and preconceived ideas about the Camino. You may even be wondering whether you could ever do it. But what would it be like if it was broken down into bite-sized chunks? Four intrepid ladies found out as they ventured onto the Camino for three days in April with me. Picture the scenes.
Our first sight of pilgrims occurs in the legendary Camino town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Up ahead, they sit relaxing, chatting and basking in the April sun taking full advantage of the local produce: La Rioja wine – the reward for a good day’s work. With our feet now firmly planted on the most famous of Camino paths – the Camino Francés, for the first time too we begin to head west, with the glowing sun basking brightly in our faces. But our footsteps don’t carry us far along the Camino Francés; only for a mere one hundred metres to the comfortable accommodation of the Hotel El Corregidor sitting alongside the path. It is 6pm; today’s work of walking seven miles/11km along the ‘Camino Interior’ from Haro, Spain’s wine capital, is complete. Tomorrow, new steps will bring us closer to the Gothic spires of Burgos cathedral as we enjoy the three days’ walking.
Over the next two days, 10am, 2pm, 6pm, 10pm come and go. A discovery awaits the new pilgrim: time distorts on the Camino. One day merges into another allowing even the day of the week to vanish from your consciousness. With no demands other than to eat, sleep and walk, you find yourself naturally slowing down; a new rhythm, far removed from the hectic daily routine of deadlines and schedules, reveals itself as you connect with the surrounding sights and sounds of an ever present beauty which can forever remain hidden behind the noise of a busy life. A connection that allows you to recognise, in all its shapes and forms, beauty: the beauty that lies within, the beauty of people around and the beauty of the natural world that surrounds.
Not every pilgrim connects or wants to connect. Each pilgrim’s Camino is unique and they take from it whatever they wish the experience to be. There is no such thing as a ‘wrong’ Camino. What’s ‘right’ today can be ‘wrong’ tomorrow and what’s ‘wrong’ tomorrow can be ‘right’ the following day. The learning is to stay open to each moment and to enjoy and appreciate the wisdom the moment brings.
Our reward after three days and 31 miles/50km is the glorious sight of Burgos cathedral. We climb up the stone steps that stand in front of the western façade; the Gothic spires strike high into the brilliant blue sky. The walking weekend is complete. With insights gleaned, new distances covered, self-imposed limitations exceeded and fresh connections made, a sense of fulfilment abounds.
“It’s so good, I think you should do a London screening of the film’, shouts Jen across the packed confines of the cellar bar in Blackfriars at last month’s Camino gathering.
‘That’s an excellent idea’, I reply and I park the suggestion into the back of my mind: an action for later.
Later actually means 10 days later. The next step doesn’t take place in chilly London but 5,300 miles away in the warm relaxing confines and calm space of the Vallombrosa Center, in Menlo Park, San Francisco. I’m attending the American Pilgrims On The Camino annual gathering. I mingle and find myself talking to Lydia, the producer of ‘The Camino Documentary – Six Ways To Santiago’: the film for which we want to do the London screening.
‘It’s a great documentary’, I say. ‘Well done, I love how you have authentically captured the highs, lows and inner journey of six individuals as they walk across Spain. There’s a real value in watching it before you go as you get to see the transforming power of the Camino’.
‘Is the film being screened in London?’, I add.
‘No, why don’t you do a screening of the film?’, challenges Lydia.
And, ‘where have I heard that before?’, I say to myself.
– and that’s just the weather. But we often let our outer environment dictate our inner experience. This can certainly be true on the Camino, especially when you cross Spain’s central plateau known as the Meseta and the seemingly endless cornfields that stretch from Burgos to León. An increasing number of pilgrims are deciding it is too boring to bother with and are jumping on a bus.
Paul was one of those – until he met me in a deserted café in Burgos. You can read about that provocative encounter here. This section of the Camino is a natural landscape in which the beauty lies in the detail: a solitary sunflower in an expanse of corn, for example. It is also a man-made landscape which may not boast the architectural splendour of the cathedral cities, but has its own minor magnificences, if you know where to find them.
One of my favourites is on the exterior facade of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo in Castrojeriz. It comprises two stone skulls that remind us of the past and of eternity. These cannot, of course, have the same resonance for us as they had for medieval pilgrims. But, if we notice them – and many pilgrims do not, they are evidence of an important truth: we are present both in the moment and to all that it has to offer us.
Being present while walking creates an inner space in which new insights arrive effortlessly. We cease to pass judgement on our environment, surrendering ourselves both to it and to the regular rhythm of our footsteps. In some way that I have yet to understand, this act can lead us to some unexpected places.
is that curious moment in time when our expectation is crushed by the overwhelming force of an unbelievable reality that stands immediately before us. A moment, I am convinced, that occurs for many a pilgrim walking to Santiago de Compostela. And, often this moment of dread delivers its shocking awakening within the first twenty minutes of starting the five hundred mile pilgrimage journey. It happens just after leaving the quiet, pretty French town of St Jean Pied-de-Port with the beginning of the walk up and over the Pyrenees mountains.
