What it's really like to do the Camino de Santiago
What it's really like to do the Camino de Santiago
I was off to walk the less touristy side of the famous Camino from the Portugese side of Spain. The plan was to walk all day every day for the four days until we reached Santiago De Compestela – the stunning medieval city in the heart of Galacia. I had heard of the Camino but didn’t know much else about it. My walking experience consisted of the 100 metre walk up and down to do the school run. This was going to be interesting. But it wasn’t just that I wanted to tick off some life experiences on my ‘to-do’ list. After three children in four years, I was simply hanging together physically and emotionally, and the idea of three days and four nights free from bedtimes, cooking, wiping, moaning, crying was almost too much to imagine. The truth is that I just really needed a trip like this and felt lucky enough to have the support at home to be able to finally put my money where my mouth was.
My close friend (who also has three young children) and who has been unwell over the past few years jumped at the chance to do something a little extraordinary and suddenly the prospect of walking 7 hours a day began to feel a little too real. There was also the small matter of our lack of training. Despite our good intentions, our walking preparations suffered at the hands of the dire weather, little ones off sick and a bad chest infection – but we had heart, determination and beginners luck on our side. We stocked up on plasters and merino wool socks, stocked freezers with dinners for our kin and left lists on every press. Before I knew it, I was hugging my babies goodbye fiercely and questioning my decision to leave them behind.
It is hard to switch off when you have responsibility for your children. Knowing they were safe at home allowed me the time to clear my mind for the first time since I had children. Our first morning we laced up our too-clean hiking boots and set off to hunt for the scallop tiles and yellow arrows that indicate this ancient route. The scallop is the symbol of the Camino. Pilgrims in Medieval times would wear them attached to their cloaks during their long journey into Santiago. The scallop shells also had a more practical purpose. They were used as a dish to drink from and a plate for their food along the way. We tasted the local scallops at nearly every stop and their sweet juiciness was delicious. Camino means ‘way’ and there are various different ‘ways’ you can approach Santiago. We were doing the Portugues way which is considered much less touristy and pretty. The religious aspect is the main motivation for many to come and do this trip. Originally it was a pilgrimage to cleanse your sins by an influx of faithful Christians travelling across Northern Iberia to see some of the best relics in Santiago, including St James where he is said to have been buried. Not only was it a way of creating strong cultural links with the rest of Europe, it also seems that the ‘way’ attracted pilgrims as early as the 8th century as a route that followed the Milky Way all the way to the Finis Terrae – believed to be the end of the world – a magical place where the living could get closest to the land of the dead and their ancestors.
For us, it was a way to get as close to our pre-children selves. Before long on our journey, we passed some of the ladies we had seen at our hotel during breakfast. ‘Nice sticks’ they laughed as they clip-clopped past with their very professional Nordic poles. They were referring to the tree branches we had found during a very daring toilet expedition in a forest. The sticks may have been a little basic but they served us well during our 80km walk. Later, we saw the same women taking a break from the walk at a little café and stopped for a drink. It was really interesting to hear some of the reasons why they had decided to do the trip. Although older than us, the women all agreed that escaping their day to day hectic lives (even with grown children) was key. Of course, we all enjoy that element of escapism on any holiday but having no other goal other than arriving at the next town before nightfall using only your legs is something quite special. We spent the evenings examining the maps and routes we’d been supplied with by the hugely organised Camino Ways over local ‘polpo’ or octopus and formulated a plan for the next day’s journey.
