We are walking the rocky road to Santiago de Compostela in
north-western Spain following a path taken by pilgrims since the
Middle Ages. And while we have started this 800km walk in the
French Pyrenees and are walking enough track on foot each day to
be on blister-alert, we are not seen as the "real
We are taking another tack to the thousands of weary pilgrims
who carry heavy backpacks with food and belongings and check in
nightly to refugios (cheap hostels) to share dormitories with
scores of other "snoring" pilgrims.
For us luggage is transported from town to town, we are
booked into comfortable hotels en route, and our private bus is
on call should our bodies cry out for mercy.
We want the best of all worlds. As a rite of passage we did
the backpacking caper years ago, and now we want a little more
comfort in our travels.
Yet we see ourselves as pilgrims with physical, mental and
spiritual challenges while walking the fabled path taken by
travellers since the Middle Ages. The Camino has called to each
of us and we journey to the Cathedral de Santiago where St
James, one of Jesus' 12 apostles is said to be buried. We may
not all want to worship at the feet of Santiago (St James) but
we respect those who do.
Like "real" pilgrims, we've climbed steep inclines,
headed down steep declines, walked stony tracks and even muddier
tracks and have all feared we do not have enough puff left to
reach the next ridge. But somehow, with encouragement and
support from travelling companions, we get there.
Our fitness level increases as we walk through an
ever-changing landscape of farming hamlets, lush green
foothills, cool forests, and flat tablelands.
Along the way we learn that everyone may travel the same road
but in a different way and that there is plenty of room for all
of us. Pilgrims are a veritable league of nations and somehow we
manage to understand each other in brief daily encounters.
We wish "buen camino" (wishing you a good journey)
to those who overtake us, and to the "lycra set" who
whizz past us on machines as lean as their toned bodies.
Sometimes we pass a pilgrim on crutches, or a lone traveller
with his dog, or someone collapsed by the trail to rest a while.
Thankfully we are not as rushed as "real" pilgrims.
With accommodation and a meal waiting at the end of the day, we
have time on our side. We have a nourishing breakfast (more like
a banquet) before we leave our hotel, and take coffee and bar
breaks in remote villages where we are welcomed by locals as
they celebrate a local fiesta, or stage a low-key bullfight. We
are having a truly close-up encounter with warm-hearted rural
There is also time to explore, stop for a picnic lunch
prepared by our wonderful tour crew who are caring, considerate,
always full of fun, and with a deep knowledge of the Camino.
Very soon scallop shells and yellow arrows take on new
meaning, whether walking in cities, country lanes, or along
Roman carriage ways some 2000 years old. The shells and yellow
arrows are official symbols that mark the Camino route and
reassure pilgrims they are taking the right path. In medieval
days the scallop shells were gathered on beaches out of Santiago
by pilgrims to prove they had completed the journey.
Along remote mountain tracks we discover that shepherds still
herd flocks of sheep and goats as cows with tinkling bells bring
music to the rolling pastures.
There is no doubt pilgrims have breathed life into dying
villages along the Camino with pedestrian traffic increasing
yearly and creating a huge demand for accommodation and food.
Last year some 140,000 pilgrims from around the world walked the
Camino and double that number are expected this year which is
designated a Holy Year.
Santiago is one of Christianity's most revered sites
alongside St Peter's (Rome) and Jerusalem (Middle East).
While there are many routes into Santiago de Compostela, we
take the most popular, the Camino Frances from the French
Pyrenees village of St Jean-Pied-de-Port where pilgrims cross
into Spain and head towards Pamplona, Burgos, Leon and on to
The path we follow was taken by Romans and Celts, and notable
historical figures such as the Spanish hero El Cid, Charlemagne
and Napoleon, the Knights Templar, the Moors, St Francis Assisi.
And in modern times the likes of actress Shirley MacLaine who
wrote a book about how this journey can become a metaphor for
Our group enjoy walking and would love to have the time to do
the entire track on foot. But that can take five weeks, and we
have only 15 days to spare, plus time tacked on at either end
for long- haul flights. But we do not miss out on Camino
highlights such as a tour of Pamplona where we walk the street
where the annual running of the bulls fiesta is held; meditate
in the massive Gothic cathedral in Burgos that is a World
Heritage site and the burial place of El Cid; and explore Leon
and its ancient cathedral with remarkable stained-glass windows.
Many of us carry stones from our homeland to place on the
Crux de Ferro, a simple iron cross that is an important Camino
monument. We climb rocks to the base of the cross and place our
stones, representing our burdens and worries, on the pile.
To avoid tedious walks through congested suburban areas our
private bus drops us off in the picturesque countryside.
Often we pinch ourselves to make sure we are still in Spain
as the scenery is so like the Austrian Alps, right down to
wooden chalet homes with steep roofs and window boxes spilling
over with bright red geraniums.
The sun is shining in Santiago as pilgrims - some hobbling
with pain, others from exhaustion - celebrate the end of a
remarkable journey by dropping prostrate in the huge square
facing the remarkable Romanesque Cathedral de Santiago.
In the evening there will be a pilgrims' Mass, and the
surreal sight of the giant incense burner that swings high
through the cathedral, guided by six men holding sturdy ropes.
In days of old, or so the story goes, the incense drowned out
the foul smell of pilgrims who did not have the luxury of
showers to refresh themselves en route to Santiago.
Walkers' World takes care of all arrangements along
the Camino from accommodation in historic hotels and
monasteries, to food, transport, English speaking guides and
touring en route. See www.walkersworld.com.