Hi, my name is Leo Sage – I am 15 years old and in May this year, I finished walking my second Camino Francés with my Dad James. It was a very special journey – different in so many ways to my first Camino.
In 2019, I walked the CF with my Dad when I was 12. I was experiencing a few challenges in life. When I was 7, I was diagnosed with Anxiety and OCD and had become very anxious about the world around me, always needing to check that I was safe. At school, the other kids did not understand why I acted the way I did and I was bullied. I got help from many people, but things got so bad that I started to harm myself. My parents made some big changes to help me. In 2019, I started at a new school, which turned out to be a great decision. My parents also thought I needed to have a break so, in April 2019, Dad and I travelled to France and Spain to walk the Camino in 6 weeks. My parents hoped it would be an exciting journey that would also give me the chance to discover that the world was a safe place. It was both of those things.
My first Camino was amazing, and turned out to be a turning point for getting on top of my anxiety and enjoying life more. I saw and experienced many new things. On the Pyrenees, I saw snow for the first time. I learned to love Spanish food – especially Cola Cao and Napolitana for our second breakfasts. We met many amazing people from around the world, and are still in touch with many. On my second day, I met Raphaela from Germany who was my age. She and her family walked with us until Logroño then returned home. I really missed her after she left.
Cold winds on the plains of La Rioja
I really learned a lot about myself, my Dad, and the world on my first Camino. I learned to trust more. Even though we did not always know where we were going to stay, or what the trail ahead was going to be like, it did not always mean bad things would happen. In fact, often many unexpected and good things happened. I also learned everybody has times when things are difficult. Even my Dad, who is my rock and always seems to be able to do everything, had bad days on the Camino. Like walking with bad blisters, or worried when we couldn’t find a place to sleep. After each challenge, we ended up laughing when we worked things out.
There were times when things seemed really bad, like walking the 17km Roman Road from Carrion de los Condes on a really hot day. I did not think I could walk any further and was in a lot of pain. But we kept going, and Dad even ended up carrying me and my pack. When we got there, everyone was so friendly and helped me recover – I could see that even when things seem really bad, they have a way of working out and it is important to try and stay positive and look for the silver lining.
During our journey, I met many people with worse challenges than me. I spent some time walking with a man who was dying of cancer and yet he was travelling the Camino. I felt honoured to have spent time with him.
When we arrived at the top of Monte del Gozo, and I saw the Santiago cathedral spires for the first time, I burst out crying. I had not really believed that we would make it. Finishing the Camino showed me just how much I could achieve. I was really proud when adults came up to me and congratulated me. When I got home, I found I had more confidence to face challenges. My Camino journey definitely gave me that gift.
Leo and Raphaela: 2019 and 2022
Fast forward 3 years, after a world-wide pandemic, Dad asked me if I would like to walk the Camino with him again. He had been diagnosed with depression and needed to take some time off. For the second time, we would be walking the Camino for our mental health and Dad and I talked about using our walk to do something positive for others with mental illness. I decided to support a research project called ‘Big Talks for Little People’ to help young children at school suffering from mental illness. It is a program that would have helped me a lot. The Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation helped me set up a donation site for my cause. I saw this as a chance to ‘pay forward’ the gift that the first Camino had given me.
They say that every Camino is different and this was true for us. We decided to walk the same route again because pilgrims on other routes were saying they could not find open facilities since the Covid shutdown. We met several others who had given up trying to walk the del Norte route because so little was open. While we knew the Francés route, everything else was different including the weather, the people, and even some things about the Camino itself. We started walking on 31 March from SJPDP. There was bad weather forecast so we walked the Valcarlos route. As we arrived at Roncesvalles, it turned very cold and it started to snow. I had never seen falling snow before and everyone laughed when I ran outside into the cold to see it. Even after the snow, it remained much colder than our last journey for much of the trip. Many days, the temperatures were below 15°C and even as low as -4°C.
Many things were just as we remembered, including the difficult descent into Zubiri, and the need to book accommodation there to avoid missing out. Other things were different. Many cafes or albergues were closed, some in hibernation, and some permanently. From Zubiri to Pamplona, there was not a single place open to eat the whole way, not even the fantastic cafe at the bridge at Zurain. However, many albergues had been upgraded. Most bathrooms were freshly renovated and we did not need to hold the shower heads up, or put them back on the wall. More albergues also had washing machines and dryers now and offered washing services. We only had to hand wash our gear on three occasions.
It seemed to us that the Spanish were also really pleased to see us and talking with them was much easier. Last time, the locals had been quite reserved when we were doing our best to speak Spanish, admittedly quite badly, but this time they did their best to help us communicate. It made a big difference, and we had a lot more laughs with café and albergue owners. In some places, the locals even remembered us, and in one case the owner of the store proudly showed me the kangaroo pin I had given her 3 years ago.
Another big difference was the effect of COVID-19. We did not need to show our vaccination paperwork but locals were very strict about wearing masks. Even when the requirement to wear masks was officially dropped in Spain, many locals still preferred to wear them both inside and out. We decided it was a sign of respect to wear a mask whenever we entered a shop or business. We also quickly learned that pulling a Buff over your nose was not considered an acceptable alternative. During our journey, my Dad caught COVID-19 near Burgos. Information about what to do was really hard to find but Dad got fantastic help from the 112 Help line. The operator arranged for the Medical Director of the León region to call us and explain what the rules were. Dad did not need to isolate, and could continue. We did not want to be the cause of anyone catching COVID, so Dad booked single rooms in albergues (sometimes hard to find) until he tested negative. When we stopped at cafes, Dad ate outside in the cold while everyone else was inside. Thankfully, I didn’t catch it, and neither did anyone else we were with.
