Way of St James 2017

Stu McGregor, offers some thoughts on what makes the Camino de Santiago so special.

The Camino de Santiago is one of the most famous walks in the world. It originated as a pilgrimage before St James became the focus in the mid 800s. Pilgrims would travel the trade route from Rome to Spain on a journey to what was considered the western most point of Europe, a little place called Finisterre which means “End of the Earth”. I am captured by imagining early pilgrims standing on the top of the rocky cliffs and gazing out to the horizon having reached the very edge of their cosmos. Even I, having only spent 2 weeks to arrive there, had a sense where it was appropriate to “let things” go.

Pilgrimages are like that, they build expectations that reframe the destination and imbue it with what many would identify as sacredness. Although we had bussed a good chunk of the way, we still walked at least a couple of hours each day and we carried with us notes we had made to ourselves back in Paris. When we arrived at Finisterre, it felt appropriate for us to pause and be still for awhile.

The Camino is not just about the walking, the determination and the inner journey. It is also about “joining with others.” It’s a collective activity where the unspoken rules somehow become explicit very quickly and the most important rule is lived through conversations that need no expectation of continuing should they be interrupted.

I could be part of a pack of pilgrims, engaging in conversation while our pace matches, but should one wander ahead or fall behind, it’s not rude to part ways; it’s understood that there’s an ebb and flow to the walking rhythms of people on the pathways.

Everyone I talked to had a story as to why they were walking the Camino—”My wife died a few years back and I need to say goodbye”, “I needed to escape”, “We are on our honeymoon”, “I am learning to grieve about my son’s brain tumour.”

These stories are carried on a route marked by religious traditions that span millenia. Not only the Judeo-Christian heritage, but the influence of the Greek and Roman mythologies, the Islamic presence in various architectural additions, the temples and walls that predate the Christ and even the Celtic remnants in some parts of Galicia.

The Camino is a safe structure for thoughts and processing. It’s a narrow path, only 4 metres at it’s widest, 800–1400km long, 36–100 days of walking, well trodden, well marked, and well punctuated by hospitality. Seeing the cathedrals, the history, the beautiful landscapes in southern France and northern Spain, the numerous works of art, the ancient architecture, the ruins, the castles, extraordinary vistas from higher walks, gentle rivers passing us by, took on a new meaning as I thought about the millions who had walked the same pathway before me.

One of the best things about taking a bus between destinations was that we still had energy to explore the cities we stayed in which I think made for an incredibly rich experience.

It’s a fascinating trip if you want to see some amazing sights, engage with history and walk in the quiet. And if you want to go deeper, the pilgrimage will still give you the space to do so.