There are many wonderful holiday destinations in Spain, and they don’t just involve lying on a beach. A fantastic holiday experience I have had was walking the ´Camino de Santiago’.
To walk the ‘Camino de Santiago’ or the Way of St. James is included on the ‘things to do before I die’ list of many Spaniards and is spoken of with great reverence by old and young alike. For María Wiedemann, my colleague and great friend, and I it was a uniquely special trip which more than lived up to our expectations.
We hatched our plan during one lunch break in the office. We did a little internet research, even less physical preparation, bought a guide book the day before and set off, one day in late August on a flight from Alicante to Oviedo in Asturias on Spain’s Northern coastline.
Our plan was to do a week’s worth of walking along the ‘camino de la costa’ destination Santiago de Campostela in Galicia. Our return flight was from this medieval city so we had no choice but to make it!
The camino de Santiago is a route which has been followed by pilgrims from all over Europe since the 12th century, following ancient paths, originating in their own countries and eventually joining one of the three routes crossing the north of Spain, the most popular being the ‘Camino del Norte’. Pilgrims often took years to arrive at Santiago where it is believed that the bones of the apostle St. James are buried in a vault in a magnificent cathedral.
Nowadays the routes in Spain are marked with a scallop shell symbol as the first pilgrims carried actual shells to show would be robbers that they were religious pilgrims carrying no wealth. Sometimes we found it difficult to spot the "concha" (Spanish for shell) but usually there was a yellow arrow in a prominent position pointing the way. On one occasion we couldn't find either and then we discovered, to our embarrassment, that Maria was standing on it because it was an arrow of stones laid out in the middle of the path!
The curious thing was that when the signs failed us and our trusty guide book became indecipherable a little miracle would happen and someone would always appear to show us the way. An old lady appeared at the doorway of what we thought was an empty cottage or suddenly a farmer popped his head over a fence. The people living along the camino are proud to be the unofficial guardians of the path and the traveller's protectors. One resourceful old lady, on hearing our request for fresh water ushered us into her living room which she had transformed into a bar and offered us ice cold coke with ice and lemon!
We both agree that some unexplainable force was guiding us when we lost the path, wandered an extra 20 kilometres and then thankfully chose a new direction which led us to the welcome sight of a yellow arrow. Had we chosen the opposite direction we would have been trapped by a raging forest fire.
Back to the practicalities of the trip; we walked an average of 40 km per day, setting off at around 8 a.m., resting at 11, and stopping again at 2 for a picnic lunch. These meals were simple, consisting of fresh bread, tomatoes, pâtés, cheeses and fruit which we bought from village shops on route but they tasted fantastic mainly because of our healthy appetites and our inspired choices of venues. We ate under huge shady oak trees, on majestic cliffs or in quaint village squares.
All our belongings we carried in our ruck sacks and with a limit of 10kg each there was no chance of excess baggage, meaning no make-up, no hair drier, no ‘just in case’ items at all. This meant a whole week of bad hair days but luckily those living on the route are used to the natural pilgrim look. Of the many pilgrims we met, Dutch, German, British and French only one Spanish couple managed to look well groomed and this was because they arranged for their luggage to be transported by taxi everyday to their next hotel. To be fair to them they weren't so young and it was their 10th year of walking the camino (they did a section each year). What style!
Our "Camino de la Costa" runs from the French boarder along the North coast of Spain and it would take at least a month to complete so we had no choice but to cheat. We started more than half way along and we skipped two big stretches by taking a bus then a train, avoiding a long walk on a major road (asphalt kills the knees) and, very conveniently, a whole mountain range that sounded too much like hard work.
We also cheated on the accommodation because instead of staying in the free pilgrim’s hostels we found economical hotels with private rooms and bathrooms. In doing this we sacrificed getting our authentic pilgrim "brownie points" and missed out on a free lunch, religious blessing and certificate when we reached Santiago. At least we could attend to our blisters and insects bites in private, shower and change (basically swapping shorts for jeans and one T- shirt for another) and then dine out in style. Boy, was that the prize that kept us going those last few kilometres at dusk, the promise of a bottle of good red wine (or two) and sea food to die for!
The grand finale was the descent into Santiago de Campostela. Looking totally bedraggled, Maria’s colour co-ordination was out of the window and I had resorted to wearing my pyjama bottoms to cover up my elastic knee bandages and bright orange socks to keep the sticking plasters in place, we entered the Plaza de Obradoiro, the huge square in front of the Cathedral.
We had to pass through an ancient archway where a lone minstrel played the "gaita" a kind of Gaelic bag-pipe. This haunting sound sent shivers down our spines as we turned the corner to see the full glory of the Cathedral in front of us. Full of emotion we climbed the Cathedral steps and touched the stone pillar which symbolized the end of our journey and for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims before us. We could feel their presence all around.
Our fingers literally entered into the stone itself, worn as smooth as marble, into the perfectly placed finger holes that have been formed slowly during the centuries and now exist as a perfect testament to every pilgrim’s homage. Then it was back to reality, calling home on our mobiles, crying tears of relief and joy, my family even managed to see me on the computer screen at home by tracking me on the security cameras in the square, no doubt aided by my bright orange top (well it matched my socks!) It was one of the most special and spiritual moments of my life and one that I will remember and treasure for ever.
Then, as a girl has to do what a girl has to do, we went shopping for new T-shirts as we really didn’t have a thing to wear!