It was also noticeable how much the Camino pathway had been maintained since our last journey. The waymarkers had been repainted, there was a lot of new signage, and many pathways had been repaired and landscaped – especially between Sarria and Santiago. I also noticed that the average age of pilgrims was younger . Last time most pilgrims were Dad’s age or older. This time, most of our Camino family were much younger and I developed a big group of friends in their mid 20s. Emma from Utrecht was also a choral singer like me and whenever we entered an empty church or chapel we would sing together. It was a unique and wonderful experience. The architecture was beautiful and the acoustics were perfect.
In 2019, I did not bring a phone so we could focus on our journey. This time, I had my phone so I could take photos and stay in touch with Dad and other pilgrims on the trail. I also had a credit card, so I could go and order food and coffees at rest stops instead of Dad always doing it. I could also buy myself and others drinks and food when I met up with my Camino friends after walking each day. The bars didn’t seem to have any problems with me ordering and paying for beer for other pilgrims. I really enjoyed the extra independence, and I know Dad benefited from having some quiet time after each day’s walk as well.
We had many Camino magic moments. On different occasions we left our credentials, and my sleeping bag, behind in cafes. Our albergue hosts did amazing things to help us and would not hear of us taking a taxi to get them. In the case of my lost sleeping bag, our albergue host phoned each place we could remember stopping at until we found it 75kms behind us. He then arranged for friends and family to bring it up the trail and deliver it to me. It was a special reminder of the generosity of others on the Camino. We made sure we left very positive online reviews about their albergues.
We also had a wonderful surprise when Raphaela and her mother Ruth arranged to join us at Logroño, where they had stopped last time, and walk with us to Carrion de los Condes. It was great to catch up with her again – we had both grown up quite a bit since we had last seen each other. Now I was taller than she was, but her English was now almost better than mine. It was certainly better than my German.
Another Camino moment was meeting Grant and James from Australia. In 2019, Dad wrote an article for the AFotC newsletter (Issue 30) about travelling with a young pilgrim. Grant had contacted him to learn more as he was thinking of travelling with his son James, who is the same age as me. On this Camino, as we were leaving Carrion de los Condes, a man came over to Dad and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Grant from Newcastle, and this is my son James”. Grant had recognised us from the photos in the newsletter article! Their original plans for 2020 had been put on hold by Covid and by some amazing coincidence they were here now at the same time as us. We became immediate friends and later walked with them for the last week into Santiago, sharing some Aussie humour!
Galicia border marker – cleaned and landscaped
It was interesting to pass through places where we had really had tough days last time. We walked the dreaded Roman Road this time in just 3 hours whilst chatting with James and Grant. It made me realise how far I had come physically and mentally since I was here last. My return to the Cruz de Ferro was particularly special. I had a lot to thank the Camino for since the last time I had stood next to the tall cross with my stone from home.
Being older and stronger also made this a different experience. Last time we had forwarded my pack a few times. This time I decided I wanted to carry my pack every day and we also gave ourselves a few long distance day challenges, so we could get to stay in towns we had missed last time or just because we felt like having a good long walk that day. We walked 35km, 40km and even 45km days – each time finishing sore but with a huge sense of achievement. One day, when we walked a double stage and passed through Sarria after lunchtime, we found there was not another pilgrim in sight on the trail. It was very different and peaceful on a beautiful section of the trail. We spent time alone with the famous 100km marker, now all pristine and landscaped.
Being a Holy Year, there were many more people on The Way as we approached Santiago. I met a class of school kids my age from Bilbao walking the last 100km and we exchanged contact details. One night, they came to visit me at my albergue because they wanted to hear about my Camino journey and Australia. It was great to meet up with kids my age and learn about their lives too.
Our last long distance day – the final walk into Santiago – was almost a bit too ambitious. We started from Arzúa and were keen to make it to Santiago that day, a distance that ended up being 41km. We were going well until I started getting stomach pains. The last 10km into Santiago took a very long time, but I was determined we would finish our Camino. When we finally made it to the Obradoiro Square many hours later, I hugged my Dad and we lay on the cobblestones with our heads on our backpacks, exhausted, looking at the Cathedral quietly for a long time. Walking and finishing that last tough day with my Dad will be a particularly special memory for both of us.
0km marker at Finisterre—joy!
This Camino, we did some things we could not do previously. The renovation of the Cathedral interior was now complete, and we were able to attend the Pilgrims Mass, and see the botafumeiro swing – a wonderful way to end to our journey. I was also now old enough so Dad and I could get our matching scallop shell tattoos on our ankles.
We have now completed two Caminos, and in both cases The Way has given us something very special and memorable, including helping each of us with our mental wellbeing in a unique way. When walking, I was sometimes asked why I was on the Camino, so I told them about my history, and the cause I was walking for. Many pilgrims generously made donations. As we were leaving Sarria, we heard someone running to catch us — Chuck, an American who we had walked with on the Meseta and not seen since. “Thank goodness we found you – my wife and I have been wanting to make a donation ever since we met you but we didn’t get your details!” he said. I was really touched by their generosity.
In so many ways, the Camino is a gift – it may not seem so at the time especially on long hard days, or when your feet are blistered and your legs are aching, or when you struggle to find a place to eat or to sleep. But all of these are part of the experience, as are meeting wonderful people who are gracious, generous and happy to share a small piece of themselves, which stays with you forever. With my second Camino done, I am now focussing on my fundraising cause. I have raised just over $6,000 but I want to get to my target of $10,000 by the end of this year, when I hope to present my cheque to the Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation. This will be my way to pass on my Camino ‘gift’. The link is below if you would like to support my cause.