I am finally getting around to writing about my latest adventure…. walking the Camino. To be more specific, it is a Catholic pilgrimage on what is known as the ‘Friendly Camino’, a 240 kilometre walk from Porto in Portugal, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
As opposed to the famous 800 kilometre “French Way”, the Portugal Camino is one of the world’s best-kept secrets, with only around five thousand people taking it on each year. Everyone does it for different reasons. Some are Catholic, others spiritual, and many are just up for one of the great adventures of the 21st century.
For the first time in a long time, I decided to leave the TV crew at home, and reconnect with myself and my beloved backpack. Little did I know it would be so much more.
During the journey, I often wondered why I was on a Catholic pilgrimage when I am not even Catholic. But regardless of my faith, there was no denying the fact that we were following the way of Saint James, a pilgrimage that people from around the world have walked, even crawled, for the last thousand years.
The entire journey was profoundly different to the many other treks I have done before, in Nepal, Africa, Borneo and even Tasmania, to name just a few.
I went with a group of 14 women (including my mother-in-law!) all of who were fun, fit, vivacious and extremely different in personality, yet we were bonded by our common adventure.
The bond extended to everyone else we encountered on the walk, all united by the ‘shells’ that were proudly attached to all of our bags. The shell has been the symbol of the Camino from when pilgrims would use it to hold their food. Everyone who now walks the stretch proudly wears it, and every café waiting to greet you has one displayed on their outside wall to guide you in.
Starting in Porto, I was swept away by the beauty of the waterside city. One of the oldest European centres, it was built on the reputation of producing port wine. Known as the city of bridges, it’s hard to take your eyes off the 18th century architecture in the vibrant town that’s alive with the buzz of people enjoying the good life, with incredible fresh seafood, charming restaurants and funky hotels overlooking the Douro River.
As soon as we hit the road, our journey took us through the heart of Portugal past tiny villages where the houses have perfectly manicured gardens and vines growing out the back. As we strolled along cobblestone streets, the sound of church bells ringing reminded us we were on ‘The Way’.
Following the famous yellow arrow, I will never forget hearing our first “Bon Camino”. It became a familiar, comforting greeting; from both locals, and our fellow pilgrims. A warm-hearted ‘good luck’, a greeting, even just an acknowledgment of the journey.
Walking between 18 – 24 kilometres a day, I quickly threw out my old ideas of what a trek was by slowing down and enjoying the journey. Our morning coffee breaks became a highlight where we’d mix with fellow pilgrims from all over the world, followed by a lunch break a couple of hours later that could sometimes go for over an hour – if we felt like it!
Many people chose to go it alone and stay in albergues, which are pilgrim hostels that are located at least every 10 to 20 kilometres along the Camino. They can cost as little as 5 Euros a night where you all “bunk in”. We had opted for a group tour staying in a mixture of renovated old farm houses, pensions and hotels, carefully chosen by our passionate host Glenyce Johnson from Australia. Some of the places, like Casa dos Assentos, the main house of an ancient farm in the Alto Minho region 70 kilometres from the Spanish border, simply took my breath away. I sat chatting with the owner Louis, who proudly talked of his Portuguese culture and shared the history of his home where he had been born, and that had been handed down from his grandfather.
It’s times like these when I know I will travel forever. Different cultures and adventures all under the big blue sky… anywhere in the world!
Like all adventures, it certainly wasn’t all rosy… There were blisters (I should have been better prepared), two days of heavy rain, even a day pounding the pavement through an industrial backstreet as we soldiered on looking for a place we could rest our weary legs. But like a gift, the sun would come out and light up our path again.
As the days went on, I finally let go of the noise and clutter of my life at home, and a gentle silence settled in my mind. I will always treasure a little chapel I stumbled across just a couple of days before we got to the border of Spain where I found myself saying a quiet prayer.
The next day we passed a man who was distracted by us while tending to his vines. Hollering in Portuguese, he was clearly trying to get our attention. As we approached him he handed us a huge bunch of red grapes. “Bon Camino” he whispered with a huge smile. ‘Bon Camino’ we replied. He waved us onwards.
As we crossed the border into Spain, I started to wish the days would slow down. Settling into conversations with my fellow pilgrims, what a gift it was to have time away from everyday life.
Everyone back home kept asking “what have you noticed walking the Camino?” as though there was supposed to be some big moment.
But it wasn’t until our very last day when we arrived in the medieval and World-Heritage listed city of Santiago De Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are said to be buried in the Cathedral, that the spirit of the walk hit me. Welcomed by the cheer of my fellow pilgrims, I hid the tears behind my sunglasses. I remember looking around at the sea of tourists clambering off buses for a photo of the stunning city. That would have been me a couple of weeks earlier.
But this was different. I stood there, listening to bagpipes playing in the distance, taking it all in. Without my camera.
Fellow pilgrims with their well-worn boots, backpacks and the famous shell hanging off them looked to be mesmerised too. “Bon Camino” a fellow pilgrim from Norway smiled. No more words were needed. “Bon Camino” I replied.
Sitting at the special mass for pilgrims at the cathedral, the previous two weeks of walking the Camino gave way to just sitting there, completely present. Soaking up the special place where the remains of Saint James, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles, now rests and now attracts pilgrims from all over the world.
The gently spoken “Bon Camino” is a phrase that will forever be etched in my heart. The only way you can really understand it is by taking the journey yourself.
Top 5 tips for walking the Camino, or any long distance walk:
- Get yourself some Injinji performance toe socks (they stop the blisters between your toes)
- Strap your feet with a tape that is breathable
- Bring 2 x wet weather ponchos and wet weather pants. I found by layering my ponchos I never got wet in the pouring rain (remember to have a wet weather case over your backpack also)
- Use a Camelbak or similar hydration pack (ensures you stay hydrated without having to stop!)
- Pack ‘hikers wool’ and whenever you get a ‘hot-spot’ on your foot, pack some wool in your sock on that area and it (often) prevents a blister from forming
- Pack a small bag of band-aids, that include blister blocks, and make sure you include sterilised needles. Always have this bag at hand in your backpack.
P.S Many people have asked who I travelled with. I was a full paying passenger with a wonderful company called Wandering the World.
This post originally appeared on www.anacondastores.com