Jessica Sunter walked this famous 780 km pilgrimage route, starting in France and reaching Santiago de Compostela 40 days later. She walked every step of the way.
Question: What is the Camino de Santiago de Compostela?
Answer: In English it is known as The Way of St James and it’s a collection of old pilgrimage routes found in Europe with the final destination being Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Pilgrims have been walking the Camino de Santiago for more than 1000 years. I took the traditional route, starting in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. A friend of mine and her mother took the northern route, which runs along the coastline with the mountains as a backdrop. They said it was very beautiful. I met others who had done the route from Portugal to Spain, which is a 227 km long. There are many other options.
There is an excellent website called the Confraternity of Saint James with all kinds of useful information and a forum. They publish a guide every year with information about places to stay and eat along the way which is enormously helpful.
Q: Why do people do this?
A: Some obviously do it for religious reasons while others do it for the physical challenge. I wanted to escape life for awhile. I was working for the government, spending my days in a cubicle. I needed to get away so started researching how best to do that. I would be travelling on my own and didn’t have much money. I wanted to be away for a significant period of time and I wanted the experience to have meaning—not just a beach vacation. A friend of mine had done the Camino a couple of years earlier and recommended it so I decided to go.
Most people walk it in 28 to 42 days. I did it in 40 days because some of the people I met and wanted to walk with were walking slower. The best thing about it is the people you meet. Many people are searching for more meaning in their lives and we would talk about that. You also have lots of time by yourself to think.
Q: Do you have to be in really good shape to do it?
A: It was not as physically demanding as I had expected. Of course, you have to be in reasonable shape because you’re walking for at least six hours a day. I started in France on the other side of the Pyrenees and there was still snow around and the path was steep so the first few days were the toughest. The most important thing is to take good care of your feet.
There’s a bit of snobbery around the pilgrimage. Some of us thought the best way to do it was to walk every single step. Some chose to take a bus or train through the industrial sections of cities. Others have only a week vacation so do a section each year. Others skip sections where they think the landscape will be uninteresting. So there’s not just one way to do it.
Q: What were the other pilgrims like?
A: I started the pilgrimage in April and at that time many pilgrims are in their 50s and 60s whereas in the summer they tend to be younger. It’s also a lot hotter and more crowded in the summer. I would say that more than half the pilgrims were women. They are from all parts of the world, including Brazil and Korea where the walk is particularly well known.
If you’re on your own and want to walk with others then that is easy to do. Or if you want to walk alone that is very acceptable. There are some tour groups and we tried to avoid them.
Q: How does it work?
A: Most pilgrims carry a document called a credencial. It is known as the pilgrim’s passport and it allows you to stay in inexpensive hostels and eat from pilgrim menus along the way. At each town or hostel you get the passport stamped and the stamped passport is what you show at the end to get your certificate of completion, called the compostela. So you need to get your passport before you start. Many of the hostels are run by volunteers, some who have done the pilgrimage themselves. Everyone is very supportive; it’s like a little community for the pilgrims. Language is not a concern because there is always someone around who can translate when you need it.
Most of the hostels have mixed dormitories filled with bunk beds. Some hostels are better than others and all are very inexpensive. There are separate showers for men and for women. The sound of people snoring is incredible and you are usually woken in the early morning by pilgrims getting out for an early start. From time to time I would escape and stay in a hotel so I could sleep in and pamper myself a bit. Pilgrim menus are served in restaurants and sometimes at the hostels. It is a huge meal starting with soup and salad and served with lots of wine. It is not necessarily the best cuisine but certainly hearty. It is also a social occasion when you meet lots of other pilgrims. Some hostels have a communal kitchen where people cook dinner together, contributing what they can.
Breakfast is small and purposefully simple, often just stale bread and coffee. I would pick something up along the way for lunch such as bread, cheese, and chocolate—there is lots of good chocolate there. You carry water with you and there are places where you can get your water bottle refilled. There is even a fountain where you can fill your container with wine!
Q: I imagine you have to carry everything you bring?
A: Yes, and there is lots of discussion about how much your bag should weigh. Mine was heavier than most but it didn’t bother me. Another subject for discussion is whether to bring hiking shoes or boots but I prefer boots because of the extra ankle support. I brought a light weight sleeping bag. Some people were so concerned about the weight of their pack that they’d rip out the pages of their book after they read them.
Good socks are essential. I brought two t-shirts, one long sleeve shirt, two pants and a pair of shorts, a jacket, sweater, mittens and hat. You need rain gear and I had rain pants and jacket and a cover for my knapsack. Others use a poncho big enough to cover themselves and their pack. You’re in the sun a lot so you need sunscreen, glasses and a hat. Usually I would reach the hostel at 3:00 pm, have a shower and wash my clothes and hang them to dry overnight. So your clothes should be quick drying. You’ll feel grubby after a while but everyone you pass will know you’re a pilgrim and being grubby is okay.
Q: What was it like reaching Santiago de Compostela?
A: I had almost no time there because I had a flight booked to London the next morning. So that was disappointing but I did get my certificate.
Q: Looking back, was this a good experience?
A: Yes, a very, very good experience. It changed the way I think about travelling. When I got to London, England I was absolutely exhausted but felt I had to see all the famous sites and kept running into tourists snapping photos to show their friends at home. And that was just not what the Camino was about for as a pilgrim you feel very in the moment. I would recommend the Camino to just about everyone.
Photo credits Jessica Sunter; photos updated August 2014
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