On April 15, 2018, I began my solo wander along the route known as the Camino Francés of the Camino de Santiago. The path starts in St. Jean Pied de Port in France, and ends in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
It took me 45 days to walk 740km. I confess, I skipped some sections because of mental and/or physical reasons. In my mind, in my heart, I walked the distance. I walked my Camino.
WHY I Walked the Camino.
Let’s face it, walking between fifteen to twenty-five kilometres a day (more or less), with everything you need for the Camino journey strapped to your back, is a little nuts. Naturally, people are curious about why someone would deliberately volunteer to undertake such self-abuse. It’s a legitimate question and a great conversation starter as you get to know the ‘other nuts’ you’re walking with. All I can say is the Camino de Santiago is an experience and one I believe everyone should try.
How did I even hear about the Camino?
In the early 2010’s, I was living vicariously through travel bloggers who were travelling full time. I worked for a Fortune 500 company in a job I liked but didn’t love. As it happened, one of my favourite bloggers at the time decided to walk the Camino, so I followed her journey. By the time she made it to Santiago, I knew that I wanted to do walk the Camino too. I’m not sure what it was that spoke to me about her journey. I’ve revisited her posts since, and admit, I didn’t find them very compelling. It felt kind of like watching a TV show that you loved way back when, but when you see it now, you wonder how you ever wasted so much time. But whatever it was, the Camino had taken hold.
I didn’t know why back then, but I felt the Camino calling me.
There’s a power in the unknown. A power in the desire to test human endurance. And while I’m not one who finds physical challenges enticing, this was different. This was a long-distance walk. Not a marathon. Not a through-hike. This was something I felt I could do, one step at a time.
Besides, deep down, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
More importantly, I needed the time and space to find out what was truly important to me. The ‘noise’ all around me was doing my head in. Life comes down to the very basics on this Camino pilgrimage: Eat. Sleep. Walk. Repeat.
You carry only what you absolutely need and nothing more. Physically and metaphorically.
It was also a time for me to tap into my own spiritual being. I am not a religious person, but I found the history of the pilgrimage fascinating. From town to town, I sought the solace of cathedrals and churches. They are ancient and beautiful, and the essence of these buildings was unlike anything I’ve experienced in the world. Maybe it was because I was more in touch with that part of myself? I could sit and be still and let the world happen around me, without any need to move or converse. I listened to my inner voice, the one that I’d buried for too long. I contemplated what brought me here and what the future should look like in the silence around me. Knowing so many others had done the same in these centuries old buildings gave me a sense of peace, and a feeling that I wasn’t alone on his journey. I’m not talking about a connection with God. as I said, I’m not religious. Rather, I’m inclined to listen to the Universe, to Mother Nature, to the opinions of friends, then come to my own conclusions.
As I made my way along the way, I learned to trust the strength of my intuition and to listen to my heart. Without the noise, the drama, the judgements of the world, I could really assess what I wanted from my life. It didn’t come in some kind of ‘ah-ha’ moment. In fact, most of what I learned didn’t come until I’d walked the Camino a second time. But I arrived in Santiago in 2018, clearer than I’d ever been before.
There were days I didn’t believe I would make it.
There were days I wanted to keep walking, and days I wanted to quit. But I didn’t. I kept going. I lost toenails, threw out my back, and suffered through pneumonia. But I kept going. Call me the Little Blue Engine That Could.
When I reached Santiago, I walked through the last tunnel trying to ignore the bagpiper blasting his pipes. (I’m not a fan of bagpipes). The last steps of my journey had arrived. Walking into the Praza do Obraidoiro, to stand in front of the Cathedral, a pure and emotional moment washed over me. I was at once relieved and overcome with the reality of my extraordinary accomplishment. Of disbelief that I had done it, and elation that I had made it. I cried. No, that’s not true. I sobbed. I had walked across Spain. One step at a time. I may have left Saint Jean Pied de Port in France alone, but I walked into the square in Santiago with two people whom I now consider family. If it had not been for those who I walked with, I doubt I would have kept going. Not to mention those who followed my journey online. People lifted me up, kept me distracted from discomfort and pain, and helped me see the strength within me. With their help and my perseverance, I had finally made it to Santiago.
The When – And Why I Chose That Time
I decided to walk in Spring because I was eager to see the wildflowers in bloom.
