Niamh Twomey walks us through her experience of the Camino de Santiago trail and gives her advice for embarking on the journey.
The Camino de Santiago de Compostella; originally a Christian pilgrim route following in the supposed footsteps of Saint James the Apostle (good man James for dodging that motorway), dates back to the 9th century. Today, it has evolved into much more than simply a walking holiday for the ‘Hail Marys’ and ‘Our Fathers’ of this world.
 
All year round, people from all walks of life from all over the world flock to the heart of the Camino– the city of Santiago, where the remains of our buddy Saint James are said to be held in the staggering Cathedral.
 
The summer after my Leaving Cert (that god-awful wasp of a thing), I set off to see what it was all about. Wearing practically all the clothes I was bringing, and with my whole life for the next five weeks in a bag like a tortoiseshell on my back, I set off on a plane from Dublin to Carcassonne with a crusty Ryanair crew and a window seat. From Carcassonne, I got the train to St. Jean Pied de Port, a small and quaint town in the French Pyrenees– one long day’s walk from the border to Spain.
 
Needless to say, I had ants in my pants, and blisters on my feet for about the first week, before I settled into the peculiar rhythm; every morning we set off around 6 o’clock in an attempt to beat the midday sun to our next stop. Then we would check into a hostel (usually around 5 to 10euro), shower and change our clothes, hand wash the clothes we’d worn that day and think about food (most restaurants had a “pilgrim meal”; 10 euro for a good Spanish three course meal including wine and plenty of bread). Then, we had the afternoon free to explore whatever rural village or hopping city we found ourselves in.
 
The most common path, the route I took, which starts in a small town on the border before Spain, takes roughly 30 days, and passes through dazzling cities such as Pamplona, Burgos, Leon (Spain), Ponferrada and of course Santiago. It also crosses the parched Meseta, the greener Galician landscape, and if you don’t feel like stopping at Santiago, why not walk on three more days to the coast, and watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean?
 
– My first bit of advice for you, if my story is lighting a spark in you, is don’t be intimidated; the Camino is for everyone– from serious walkers with three-quarter-length lycra pants and expensive sports bottles, to free-spirited supporters of the parachute-pants industry. I honestly didn’t train a day before I pitched up, and about three weeks in I was walking 40 km in a day. Everyone finds his or her own pace. Do it; I promise you won’t regret it.
 
– Secondly: it might be a good idea to bring a travel diary– if you’re a writing person, you’ll fill it. If you’re not, you might still like to take notes of where you’ve been, who you’re with, and get people to sign it and gather contact details of all the amazing humans you will meet.
 
– You’ll want to bring a guidebook, and the one I brought was good and light for carrying, a basic one with just the essentials. It’s a little green paperback called 'Michelin Guide to Camino de Santiago'. However, if you’re interested in reading up a little about the history of each town, and want a little information about all the possible hostels to make an informed decision, John Brierley’s guidebook is well written, insightful and by far the most popular.
 
– The scallop shell is the traditional emblem of Saint James, and the most iconic symbol of the Camino itself, because all the merging lines joining at the heart of the shell symbolize the many roads to Santiago joining together from all over Europe. Many pilgrims like to attach a shell to their bag, and it’s a nice idea to pick up a shell from home to carry with you.
 
– It’s also a good idea to bring a fist-sized stone from home to carry along the way and leave at the Cruz de Ferro; a religious monument, surrounded by a breathtaking pile of stones from all the pilgrims gone before you. The Cruz de Ferro is perfectly positioned along the way just at the point where you are getting used to the pilgrim life, and feel ready to let go of some of your “spiritual baggage”, if you will.
 
– Last, but by no means least important, if you do embark on this liberating adventure, when you return home it is possible that you will feel a gaping emptiness. Like, serious withdrawal symptoms from the freedom, and lack of pressures and formalities of your daily life. This is completely natural, and it can be a very real struggle to fit back into a life that doesn’t seem quite enough anymore. So change it– in little ways. Go out and talk to strangers like you did on the Camino. Go for walks, watch the sun, go somewhere new. It’s completely natural to feel that way but it will pass, while the memories you have made will stay with you forever.
 
Photo courtesy of Flickr