As our 30th anniversary approached, my wife Cora and I were searching the Cruise and Resort brochures for a suitable destination to celebrate. We had rented a condo on the beach in Maui for our 25th, so the bar had been set pretty high.
Driving home from work one evening listening to CBC, I heard a reporter talking about a historic walk or actually a pilgrimage that she had just completed. It was along the north coast of Spain and it was called the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. She described the walk over the Pyrenees from France to the North-West corner of Spain and said that people had been making this walk since the 12th century or earlier. I was intrigued.
Over dinner I mentioned this to my wife and coincidentally she had also heard the same program and had the same reaction – this was the trip we wanted to take for our Wedding Anniversary. And so began our research.
We found out that the town was called Santiago after Saint James, one of the 12 Apostles, who according to tradition was buried there. Since the 12th century, trips to this remote location was considered one of the most important pilgrimages for Christians, in fact it was considered the third most important only after Rome and Jerusalem.
The complete route within Spain is about 800 kilometers and can take five to six weeks to complete. We could only take 2 weeks off work so we decided to start from Leon, which is about 350 kilometers from Santiago.
Since we would be walking up to 35 kilometers a day often through rugged and steep hills and carrying back-packs, we had to go into training for a couple of months before the trip. We got a few strange looks walking along the Credit River bank decked out with our Tilley hats, back-packs and hiking boots.
Eventually in September we flew to Madrid and then took the train up to Leon. The temperature was in the mid-30’s when we arrived. We were thankful that we did not come in mid-summer. We found the place to register and they gave us our “passports” which would be stamped by every hostel and restaurant along the way, each with their own unique stamp. This would be our proof of completion.
They also gave us our Conch shell, which is the symbol of the Camino, to wear on our neck or attach to our back-packs to identify us as Peregrinos or Pilgrims. There are many benefits bestowed on Peregrinos, including free medical attention at any clinic or hospital should we need it.
That night we slept in the first of many Refugios or Hostels. We slept on the floor in our sleeping bags. Not quite the accommodation we were used to, but sleep came easy due to the jet lag and possibly helped by the dinner and local wine.
The next morning we were given coffee and bread before heading out on our journey. Local volunteers also gave each of us a walking staff which they had made. These proved to be very handy for walking but also for hanging laundry and even fighting off the occasional aggressive dog along the way.
Then they ushered us off with the greeting we would hear hundreds of times from walkers and locals along the route – “Buon Camino.”
Nowadays, about one third of the people are religious pilgrims, one third are secular hikers and one third are just there for the adventure and the challenge. Since everyone walks at different speeds you are always passing or getting passed by someone.
These are opportunities to connect with other people and are some of the most memorable parts of the trip. We would end up meeting dozens of people during our walk, people from many countries on every continent, from teenagers to Octogenarians.
I speak some high school French and Italian and Cora speaks pretty good Spanish so at each meeting there was a little dance to see if there is a language in which we could communicate. Usually there was, but failing that, sign language with some key words seems to work just as well.
Sometimes we would meet people several days later at a restaurant or a hostel and we would be like long lost friends, exchanging tidbits about the sights we had seen or the state of our blisters.
This was the hardest and most enjoyable trip that we have ever taken. Walking in all kinds of weather and carrying a backpack weighing 15 pounds or so, sleeping in hostels or monasteries, often with 40 or 50 other snoring people in the room. It does not sound like fun, but it is.
We carried two sets of clothes, any excess were discarded after the first day to lighten the pack. We usually reached our destination mid to late afternoon each day. We would be exhausted but before we could rest we had to wash our clothes and hang them out to dry for the next day.
All restaurants along the way have a special Peregrino Meal. It is a substantial three-course meal along with a jug of beer or wine for about $10. No matter how much you eat or drink, it is hard not to lose weight walking 30-plus kilometers every day.
We reached Santiago after 12 days having walked about 350 kilometers in all. We produced our stamped passports and got our certificates, completely in Latin, including our names. If you ever feel the urge to shun all modern conveniences for a few weeks and get in touch with your inner self, consider walking the Camino, it can be a most rewarding experience.
Adrian O'Connor, originally from Northern Ireland, emigrated to Canada in the seventies to work as a Mechancal Engineer. He now makes his living as a business executive and writes as a hobby. Father of two "grown and flown" children, Adrian makes his home in Mississauga with his wife Cora.
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