Walking the Camino de Santiago
A beautiful and informative piece written by Joseph O'Neill on the famous Camino de Santiago experience:
I had always wanted to walk the Camino and, as luck would have it, was able to take 5 weeks off in May of 2019 and begin this journey with my father. It was an incredible experience full of highs and lows, laughter and tears, and a great way to shift a few kilos. On the eve of our first day, a volunteer in the Pilgrim Centre in St Jean told me “this is the way of miracles”. He was right. Miracles happen every day, big and small, we just need to look for them.
The Camino de Santiago is, basically, a very long walk. There are many routes but traditionally, it starts in St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees and goes for 800k to Santiago de Compostela in the north west of Spain. In reality, the Camino begins at your front door – many say that the Camino begins the day you were born. I’m not giving too much away when I say that the Camino represents your journey – your life. As you walk, you realise what is important, and how little you actually need to be happy. As I sit at home on day 13 of self-isolation, I am reminded, once again, of what is important and what is just stuff.
Before I began the walk, I read many articles and books and, of course, watched the movie ‘The Way’ more than once. So, for whoever is interested, here are my tips for walking to Santiago de Compostela – the Field of Stars.
Decide how much of the Camino you want to walk
We did it all, because we had the time, but walking it in stages over a number of years is a really good way to prolong it and make getting to Santiago all the more rewarding. As we walked though Dublin Airport on our way to Biarritz, we met a guy who had walked the first stage of the Camino seven times. He had no intention of doing any of the other stages anytime soon. At the time, I thought he was mad, but now, understand why. The first few days are the toughest, physically, but also the most rewarding. It’s when you make your Camino friends and the whole journey lies ahead. While there is so much joy in completing the Camino, there is also sadness that it’s over and you seriously question what you’ll do with the rest of your life. The guy in Dublin airport is living, and reliving the best part of the journey, and I can’t blame him for that.
What to Bring
Actually, this should be called, what not to bring. Even though I read all the advice going, I still packed too much and paid the price for it. You don’t need an iPad, or books or 5 pairs of trousers. I thought all these things would come in handy and, when I tried my backpack on, it felt ok – not too heavy. Not too heavy becomes ridiculously heavy by day 3. Keep your backpack below 10kg.
The essentials, in my opinion, are:
- Good walking boots
- 2 pairs of walking trousers – preferably ones that can zip off to become shorts
- 2-3 tops
- A fleece
- Sleeping bag
- Waterproof jacket
- Enough socks and underwear for 4 days
- Small First Aid kit
- Flip-flops or running shoes
- Thick plastic bag (for storing dirty clothes, or to keep things dry when it rains)
- Essential toiletries
Anything else you can buy on the Camino. You’ll need laundry soap and food but there is no point getting that stuff until you actually need it. Also, plan on spending around €30 per day for food, beers and lodgings.
This, along with your boots, is probably the most important thing to get right. Your backpack will be with you for the whole trip and it has to be comfortable. I used an old backpack and the shoulder straps were too thin – they really cut into me for the whole trip and I cursed myself for not taking the time to get a new one. It would have made the journey more comfortable. Take time, and spend a bit of money on this – you will be so glad that you did.
My dad is the only person I know, or have ever heard of, who didn’t get blisters along the way. My blisters started on day 3 and by day 6 were really bad. There is so much advice on how to avoid them and treat them. Looking back, I would recommend taking your boots off every time you stop to let your socks dry out. If you need to, change your socks a few times each day and have running shoes to change into for flat roads.
My blisters were so bad at one point that I was going to get a train to Leon (3 days walk from where I was) and rest my feet. That evening, I met a nurse from Germany who gave me some mysterious brown cream for my blisters. Whatever it was, it worked and I was able to continue the walk the next day.
This would be my top tip for the Camino. Download the App called Frances. It is a guide to the whole walk and costs around €6. The best money I spent preparing for the Camino. It has every town, bar, café and albergue and I used it every day. Choosing which albergue to stay in can be tricky. Often, you’re so tired when you get to a town, you’ll want to stop at the first one you see. On the Frances App, you can see reviews from pilgrims and make your decision based on that.
The most amazing thing about the Camino is the people you meet along the way. Be open to talking to, and walking with, everyone. Sometimes you spend a whole day with someone you like and then not see them for two weeks. Sometimes you’ll get stuck with someone you can’t stand and you’ll see them every day for two weeks. And sometimes, you meet people who have the most amazing stories, you walk with them, have dinner with them and then, never see them again. There are so many people I met on the Camino who I often think about – the lady from New York who was carrying the ashes of her son, the guy in his early 40s who just lost is wife to cancer, the really annoying Canadian who always wanted to ask why all 3 of his wives left him. The people you meet make your Camino what it is, much like the people in our lives make us who we are.
Follow the signs
All along the Camino, there are yellow arrows to direct you. Sometimes, you may not see one for a few hours and worry that you’ve taken the wrong road. Stop and look – the arrows are always there. Much like in life, the signs are there if we just slow down and look for them.
So, if you’ve ever thought about walking the Camino, my advice to you is do it! People always ask me what did I learn from it. I learned that it wasn’t my Camino, it was my dad’s. His best friend from childhood was dying in Canada it and he found the words to say goodbye to him while we were walking. I learned that you don’t always get the answers you want, there was no lightbulb moment. I learned that life is what you make of it and your attitude determines so much of it. I also learned that we have the capacity to be greater than we know and better than we believe.
I plan to walk it again, all of it or in stages. Perhaps my lightbulb moment will come on my seventh time. Buen Camino!