April 2020: Due to the Covid-19 health crisis travel on the Camino is not possible. We need to keep safe, and we need to keep those who live and work on the Camino safe. The Camino will not disappear, it is just temporarily inaccessible. Keep your Camino dreams on hold until such times as it is safe to travel. Read more
It doesn’t look like it. The pandemic has seen to that. So let’s dig up a recent story of a Camino experience. Being asked to recall and write the story of my Camino will test my memory on the details, especially as it was two years ago and I don’t have my journal. As I write about my Camino, it’s 10am Sunday morning on 12 July, 2020, and I’m sitting on a bench on the coastal path overlooking the beautiful Moulin Huet Bay in Guernsey in the Channel Islands off the coast of France, but it is a part of the UK. Below the cliffs the calm crystal blue waters are full of sail and motor launches anchored in the tiny bays, taking advantage of the warm summer weather. I can see Jerbourg Point, Le Petit Port, Le Vier Port and Saints Bay, as well as an old WWII German bunker. What am I doing here, and for nearly six months? Well, that’s another story.
Last year in 2019 I walked much of Via Podiensis (GR65) from Le-Puy-en-Velay in France with diversions. Plus the GR70 old Roman trading route to Nimes. But that’s another story for another time also. Which brings me to April 2018, my Camino walk from St Jean Pied-de-Port to Santiago. There are many names for this pilgrimage walk. The Camino. The Camino de Santiago. The pilgrimage of Compostela. The Way of St James. Camino Francés. The French Way. Route of Santiago de Compostela, plus many other names I’m sure. Most of us just call it the Camino.
Much has been written about the Camino, the reasons for walking, the benefits, the feelings, the minimising, the struggles, the pain, the tears, the feet, the friendships, the searching for truth and meaning of one’s existence, the stories etc. Those who walk the entire 800kms will experience all these feelings, doubts, sadness, happiness – more. The Camino from St Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain to Santiago will change you physically, mentally and emotionally. You start the walk as one person, a person you think you know, but you finish a different person. I thought that I was a pretty self-sufficient, resilient, stoic and confident person. I was before my Camino and was after my Camino. But something did change, and dramatically.
Cruz de Ferro
As it turned out in my final year before I retired in 2014 I was asked by a friend and car-pooling colleague to return a DVD to the Library with the suggestion that I might enjoy watching it first. After looking at the cover and reading the commentary on the back, I said that it was not my sort of movie but would return it to the Library anyway. However, I did eventually watch it, somewhat reluctantly. Of course we all know the movie ‘The Way’. It was such an inspiring and emotional story. The seed was sown, the idea of this walk was planted.
Although I had retired from my working life and moved to be close to family, I did not enjoy the suburban single man’s lifestyle. I pottered for four years, always keeping busy with gardening, vegetable growing, house maintenance, volunteering and domestic duties. Always cheerful and positive.
My adult children had encouraged me to have a holiday somewhere interesting, as holidays and travel had never been on my list of things to do. I think that they thought a cruise or a week in Asia somewhere would be of interest to me. That Camino ‘seed’ that had been planted four years ago began to grow. I just went to the travel agent and booked a flight – into Paris and out of Madrid. My family were more than surprised as I’m not a traveller or a walker. The only walk I had done was into Lake Pedder in Tassie, before it was flooded.
As I am not a walker, I had no hiking gear at all. I did buy a few items and borrowed a sleeping bag and backpack. With no real preparations and no walking training prior, I got on the plane and off I went to Europe. Never been there before! Strange, but just had to go, even without the usual planning, thought or preparations. I was asked several times about how I felt about travelling alone – and at my age! – to foreign countries. Once again, strange but I had no feelings of trepidation of the unknown. Looking back, I think that I had a sense that I’d had a good life, that I was on borrowed time and what’s the worst that could happen to me? I threw caution to the wind.
I keep saying ‘strangely’ but everything about that 10-week trip starts with ‘strangely’. The flight to Paris was supposedly a long, arduous, 24-hour ordeal but strangely I was at peace, relaxed and enjoyed it all. My pilgrimage started when I left home. I’m sure that it’s a mindset. I was going on an adventure – I was going to enjoy every minute of it, from beginning to end. And I did.
I had thought that if I arrived in Paris in early morning I’d have all day to adjust then sleep in the evening. Luckily it worked—no jet lag. Arriving in April there was a train strike so I spent hours in the Underground being directed to several train stations looking for the elusive and a ‘maybe’ train to Bayonne that day. Eventually, with minutes to spare, I caught the only TGV high speed train to Bayonne.
What excitement, and it was only Day 1. Arriving late afternoon into Bayonne I found a place for the night with no problem. Just a note here – many pilgrims booked ahead for accommodation but if you want the excitement of the unknown then just look for a bed in the town or village when you get there each night. What’s the worst that can happen? You sleep in a church porch or knock on a door. Unless it’s snowing, it won’t kill you. That didn’t happen to me but I was prepared to do just that – sleep out. Maybe next time – with luck.
