Camino De Santiago
Hiking the "Way of St James"start
Camino De Santiago
Europe's most popular long distance walk
The Camino De Santiago has been a European pilgrimage route for over a thousand years. Often risking life and limb in their search of absolution and adventure, pilgrims set off to reach the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela - the legendary burial place of Saint James, one of the twelve Apostles. Yet despite its long and colorful history, the Camino was almost lost to history until the 1980s when enthusiasts – Church and State working together – reinstated it as an important religious and cultural experience.
Movies (like The Way), documentaries and celebrities have contributed to its now iconic status and the resurgent Camino (Spanish for path) has become a hugely popular long-distance walk, attracting well over 200,000 pilgrims from all over the world in 2013 alone. They walk for every kind of reason, from religious to recreation, adventure to sight-seeing and everything in-between with amazing personal histories and stories to share. This is the story of Cyril Morin’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
- Trail length: 481mi
- Climb: 21,000ftft
A sunny October morning
I set off innocently one sunny October morning from St Jean Pied de Port, France, to walk my Camino, making my way to Roncesvalles, a monastic settlement nestled in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. My accommodation was a converted church, with over 100 creaky bunk beds, each one occupied by an equally creaky pilgrim. Not surprisingly, since the 15.53 mile hike on Day 1 included 3,280ft of climbing and 2,296ft of descending from France into Spain.
Although it's considered the toughest stage on the Camino Francaise, I found the going relatively easy and was only too willing to share this opinion with my fellow pilgrims and new found friends over supper that night. Next morning, after a night interrupted by snoring, everybody began to form small walking parties. Everybody that is, except me. My bragging about yomping across the Sahara Desert, running ultra, double and multi-day marathons had not endeared me to my fellow pilgrims - and I was left to my own devices!
Free from the comfort and constraints of group walking, I found myself at the end of day 2 on my Santiago de Compostela walk, in Pamplona, with blisters as my only companion and friend. That was, until a Dutch cyclist I'd met two nights earlier in St Jean, called out to me “Buen Camino” as I hobbled along the cobbled streets, looking for cheap pilgrim food and accommodation. She was surprised by my progress as most pilgrims take at least three days to get this far. I was simply surprised and happy to meet somebody I recognized.
I didn't have a plan for hiking the Camino de Santiago, just a desire to complete it, regardless of the challenges. My quick progress on day two inspired me to ignore the recommended 17 miles a day typically walked by pilgrims and instead aim for an average 31-plus miles per day, ultra-hike.
Day 3 found me crawling into the historic town of Estella only to leave early the next morning. Every day thereafter, I increased the distance between my start and finish time, in order to eke out more miles and push my body harder and my mind further than the previous day. "Sleeping is Cheating" became my mantra.
Blisters, while very unpleasant, didn't get in the way of my mission or my enjoyment while hiking the Camino de Santiago. They seemed to egg me on beyond my comfort zone and into the unknown where the magic happens. While fellow pilgrims took time each evening to write about their day, I recorded it in terms of numbers and statistics: miles walked, feet climbed and descended, time and speed, relishing my daily achievements.
One epic day I walked for 19 hours, covering 53 miles, the equivalent of a double marathon. There were times during those hours when I could barely keep my eyes open and moments when I thought I was a Zulu warrior storming into the night to do battle; yet it was magical day to savor and remember. My progress in my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was so fast, that towns such as Puent la Reina in Navarra, Logrono in Rioja, the Meseta cities of Burgos and Leon, the mountaintop delights of Crux de Herro and O Cebreiro, and the Celtic delights of Galicia in the form of stone walls guiding farmers with their cows down narrow lanes alongside awe-inspired and giddy pilgrims, all flew by in almost a blur.
Arriving in Santiago de Compostella
Each day I pushed myself to the limit and almost before I realized it, I arrived in Santiago de Compostela, to the sound of Galician bagpipes, in the dark and rain of an early November evening, in half the time most pilgrims take to walk the same route. I hadn’t stopped to work out what the Camino de Santiago was about or what I was supposed to do when I finished. I was shattered but not quite ready to leave a journey that was giving me the experience of a lifetime.
After some rest in Santiago, I began walking again, this time to Muxia, then back to Santiago - where I got another compostela (certificate for completing my pilgrimage), having met the criteria of walking more than 63.35 miles. Not satisfied with that I kept on walking, but now in the opposite direction, back toward where I started. I wanted to say, 'hi and bye' once more to the people I'd befriended in St Jean Pied de Port, walking back 186.4 miles to the city of Leon, seeing the sights I'd missed earlier, having walked so much in darkness. But then, farewells said, I decided to call it a day.
Throughout the course of my travels along the Santiago de Compostela walk, there were tough days, hot days, long and wet days, but never one that I didn't go to sleep smiling from ear to ear. I began hiking the Camino de Santiago not knowing how hard it would be, or whether I'd even be able to complete it. I ended it realizing that something as simple as walking with a random group of people, of all ages, in relatively harsh conditions, could deliver the experience of a lifetime with memories to match. I had a sense of achievement not felt on many of my other epic exploits. I could truly say,'Buen Camino.’
Choosing a route
There are a number of routes you can take to get to the Santiago de Campostela, including the Camino Francaise (the most popular) followed by the Camino Portuguese, Camino del Norte and the Camino Via de la Plata. Historically, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostela started at the pilgrim's homes. Today pilgrims have to walk a minimum of 63.35 miles (110km) in order to qualify for a compostela; the certificate proving completion.
Cyril Morin walked the Camino Francaise from St Jean Pied De Porte (481.56 miles or 775KMs), one of the most popular starting points for those choosing from one of the longer Camino de Santiago options, be it on foot, bike, horseback or even camel.
Plan your travel
Our guide to planning your journey – plus essential links to find out more.
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