98 days. 2500 kilometres. 3 countries. 2 birthdays. Blood, sweat, tears, blisters, revelations! “It would be an adventure”, we said, but it was so much more.
My boyfriend Yanic and I began our Camino journey from his family home in Tübach in the north-eastern corner of Switzerland. Given the tradition to walk the Camino from your home, Yanic’s was much closer. I originate in Port Lincoln, SA, from where it is a little further to walk!
We had met near Brisbane when Yanic was hitchhikng around Australia. When he had to leave because his visa was about to expire, we realised that life was better when we were together, so I proceeded to pack up my life, he continued on his travels, and we met in Switzerland several months later. We’d both done a lot of unconventional travel – backpacking, hitchhiking, camping and couch surfing – and that is how we love it. We were moderately experienced hikers, but nothing compared to the distance and time of the Camino journey we planned. The Camino to us was another adventure and an alternative mode of travelling we were yet to explore.
When we decided to walk the Camino, our preparation was similar to any other travel adventure – minimal. It was not until the week before we began that we started to research what we actually needed. The morning we left, we packed. And physical training – nil! We were at the tail end of a travel-filled European summer. Our life was, (and still is!) chaos. But we are young, and right now this is how we love it.
On Monday 4 September 2017, we packed our backpacks, had lunch with Yanic’s family, said our goodbyes and walked out the door for our next adventure (see photo). Yanic began barefoot and wanted to walk the whole way with no shoes, but the terrain and endeavour to finish before Christmas (literally!) meant shoes were eventually required.
Yanic’s backpack weighed around 15kg and mine 12kg when we were loaded with food to last for a few days. We carried our tiny hiking tent (120×230 x90cm), camping mattresses, sleeping bags, cookers, cooking equipment, food, a few hygiene supplies and very few clothes. Yanic is a software engineer, which meant he also had a small laptop to work on a travel program he was creating. We planned to camp and cook as much as we could, though in Switzerland we stayed with friends about once a week which allowed for showers, a real bed and a rest day or two. Also in Switzerland and France on a few occasions, complete strangers invited us to stay in their homes, to sleep and to shower. On both occasions we left full of great food, love and hangovers!
Beginning the Camino in Switzerland was very challenging. We were not particularly fit, and we were beginning in the mountains. The weather was also unpredictable. Despite being the beginning of autumn, there were still some rainy days and freezing nights. Waking up with ice on our tent was not what we’d expected in September. But it was incredibly beautiful and green, with huge, clear lakes and endless snow-topped mountains. We regularly walked through farmland, much smaller than I was are used to in Australia having grown up on a 5000 acre farm. The people were friendly – like rural Australia – but so were the animals. We took great joy in making friends with cats, dogs, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, horses and donkeys. We also enjoyed buying different delicious cheeses, one of the specialties of Switzerland, direct from the farms.
The greatest challenge at the beginning was finding our rhythm. Yanic was much faster than me and I did not want to hold him back. The mental challenge of hiking was ever present, and for the first time we did not agree on something. Yanic wanted to push his body to the limit, whereas I wanted to listen to my body and not overexert myself, but build up slowly. Obviously there were blisters, sore muscles, heavy packs, adjustments to sleeping on camping mats and exhaustion, but I consider these the superficial issues which create the vulnerability and mental challenges to bring the bigger issues to the surface. This often resulted in me wanting to quit as I felt I was holding Yanic back, and him regularly frustrated because I could not go as fast as him. The first lesson of surrender that the Camino offered us was to learn to lessen our expectations and allow the magic of the Camino to unfold and create balance for us.
Thankfully, the way was well-marked with hiking signs, so as we got more confident on the path we would find our own rhythm and go at our own pace with Yanic walking ahead. We would begin our days walking together, eat all our meals together and finish the day walking together until we found a place to camp. It was a nice balance and we would always have lots to catch up on when we were together. This rhythm got easier with time, and in Le-Puy-en-Velay we were able to purchase a map so we could plan ahead where we would meet so there was less risk of losing each other. On two occasions I took a wrong turn and got lost for some time, which was a bit scary and required a lot of backtracking and searching. In Le-Puy I also bought some walking poles which helped me walk significantly faster, particularly uphill where I would often fall behind. Yanic, though, was quite the Swiss mountain goat! As time went on, he would not have to wait long for me, however, as thanks to his tough love our fitness rapidly progressed and I got faster. On reflection I think this was a great way to share the Camino, it allowed our individual journeys to unfold within our journey together. A great metaphor for life.
