(All images by George Young, all rights reserved)
To the uninitiated and non-Spanish speakers amongst us, these words may have little meaning. And yet to anyone who’s had the dubious pleasure of completing one of the world’s oldest and most gruelling pilgrimages, the mere mention of El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St James, as the English speaking world refers to it, is enough to stir up a plethora of emotions. Pain versus pleasure. Determination battling with despair and, on occasion, introspection spliced with insanity.
El Camino is a walking route which attracts enthusiasts of all ages, creeds and religious beliefs from across the world. Historically, Catholicism was a fundamental cornerstone of the journey, being one of the oldest recognised Christian pilgrimages, dating back to pre-Roman times. But the route has experienced a renaissance in recent decades, as the religious and non-religious alike journey through Spain, France, Portugal and beyond (dependent upon their chosen route), before entering Galicia as the epic trek reaches its climax.
After winding through deserted villages, vast forests, rugged mountain ranges and modern cities, pilgrims arrive at the steps of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, northwest Spain, tired, relieved and (hopefully) fulfilled.
Why would anyone choose to walk upwards of 25-30 miles daily through invariably difficult terrain, with 12kg of additional weight in their backpacks, day after day, week after week? Almost 180,000 completed The Way in 2011 and, during a Holy Year, that figure rises dramatically. Its popularity is at once astounding and growing year after year.
The question is: why? And to delve into that, I’ve consulted my diary from 18 months ago. As a Camino enthusiast and survivor, fond memories flooded back from my time on the road, some of which I’ve shared here. I can say, happily and with confidence, that it was one of the most unique, meaningful and gratifying experiences I’ve ever undertaken in my life.
Wednesday 18th May 2011
Yesterday afternoon I arrived in the northern Spanish city of Logroño, infamous for its ancient bridge and beautiful church architecture; and I should know – after all, I slept in one. Now, I didn’t know quite what to expect when the only option available was sleeping in a church. It’s a tad creepy, is it not? Casting aside the complementary communion wine and bread, what else can make you comfortable and sleepy in a place where they conduct funerals?
I’m relieved to say that it was one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable evenings of my life. Not only did I receive somewhere half comfy to sleep; the shelter was free, as was a communal dinner and breakfast this morning. A huge group of utterly different people perched around makeshift tables in a back room, all united by one thing: the pilgrimage. El Camino. We ate, we drank, we prayed; bit awkward that was, considering I helped translate it into English without believing in what was said. Still, I returned to my good old Catholic ways for one night only, however hypocritical that might be. The inner choir boy apparently still burns brightly.
Wednesday 1st June 2011
On the eve of completing the pilgrimage to Santiago, I wonder whether I was always destined to finish ‘The Way’ without ever experiencing any heightened sense of spirituality. So many walkers, cyclists and donkey riders (yes, there were a few), speak glowingly of how they’ve felt a growing sensation of peace within themselves; of an inner contentedness brought about by the methodical nature of progressing through the pilgrimage. One, even, spoke of how his soul felt cleansed. And he meant it quite literally.
Without getting into the contentious area of whether or not the human soul actually exists, I find myself irreparably separated from these people on occasion; fortunately, for brief moments at most. It’s as though an invisible line, of faith, has been crossed; is there any going back from this? Can such vastly different people with opposing views and experiences share a common ground on a mutual experience, irrespective of which direction they’re approaching it from? If El Camino has taught me anything at all, then the answer is yes.
It would be foolish, not to mention dishonest of me, to claim that completing El Camino changed my life. Sitting here typing away, with a steaming hot coffee to keep me awake and a day full of tasks, appointments and the general humdrum detritus of life awaiting me tomorrow, like 99% of people in our society I spend 99% of my time as the proverbial hamster on the wheel. Furiously trying to keep up with the ceaseless pace so I don’t get left behind in our instantaneous, technology-oriented world.
But for four weeks in the early summer of 2011, I had the great privilege of stepping off that wheel, to switch my mobile phone off, to revel in anonymity and the often ignored joy of simply having time – well, to think. For that reason alone, as well as astonishing natural scenery, wonderful people and a genuinely rewarding journey with memories which will last a lifetime, lace up your walking boots and pack your rucksack. Give El Camino the chance, temporarily at least, to change your world.
Connect with George Young on Twitter @highlystrungyng.