The Camino de Santiago

James Howe describes his Camino Frances in May this year

Today’s Camino Frances is the current version of an ancient pilgrim route that predates Christianity and originally ended at Finisterre where pilgrims burnt their clothes and sandals seeking cleansing and a new beginning. It is one of many Caminos leading to Santiago de Compostela.

It is believed that when St James first arrived in Galicia to preach, the Virgin Mary appeared to him at Muxia, twenty miles to the north of Finisterre. Muxia now claims to be the true end of the Camino whilst Finisterre is described by some as the end of the earth.

St James’ martyrdom at the hand of Herod, followed by the return and burial of his remains in Santiago de Compostela lead to it becoming a christian pilgrimage.

See Debbie Apostolides’ article in the May 2015 newsletter for further background and an account of her Camino.

My Camino Frances started on 3rd May at St Jean Pied de Port and after 32 consecutive days of walking ended on 3rd June at Santiago de Compostela.  I then walked on to Finisterre and Muxia but they are different Caminos.

A typical day: up every morning at 6.00 and out by 6.30, walk for six hours with breaks for coffee and tortilla, walk, talk, listen and look, check into an albergue, have my peregrino’s credential – pilgrim passport – stamped, find a beer and a pilgrim menu for lunch, shower and clothes washing usually by hand using shampoo, a pilgrim mass or organised gathering, then a second pilgrim menu with wine. Doors locked at 22.00 and lights out at 22.30. Repeat 32 times.

I started with snowdrifts beside the path and ended in a sunny 30 degrees with every permutation in between. The first day’s summit is higher than Ben Nevis at 1450 m and the highest point of the Camino, the Cruz de Ferro is 1505m.  The landscape is as varied as you can imagine and whether it is a vista or a panorama is open to discussion. At this time of year the wildflowers and bird song were a constant source of pleasure – for the first four weeks cuckoos were daily companions.

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One passes through once great cities and what were bustling towns and villages many of which now have declining populations and but for the peregrinos would have gone into steeper decline.  The fantastic churches and Cathedrals bear witness to a past literally golden age. Today’s peregrinos are a financial life blood to this part of Spain and are treated as such. The Cathedral at Santiago expects to issue 300,000 compostelas or certificates of completion this year. That is up from last year when about 240,000 were issued no doubt in part because of the Pope’s declaration of a Holy Year of Mercy from 8th December 2015 to 16th November 2016. Compostelas are only issued upon evidence of the stamps in a peregrino’s credential.

 

Having set out on my own I walked and talked with many varied and delightful people from all over the world. You are rarely alone on the Camino. How did they know about the Camino. Many had inspiration from Martin Sheen in The Way, from Shirley MacLaine’s book or from family or friends of friends who had completed their Camino.  I walked most with Joe a 77 year old from Phoenix who I met in the second week.

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Whilst planning your Camino I would commend the Confraternity of St James’ website www.csj.org.uk for general and specific advice. There are many guide books and some web sites available.  Development of additional albergues is ongoing and no book can keep pace with the change so a combination of sources is good. The most commonly seen guide book is by John Brierley (12th edition 2015) and some peregrinos spoke highly of the Wise Pilgrim Guide available as an app. Public albergues do not accept reservations unlike private ones that do.  Booking.com may come in handy. Some peregrinos find their packs too heavy and use one of the daily courier services available. This often links with the use of private albergues because in my experience public ones are full by 14.00.

As already said I experienced very mixed weather but I was indeed blessed because overall I only had sporadic days of rain and heat. Generally the weather was perfect for walking. The distance covered to Santiago was 550 miles. I walked on to Finisterre and then Muxia.  In total I walked 710 miles including local sightseeing. My backpack weighed 8 kgs, I took 1.44 million steps, dropped my resting heart rate from 69 to 65 bpm and shed 4.5 kg and down one notch on my belt.

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Why did I set out on this?  It’s like an itch that you know is there and every so often you think I must do something about it. Finally I had the time to undertake the whole walk in one go and hoped that on the way I would uncover the cause of my itch. As with my companions I had no epiphany but we all had found some answers along the way. It is said that one’s Camino does not end at Santiago but really only begins and I think that that is the case for me.

If you have the itch the documentary film ‘Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago’ is an account of six very different individuals’ walks aged 3 to 73 and is as good an account of the Camino as you will see in 84 minutes. I first saw it as part of a series of screenings around the country linked with a question and answer session by a couple of people who had recently completed the walk.

What did it cost?  I stayed mainly in public albergues and five nights in small hotels, enjoyed ‘menu peregrinos’, carried my own backpack and spent about £2,000. All the albergues have cooking facilities which I used a few times but the menus represented excellent value with the bonus after a long day’s walk of it being put in front of you.

I am grateful to all those who shared their experiences of hiking before I set off as I was a complete novice and am thankful that I took their advice. My simple advice is do not carry more than 10% of your body weight, have three pairs of 1000 mile socks, look after your feet, walk at your own pace and use a walking pole when the path is tricky. Many people fail to complete the walk on their first attempt and I met several returnees.

This was a fulfilling experience which I will not undertake again. However, I might walk the Camino Portuguese from Lisbon to Santiago and then follow in the footsteps of an acquaintance who is currently on pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome.

If on reading this you have any specific queries I will be happy to try and answer them ([email protected]).

‘Buen Camino’

James Howe