This summer, I walked the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St James, which is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the north east of Spain, where the bones of St James are supposedly buried.
The route has been walked by pilgrims since the 9th century, when it was an expression of the transnational unity of Christendom, and also, later, a celebration of the liberation of Spain from the Moors – indeed, one of Santiago’s less politically correct nick-names is Santiago Matamoros, or St James the Muslim Killer.
The route fell into disuse during the decades when Spain was cut off from Europe under Franco’s dictatorship, but has come back to life under the EU, who have put funding into maintaining it as a symbol of Europe’s new transnational unity.
Today, around a quarter of a million pilgrims from all over the world do the Camino each year, by foot, by bicycle, by motorbike, by bus, even by donkey. They start in many different places, depending on how much time they have and how much they want to walk. I met one pilgrim, a lady in her fifties, who had started from her house in Geneva, and walked over 2,000km to Santiago.
I started in one of the traditional starting spots – St Jean Pied de Port, in the French Pyrenees – and walked the 800km or so to Santiago over the next four weeks. It was an amazing adventure.
People walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons. I met a Dutch lady walking the Camino while she considered whether to stay in her marriage (I think she decided to go back to her husband). I met an Austrian man wondering whether to change jobs to enjoy a more outdoor life (he got terrible blisters on the second day).
Some walk it for religious reasons – I met a crazy young Catholic convert called Oliver, who would sometimes walk well into the night and sleep in fields. He described himself as a professional pilgrim, and was adamant that proper followers of Christ should give up all their possessions and head out on the road. I asked him what he’d do after he reached Santiago. He instantly replied: ‘I’ll do another pilgrimage. A proper one this time.’
Some even walked the Camino to find love. I met a roly-poly Ecuadorean who’d been sent on the Camino by his mother to find a nice Catholic girl to marry. Others enjoyed brief romantic encounters – after all, pilgrims get their sins forgiven if they reach Santiago.
My friends wondered if the pilgrimage would be some sort of self-flagellating exercise in masochism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, walking 25km every day for a month is demanding, but it’s not that bad. In fact, the majority of pilgrims were in their sixties or seventies. (It’s quite dispiriting being overtaken by a sprightly seventy-year-old on the road).
And the Camino is very social, quite boozy, and a lot of fun. You get to walk through mountains, through Rioja’s wine-growing valleys, through cities like Leon and Pamplona, through Galicia’s misty hills. You get the beautiful simplicity of having only one goal each morning when you wake up: head west.
And you get the solidarity of walking with your fellow pilgrims – Catholic, atheist, New Agers, yoga instructors…I even met a saleswoman from Ann Summers. Their reasons for walking the Camino are many, but we all share the fantastic experience, and we all help each other on the Way.