The allure of walking the
Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) was, and still remains, for me indescribable. And its undeniable pull ultimately became irresistible… as I realized my dream of doing so in the Spring of 2013, walking [most of] the classic route called the Camino Francés, five hundred miles from Saint Jean Pied-du-Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
I walked the Camino for several reasons… to prove that I was still vital at age fifty-two, to enjoy an epic walking meditation, to make time to reflect deeply on the meaning and direction of my life, to enjoy the camaraderie of my fellow pilgrims, and to welcome anything else that might come my way.
This photo essay is my humble attempt to convey that privileged experience in all of its wondrous dimensions… fun, delicious, tragic, joyous, arduous, timeless, and sublime. I offer it with the most profound gratitude as a celebration of a uniquely sacred place, my fellow pilgrims, and all those things that make life worth living. Buen Camino!
The quaint hamlet of Saint Jean Pied du Port in Southwestern France is the traditional starting point for the Camino Francés. The first order of business is to check in at the pilgrim’s office, which is staffed by a small crew of volunteers… delightful and enthusiastic ladies who will get your Camino off on the right foot… There you can get your pilgrim’s passport (credencial), the traditional scallop shell, and a weather report for the next day. It is also quite an exciting time as you start to meet other pilgrims from all over the world. As you will discover, there are no uninteresting people on the Camino. Day one on the Camino Francés requires a traverse of the Pyrenees… and the mountain weather is not to be taken lightly. Because a big snowfall was forecast for the next day, the ladies were absolutely adamant that we take the low road. The seriousness of their tone and body language left us no doubt that the high road was off limits (You can see the big red Xs emphatically drawn by the ladies on the map below). Incidentally, we later heard that someone had died on the high road, apparently because they ignored the advice. Each pilgrim is expected to carry a passport (credencial) which is stamped and dated each time they check into an Albergue. Since I received my blank credencial in Saint Jean Pied-du-Port, it is written in French. After packing my credencial and scallop shell, I made a donation, then joined some new friends for a quick dinner at the only open (but cozy) restaurant in town. My very first steps on the Caminor de Santiago in Saint Jean Pied du Port. Crossing the Pyrenees from France into Spain… Every city and most towns have at least one Albergue. Some are privately-owned, some are run by the local municipality, and some are religious. The religious Albergues have strict lights out policies. The secular Albergues are a bit more laid back. Most Albergues come with a community kitchen where you can cook your own supper. Here is Tae-Lim Kim, one of my new Korean friends, showing us how it’s done. A very special moment as two cyclists wish us our first “Buen Camino!” The mixed salads (ensalada mixta) are uniformly fresh and delicious. There are quite a few lovingly-created and well-tended memorials to pilgrims who have died along the Camino. Tapas can be found in lots of places along the Camino. Merci beaucoup and danke sehr, Marie! Enjoying a fellowship of cookies… and the space heater under the table! Irache Monastery wine fountain! Mark your calendars! Sweet lady from Mexico. Each stamp (sello) is specially designed, capturing the uniqueness of each particular place. There is not virtue in the absence of temptation. Meatballs (albóndigas). Chicken (Pollo) is often served with eggs (huevos), french fries (fritos), and green chile peppers (pimientos). Most Albergues require some payment, ranging from 5 to 11 Euros, but some operate on a donation-only basis. Be generous. The only pilgrim-unfriendly sight on the entire camino. Ham and eggs (jamon y huevos) are not typically eaten for breakfast in Spain. Enjoy them for lunch or dinner with the house red wine (vino tinto). This monument marks a mass grave, in remembrance of thousands murdered by Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Unknown numbers of such graves still exist in Spain. Many remain undiscovered or unmarked as they remain quite controversial even today. If you are not a fan of Rioja wine before your Camino, you WILL be during and after! Blood pudding (morcilla) with hard cider (sidra) just like you might get in the UK. A ham and cheese (jamon y