People had told me that I’d be so exhausted doing such a physical few days I’d probably need a holiday afterwards. They questioned why I wanted to do such an active holiday instead of lying on a beach sipping cocktails. I’d wondered that a little myself, but the truth is that sometimes we end up being more relaxed and refreshed once we change our state of mind. That’s why I think doing a trip like the Camino was so cathartic. Not only were we walking through stunning landscapes that I have never experienced before but as we were trudging through farmlands, small villages and forests, we were thinking and talking and admiring the neatly-kept gardens, waving at the locals and stopping to smell every rose that lined our route (there were a lot of them!) We did the Portuguese side of the Camino which is much less touristy and supposedly far more pretty. There is something special about being surrounded by the pared-back beauty of nature. Other people we met agreed. I spoke to an American couple who were in their 70s who had been walking for 12 days straight. ‘We haven’t had any contact with the outside world’ they exclaimed happily as they cruised into Santiago with us. It is rare to find a route that is so beautifully isolating. As we walked, we talked. It is like nature therapy. On day one we chit-chatted and laughed, generally giddy that we didn’t have to change a single nappy. On day two we got a little deeper into it. We spoke about my friend's illness and I opened up about my father’s sudden passing. Talking at the trees and roses is surprisingly therapeutic and I don’t think I have had the head space to think of nothing else in many, many years. I left tears along that route that I didn’t think I had left. We also laughed a lot, had a few interesting adventures and generally had a total head clearout that I feel will stand to me in the coming years.
The gruelling walk into Santiago was tough. It was 26km that day and towards the end, we were flailing. Just as we began to doubt our own ambition, we spotted the ladies from Bedford that we’d seen all along our route. They greeted us warmly and said that they’d waited for us so we could all finish the final 5km together. That generosity of spirit is something else I’ve taken from this experience. I’d been so wrapped up in my own little world that I forgot just how lovely it is to bond with strangers over a shared adventure. In fact, all along the Camino – the level of goodwill and friendliness is extraordinary. Everyone wishes each other a ‘Buon Camino’ and even those who choose to cycle, whizz past and without fail shout a ‘Beuuuunnnn Caminooooo’ over their shoulder in greeting. Along the way, it was back to basics at every level. Not only is the food simple and delicious in Galacia, the mere fact that your days are spent walking, eating and sleeping is quite lovely. No room for anything else more complicated and we vowed to bring that element home.
We all arrived into Santiago as a little unit of women. Some older, some more experienced but all mothers and all looking for a little inspiration from this journey to enhance their life at home. The locals clapped as we hobbled into the city, hungry for ice-cream and searching for the telltale cathedral at the end of the narrow medieval streets. Once in the square, it was surprisingly emotional. More tears as we clapped each other on the back, ‘we did it’. I can’t remember the last time someone said to me, well done – you’ve done an amazing job. You are amazing. To have that sense of achievement is not only addictive but seriously needed. We spend our days doing everything possible to raise our little ones in the best way possible. We give and we give and we don’t expect any gratitude. Their smiles are our reward. But to embark on a few days like this where you can get a little perspective on your daily life and feel really proud of all you have done is well worth it and highly recommended. It is a reminder that you have your own goals and sense of self. It is a physical challenge and it was some of the best therapy I’ve ever had. It is something I’ve been delighted to have ticked off my bucket list but I’ve no doubt I’ll be back for more; It has made me a better mother and even more importantly a better person. I’ve made a pact with myself that I’ll learn to say no, I’ll keep things in my life more simple and best of all, that I’ll always make time to stop and smell those roses.
Aer Lingus flies direct from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela at fares one way from €44.99 We booked with Camino Ways which organised getting our bags ahead to our accommodation each day meaning we just had a small rucksack to walk with during the day and they also provided all information on the routes. I’d advise bringing Compedefor blisters, a large sunhat and light walking boots. I invested in real Merino wool socks which cost about 12.99 but were worth every penny.
You get your pilgrim passport stamped at every stop you make along the way at shops, cafés and hotels. The more stamps the better. Once you get your 100km on your book, you can get your certificate of Camino from the main square at Santiago when you arrive. It is a wonderful moment and a sign of a fantastic achievement.
I'm a writer and mum to three adventure-loving cuties. I enjoy trying to show my family as much of the world as possible in-between the school runs and writing about our latest adventure.