I was so pleased that the views did not disappoint. As I headed to Portomarin, I counted over twenty different wildflowers within a five-kilometre distance. It was just breathtaking. I loved walking this journey so much, particularly at this time of year, that I repeated my wander the following year with my husband. Yes, I walked the Camino Francés twice, two years in a row. The next year, on the day we walked to Cruz de Ferro, it was sleeting, then snowing, but the wildflowers were in abundance. It remains as one of my favourite days of walking the Camino.
The weather was a big factor for the timing of my Camino Wander.
By leaving in early April, I could enjoy the cooler weather. But, on Day two of my 2018 Camino Wander, sleet greeted me in the Pyrenees, and I trudged through knee-deep snow on one section of the Napoleon Route. Just a reminder to be careful of what I wished for. (I wanted cool weather for the journey.)
It warmed as I strolled across Spain, but days began cool enough to wear my merino long sleeve top. At the end of the forty-five days, I walked into Santiago wearing my now infamous “Super Woman” t-shirt. In some sections, the weather was uncomfortably warm, although in reality it was only twenty-five degrees Celsius. But with the sun beating down on you, it can sometimes feel so much warmer. I’d hate to imagine what it would be like walking in hotter weather. I couldn’t cope. By the end, I had a lovely ‘farmers tan’ (and yes, I did wear sunscreen and a hat every day!).
I walked early in the Camino season when the number of pilgrims would still be low.
I didn’t want to deal with crowded trails, and I wanted to take my time. I had no interest in the ‘bed rush’ so many take part in.
Let me explain the ‘bed rush’: Many pilgrims leave very early in the morning. They dash along for twenty or thirty kilometres so they can find a bed, just as the albergues open for the day. These pilgrims don’t book accommodation ahead, and places like municipal albergues operate on a first come, first served basis. What ends up happening in busier months is that a competition takes place to get to the next destination quickly, and the so-called ‘winners’ not only claim a bed, but they have their choice of the best beds available. Because it was early in the season, I could still be spontaneous and find a bed with little trouble.
In the less populated areas, not knowing how far I wanted to walk that day, I tended to be spontaneous. Only once did I need to walk to the next village to find a bed, but that was also because it was around four in the afternoon. There were some days I booked a private albergue which tend to be smaller and with fewer beds. Sometimes I booked ahead when I needed to forward my pack on, so that the courier knew where to deliver it (more on why I sent my pack forward later). I also booked ahead during Easter week, as it’s a popular time on the Camino with the Spaniards. But in the cities, I always booked accommodation because I was booking a private room for my rest days so I could sleep soundly and rest in a quiet space.
You’ll notice I have used the word ‘wander’ a lot.
Consider me a ‘Slow Stroller’. I am a wanderer. I set out to wander the Camino. I took my time, and I savoured my journey. The ‘wandering’ state of mind helped immensely toward my mental and physical wellbeing. I got to smell the roses, figuratively and physically. It may have been the secret to my finishing the Camino. Well, that and the amazing people I wandered with. Conversations with other pilgrims can make the kilometres whiz by, and it makes the journey a hell of a lot more interesting.
The Challenges I Faced.
Walking should be simple. Put one foot in front of the other and follow the yellow arrows (or shells) that mark the way.
Yes, walking IS simple. But the Camino is not like a normal day-hike, strung together day after day. It’s physically demanding. On day one, when you leave Saint Jean Pied de Port, you climb eight kilometres to get three quarters of the way up mountain to get to your first stop. From there, you can either continue over the mountain for another seventeen kilometres (with no services past that first stop) or you can stop for the day, rest, and continue onwards the following day. But getting over the mountain, is just the first challenge. Walking the entire distance, you walk over three mountain ranges.
Your body adapts after about a week, but there are still a lot of challenges ahead.
Things like: Descending on shale with cyclists whizzing by. Navigating slippery rocks and squidgy mud that can be silently hazardous. Knee deep snow if you’re walking early in the season. The threat of thunderstorms, deluges of rain, sleet, hail, or even the sun beating down on you, with no shade in sight. There are areas where you walk along the edge of busy roads. Other days, you’ll wander a path and not see another soul for miles and wonder if you’re still on the right path. There will be times where there are long distances between public toilets, especially in remote areas, and there’s always a time you really need to go. You will come across closed cafés when all you want is a hot drink to warm your hands, or a place to refill your water because you’ve run out.
