I completed my Camino Frances on Friday June 29, one day later than planned, because of a rest day I took.
This Camino was a dream come true. The sufferings you will experience on the way will turn into good memories later.
I refer to the Camino as “The Way”, not only because it is known as the “Way of St James” – but because it is so much more than just a walk.
I arrived at my starting point, St Jean Pier de Port, a small village nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees in France, more than two days after I left Cape Town.
I was excited and ready for the unknown. The excitement from fellow pilgrims, sitting at tables in narrow streets outside restaurants, was noticeable.
I could hear different languages, but the words “Camino” and “Santiago” were prominent.
The first day I crossed the Pyrenees Mountains, it did not disappoint me – not with the degree of difficulty, nor with the views and weather.
The Camino Frances holds surprise and satisfaction for everybody. The first section is very mountainous, and you can add several kilometres to the distance shown on maps because of the gradients of the mountains you will cross.
The first parts are mostly forests. Later on the way you will have to cross fewer mountains, then you will be rewarded with great views of vineyards – you will even find a wine fountain where you have the best red wine on tap, for free!
You also walk through areas with potato, wheat lands, and again pine and oak forests, but always, the way leads you through remote areas where you seldom see modern life, highways, and so on.
I saw poppy flowers on the way from France to the end. As it was summer, the way was lined with flowers, and most of the time you could only hear the sound of your footsteps and the sound of birds.
One even walks on roads that were built by the Romans. Over time, as the walking distance increases, the landscape changes, and with suffering, pains appear, and many people experience personal inside changes as well.
This was first told to me by a guy who had already done 2 400kkm on the Camino at that stage…
The first week you start brave, excited, full of energy, but the blisters, lack of privacy in the auberges, and overall lack of luxury you are used to, gets to you. But it’s not bad, because everybody experiences the same thing.
The second week or so, your physical fitness shows, you (may) have pains, shin splints, muscle problems, etc. Some people at this stage have to retire from the walk.
After week three it becomes in some way an emotional experience, your body progresses
and your mind is fluttering around you.
Your backpack is part of your body and you forget your important title or financial status. You become yourself… different languages, education, titles are not important on the Camino.
But as always – “Even the bad times are good.”
This summer, everybody was surprised by the weather. The first two weeks I walked in occasional rain showers.
The people you meet on the way are in a sense the best part of the Camino. As I walked the Camino alone, I had so much more freedom of choice to meet, talk to people, or not.
I could walk at my own pace, and talk to whom I wanted to. It was such a wonderful experience to see quality people, and to realise, independent of where we are from, we are actually all the same.
I saw several single young people under the age of 20, who did the Way on their own, without a fear of crime.
I met such interesting people. My walk started with a priest who is on his sabbatical year. I met a surgeon from Greenland who walked with two children she had adopted after she delivered them.
Then there was Bob and his wife from the USA, who raised millions of rands for a children’s care centre in Khayelitsha; an engaged couple who decided to walk the Camino before they finally committed; a guy who travelled on a skateboard with his husky dog pulling him; and several couples pushing their small children in carts.
At breakfast you may hear conversations on topics that you will normally not expect: People talking about a person who snored in two octaves; blisters; advice to treat it, and so on.
People adapt and learn from each other. You start worrying about a person you have only met once, and who now cannot walk further because of some problem.
The food on the Spanish Camino adds another attraction and dimension for pilgrims.
The food, and especially how you consume it, is not only to satisfy your appetite, but it is a social occasion.
In this medieval part of Spain, tapas is still popular.
At a part where we walk through, you will find the best octopus in Spain. Spanish omelette, called “Tortilla de Patatas, was my favourite breakfast.
Also enjoyable is the traditional chorizo sausage, asparagus, olives, and olive oil.
The routine on the Camino is special and everybody feels safe – you do not have to worry about a place to stay, or where to eat. A common saying on the Camino is: “The Camino will always provide” – and this I found so true many times.
You will always, independent of where you are, find a place to sleep, a hot shower, and who knows, even maybe a simple meal “on the house”.
Along the way you may find a deserted table under an umbrella, with food, and a tin to deposit money into.
Anybody is welcome to take what you want, and leave the amount you want.
I also found two albergues “bars” (names for coffee shops) which were “donativos” (this means you may take food, beers, etc and pay what you can afford). Of course, nobody will take advantage…
In the evenings, after a strenuous day of walking, you will find a bed in some albergue that may cost you about R75 to R100.
The normal routine most pilgrims follow will be to shower, wash your clothes, and go out for the evening.
The sun sets past 10pm, and normally everybody will have to be back before 10pm.
You will have to leave latest at 8am.
Everybody respects each other and you will find no noisy people, except for some snoring – but that is what earplugs are made for.
What was a great experience was that 90 percent of the auberges or hostels I stayed in, were built in the medieval times and dated hundreds of years back before
Jan van Riebeeck set foot in the Cape.
I also stayed a few times in monasteries where the nuns ran the place, and they are very strict.
Most of the villages have a river close by, and I often bought wine and snacks and sat next to the river, reflected on the day and just relaxed.
Some villages you walk through have a population of less than 20 people.
People in those villages carry on with their simple lifestyles, not bothering about the pilgrims walking past.
You will be greeted a million times with the words “Buen Camino!”
And then, one morning I realised, tomorrow I will be in Santiago! The 800km that was ahead of me is now behind me.
It was my worst day on the way… but walking into Santiago, it became the best day.
I got my Compostela (the certificate of completion) and went to the mass the next afternoon where I was lucky to see the botafumeiro swinging, which is an incense burner originally intended for the fumigation of sweaty pilgrims, in medieval times.
And then it suddenly struck me: I now have no place to walk to tomorrow, I have no destination. I felt I was leaving home instead of going home.
I now have to start booking accommodation, because I’m
not a pilgrim anymore, but a tourist.
Two days after enjoying the buzz of arriving pilgrims in Santiago, I took a bus to Muxia, an idyllic village at the most Western part of Spain.
There I stayed for a few days and allowed myself the luxury of a hotel.
I could now reflect back on this amazing Way I walked, and appreciated the fact that I was capable of doing this, and the fact that people at home supported me, and were waiting for me.
I kept a personal blog that people can access through www.camino-solitary.tumblr.com, and anybody who wants information
on the Camino is welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org