack with electrolyte mixes, medicine, and lots of water and started walking. At the 4km mark, I vomited for the first of many times that day. By around 1PM I started uphill. Unfortunately, the group on horseback had gotten to the steeper part of the climb before me. The path was narrow and covered in piles of horse crap. At first, I was carefully dodging the piles, then I vomited for the upteenth time that day and thought “what the heck?” At that point, I realized you can only dodge crap for so long before facing it head on. Needless to say, I sprayed my shoes off and took a very, very long shower as soon as I got to my albergue. The dodging crap stayed with me, though, and I very quickly discovered the same logic can be applied to the metaphorical crap in my life.
Lessons in Community
I firmly believe that it’s impossible to walk the Camino without building relationships with others along the Way. You’re seeing the same people for days on end, often sharing meals and rooms with them. Friendships inevitably form. In some cases, people even start feeling like family.
I learned several things in the albergues. First, there’s always going to be someone who snores, especially if there’s an older man in the room. White noise apps saved my sleep. Next, fewer things taste better than locally made wine. “No vino, no Camino” became the slogan of the Way. Finally, the people you meet make the experience memorable.
Yael from Israel taught me to do what you love and not waste time doing things that don’t bring you joy. Bailey from Virginia and Liz from Australia showed me that sometimes the friendships that form the fastest are some of the greatest. Tom from California made me appreciate small things – like the color of the sky just before the rain starts. Lori from Canada taught me that things don’t always go to plan, but that doesn’t mean you give up. Lauren from London made me realize impulse decisions can be amazing. Joseph from Texas had me appreciating the talents of others. Jack and Tyler from Louisiana showed me that genuinely good people still exist.
Mostly, I learned that shared experiences build community. Pilgrims in the Camino community truly want to see each other succeed and will do anything to support each other. I can still remember getting my first blister, stopping to care for it, and having a stranger walk up to give me a bandaid because the kind I had apparently wouldn’t hold up. Small acts of kindness became a fixture of daily life, and are what stick with me the most about my experience.
Getting to Santiago de Compostela
I’ll never forget walking into the Obradoiro Square outside of the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. I woke up at 6AM and spent the morning strolling past the airport, through shaded paths, and into the city of Santiago de Compostela before promptly losing sight of the arrows. Only I would get lost on the last day! I asked a local for directions in very broken Spanish and got back on track.
Within 10 minutes, I walked down the stairs and into Obradoiro Square, taking my final steps on the Camino. I was immediately hit with a feeling of joy that was different from anything I’d ever experienced. A moment later, I was physically hit with joy in the form of Lauren, who’d spotted me from a few feet away and was eager to greet me with a tackle and a, “we did it, girl!”. I found a spot in the sun, took my pack off, and spent some time taking everything in.
Naturally, I thought that my joyous feeling was unique to the moment; I was pleasantly surprised to feel the same joy the next morning when I went back to Obradoiro Square. I guess it just goes to show the magic of the Camino, Obradoiro Square, and the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela.
My Camino was full of amazing, totally unique feelings and experiences. I don’t think I’d ever want to replicate them, but I do want to walk the Camino again. Until then, I’ll be dreaming of pilgrims meals, red wine, great company, and days full of walking. Buen Camino!
PS: After the Camino, I headed to Porto to relax for a few days. Learn why you should visit this riverside gem!