This is my personal experience of hiking the last 120 glorious km of the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail from Sarria to Santiago with local tour company TraveltheWay.com. The pain, the glory, and everything in between.
There are many different ways to do the Camino de Santiago, but I hiked the “French Way”, or “El Camino Francés” if you speak Spanish.
I did the last 120-ish km from Sarria to Santiago, which is a solid five days of walking for between five and eight hours a day.
It was so much more beautiful and rewarding than I imagined it could have been and, although I’m not a religious person, it had quite a profound effect on me. I really got into the whole social element of the trip, the camaraderie and shared goal. It truly was one of the most heartwarming experiences of my life.
So here it is, a few thousand words and a about 100 photos from my first ever long distance hike on the Camino de Santiago. I hope it gives you an insight into life on The Way and inspires you to pack your boots and get out there yourself.
I’ve tried to break it up into chunks and make it skimmable, so I suggest leaving this page open and coming back to it as when you have time.
Day 1 ~ Madrid to Sarria via Astorga
Jittering with excitement, I flew from Barcelona, where I live, to join my group in Madrid.
Our charming and enthusiastic guide Jacob, from TraveltheWay.com, presented us with our scallop shells, the symbol of the Camino, and prepped us mentally for the hike.
“You will love it!” he gushed. “I have 100% satisfaction with this tour!”
Karolina, Kasia and Isabella were travelling solo, while Ola and Aneta (mother and daughter) would be hiking together. Ola was 74 years old and, foolishly underestimating her, I suddenly felt less anxious about the level of difficulty the walk would entail.
We jumped into Jacob’s van and zipped through Madrid on a quiet Sunday morning. Our excitement and collective energy was palpable and we laughed and fidgeted as Jacob pointed out Madrid’s icons under a cloudless sky.
Antoni Gaudi Beyond Barcelona
After cruising through the endless vineyards of Rueda, we found ourselves in Astorga, a dainty little town in the province of León.
I was awestruck at the sight of Antoni Gaudi’s Episcopal Palace. As a resident of Barcelona I’m used to seeing the architect’s work on a daily basis and it felt strange to see his work transcending the realms of Catalonia.
The weather was crisp and realised how naive I’d been in thinking it would be anything like the 24C/75F I’d left behind in Barcelona.
Jacob knew a good place to eat (a trait of his that I would grow to depend on over the coming days), so I warmed up with giant bowl of cocido maragato, a local take on the classic Spanish stew of goat, pork, pig ears, trotters, chorizo, chickpeas, cabbage and potatoes. Proper hearty stuff.
The weather turned in the time it took me to eat my stew, which wasn’t long, and the blue skies faded to an ominous shade of silver.
Hailstones dropped, nipping at our skin, and we leaped back to the van to drive onward to Sarria, our spirits still as high as ever.
The pilgrims (peregrinos in Spanish) we saw at the side of the road, hiking and cycling, struggled up gruelling hills buffeted by gusts of biting wind, only to be greeted by the gentle pitter patter of snow once they reached the top.
I was in no way prepared for this kind of weather.
Prayers, Peregrinos and Albergue Feasts
In Sarria we checked into the first albergue of the trip. I’d spent far too much time imagining what the albergues would look like and had read all the horror stories about vast halls filled with snoring pilgrims and bedbugs.
But Jacob’s tour is all about quality and comfort and he had secured us a cosy room with bunk beds in the charming Albergue A Pedra, which was basically a little house for pilgrims.
The sheets were crisp and clean and I had a thick blanket to keep me warm. This would be the norm at all of the albergues Jacob arranged for us and I never would end up using my sleeping bag – though from some of the tails I would here later, not all albergues along the Camino are so plush.
Albergue A Pedra is run by Jose, a Catalan who had left a highflying career as a MotoGP motorcycle mechanic to set up an NGO called the Hospitaleros sin Fronteras. In short, the money he makes at his albergue and collects at other albergues along the Camino goes to help families in rural Africa.
I joined my group for mass at the local church. It was the first I could remember ever going to. It was full of pilgrims and it was the first time I really felt the weight of the religious element of the Camino.
It still is a religious pilgrimage for lots of people, but plenty of walkers do it for other reasons. Even if you’re not religious, the story of this old pilgrim route is equally as fascinating. It’s like walking through a living, breathing fairy tale.
Back at Albergue A Pedra we joined the other residents around a communal table for dinner. There were about 20 of us in total, from America and Germany and Canada and Poland… and me, from Wales.
