My Dad was given a book a couple of years ago detailing the Camino de Santiago, a month long walk in Spain, and it seemed like a good bit of bed time reading for a man who loves hiking, but not something he would actually do!
However, a week ago Mum and I arrived in the little Spanish town of Carrión, to meet him at the half way stage after several weeks of hard walking, with his intention being to return to complete the second half. Living in a cosy Somerset village, it was common for people to ask about what dad was doing away, to which I would usually respond with something along the lines of ‘he’s doing this big walk in Spain, it’s amazing.’ However, until actually picking him up, I didn’t quite realise how amazing it actually was.
Upon arrival, it soon became clear that this was no ordinary walk. The 790km route is one which has been followed by pilgrims for a thousand years, striding out from their own front doors to visit bones lying in Santiago which are claimed to have belonged to St James. There are several sign posted routes today, the most popular of which (and the one my Dad followed) starting in St Jean Pied de Port; a path still trod by thousands of people each year, from all different backgrounds, assuming the title ‘pilgrim.’ Despite knowing these origins, I didn’t quite anticipate that the community, traveller atmosphere that I love would be so dominant in the air, as the three of us sat down at a table amongst other walkers to order from the ‘pilgrim menu.’
Within half an hour of speaking to Dad, it became apparent that the extraordinary trip had had several effects on him. The most obvious of these was the presence of a small beard which, in conjunction with the dark tan, made him look like he’d just stepped out of a less extreme version of Castaway (a version in which he hadn’t experienced the harrowing grief of losing his football). The second change was realised when, in general conversation, it emerged that he was considering a tattoo: ‘I just think that a shell on the back of the leg would really mark the occasion.’ Anyone who knows my Dad will know that a tattoo, be it of a shell or a tiger, is the last thing you could imagine him sporting.
Before anyone jumps to perverse conclusions about the origins of the shell idea, I feel that I should make it clear that these are the symbol of the walk, the tale saying that the pilgrims of many years past ate from a scallop shell after a hard day on the road; the small portion of food that they were given being contained within its pearly walls. Therefore it seems rather appropriate that these have been adopted to symbolise the simultaneous challenge and beauty of the experience; hanging from the rucksack of every weary walker, identifying them as a pilgrim.
And this, it seemed to me as I listened to the stories of the adventure, was the most remarkable thing about the Camino. After weeks of walking under the blistering sun, and night after night spent on hard hostel beds, it was no longer apparent who was a CEO having a mid-life crisis, a student who had just failed their exams, or your average Joe looking for a challenge. At the end of the day, everyone assumed the same identity: that of a pilgrim. The countless people hitting that road are all doing it for different reasons: reflection, disconnection, searching, escape; all finding that the rest of the world is stripped away for the duration of the Camino, as they fall in and out of step with strangers who quickly become their friends even just for those moments, able to share and hide as much as they please.
The night after Mum and I arrived to meet our very own pilgrim, the three of us were ambushed by an Austrian man in a bar. It must be said that he started badly, hitting on me in front of both my parents, but after things had simmered down a little, he came good. Once he had finished complimenting me on the size of my eyes, he went on to speak passionately about the Camino, stressing the idea that it is not just a walk to be sportingly completed as the Italians tend to do (his words not mine), but a whole emotional experience as well, which each pilgrim must allow themselves to feel: ‘you must the live the Camino.’ He told us how he walks when he wants to, often hiking late into the night and then sleeping under the stars when all hostels are closed. Now lets face it, this could all have been to convey romantic overtures, but I felt truth behind his words.
Whenever a pilgrim passes another, they greet each other with the phrase ‘buen Camino,’ literally meaning ‘good walk,’ a tradition which is echoed by the locals. This constant flow of flip flop clad people emerging from hostels, in search of food and wine after a 30 km day, bring money to these little towns, and so the presence of the pilgrims is appreciated and respected by the people of the region, rather than being resented as one might expect. This means that the walkers are supported as they go along, make shift beds being set up in the corridors of hostels in certain instances, if all beds are full and the pilgrim is too tired to face carrying on to the next town in search of shelter.
Hearing the tales of my Dad’s experience and feeling the atmosphere in Carrión turns my mind to next summer, and whether the Camino might be the next adventure for me. Hard walking through beautiful countryside, surrounded by people from all over the world sharing one common goal, with not just a rucksack but a shell on my back, sounds to my ears like a perfect month. So in a years time, perhaps I will be publishing an article about my own buen Camino, and the trials and joys it brought to me.