A wet cold night, a priest and a pizza … this was the start of my Camino. My husband was away and I was home alone with our French intern student. We decided to go into town for a gourmet pizza treat. At the entrance to the restaurant we were greeted by the local priest who had a young Italian couple with him, needing somewhere to stay. We all decided to eat together so the Europeans could have a chat. The Italian couple were professionals who’d left their jobs to travel the world for 12 months. After pizza, wine and cheese, we were relaxed and warm and the Italian lady took off her shoes to reveal a scallop shell tattooed on her ankle… “We walked the Camino trail and it was one of the best things I have done in my life.”Curious, shortly afterwards I purchased some books on the subject, including John Brierley’s guidebook. “A pilgrim? What is a pilgrim?” I asked myself. I was also intrigued by the subtitle on the cover: “A Practical and Mystical Manual for the Modern Day Pilgrim”. This started a seed which, over the next 12 months, grew into a persistent feeling of need to walk this trail. I simply had to do it. My husband decided walking was not his idea of a holiday but, as my feelings and need grew stronger, he became easier with the idea of my doing it solo.
Initially I had little understanding of what Brierley was trying to express about the spirituality of the Camino. On his website I found a self-review questionnaire, printed off several copies and filled out the first one a year before my trip. By this time, having booked my flight, I was committed. But I still didn’t really know why I was going – I just knew I needed to. I had to lose some weight and change some habits, so I took up meditation and yoga and started to lead a healthier lifestyle. And about 6 months prior to my departure date, I filled out my second Brierley questionnaire. One question I focused on was… “How do you define spirituality? What does it mean to you?” I answered “growth of the soul”.
It was interesting to see how my thoughts and lifestyle had changed during these 6 months of mental and spiritual preparation. Physical training was another matter. It was tough! But I gradually became comfortable with my new hiking shoes and backpack. My dog and I learned to enjoy our ever longer walks together. Friends also helped me to prepare for the journey. Gifts, including a journal, merino hand-knitted socks and other special items encouraged me and gave me strength later on when I was walking the long distances in Spain. I had some scallop shells to take, a painted rock to leave at the Cruz de Ferro, and pieces of jewellery made from shells and recycled material. On the back of the shell on a necklace, I wrote, “look and seek”.
Feeling mentally clear and prepared, I was now ready for my journey. My ancestors originated from Europe, so in a sense I was returning home. I felt the need to visit Mont St Michel in France, a place of blessing to ask St Michael for protection. Words can- not describe the uniqueness of this place. I imagined knights and leaders of men making pilgrimage here before going into battle or on crusade to Jerusalem. I entered the church high on the rock and found an old font with holy water and a carved plaque of scallop shells. It felt an appropriate place to bless my journey and my own shells.
It was there I also heard the beautiful harmony of women’s voices. Instinctively I followed the singing to a small secret chapel decorated with ancient icons and burning candles. The singing of priests and nuns in a foreign language was enchanting and brought many of us to tears. Here I purchased a tiny statue of St Michael to protect me during my journey and left this place feeling calm, protected and ready to begin my Camino. I began my pilgrimage, open to any experiences which might present. There are many challenges on the Camino and many reasons why people undertake such a long journey on foot.
I soon learnt that my teachers were the people I met on the way. I found my best walking companions were those who walked the slowest. My first encounter was on Day 2, walking with a very patient Chilean geologist. He lifted my back- pack and thought it weighed about 13kg, though to me it felt like 20kg. He said I should post unnecessary items to Santiago from Pamplona and encouraged me to make it to Zubiri just on dark as the rain set in.
It was April, still cold in the mountains and many places were closed as the pilgrim season had not yet fully opened. When a group of girls invited me to join them for dinner at Zubiri, I wrapped myself in my woollen shawl, put on my ugg boots and headed off with them to the nearest place to eat just as snow started to fall. There were 10 of us together sharing a pilgrim meal… the Chilean guy purchased some good Navarrete red wine to share. Excited, we all went around the table asking why we were walking the Camino. Some older single men were looking for like-minded part- ners; others simply wanted to find them- selves. One wanted to find peace away from shallow materialism. Some wanted to explore the history and culture, or just to get fit. When it came to me I said “I really don’t know. I have a husband. I am not looking for anyone.”
In the afternoon of Day 4, I met a 75+ year old lady from Germany just outside Pamplona. I was quite excited as she was the first pilgrim I could actually pass since she was even slower than I was! We climbed the steep hill to the wind farm together to take photographs at the metal cut sculptures of pilgrims (see right) on horse, donkey and foot who had made the journey for the last 1000+ years. “Where the way of the wind crosses the way of the stars”. The view was amazing and gave us our first real comprehension of where we had come from and the long way ahead.
By Day 5, however, I was already behind schedule. It was raining and I set off on a mission to make up time. On the way I met a woman from Colorado who walked at my pace. An experienced trekker, she was fascinating to talk to. We enjoyed a break of strong Spanish coffee and pastries at a local café in Puente la Reina, but during the day the temperature dropped. By lunch time we’d reached the medieval village, Cirauqui. It was still 11.2 km to the next town of Villatuerta and now snowing, so we decided to stay in Cirauqui in the lovely al- bergue there. We hugged each other and really appreciated a hot shower and the lovely dinner in the old wine cellar. I was still a day behind schedule. Unfor- tunately, my friend from Colorado was experiencing painful strains and was ad- vised to go to the hospital in Logrono. We struggled together into Los Arcos, drinking left over free red wine in our plastic bottle from the wine fountain just outside Estella. In Logrono, the doctors advised my friend to rest for 4 days so, sadly, we parted company.
Slowly I learned to accept each day as it came, rather than make bold plans. To enjoy the company of the people I met, I had to learn that I may not have each one for long. And by Day 9 it was apparent that I was carrying too much so I decided to use the luggage service.
In Belorado on Day 11, I met up with a quiet German guy whom I’d met a couple of times before. We appreciated the rock formations and villages in the region, and ended up both staying at a quirky private guest house, Casa Waslala. While walking together, he shared that he had been very sick and was lucky to be alive. His pilgrimage was one of gratitude that he was still here.
My blisters were now hurting and I was trying desperately to stop any infections. My German companion’s hips were hurting. We both managed to walk through the almost 12km of forest before the monastery hostel of San Juan de Ortega, but the next day we had to find a bus so he could get to Burgos to a doctor. That night after visiting the Burgos cathedral together, we had a lovely dinner and said goodbye.
I decided I was bad luck to anyone I walked with for any length of time so I tried to be friendly but not get attached to anyone. At one hostel I shared a room with an older French couple. I was really concerned when the women talked and screamed during the night as if she was possessed. Although I couldn’t under- stand the words it was very creepy. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and as soon as it was light enough to see I was gone.
On the way I stopped at the church at Hontanas for some quiet time alone. It had a meditation area with cushions and books and you could buy a candle and place it in the sand pit.
The next days were peaceful and I walked a lot on my own. I found these days to be very beautiful, going through remote country side with mesas, flowering fruit trees, sleepy villages at siesta time and the amazing gateway of the Medie- val Monastery of San Anton, the patron saint of animals. It’s funny how small things such as a smile or someone saying “Hola” can be so affirming and enjoyable.