Walking from Switzerland into France, there was suddenly more open space with bigger farms and further distances between towns. And much more sun! For nearly two weeks, we had beautiful sunny days in France, which was a change from Switzerland.
However, when we arrived at Le-Puy-en-Velay where many people begin their pilgrimage, the Camino really changed for us. Prior to reaching Le-Puy we had already walked nearly 1000 kilometres and we had only met two individuals and a family walking The Camino. What we were doing was unique… there was no commercialisation or pilgrim accommodation, and everyone we met was friendly and welcoming. However, after Le-Puy, we were ‘just’ more pilgrims. Regularly there were advertisements on the Camino for pilgrim accommodation and restaurants, and we met many more people. No longer were we unique, despite the fact that most of the fellow pilgrims we met had not walked nearly as far as we had. After leaving Le-Puy we talked about trying to find a trail that was less commercialised, but yet again we needed to surrender, and we thought we should best finish what we started and embrace the challenge we were now faced with. Soon after Le-Puy we also received the ‘gift’ of bedbugs, which proved incredibly challenging. We were both quickly covered in small bites and would spend our days and nights itching. It was even more frustrating that this happened on one of the rare occasions that we hadn’t slept in our tent. These all-too-friendly-critters are incredibly hard to eradicate, but we discovered they are not uncommon on The Way.
We had to deal with them and were very fortunate that a lovely albergue took us in when we explained our problem. We figured honesty was the best policy, which they appreciated. They put us in an isolated room, gave us some spare clothes so that we could shower and put everything we owned through the washing machine and dryer. What we couldn’t wash – our tent-home, shoes and beloved feathered hats – they kindly allowed us to put in their industrial-sized freezer. It was another lovely lesson in surrender – we felt dirty, infectious and burdensome, but our honesty allowed us to be received with unconditional love, compassion and help. It was also around this time that a French family invited us to stay in their home. As much as we would have loved to have had a bed, we explained to them, with Yanic’s limited French that we had bed bugs and did not want to burden them. Eventually they understood us, but insisted on putting us up in their garage with cardboard to sleep on. They still fed us and sent us away with additional food. It is these incredible experiences that can restore our faith in the beauty of humanity.
We saved the addresses of all the families and individuals who helped and supported us along the way. When we completed our walk we sent postcards to them all to tell them that we made it to our destination, and to thank them for their incredible support on our journey. No matter how big or small, every little bit helped and boosted us with love exactly when we needed it the most to keep going. Every pilgrim needs this, and we wanted to make sure we touched them the way that they touched us, and they will continue to reach out and support other pilgrims in the future. The times that we were invited into strangers’ homes and filled up to the brim with love, despite language barriers and limited time, are some of our most cherished moments of The Way.
At St Jean-Pied-de-Port, the final destination in France, before we crossed the Pyrenees to Spain, the ‘Camino commercialisation’ increased, and was evident all the way after this point. However, given that we mostly slept in our tent amongst the trees, we usually only saw people when we stayed in pilgrim accommodation. We stayed in an albergue just beyond the peak of the Pyrenees, which was the first night on the Camino for many people. For the first time for us we indulged in a ‘pilgrim menu’ and shared a meal with others.
At the dinner we found it quite entertaining meeting more people than we’d met since leaving Switzerland – mostly fresh faces on their first day, exhausted from the Pyrenees climb, but high on expectations and plans for the Camino. We could not help but giggle knowing that the Camino often has other plans. Most people were taking their journey seriously, were abstaining from drinking wine and engaging only in small talk. Meanwhile, we made the most of the bottles of wine that kept coming and asked everyone about their journeys and reasons for walking the Camino. It was assumed by most that we too had started that day, like everyone else. Eventually, a slightly-inebriated Yanic stood up to make a toast to wish everyone good luck on their journeys, adding that we were celebrating reaching 1500k and our third country that day! The look of shock on other faces was absolutely priceless! We were the last to leave the accommodation the next day, yet we overtook all the people we met, and never met them again.
There were challenges behind us, and many more to come, but at that point we were riding on a high. I had just turned 28, Yanic 30 and rarely did we see people younger than us, consequently we did not feel that people took our journey very seriously, thinking that it must be ‘much easier’ for us. But looks can be deceiving; we had walked a very long way and had all the same challenges as everyone else.
