Gallery: Walking the El Camino [12 Images] Click any image to expand.
by Anne Batty, photos by Craig Fisher and Daniel BattyTravelers come from all over the world to walk the El Camino de Santiago in Spain. It’s a road said to have been walked and evangelized by the Apostle St. James the elder – Son of Thunder. Often referred to as the Way of St James it is well-known as a spiritual journey, and the most common route for the walk begins at Saint Jean Pied de Port, France and travels 500 miles through four of Spain’s 15 regions, ending at the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. The entire journey takes about 30 to 35 days walking 14 to 16 miles a day, but shorter walks are available for those with limited time. Our group of 14 travelers hosted by International Culinary Tours (949)661-7331 opted for a shorter walk beginning in Sarria, Spain and ending in Santiago de Compostela, about 112km (60-65 miles). It was definitely a walk to remember.
he evening before our departure we met our guide and received the Credencial Del Peregrino (Pilgrim Credential), our passport for the walk. We were instructed to have it stamped at various places along our journey - churches, inns, shops and restaurants.
Our guide then distributed hand- painted, scalloped seashells for wearing or displaying on backpacks. The shell being the symbol of St. James, indicating - not only the many roads that lead to Compostela - but representing the two layers of the human condition; the physical and the spiritual.
In the earliest days these shells were often used by pilgrims as implements to scoop water on the trail, and also to identify them as poor travelers to any would-be robbers stalking the paths.
As our sojourn began the next morning, we had little idea what to expect. Most anticipated a long and tedious walk on a somewhat level roadway, but we soon found ourselves hiking up and down hills, and treading roads with varying surfaces – dirt, gravel, rocks, asphalt and slate. And it didn’t take long to realize that we were definitely in for a challenge.
The passageway from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela took us over hills, through picturesque forests, farmlands and villages, and into small cities. We crossed highways, bridges and streams, encountering incredible views, some extending all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Symbols of and for the walk dotted the roadways, and included stone markers painted with yellow arrows pointing the way; milestones indicating area covered and miles to go; as well as crosses, mounds of stones and personal items left roadside by pilgrims as testament to their journey.
Along the way, the tiny villages encountered often consisted of only two or three dwellings, with buildings rudely constructed of stone and whatever other materials were available in the area. Always there was a church with baptismal font and graveyard all in one, and we learned that many of the dwellers never leave their villages. It seems they are content to be born, baptized, wed, raise families and to be buried all in the same place.
Just outside one of the villages we met an architect and his wife. They were eager to chat about their renovation of one of the old buildings. When completed it would include a family dwelling as well as a shop for displaying the wife’s handmade jewelry.
As we walked, people in the villages went about their daily living, often herding their cows on the roadway right alongside us. One farmer manned a roadside stand arrayed with homemade breads and cheese. We stopped for a sample drizzled with honey, and enjoyed a conversation in our limited Spanish.
Amenities and Customs
Wild blackberries, arbors laden with grapes, and trees heavy with crab apples grew wild along the road for the picking, and the apples made great snacks for the horses we passed on the way.
Rustic outdoor rest stops offered food, wine, beer, and the pre-requisite souvenirs of the journey. One of the favorite refreshments was Clara Beer (Lemon Beer), cool and rejuvenating for a long, hot, dusty walk.School groups, loners, couples and families shared our sojourn, and while many were from Spain, we met people from all parts of the globe. Encountering one family helping a member in a wheel chair, we watched in awe as they lifted him, chair and all, over huge boulders and across streams determined that he should accomplish the journey right along with them.
One custom of this walk is the exchange of the greeting “Buen Camino” (good road or good walk) with each traveler encountered on the way. It’s a good thing, because this greeting also serves as a warning from the bicyclists whizzing swiftly and unexpectedly by.
Many trekkers stay overnight in the small inns and hostels scattered nearby. Some even choose to camp out. Our tour included small hotels, a farmhouse, and finally a hotel in the Cathedral Plaza in Santiago de Compostela.
During the journey we were able to walk to most of our accommodations, but some required transportation due to their distance from the El Camino. Our support van driver was overheard jokingly referring to our group as, “the Country Club Camino.”
The Journey’s End
More an experience than a vacation, upon arriving at our final destination we were greeted in the Cathedral Plaza with the music of bagpipes and the noise of revelry. Joining the many travelers cheering, hugging and high-fiving, we, too, expressed our joy and relief for having completed an arduous but rewarding journey.
In the center of the plaza upon the stone plaque situated among the cobblestones to indicate zero miles, everyone stood, toes touching the stone; and holding passports high overhead snapped mementoes of the illustrious occasion.
Our Guide then collected our Camino passport books, and entered the Pilgrim Office to receive our credentials; stamped to testify to our pilgrimage and the end of our Camino. Upon re-receiving them we experienced mixed emotions, the joy of accomplishment, and the sorrow of a challenge having come to an end.
Our last days were spent exploring Compostela and pondering the excursion ... a fitting end to an experience not soon to be forgotten.