Jose and his wife brought out huge steaming bowls of lentils and salads and warm bread and endless bottles of rustic red plonk. It didn’t take long to get familiar with everyone.
Robert was tall and slender, with snow white hair and a glow that hinted at how long he’d been on the Camino. “I’ve been walking for, what, twenty-something days now. I’m doing the whole thing,” he said in his slow Illinois drawl, though it could have just been the wine.
“Any tips for us? We haven’t started walking yet and I’m already a bit worried about blisters,” I said.
“Well I’m a long-distance runner, so my feet are used to it. You just have to know, in your mind, that when you get to the door, you’re not going to hesitate, you’re just going to open the door and walk straight through,” he said.
“And you’ve got to love it. If you don’t love it, why are you doing it? I used to say the same thing when I was working. I’ve just retired, but I was an orthodontist and a professor and I loved my work.”
Robert’s energy and vigour was inspiring and I was desperate to start walking. But it didn’t seem like everyone was having so much fun.
Sarah and Timo, a young couple from Germany, had just finished their second day of hiking. “It’s so much harder than you imagine,” said Timo.
“You start walking and everything’s fine, and then after just 10 km you feel you have blisters and you’re tired, and you have another 10 km to go.”
Jose brought out homemade tarta de Santiago (Galicia’s emblematic almond cake) and poured shots of homemade liquor.
We said cheers and “buen camino!” and I tried to get more advice out of Robert. “You guys have nothing to worry about,” he assured us. “I turn 70 in a few days and if I can do it, so can you!”
Day 2 ~ First Day of Hiking: 23km, Sarria to Portomarín
We woke excitedly at 7.30am, albeit with slightly fuzzy heads, and followed Jacob to a local cafe for breakfast. I devoured pastries stuffed with chocolate and wedges of juicy watermelon dunked in yoghurt.
The beauty of doing the Camino with Jacob is that he takes care of the logistics, leaving you to focus on enjoying the experience.
One of the waitresses stamped our pilgrim passports, which are essential for proving how far you’ve walked, and it was finally time to start walking.
Like over excited children, we greeted all of the other pilgrims and eagerly wished them a “buen camino!” as they shuffled past, their responses varying in enthusiasm and hinting at how long they’d been on the Camino.
Sarria is the most popular starting point for the Camino de Santiago because it’s located about 115 km from Santiago de Compostela.
The “French Way” or “Camino Frances” is the most popular Camino route.
There are many routes starting throughout Spain, France and Portugal. Though it’s interesting to note that, officially, the Camino is supposed to start from your front door step.
I.e. If you live in Scotland, your route to Santiago de Compostela would take a little longer than if you lived in, say, Madrid.
You need to complete at least 100 km of the Camino in order to qualify for your “Compostela” certificate, so starting in Sarria is an obvious choice for non-hardcore hikers like myself.
It’s pretty much the minimum you can do and still be able to say, with a wistful glance to the sky, ‘Yes, yes I have done the Camino de Santiago’.
The second most popular starting point, and the non-official official starting point, is the in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which is a quaint little French village situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Maybe next time…
First Impressions on “The Way”
The sky was silver and constantly looked like it would rain. But it didn’t.
I was fascinated by the diversity of people on the trail, and that the majority of people were quite a bit older than me (I’m 33).
There were large groups of friends hiking in packs, couples holding hands as they ambled along, mothers and daughters reading out loud from tiny prayer books, fathers and sons, brothers, sisters, and plenty of solo walkers lost in deep thought.
At one point I past a German lady with a huge backpack pushing a pram with a tiny baby called Amelia in it.
I revelled in the silence, broken only by the hypnotic clack of walking sticks, the endless chirp of invisible birds and the occasional rumble of a tractor.
Farmers potted about their land, smoking skinny cigars and showing off their bushy moustaches, their wives hawking cups of coffee and homemade cakes to us pilgrims from the back of rusty old trailers.
The lazy cows and sheep and horses ignored us, dogs only barked when I stopped to take photos. They’ve been well trained. Used to seeing a few thousand hikers stroll by every day I suppose.
Pumped with adrenalin and a glowing sensation brought on by the sheer fact that I was finally doing the Camino, I walked the entire 25 km from Sarria to Portomarin in about four-and-a-half hours.
I didn’t stop once, apart from a quick bush stop to relieve my bladder.
First Day Pains
My feet began to ache and burn after 10 km and I could feel two blisters bubbling away on my right foot.