We didn’t meet many people on the trail because by this point we were very fit and fast so when we did come across other pilgrims we would briefly chat and be on our way again. However, the Camino has an incredible way of facilitating instantaneous connection with people. There is an underlying depth of understanding that we are all on our own challenging journeys, and some people want to chat, and some not. But whenever we talked to fellow pilgrims, it was generally a quality talk, not menial small talk.
The walk through Spain, despite our physical and mental fitness, was still not short of challenges. The fitter we got, the more we pushed. After walking for over two months we were beginning to get ready for the end, and the challenge to stay in the present and honour our bodies became important. At the beginning, I had found pushing myself a big challenge because at that time the end seemed so far away. I knew we would get there eventually, but goals with the end in sight were not tangible in my mind. Yanic pushed both of us right from the beginning because he was worried we would never make it if we went at my pace. In Spain, however, the end was in sight, and we were ready to reach it – and soon. It was the 18th November when we crossed the border to Spain, winter was looming with shorter days and the nights getting too cold for camping. Our bodies and minds were also becoming exhausted, emotions were heightened and physical injuries were beginning to pop up more regularly. In Spain, a lot of the trail was flat, dry and long, so no longer was it so much about the scenery, but getting up early in the dark and walking lots of kilometres. The last 800k from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela which in our map book was supposed to take 34 days, we did in 20 days. In this time we had one day off because my blisters were so bad I could hardly walk.
Once we had to wait for Sunday to pass so I could buy yet another pair of shoes. While Yanic had soldiered on with one pair of shoes (which were falling apart at the end), I bought my third pair of shoes within our final week to get us to our destination. My feet had taken me to breaking point, and I was crying in pain from my blisters, for the third day in a row. I was exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually. However, these blisters had resulted from our own complete craziness when we’d decided to walk 88k in a 24-hour stint ‘for a challenge’, with another fellow crazy young English pilgrim we befriended. She was our most admired person we met on the Camino- we walked and stayed together for nearly a week. She was our kind of crazy and we worked together as a team to push our limits. When we walked 88km, she wanted to reach 100k so she kept going to reach 105. The Camino had given her so much that she had tailored her life to walk 6 months of the year, and work the other 6 months to finance it. She was an incredible inspiration for us.
The Camino is never short of providing inspiring individuals. The only pilgrim we met in Switzerland had walked from Czech Republic and had already walked 1000k when we were only a few days in and he left us in absolute awe. We met several people who had walked from North Germany, a whole family with 2 donkeys and a dog moving house, one person doing it completely without money, and another who, after a work accident, decided to walk to rehabilitate himself. Not only had he achieved this, he was walking back! These are just a few characters I vividly remember. The Camino certainly has a way of attracting people from all walks of life. It is not only about physical or mental fitness, but also pure determination to put one foot in front of the other every single day and respond to the challenges that arise. Given that we walked from September to December we were not acquainted with the numbers of people who walk in summer, only the dedicated few for whom weather is not such a barrier.
When we finally reached Santiago de Compostela it was quite an anticlimax. Walking through cities was always a little underwhelming as we left the beauty and tranquillity of the countryside to deal with the concrete jungles filled with many stressed and unhappy people. Walking into Santiago was no different, only very touristy. For our last couple of weeks we’d been starting the day in the dark, and stopping in the dark again, so arriving in Santiago was no exception. The days were getting shorter and we were generally on the road by about 6am and often walked until 8 or 9pm. We walked to the Cathedral exhausted, high-fived, and then spent hours trying to find pilgrim accommodation. I am not sure how we looked but a friendly man sent us to a ‘social shelter’ – where we were rejected because we were not Spanish! Eventually we found accommodation and were soon asleep.
The next day we awoke exhausted. Our feet were still swollen and my blisters were, again, terrible. We thought maybe our goal of walking to Finisterre was unrealistic. Just minutes before our 12pm checkout time, we thought “Stuff it, let’s stay”. Yanic fell back to sleep and I went down to book another night. However, the Universe had other plans for us as they were booked out. So we quickly packed our bags and headed out into the rain. We’d walked through rain for the last 2 days, and the thought of it again was not appealing. So we ambled among the sea of tourists to have a proper look at the Cathedral, and then went to the Camino office to fight for our certificates. Even though we had walked around 2500k we did not have the required two stamps a day on our passport. We were dumbfounded! Yanic was ready to pull out his laptop to go through all our thousands of photos of evidence from the last 3 months. Not only that, we had walked every single step of the way with all our luggage, not using any mode of transport apart from our own two feet. It was only to our detriment that we had camped and cooked our own food that we had limited access to stamps. After much discussion, they decided to make an ‘exception’ and give us our certificates. After this, and the thought of finding accommodation amongst the weekend tourists, we wanted to get out of Santiago. So, at 2pm, we again thought “Stuff it” and “Let’s at least try to go the 90k to the end-of-the-world, Finisterre”.
