Making a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago had never been on my bucket list. Everybody had ‘done’ the Camino, like they’d ‘done’ Kilimanjaro, the Milford Track and Machu Picchu.
I’ve yet to tackle any of those famous walks, being slightly deterred by their popularity, but now I’ve started along the Camino, I feel differently about it. Yes, lots of people have done it, hundreds of thousands of them, maybe millions over the centuries, and that’s the whole point.
Our fellow pilgrims were walking the Camino for all sorts of reasons. Few of them may be religious these days, though for many it seemed to be intended as a sort of spiritual cleansing, at least getting some fresh air and exercise, seeing some lovely countryside and historic villages, and enjoying the relaxed company of others.
For me it was a chance to catch up with my cousin Iain who lives in Logrono, on the route, and who suggested walking a couple of stages. I was only too happy to join him.
In the Camino office in Pamplona we picked up our passports – we would need them to stay in the ‘albergues’ along the way – for the modest sum of EUR1.50. A bonus in the foyer was the display of nativity scenes by local children. I particularly liked the manger in an igloo, with ox and ass replaced by penguins…
At crack of dawn we set off, then stopped 127 metres down the road (according to my ever accurate GPS computer) at the place with the good coffee and sticky croissants.
The route through Pamplona is clearly marked with the scallop shell symbol of St James set in the pavement every five metres. That didn’t stop us wandering from the path while we were chatting. A local quickly directed us back to the long and winding road. She didn’t want stray pilgrims cluttering up her town.
The designated route was already busy with a conga line of our fellow ‘peregrinos’.
We chatted to those we overtook. Being novice pilgrims not yet adjusted to the slower pace of life on the Camino, we walked faster than most.
‘As soon as I cross the frontiere into Spain, I feel a new wind blow,’ the intense young French pilgrim told us. He’d walked all the way from his Christian commune in France. ‘The spirit here is incredible.’
A group of Italians, work colleagues from Milan, had other concerns. They explained that their chances of winning the Formula One were crippled until Ferrari could get a new chairman. Perhaps their prayers would be answered if they reached Santiago. The German ladies were taking time off from hausfrau duties – a sort of Girls’ Month Out.
Miracles happen along the Camino. Somewhere between 13.7 and 15.1 kilometres into the trek my GPS computer broke free of its moorings on my wrist and was lost. I retraced my steps and searched the ground fruitlessly, until a Spanish angel appeared on a mountain bike and produced it from his backpack.
The walking was generally not difficult, though the path was rocky and steep for short distances. Of course we also had no particular deadline or daily distance which had to be achieved, but around 25 kilometres a day was comfortable for us.
By early afternoon we reached the albergue in the village of Obanos and checked in, excited as kids collecting football cards when the warden stamped our Camino passports.
For 7 euros each we had hot showers and beds in a communal dormitory (there was some competition for bottom bunks between those whose knees needed nursing), and could afford to splash out an extra 3 euros for breakfast.
We had time and energy over to stroll a couple more kilometres down into the valley to see a 12 century octagonal church.
There were a few worshippers inside. We contented ourselves with a few minutes of quiet contemplation, relieved to be doing it in a sitting position, and admired the ancient stonework.
Then with an almost audible creaking of knees we resumed the vertical position and climbed back up the hill to Obanos, knowing that beer was waiting in the bar, along with a hearty three course ‘peregrinos menu’, all for EUR9.50. Hiking the Camino was really the cheapest travel I’ve done for a very long time.