queso) sandwich (bocadillo) is a staple for lunch or late breakfast. Beef stew (estofado de ternera), absolutely delicious. It is routine to enjoy practically limitless fresh bread and delicious wine (vino) at both lunch (almuerzo) and dinner (la cena). For lunch or dinner, restaurants all along the Camino have a “Menu del Dia” or “Pilgrim’s Menu”. And the food all along the Camino is generally fantastic… and the price is right (price-gouging of pilgrims is unheard of). Expect to pay 9 to 12 Euros for a salad, main course, dessert, and all the bread and wine you can eat and drink. Breakfast (desayuno) in Spain is usually short, sweet, and simple. Coffee (café) and toast (tostada) with butter (mantequilla) and jam. Spaghetti (espagueti) with tomato sauce is quite common. An albergue (pronounced al-BER-gay) is a hostel that is reserved only for pilgrims who are walking the Camino de Santiago. Upon arrival, each exhausted, dirty, and hungry pilgrim can find a simple bunk bed, usually a hot (but sometimes cold) shower, possibly a clothes washer and dryer, and a simple kitchen. There is no need to book in advance. Most do not accept reservations anyway (beds are available on a first-come, first-served basis). A pilgrim’s passport is required to stay in an Albergue. Upon arrival, the hospitalero will check and stamp your credencial (and sometimes also check your international passport!). Pilgrims are normally allowed to stay for one night only. Some slow cooked pork (cerdo) in delicious gravy with fritos. And most come with a community kitchen where you can cook your own supper. Here is Tae-Lim Kim, one of my new Korean friends, showing us how it’s done… Some albergues have communal dinners: “The dinner of today is thanks to the donation of yesterday.“ At a bar in Molinaseca, the owner built a shrine to his grandfather (abuelo) Pepe… His grandson proudly stamped my passport with an image of his beloved grandfather. Hamburgers (hambuguesa) may taste a bit different than you are used to. Octopus (pulpo), prepared with paprika and olive oil, is popular in Galicia. Some Albergues are huge (200+ beds). Some are small (8 beds). Sleeping quarters are cozy and coed. Leave all modesty and inhibitions at the door. Always remove your boots when you come through the front door… Your feet and your fellow pilgrims will be glad that you did. A trick for drying wet boots: Stuff them with newspaper! There is no skimping on quantity. Soup (Sopa) often comes by the gallon. Ladle away until you are full! Souvenir stamps can also be gotten from colorful people and at many historic sites along the way. Toasting the Camino with a liter of Spanish beer (cerveza)… Salud! The international version of “Friends”. Adult beverages flow freely on the Camino. Some Albergues have their own special traditions, like this fiery and potent concoction. Naturally, there is a predictable feeling of accomplishment (and relief) upon arrival in Santiago, having survived hundreds of miles of physical and psychological pain that only a fractional percent of human beings have experienced and can possibly understand. It is quite surreal to stand before the Cathedral in person, after seeing it in so many pictures over the years. Thanks to some actionable intelligence we received on the Camino grapevine, we were able to accelerate our pace over the final five days of our trek in order to arrive in time to attend mass and witness the swinging of the giant incense burner. Upon arrival in Santiago, take your passport to the Pilgrim’s Office in order to receive your final stamp… and to receive your “Compostela” at the Pilgrim’s office in Santiago de Compostela, certifying that you have met the requirements for a proper pilgrimage. And had some irreverent fun with my thoroughly-spent and stinky boots… … before “donating” them to the universe. But my arrival in Santiago also felt anti-climactic and bittersweet. As the saying goes, it is the journey, not the destination that counts… and that wondrous journey (and my intimate connection with so many wonderful people) was coming to a close. Finisterre (literally “End of the World”) was the perfect place to end my Camino. The colorful harbor, light house, crashing waves, sea gulls, and sea breeze were the perfect backdrop for celebrating life with some of my beautiful Camino family: Kent, Brianna, Lucas, Elizabeth, Lidia, Fiach, MaryJo, and Birgit. Looking out into the limitless horizon of the Atlantic, one cannot help but reflect deeply on the meaning and direction of one’s life. and to come to the profound realization that the end of this Camino was not an end at all, but a new beginning.