Day 2: no trains to St Jean-Pied-de-Port – strike still on, so a bus full of new pilgrims like me and of all ages. St Jean Pied de Port is such a beautiful medieval town. I’ve always loved history, architecture and old buildings, so this was the beginning of my adventure, full of history and walking. I was excited. With the thick snow still on the Pyrenees and the Napoleon Route over the top closed (although some pilgrims tried), I walked the Charlemagne Route via Valcarlos and up to the Monastery at Roncesvalles, taking two days. Not a pretty walk from Valcarlos, a tough uphill slog of mostly winding roadway with snow close to the top. It rained heavily most of the day.
Halfway up the Pyrenees I encountered my first ‘Camino angel’. I was wet through, my boots and feet were soaked and I was alone. The driving rain made walking with my heavy backpack difficult and exhausting. Snow was piled on the side of the road and workmen were clearing rockfalls. I must have looked a sight because one of the workmen came over to me to see if I was OK. He was a huge gentle giant of a man who spoke quietly and with kindness. He left me with “Buen Camino. God bless you and keep you safe.” I’m not prone to being emotional but it took all my power to remain composed, but later it did have an effect on me. Even now I get emotional when I think of that incident – I certainly am not able to re-tell that story. I’m not religious but it did have a powerful effect on me at the time.
So my first encounter with the unexpected and it was only Day 2 of the walk. At the end of that gruelling day – remember I’m not a walker and certainly unaccustomed to carrying a heavy backpack and up a mountain! – I reached Roncesvalles just before dark. There were quite a few pilgrims in the queue. Some had managed to get through the Napoleon Route in the heavy snow, with difficulty.
I would have been the oldest person that day to reach the summit, and possibly the most dishevelled and tired-looking. I don’t want to admit it but I was exhausted and looking back, I did stagger into the monastery. A volunteer who patrolled the queue of pilgrims unexpectedly removed me from the line and took me to a warm room and helped me off with my boots and gear. With a cup of tea and sweet biscuits, I thawed out. Was this my second ‘Camino angel’ in one day? Once again, composure was required.
After resting and considered to have recovered somewhat, I was ushered to the front of the queue and signed in for the night. I was escorted with my pack and shown my bunk – a lower bunk. After what was to become the evening routine over the next few weeks – feet were checked and discussed, clothing and boots were left to dry, showered and finally food – lots of food – to restore the engine ready for the next day.
Just before lights out as everyone was settling into their bunks or last-minute reorganisation of equipment, singing wafted up the corridor. “Happy Birthday to you…” We all looked out to see whose birthday it was (11 April). The small group of volunteers stopped at my bunk. Of course I knew it was my birthday, and a milestone birthday—the booking-in volunteer had spotted my date of birth on my passport. So everyone was singing in the dorm by now. They brought a small cake with one lighted candle plus a glass of red wine. Once again, for the third time in one day, I found it hard to remain composed. What lovely people – the volunteers, so kind and thoughtful, so welcoming and caring. So that was my third ‘Camino angel’ for the day and it was still only Day 2 of my walk.
What an unbelievable beginning to what was to become a life-changer of a pilgrimage. Many things happened along “The Way”. The challenges of the walking and the people I met. The conversations, the traumatised and stressed who opened up to a stranger, wanting to tell their story to a grandfather figure who would listen and not judge. Many young people live in a more complicated world, many who seek a new beginning. It’s amazing and surprising how quickly people got to know each other throughout the journey. I think the fellow pilgrims on the Camino were the most important part of the trip. The daily ritual of walking was just brilliant but it’s the people you meet from all over the world.
So what about the rest of my Camino after Day 2, I hear you ask? The following several weeks were full of ‘Community, Walking, History and Fun’. Full of experiences, tough sections, challenges, happiness, peace and contentment. Walking by yourself or with others was up to each individual. You were in total charge each day, staying where you wanted, walking for as short or long as you wanted, etc. Certainly a feeling of freedom and with all your possessions on your back. The simple life.
On reaching Santiago it was a wonderful feeling of achievement, of walking 800kms – who does that? No-one I know. Considering I was contemplating giving up after Day 2, walking into Santiago I was fitter, more youthful (?) and beaming with delight. I was a very happy pilgrim. I had changed. I’d had time for reflection, time to be in touch and be a feeling person again, time to know myself more. The Camino gives you that time. Time for everything you need to sort out in your life. When I returned to Australia in June 2018, I started to clear out the physical
clutter in my life. After living out of a backpack which by the end of the trip had only the bare essentials, and staying in albergues, returning to a suburban house full of stuff was overpowering. What happened after my return home is another story. During my Camino I was told that the Camino would call me back. I said it won’t – but it is.
So the Camino with its Community, Walking, History and Fun that I thought was just a walking challenge is much, much more. If you have the time … No. Just make the time. Go and experience the Camino for yourself. Go on your own. Experience the journey for yourself. You will love it and return a different and better person.