But I still didn’t stop. Not even to get stamps at the little cafes along the way, which I regretted as soon as I reached Portomarín.
I don’t know why, I just didn’t want to stop walking. I was enjoying the constant sense of movement too much, the perpetual feeling of impermanence. I felt like a stream tumbling down a mountainside. Unstoppable.
I was so happy when I arrived in Portomarín that I literally ran over the bridge and up the stairs into the little town.
“This is the river Miño,” I heard someone say. “One of the most important rivers in Spain.”
I hobbled into a little bar called Bar Gonzar, where I would meet with Jacob and the rest of the group once they arrived. It was almost 2pm so I celebrated my first day’s walk with two glasses of ice-cold Estrella Galicia and a huge ‘bocadillo francesa’, a huge bread roll filled with a freshly-cooked omelette – classic Spanish (despite the name).
I updated my social media, desperate to share my experience with someone: “Ready to walk another 25 km. But that will have to wait until tomorrow. For now I have blisters to burst and bread to break. Another day on “The Way” to prepare.
The rest of the group arrived over the following 2 hours, buzzing from the experience and, to my dismay, without even a whiff of a blister. It worried me. I was in quite a bit of pain and still had 4 more days to go.
Learning from Fellow Pilgrims
Our albergue was in another gorgeous spot. A little house on the river with a large and powerful shower.
I got talking to a lady from Singapore called Chai – “It’s like the tea, you know? ‘Chai tea’, so it’s easy to remember.” – who was doing the whole walk. “I’ve lost track of how many days I’ve done. I was doing it with a friend but she got blisters so she went home after four days.”
“Have you had any problems with blisters?” I asked.
“No, but I lubricate my feet every day before walking. Do you lubricate your feet?”
I didn’t have a clue how I would go about lubing my feet. At that moment Chai’s friends burst in through the door, two Canadian ladies with Polar bear hair. One had lost her voice but it was fine because the other lady, Carol, more than made up for her amiga’s silence.
“And where are you from, young man?”
“I’m from Wales, but I live in Barcelona, so I haven’t come too far.”
“Are you tired? But you’re all so young! You can’t be tired yet!” she said, noticing that we had all crawled into our beds and it was still only 6pm.
“It was our first day of walking today so we were a bit overexcited. I’m worried that I’ve already got blisters…”
“Oh, well, honey, you know you need to lubricate your feet every morning. Have you heard of Compeed? We all love it, it’s like a second skin. And there’s a lube stick that you rub all over your feet to lube them. And I can’t tell you how good it is to stop and air your feet from time to time.”
It was golden information and I felt like I’d been let into some kind of club. I was more than happy for her to mother me a little bit – god knows I needed someone’s help and advice.
We jumped into the van with Jacob and took a quick detour to the Portomarín’s Church of San Nicolas, where I got one of the prettiest stamps of the entire trip, a perfect little outline of the church itself with a cross.
A service was held and I tried to reflect on my day, but I was completely distracted by the fact that I was surrounded by Italians. I couldn’t get over how pretty it was when they spoke and giggled, even if it was only to mock the Spanish.
Menu del Peregrino Delights
We ate dinner back at Bar Gonzar, plates stacked high with hunks of beef and salty potato cubes. The north of Spain is legendary for its huge portion sizes and I can attest that it’s a legend based on truth.
Every single meal I had on the Camino was of Jurassic proportions.
We polished off a couple of bottles of red wine, the notoriously cheap plonk they serve with the set “menu peregrino” (pilgrim’s menu) that every restaurants offers.
I’m normally a bit of a snob with wine, but walking 25 km a day has a way of bringing you back down to earth, which is something I appreciated more with each day that past.
By 9pm we were all getting ready for bed. Canadian Carol read a chunky book that must have added a kg to her pack, the voiceless lady snored louder than I’d ever heard anyone snore in my life, Chai hopped up onto her top bunk bed, and my new friends from my group, Isabella, Kasia and Karolina, flicked through photos on their phones and wrote about their day in tiny notebooks.
I rubbed the vaseline I had brought for my lips on my newly raw feet and fell into a deep, deathly-still slumber.
Day 3 ~ 25 km, Portomarín to Palas de Rei
It was a misty morning and the forests of pine and eucalyptus were heavenly as I trudged along carefully, stopping every so often to rest my feet.
My nails on my big toes had been rubbed raw and looked as if they’d been bashed with a hammer. The pain of my blisters was meek in comparison, but it was clear they were getting worse.