By this stage, we hadn’t camped for about a week as the temperature had dropped well below zero during the night and our budget camping gear was not sufficient for the freezing temperatures. We’d woken up with ice inside and outside our tent a few too many times. But another challenge that faced us on our way to Finisterre was limited pilgrim accommodation open in the low season. So, after deciding to leave at 2pm we walked only 25k before it was dark and accommodation could be found. It had been raining all day and we were cold and wet, so we stopped. The next day we awoke to pouring rain and strong winds. Most of the people in our accommodation caught public transport, but we were nearly at the end and did not want to catch transport in our last days. We waited until mid-morning but the weather did not improve, so out into the wild weather we went again. In no time we were soaked through. However we were ready to finish, so rather than sleep another night in pilgrim accommodation, we decided to walk ALL the way to Finisterre in one stint. We walked 68k in 21 hours for our last walk to the end-of-the-world, through pouring rain, wind, thunder and lightning. It was a great way to finish, albeit sometimes a little scary in the wild storm. When we arrived at 7am in Finisterre we were too exhausted to care. We had a break at a pub to refuel, before walking to the Finisterre lookout and back, literally walking to the ferocious ocean at the end-of-the-world. We then caught the bus back to Santiago, and straight to the airport. We were exhausted, and we needed home.
We arrived at the airport at 5pm that day. We hadn’t slept for nearly 36 hours, and we were beyond exhausted! Our feet were like four big water-logged swollen blisters when we finally took off our shoes. We’d been walking in wet shoes and socks nearly the whole time. We found a spot in the airport, set up our camping mattresses and slept until 5am the next day to catch a flight back to Switzerland, only waking to eat some food and fall back to sleep.
Our metabolisms were running hot, we were eating five meals a day by this point, but still were often hungry and losing weight! I had not eaten meat for nearly five years, but a month into the Camino I was not getting enough energy from a vegetarian diet, so began eating meat until the end. I did not enjoy it but it was what my body was craving. The day we finished I was very happy to stop eating meat again. However this allowed me to surrender to the needs of my body beyond my personal ego and beliefs, and since completing walking the Camino I no longer allow myself to feel shame around eating meat, if I feel my body needs the nutrients that meat provides. Despite only eating it a couple times since we finished walking, this was an important lesson for me in embracing rather than depriving. We ate out less than a handful of times throughout the Camino, shopping mostly at supermarkets, cooking our own meals and living largely on bread and cheese. We also had a great time finding food along the Way, walking through fields of fruit and vegetables already sown and finding ‘left over’ as well as wild chestnuts, walnuts, apples and pears. We called this ‘croportunities’. There were many mushrooms at this time, but with our limited knowledge it would have been risky to indulge given that they might be more toxic than beneficial. We did collect Magic Mushrooms however and dried them for later use. So despite our everlasting hunger, our diet was fun and diverse and we very much enjoyed embracing the opportunities that nature provided.
After we completed walking, it took us both a good month before we started to feel ‘normal’ again, when our feet stopped hurting, blisters healed, our muscles stopped aching and we started to feel energised again. While I had struggled with blisters and shoes throughout, Yanic had had ongoing problems with shin splints and towards the end had to purchase a strap and regularly ice them to ease the pain. We returned to Yanic’s family home from where we’d set out three months earlier. We were so grateful for his Mum’s incredible cooking and her willingness to give us space to overcome our exhaustion and come to terms with what we had just done.
It is only now through this writing I can truly reflect on the journey that was, and the journey that continues to live on within us. We realised that the Camino has an incredible way of providing exactly what you need, whether you want it or not. When one surrenders to all the gifts that The Way has to offer, many incredible lessons can be learnt and understood. The sacred path walked by so many has generated an energy that I have never experienced before, where revelations occur at a profound rate and where we learn from all those who have walked before us, and lay lessons for those to come. Neither of us actively practise religion or set out to gain any spiritual revelations, but it is difficult not to feel an ever-present feeling of love and guidance along the way. Every day we would feel a deeper connection to ourselves and each other as the walk progressed, as well as with all the other inspiring human beings and animals we met along the way. It was an adventure, but it was so much more. It was a walk to surrender. Surrendering to other people, nature, each other and most importantly, we surrendered to the expectations of ourselves.