My mum and I told ourselves we were just going for a long walk. A very long walk. We were nervous, my mum particularly so because she'd never walked this long nor this far. She had wanted to do a Camino for years and, as her birthday approached, we decided 2018 was the year and that she would spend her birthday on the open road. As we boarded the plane which would take us to Northern Spain, with only a backpack full of essentials for the week, our nervousness turned to excitement: we were about to start our Camino.
Words & photography by Benoît Grogan-Avignon | @benoit_ga
The Camino is an old pilgrimage route that extends from England to Santiago de Compostela going South, and from Portugal to Santiago de Compostela going North. Pilgrims through the ages have traversed all terrains to arrive at mass in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and be absolved of their sins. To do the whole Camino can take months of physically and mentally demanding walking. Our route was modest by comparison: to go from the North of Galician Spain, starting in Ferrol, to Santiago De Compostela. This is known as the English Route.
It runs over undulating hills, through small villages, forests, and semi-secret paths. We walked it in about 5 days, covering more than 100km, and marvelled at what we saw along the way.
Walking the Camino itself is like playing an open world video game. You don't need a map because you encounter yellow arrows at regular intervals. These guide you and keep you on course. Some have the distance to Santiago de Compostela marked on them, so you can either be elated by how much distance you have covered or crushed by how much more there is to go. The best part about these arrows is that they allow you to switch off and just walk. You're not constantly checking a map or your phone just in case you took a wrong turn, you just look for the arrows. If you go a while without seeing one, just retrace your steps to the last arrow you saw and go from there.
The last time I had done a walk like this was 10 years ago, through Costa Rica, and I had forgotten what it feels like to be on the move. The sense of independence and freedom you feel on the road is intoxicating: you don't need to rely on a bus schedule, tour guide, or rental car, just you and your own two legs. Find a bed for the night, doesn't matter if it isn't particularly nice, and head off early the next morning. Simple. Best of all, the stops on the route become secondary to the walking itself.
The walking is the journey, the destinations are just the admin. It's a wonderful feeling, and it's so cheaply gained.
Different things catch your eye when you go through the landscape at walking pace. Have you ever walked below or been near huge motorway bridges or overpasses? It's a surreal experience. If you ignore what they actually are, they look like monolithic alien structures. The low rumble of wheels and cars sound like the hum of a great machine. We passed beneath many of these structured and wondered how we ever found them ugly or a blight. Yes they are newcomers to the landscape, but there is some beauty there, if only in engineering terms. They became statuesque in my eyes.
We had pared back the gear in our bags to the extreme. I did the whole walk in lightweight sandals, my mum did most of it in a pair of lightweight trainers. I had suggested she get a Millican bag like mine for the walk and hers was full but comfortable. When many of our fellow pilgrims wore 50-70L packs for the trip, we wore 20-25L and used a laundrette when necessary. I've become fanatical about packing light and packing efficiently, but seldom is my packing put to such a test: packing too much or too little could make turn a pleasant walk sour.
What is the purpose of a pilgrimage like this today? I am not a religious man, but I can see how the discipline of the road and the focused attention on the journey teaches valuable lessons.
The Camino teaches patience and openness to new and different experience. It forces you to enjoy each part and makes you appreciate small comforts when you find them.
Once you arrive at Santiago de Compostela you realise that there are thousands of fellow pilgrims arriving from different directions at the same time. Some were on your route, some came from France, from Portugal... Suddenly you have something in common and a shared story. It's a wonderful feeling.