He emerged from the shade of an old eucalyptus tree, his shadow stretched long and spindly in the afternoon light. In his hand he held a wooden staff, gripping it tightly with each step. On his back a red rucksack wobbled, causing the scallop shell that adorned it to sway in rhythm with his feet. Without speaking a word, I knew instantly where he was headed: Santiago de Compostela.
Here, just outside the Spanish town of Sarria, nearly everyone was walking in the same direction. It’s through this small Galician enclave that the Camino de Santiago, arguably the world’s most famous long-distance walking trail, passes. For over I,000 years people from across the world have trodden its numerous routes, many on a pilgrimage – religious or otherwise – to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
There are, of course, many different ways to get there. The official number of paths is 23, with starting points as far flung as Valencia, Malaga, Lisbon (Portugal), Paris (France) Geneva (Switzerland) and beyond. But seeing as a pilgrimage can start from your own doorstep, there are endless options.
My own journey began near Sarria, on a Spanish section of the Camino Frances (the French Way), which starts some 800km from Santiago in the Pyrenean foothills of St Jean Pied de Port, France.
But Sarria has one special claim to fame: it marks just over 100km to the cathedral – the minimum distance required to turn a trek into a pilgrimage and for walkers to receive a Compostela certificate (not to mention eternal forgiveness). What’s more, it can be handily squeezed into a single week.
When I booked this trip, having opted for the easier option of a luggage transfer service (to ease my walking load) and stays in family-run farms and B&Bs (to avoid the dorm-like albergues), I’d felt pretty smug.
But catching sight of this pilgrim among the trees, who’d obviously been on the trail for many weeks, made me finger the rucksack straps of my light weight daypack uncomfortably. Would a week’s walk really make me feel like I had qualified for a Compostela? I was about to find out…
Day 1: Samos To Sarria
Blister count: 0
The church bell echoed as I walked into the courtyard, the imposing facade of Samos Monastery blotting out the rising sun momentarily, causing me to shiver. “We open at 10:30am,” came a cry from a small wooden door, and I looked to see a monk, dressed head to toe in brown robes, smiling.
Though many start their 100km Camino in Sarria, I wanted to go a little further out, and so began in this sleepy hamlet of Samos, deep in the Galician countryside. It meant I would walk just a few hours on my first day, making it the perfect way to warm up plane-weary limbs.
I took a pew on the steps and unpeeled my orange from breakfast while scanning my surrounds. Sunday seemed an appropriate day to start a pilgrimage, whether you’re religious or not. And it appeared that everything else had taken its cue from the church. The bees buzzed lazily in the breeze, the grass swayed hypnotically and, one by one, in no particular hurry, the pilgrims started to arrive, all waiting for the monastery doors to open.
When they finally did, the monk was ready to stamp our credencials – pilgrim passports that mark how far you’ve come – something you have to do at least twice each day on the Camino, to prove that you’ve walked it.
I headed out, looking for my first scallop shell waymarker to point me in the direction of Santiago. I followed it out of town, tracing a river into the countryside, where my first “Buen Camino” – the greeting called to pilgrims by locals and fellow hikers – came from a shepherd walking his dog.
He spoke only Galician, and my Spanish (Castilian) is limited, so a few smiles and nods was all we could exchange. But it made me feel like my journey had really begun.
The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling past grazing cows, tiny churches, cobbled farmhouses and small tavernas where I could grab a sandwich. It all felt very civilised, very doable.
The final stretch saw more pilgrims emerging from albergues, freshly fuelled on stew and beer, before ending in Sarria. As I watched the sun set from the terrace, supping Galician wine and listening to the chanting coming from the adjacent church, all was divine.
Day 2: Sarria to Portomarin
Blister count: 0
A tree-lined trail saw me out of Sania. The Galicia region has some of the highest rainfall in Spain, making it lush and green, while much of this part of the land splits into smallholdings. After walking through what seemed like endless fields, I suddenly emerged into a duster of farmsteads where men and women of all ages worked the fields by hand rather than using modern machinery.
1passed two such workers in a field before the hamlet of Barbadelo, not long after seeing the hardy-looking pilgrim who made me question my own credentials. The track wound up and down rolling hillocks and alongside rocky walls where Iberian emerald lizards soaked up the warmth, their blue and green backs glistening in the sunshine.
By the time I reached the bridge at Portomarin, my feet Eft hot and raw. The town itself used to sit much lower on the river; but when the watercourse was dammed to form a reservoir in the 1960s, much of the historic old town was moved uphill, brick by brick.
To access it requires climbing the steps to the gateway (through which it gets its name). As l ascended them, l thought that if real pilgrimages require a certain level of pain, my feet were starting to play ball…
Day 3: Portomarin to Palas De Rei
Blister count: 2
Everyone seemed to be racing out of Portomarin. I watched them go as I hobbled over the cobbles, my taped-up feet preventing me from picking up the pace.
But my enforced slow- down gave me time to appreciate the little things more.
I suddenly noticed that every brick on the church had a number painted on it, back from when it was moved up from the water and painstakingly put back together. Going slow allowed me the opportunity to chat to an older lady, walking the last 100km with her grandson (who was already well ahead). She told me that slow and steady was the only way to do the Camino.
But the best reward came outside the village of Castromaior. While the speedier pilgrims ploughed on, I spotted a sign just off the trail. I made my way over and saw that, just behind the rise, sat an Iron Age archaeological site. Hidden by its own earthworks, I strolled between grassy humps to find a cluster of ancient walls.