My left knee was seized up and I couldn’t straighten my leg, which forced me to walk in a sort of semi-squat (at the time of writing, almost 3 weeks later, I still can’t quite straighten it).
There were lots of “downy bits” as we called them and plenty of “uppy bits”. My toes felt like they would explode in a bloody bubble at the end of my shoes. And as I descended steeper sections my knees jarred and creaked. May I remind you that this was only day two.
I later learned to walk backwards (literally) down the steeper declines as it would take off some of the pressure from my knees. I didn’t particularly care that my fellow pilgrims looked at me like an idiot. “You’ll try it by the end of the hike,” I thought to myself. “You’ll thank me someday!”
I would beam with delight when I saw an “uppy bit” because for some reason it was the only time my feet didn’t hurt. It was also easier on my restricted left knee.
Rhythm and Reflection
I hiked the entire day on my own and found myself drifting off into deep thought about my life. It was pure reflection on my current stage of life and I thought little about the past or future.
I thought about my mother and how I would like to spend more time with her. I thought about my life with Rosana and our cats. My life seemed like pure bliss as I looked back on it from the outside.
I realised how lucky I was and that all I wanted for my future was to maintain what I already had. It filled me with a warm feeling deep in my chest.
The pain focussed me in a physical sense. Once I got into a rhythm and my muscles had warmed up, I could go for 10 km at a time without stopping. But I found that if I stopped then I would be in greater pain once I started again.
I arrived in Palas de Rei, my final destination, and collapsed in a heap in the shade of a pine tree outside a church. I took off my shoes and socks and was horrified to find a huge yellow bubble of water on my heel, as well as two throbbing toes.
A couple of groups stopped as they past and asked if I was OK. One group of South Americans wanted to get a closer look and joined me for a moment.
“You have a pin to pop it?” one lady asked, wincing at the sight of it. “You need to get the fluid out. And do you have any Compeed?” But I didn’t have a pin and Robert had told me not to burst any blisters.
I walked into the albergue without my shoes on. The cold concrete was like therapy. Jacob watched me stumble inside and his eyes widened as he studied me.
“I feel OK actually, don’t worry. I have energy, it’s just my feet,” I said.
The owner of the hostel, who Jacob had been talking with as I arrived, laughed and said, “Lo ver, lo ver!” (I see, I see!).
I drank a beer and crawled onto my top bunk bed, determined not to move until the next morning. But Jacob had other ideas.
“We are going to see Pambre Castle,” he said.
“I’m sorry, I just can’t. I’m in so much pain.”
“Are you sure? It’s one of the last surviving castles in Galicia.”
“OK, but no more walking!”
We climbed to the roof of the castle and I was astounded by the beauty of the landscape. It was hilly and peppered with yellow and purple plants, and little forests that tumbled into the skyline, fading to crimson and burnt copper.
“It looks like New England,” I said to Jacob, who nodded in agreement.
“It’s not near the Camino so most people miss this. But I always like to bring my clients to these special places.”
We ate dinner together. White bean and cabbage stew, grilled octopus and tarta de Santiago.
I drank a bottle of red to myself and sat quietly, wondering how the hell I would endure another two days of agony.
Day 4 ~ Palas de Rei to Arzúa
The day’s walk started in fields of wild mint and forests of eucalyptus. Cuckoos, cats and cows sang to the sun and despite the agony I was in I felt more chipper than ever.
I felt completely at one with The Way now. All of the other pilgrims felt like my friends: the solo Spanish strutters, the 20 young lads from Dublin, the old German power walker who patted me on the back as he breezed past: “Hey, brother! You can take my photo – you won’t steal my soul, I don’t mind!”
I walked for about 5 km, or 5 ‘klicks’ as I was saying now, behind a Spanish couple called Maria and Josep. Josep was clearly quite upset about something and didn’t come up for air as he unleashed his tirade.
Maria hiked on, her face stern as stone, and would stop walking so that she could fully focus on delivering her vicious reproach. It brought a smile to my face.
Of course it was embarrassing to see and hear, everybody within 500 m could hear every word and see every flailing arm, but it was clear that they were working things out.
I had no doubt that, one way or another, their problems would be resolved by the time they got to Santiago de Compostela.
I bumped into Jacob at a beautiful old bridge crossing a river. “Every time I see you you are walking slower and slower!” he gibed me playfully.
I was in so much pain that I was shuffling along at a snail’s pace, but I didn’t want to worry him. He took a few photos of me on the bridge and I tried my best to look valiant.