The Route Napoleon is the name of the path; 16 miles/25 kilometres in length, it takes you to Spain and the hamlet of Roncesvalles. The difficulty: an ascent of 1,200 metres, the stamina for 8 hours of walking with, if you’ve packed well, just an 8 kg/18 lbs load on your back.
The Pyrenees is the great human leveller; it delivers its messages without regard to status, background, nationality, age, health, wealth, occupation. They are of no importance. It is here, on that first day, where excessive egos are woken up, irrational beliefs challenged, comfy expectations destroyed and assumptions proven wildly wrong.
The messages you receive, both positive and negative, are simple in design. They repeat endlessly until you choose to listen:
‘ You are stronger than you think you are’.
‘ Lighten the load’.
‘ Walk your own pace’.
‘ Listen to what your body is saying’.
Begin to listen the moment you decide to go on Camino. Every journey begins at home. This means taking self-responsibility and committing to preparing as much as you can for the journey ahead. Of course, you can defer and procrastinate the preparation until the last minute but remember, you may well pay a price. Two extracts from my pdf book, ‘The Book Of Camino Wisdom’, amply demonstrate this:
Consider Cause And Effect – Day 1
As I climb, I resemble a plodding mule. Pilgrim after pilgrim overtakes me including super-fit and confident Mark, an Englishman living in Norway with a passion for mountain biking. We talk only briefly as he has a mountain to attack, even though it’s been here for millennia and will not be going anywhere. Others pass me who are obviously over-burdened. I wonder if they will pay the price for their enthusiasm. I continue in the slow lane in my own mulish way. And my strategy pays dividends: I get to meet and greet many other pilgrims.
Help Whenever Possible – Day 9
I head towards Navarette, and a voice calls out from my Camino past. I meet Mark whom I had last seen on day one, just outside of St Jean Pied de Port. Chatting with me takes his mind off the excruciating pain of terrible blisters.
As I said, the Camino begins at home through the decisions you choose to either take or not take; as a result, ‘suffering is optional’. To learn more about this click here to download a free pdf copy of ‘The Book Of Camino Wisdom‘
No one pilgrimage journey is the same with each Camino journey being a unique experience. Each pilgrim will approach their Camino differently and many first time walkers can find themselves worrying about the ‘walk into the unknown’. ‘The 7 Deadly Camino Sins’ represent common Camino mistakes which if avoided can allow a truly rich,rewarding and life changing Camino to be experienced.
1) Poor Prior Physical Preparation
If you are a new to long distance walking then proper prior physical preparation and walking training is recommended. Of course, it is possible to ‘hit the ground running’ in Spain however the impact could be that your first Camino week is exhausting and includes perhaps physical pain and ailments including as blisters as your body adjusts to its new reality. The worst outcome could be to decide not to continue walking as suddenly the Camino experience doesn’t match your expectations of what you thought it would be.
2) Not Listening To The Body
The Camino is not a technically challenging walk. But, it is a tough walk because of the accumulated toll on the body of getting up and walking day after day. At times, many walkers choose to forge on ahead, for whatever reason, when the body is demanding a rest. The cost: muscle fatigue, ankle and knee pain, neck and back pain, tendonitis (inflamed and painful tendons).
3) Carrying A Too Heavy Load
‘We carry our fears in our backpack’. The size of your backpack and what you bring is representative of what you think you cannot do without. The downward pressure of carrying a too heavy rucksack for an extended period of time can again lead to knee and ankle pain, tendonitis and blisters.
4) Walking To An Imposed Deadline
Finding the time to walk the Camino can feel in itself a big challenge. For many, with life and work commitments there is only a set number of days in which to perhaps cram the whole Camino journey. When you give yourself the right number of days there isn’t a problem but when you don’t the Camino undertaking can become a race / challenge of ticking off the miles/kilometres to get to journey’s end. And, this maybe completely not the type of Camino you wanted to enjoy.
5) Walking To Another’s Pace
Walking with another is generally an enjoyable experience. Difficulties arise when you stop walking your own pace and start walking the pace of another for an extended period of time, particularly if they are faster than you. How does this come about? Often, from our reticence of speaking up and asking to slow down because of a fear of upsetting the other. So, you continue to keep going … a recipe for tendonitis.
And if you’re a fast walker? Be empathetic of who you’re walking with; they may not be enjoying the experience even if they are smiling!
6) Following The Crowd
Walking in a group is fun, it’s social and there’s safety in numbers. However,you could end up feeling you are not walking your own unique Camino as you are following the speed and dynamics of the group. Courage may be required to step away from the group to walk your own path.
7) Stepping Out From The Present Moment
‘There is no overwhelm when we are fully engaged in the present moment”; fully aware of our thoughts, our actions and not in our head thinking of the past or the future, just enjoying the moment for what it is.
Examples of ‘stepping out from the present moment’ are when we get lost and miss the yellow arrows, we find ourselves talking too much to our companion, we don’t remember anything visually of the day’s journey and we spend the morning thinking of the destination and the comfy bunk bed in which to rest.
One of the learnings from the Camino is that the Camino is the ‘journey and not the destination’. It is being present to the beauty of the landscape and the experiences you create when taking each new step which make your Camino de Santiago journey the special journey that it is. Buen Camino.