Here I stood gazing over the landscape, beckoning other walkers to take a look at this hidden relic and watching their faces light up as they were shown something unexpected just off the path. Before heft, the final person I showed handed me a scallop shell, complete with the cross of St James emblazoned on it, as a thank you. Tying it to my rucksack, I began to feel that little bit more pilgrim-like.
Arriving at Palas de Rei, the little town was alive with the buzz of hikers. But I wasn’t sticking around. Instead, I was met by Suso, the owner of a little 300-year-old farm a few miles away.
“I grew those vegetables right here,” he said as I spooned a hearty helping into my mouth that evening. “The cheese comes from the dairy up the road, and the fruit I picked here this morning.”
That evening I sat in the heart of the countryside, fat on delicious local grub, thoughts of walking and blisters far from my mind.
Day 4: Palas De Rei to Arzoa
Blister count: 5
The number of pilgrims seemed to be rising in direct correlation with the number of blisters I was getting. Spying yellow arrows was no longer necessary looking for other walkers was just as effective.
The temperature soared well above 30°C, making any patch of shade – no matter how small – a much-longed-for blessing. The scent of pine needles on the dusty floor merged with the waft of the sweetened odour of manure from the farmers’ fields, while noisy chatter from other walkers came and went in pockets as I passed school groups, families and cyclists.
But there were certain moments where everyone – no matter how big the group – would be struck silent, whether by a church perfectly lit in the sunlight; a well-positioned stream, ideal for cooling off aching limbs; or even an unsign posted, unnamed viewpoint that was, nevertheless, stop-you-in-your-tracks gorgeous.
I could smell Melide before Leven saw a sign. Here, local vendors boil up batches of octopus for a Galician delicacy known as polbo a feira. As I passed, several were offered to me on sticks, their tentacles curled up, their bodies glowing a deep sunburnt red. Despite being merely a large town, after several days on the Camino it felt like a bustling metropolis. I hurried through and was soon back in the countryside.
Here I passed an albergue, the dorm-like hostels often run by monks and nuns, where pilgrims typically rush to secure a bed for the night (they’re first come, first served). Instead, I carried on to the town of Arzria, where my ride to another countryside escape awaited.
As I walked to my room, a French lady emerged from next door. “You’re walking the Camino?” she asked. I nodded. “I’ve always wanted to do that. Buen Camino!” I went to bed, feeling just abit mole like a pilgrim.
Day 5: Arzua to A Rua
Blister count: 7
At first I thought it was just another marker stone, but then I spotted the copper shoes, turned green by the elements. Here, after leaving the town of Arzua with a band of merry peregrinos (pilgrims) and around halfway into my penultimate day, was a memorial to someone who hadn’t made the journey all the way to Santiago.
It was a little stone shrine wishing others a good journey in remembrance of those who didn’t last the course. Many lay stones along the route markers, which is said to symbolise leaving their worries behind, and if this first memorial was anything to go by, people walking the Camino shed a lot of worries.
As I continued, the trees thickened either side of me and more memorials appeared. Some were just small piles of stones; others much larger plaques screwed into stone walls. I slowed my pace as I passed them, keen to soak up the part of the trail that the others had missed out on, walking with their names swimming in my head, thinking how lucky I was to be there.
Day 6: A Rua to Santiago
Blister count: 9
It was still dark when I awoke, stirred from my sleep by the regular tap-tap of walking poles outside my window. Today was the final push to the cathedral. It was raining hard, the sky an eddying swirl of greys, but the mood was far from miserable.
There were fewer people on the route now; the weather, along with the walkers’ eagerness to finish, had meant that a bubble of pilgrims passed through much earlier. So I curved my way happily through tiny villages, where shutters were still firmly closed, enjoying the solitude.
At Lavacolla, I stopped by a little stream – the place where pilgrims many years ago washed before presenting themselves at church. Here the trail seemed to change, and suddenly I was aware of a lot more people. Fast-food stalls lined the route and it took on more of a festival feel.
-Some hikers looked a little lost, so close to the end and not sure whether or not they should finish or prolong the experience. I couldn’t blame them; after only six days of walking I had already become habitually attuned to the process. It was so deliciously simple: get up, eat, then walk from A to B.
Before I knew it, I had reached Monte do Gozo (aka ‘the mountain of joy’). This was traditionally the area where – just 3km from Santiago – pilgrims would catch sight of the steeples of the cathedral, drop to their knees and weep. By this point, many were already in ‘finish mode’ and didn’t even stop. But if my blistered feet had taught me anything, it’s that the Camino is awalk to savour.
I left the path to hike a further ten minutes to the statue of two pilgrims, which boasted the views down to the cathedral and city beyond. Despite the drizzle, I could finally make out its spires and felt a peculiarly bittersweet sense of elation surge through me.
Later, there would be time for the final walk into town, to experience the overwhelming buzz of thousands of people hurrying around the streets of this holy city, then to join the queues of peregrinos, all waiting to show their completed passports at the cathedral office in order to receive their Compostela.
Time enough to watch in awe as the giant botafumeiro incense vessel swung through the halls of Cathedral de Santiago to the sound of nuns singing, while the air was cleansed in great plumes of smoke.
But for now, there was this view. I stood in the rain for as long as I could before turning back to the path.
As I did, I passed a puddle and caught sight of my reflection. With my well-worn walking boots, my stick clasped firmly in hand and my scallop shell swinging freely from my rucksack, the person in the water cut a familiar figure to the one I’d seen back in Sarria. But now that pilgrim was me. When it comes to the Camino, it seems that just a few days and 100km is all it takes to truly see a transformation.