We are happy to announce that we’ve successfully completed the Camino de Santiago, our first “official” pilgrimage, and are the proud carriers of two diplomas bearing our Latin names. More importantly, we are the proud carriers of many meaningful memories from over ten days (and 700 kilometres) of travel over “the way” with our fellow peregrinos.
Christian pilgrims have been walking The Camino de Santiago (which translates into English as the Way of St. James) for over a millennia. The pilgrimage began upon the discovery of the tombstone of the apostle Santiago (Saint James), and inspired people from all corners of the continent to walk to his burial place in the north western tip of what is now Spain, and was once considered the “end of the world”. During the middle ages, this passage of pilgrims brought a lot of economic and artistic wealth to the area, as well as a strong commitment to Christianity, which was often a source of conflict since the Muslim Moors occupied most of the area.
The Camino de Santiago was the most important pilgrimage in medieval Europe, and continues to be an extremely important route today. People from all over the world now travel this ancient trail to the city of Santiago. The motivation behind the modern pilgrim’s choice to undertake the Camino is unique; while many people continue to do it for religious reasons, it has also become a destination for secular pilgrims, albeit inevitably personally-spiritual people. Most people walk the trail, and most walk it alone. We met many people that were walking for over 1,000 kilometres. Pilgrims traversing these old routes certainly have much time to reflect, to challenge themselves (both mentally and physically), to meet and be inspired by the other pilgrims, and to explore the religious and historical roots. We enjoyed the opportunity of doing all these things.
From a logistical standpoint, we have never done a trail like the Camino. We followed the most established route, the Camino Frances, and it seemed as though everyone along the way was trying to help pilgrims. Everyone we passed would always the greeting of the way “Buen Camino!” We were guided through by very helpful trail markers, which took the form of anything from a statue to a fountain to paintings, but most commonly we were led to Santiago by yellow arrows and sea shell signs. Each town had at least one albergue, which is a dormitory-style lodge specifically for pilgrims. Each albergue was unique; for example, we stayed in a monastery, a country farm house, a modern hostel, and an open-doored house in a town of 47 people. There was a range of prices as well, but most were around 3 or 5 euros per night for a warm bed, and often a kitchen and wifi. Regardless of anything else, the albergues always played host to a wealth of interesting, like-minded people who we thoroughly enjoyed sharing conversation and food with.
Everyday we met amazing people, but we thought we’d share the stories of a few people we especially connect with….
We met Daniel on our very first day, a young fellow Canadian who lives on the shores of James Bay. We then met another Canadian, who ended up being a friend of a friend from back home.
On our first evening in an albergue, we met a 77-year-old German who was averaging 30 kilometres each day. (Living up to his German stereotype of being hardcore!)
We met a woman from the Netherlands who was walking the trail while pregnant.
We met Mr. Kim from Korea who, after thirty years working for an airline company, is now enjoying free flights all over the world and is soaking up each experience with incredible appreciation.
We met Michael from Scotland who lives in a community for individuals with special needs and their families. They have an incredible array of workshops (he focuses on basket making), as well as a bakery and a garden. His view on all people comes largely from his time spent farming and gardening; that is, by inputting proper time and resources, everyone can grow well.
We met a man walking the trail with a donkey and dog!
We met Gary in Leon outside its massive cathedral on a rainy day as he was preparing to play his harmonica to cover his daily expenses.
Gary is a retired farmer from West Coast America who began hiking to Santiago from Madrid four months ago, but fell in love with Leon and decided to pitch his tent permanently and give his harmonica some action. He lives with hardly money, but is very wealthy in experiences and insight; his mission is to show that you can live a very good life with very little. This vagabond is true to his word. He showed us some of his Leon highlights, including the walking path by the river and a tapas bar packed with Spanish people where you could get a glass of Rioja wine paired with bread, meats and cheese for only 1.30. Having a local guide always pays off.
We met a couple (one Spanish, one British) who have decided they want to pursue a business together, and are taking the trail to talk out every possible option!
We met Oliver who hiked to Santiago from the Netherlands, with no food or money. He wants to continue this hike (still with nothing) from Santiago to India.
One of the last pilgrims we met was Ollie from Australia. He began hiking the Camino with one of his army friends four years ago, but an overzealous attitude resulted in an aborted mission at Logrono (where we began our trip). He was hoping to complete the route with his “second mother”, but this hope was dashed when she tragically passed away from cancer. At the funeral, he decided he would complete it on his own, and arrived in Logrono shortly thereafter. He initially had no gear whatsoever, but he did have the boots of his second mother and he plans on burning them when he completes the trail (a pilgrim tradition).
For the first time on the trip, being on the bicycle meant that we were moving very fast! What took us ten days takes most people over a month. It was interesting for us that each evening we met pilgrims on different stages of the trip and were able to really see how people progress along the way. We did feel that on the bicycles we missed being able to connect with the same pilgrims night after night; many people would share albergues multiple times and it seemed like many good friendships were developing along the camino. For this reason, as well as the desire to absorb the camino more slowly, we both have committed to hike the trail one day.
Regardless of not hiking it this time, we still felt like worthy pilgrims when we arrived in Santiago. We really challenged ourselves both physically and mentally, cycling long days through difficult terrain and often braving adverse weather conditions. Through blood, sweat and tears we learned that Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe… although we also discovered some of its Saskatchewan-esque plains, who presented their own challenges of strong headwinds and heavy rain. The first week was rather wet and rainy, but when we entered the province of Galicia (ironically known for its rain), we saw nothing but brilliant sunshine and thus were rewarded for all our hard pilgrim work. Another big reward for us on our journey was passing through all the medieval villages which felt frozen in time; we knew so many pilgrims before us looked upon these towns with similar awe.
It was definitely exciting to arrive at the final goal of Santiago. We have to admit, however, we didn’t like the city. Elsewhere on the trail, we were impressed that despite so many people walking The Way the Camino did not feel very touristy. However, we found that Santiago really commercialized the Camino, and did not provide the pilgrims with the generous services and hospitality we had come to love. But the Cathedral was pretty huge!
Santiago marked the end of our time in Spain, and unfortunately despite a month of absolutely wonderful experiences, we left the country on a sour note. We took a bus back to the beginning of the trail to begin our time in France. Unfortunately, someone stole Caitlin’s wallet (with money and passport) while we were waiting for the bus. It is really frustrating that after so many people have shown us how kind and generous humans can be, a thief has to remind us that not everyone has good intentions. Now we get to undertake the fun process of getting a passport reissued while abroad!
We arrived at the French-Spanish border (marked by the Pyrenees) after an essentially sleepless night, one of us identity-less, paid a ridiculous 5 euros for two coffees, biked in the rain with heavy traffic, and wished we were still on the Camino. However, as the skies began to clear, the rest of situation also seemed to improve and we are very excited about our new chapter in France. Today we found ourselves in the sun on an incredible (paved!) bike path through a beautiful pine forest beside the ocean. We have enjoyed some warm French bread, looked into history by exploring seaside WWII bunkers, and happily said “bonjour” to fellow cyclists. A big highlight is the opportunity to speak French with people; after passing through so many countries where the language is not familiar it feels really good to communicate well with non-English speaking locals.
We now continue north to Bordeaux, being sure to sample some wines along the way!
Alec and Caitlin