But it’s not all bad.
You’ll have mornings where the dew clings to the spider webs spun overnight along the fences. Sunrises that will catch your breath they are so breathtakingly beautiful. Mornings where it’s so quiet, the only thing you can hear are the birds tweeting and the sound of your footsteps on the gravel. Empty streets in the cities as you head off to explore after a well-deserved rest day. Paddocks of wheat and barley dancing in the breeze. Locals helping when you least expect it. Cherries just ripening along the path. The smell of almond flowers, so pungent, that you will stop just to work out where that incredible scent is coming from. And best of all, deep and meaningful conversations that will keep the kilometres spinning by.
The physical challenges are one thing, but I didn’t realise how mentally challenging the endeavour could be.
I was open to the questions asked of me by those I walked with. One thing that the Camino allows for is skipping past the banter, the small talk. You may meet someone for a day and have the most profound conversation of your life. You may walk with someone for a week and feel you’ve known them forever. For all the discussions I had, two questions stood out. Was I happy as a child and now, as an adult? And, what did I want to do with the rest of my life? The latter was in the context of how short life can be. These conversations stayed with me for days, then returned to me again when I arrived in Santiago. Walking the Camino turns off the noise and allows you the time to have the feelings, the ideas, and the memories. But with all of this, it can drain you emotionally and mentally too.
What I also realised was if I spent too much time alone, my mind went dark. I wasn’t aware of this part of me before the walk. (Which makes for great novels but learning to manage the dark thoughts is another skill altogether.)
This journey can feel like a test.
At one point, I wondered how many ‘tests’ I would have to endure.
Many people told me they would have quit facing just a few of the challenges I encountered on my solo Camino Wander in 2018.
- My knee buckled as I boarded the plane from England to France and I was already recovering from a twisted ankle from two weeks prior.
- Navigating ankle-deep mud as I walked the Napoleon Route on day two, I banged my knees hard on rocks when I stumbled on the descent.
- Party girls caused a ruckus in my hostel in Logrono all night, vomiting in the bathroom at 5 am. (Serves them right). I got up and walking twelve kilometres non-stop, early the next morning, angry, without eating and overtired. (Not good!)
- I threw out my back in Burgos. I couldn’t move for three hours. After realising I was alone and needed to save myself, I crawled (almost literally) to an osteopath after the reception desk helped me find one. The osteopath got me walking and back onto the trail after resting for three days. This was the first time I sent my backpack forward.
- I lost three toenails. (Losing toenails is not uncommon).
- I got the flu, which turned into pneumonia. I kept walking (it must have been walking pneumonia – LOL!), determined to get Cruz de Ferro.
- I had an allergic reaction to lavender while walking to El Acebo. Combine that with still recovering from pneumonia, I was forced to take a rest day, then skip a day ahead to avoid more lavender along the trail.
- I stayed in a Russian Albergue that had no heat at all. I spent the night shivering, wearing every piece of clothing in my possession.
- I was followed by a guy in Leon who spat out lewd remarks at me as I made my way to my hotel during siesta. I wasn’t attacked or anything. It just creeped me out.
And yet, with all that happening, I still made it to Santiago. But boy, did I learn a lot! About myself, about people, and about life.
Did the Camino Change Me?
I didn’t see it at the time. I was too busy putting one foot in front of the other. But I wondered if the Camino would change me as I walked. It wasn’t until after I left Spain that I noticed not only how it had changed me, but how much it had.
Life had more clarity.
I was calmer.
I learned what I really needed in life – and what I didn’t.
I learned what genuine friendship meant. I met some amazing people whom I am honoured to call friends. They are now my Camino family – and I don’t use the word family lightly in my life.
I let go of some of the emotional burdens I’d been holding on to for way too long.
I realised what I wanted to do with my work life. My travel blogging days were ending by then (yes, I’d left my corporate life to become a travel blogger) and, after my second Camino Wander in 2019, I saw with more clarity that it was time to pivot. It was time to write the book I’d always wanted to write.
In the end, I realised who I was and what I was made of.
“As Frankie said, I did it My Way.”
PS: Special thanks to Bon Jovi for their epic anthem ‘It’s my Life’. That track kept me going on the tough days