“It’s the heat,” I said. “It’s definitely the hottest day so far.”
“Well you should stop for lunch in Melide. It’s just up ahead. There’s a place called Pulpería Ezequiel. They do the best pulpo (octopus) in Galicia,” said Jacob.
It was easy to find. There must have been a few hundred pilgrims pouring inside. Long communal tables filled the space and there were backpacks, boots and hiking polls strewn all over the place.
The Best Octopus in Galicia
I took off my backpack and realised my shirt was soaked through, as if I’d worn it swimming.
I scoured the tables in search of a place to sit like a school boy in the canteen. And sure enough, there was a familiar face. “Hey! The party’s over here!” called Robert.
I joined him and his friends, Antonio and Diego, a father and son who had teamed up with Robert at some point along the way.
They were in a jovial mood, sipping Galicia’s famous white wine and devouring plates of ribs and ‘polbo á feira’, also known as ‘pulpo estilo feira’ and ‘pulpo a la Gallega’, Galicia’s famous octopus.
It’s made simply by boiling the octopus in huge copper cauldrons and sprinkling it with ‘pimentón’ (sweet paprika).
Isabella turned up. She was only ever a few minutes behind me. Her face was white with suncream but she was as bubbly as ever and rounded us all up for group photos.
I ate a whole portion of pulpo, sank a couple of ice cold Estrella Galicias and practised my Spanish with Antonio.
He was fascinated to hear that I lived in Barcelona and asked me all sorts of questions about my thoughts on the Catalans wanting independence.
It was a bit of a push with my limited political vocabulary, and knowledge in general, but it was fun to hear about their lives in Madrid.
Diego had moved to Germany for work and had been designated the role of translator for Robert and Antonio. He seemed relieved to have a few minutes off as I took over for a bit.
I hoped the beer would ease the pain in my feet, but as we all headed back out to finish the day’s walk I felt broken. I sat on a bench to spray more suncream on, and before Robert, Antonio and Diego suggested I walk with them for a bit. There was no way I could’ve kept up.
I took off my shoes and was mortified to find my blisters had burst and were now more like open, throbbing wounds. The toenail on my left foot radiated with a sort of yellow and purple hue and I was all out of plasters and Compeed.
As if on queue, Canadian Carol and the voiceless lady strolled past me. I waved.
“Hey, is that the young Welshman with the blisters?” said Canadian Carol.
“It is,” I replied, still hunched over my feet. “How are you doing? Are you enjoying?”
“Oh, honey… I’m just, really, I’m just ready for it all to be over,” Carol said in a careful tone so as not to disappoint me.
“I understand, really I do. And you’ve been walking much, much longer than me,” I said.
They both moved in closer to get a good look at my feet.
“Honey, you really need to get those taken care of. There’s a pharmacy right there. Dry them and get some Compeed on them. Do you have clean socks?”
I agreed and promised I would stock up before continuing.
Eight Hours of Hell… in Heaven
The next 5 to 10 km seemed to take me forever. There were lots of uppy bits and far too many downy bits.
I stopped at every opportunity to air my feet and remould my Compeed. I’d lie on my back and rest my bare feet against a tree and squirt water over them.
And when I finally made it to Arzúa I was shaking from the pain, exhaustion and dehydration. It had taken me more than eight hours.
I sat at the bar and consoled myself with two beers and a wedge of tortilla. “Every time I see you you have a beer in your hand,” Jacob laughed. I couldn’t talk so I didn’t bother trying to justify myself.
As I got to the end of my second beer, Ola and Aneta, the (74-year-old) mother and daughter from my group, walked in. Ola had a big smile on her face and looked calm and composed.
I was filled with admiration and, spurred on by my rapid intake of beer, began to applaud her.
One of the things I gained from this trip was a new found respect for older people’s physical strength and ability. It made me feel less gloomy at the prospect of getting older myself.
A New Friend and Prophets of Pain Relief
At the albergue that night I met a lady from Chicago, Illinois. Her name was Jane. She hadn’t met Robert along her way, but was excited to hear of a fellow Illinoian.
Seeing me hobble around the room, Jane asked about my feet.
“Today was the worst day, but I think I can deal with the pain for another two days,” I told her, mustering the spirit of the Camino.
She had done a 30-ish day route of the Camino and hadn’t suffered with blisters or funny toenails like me.
“There’s a lot to be said for stopping. I stop as often as possible and take off my shoes and socks to dry out my feet. And I change my socks every now and again,” Jane revealed.
She offered me one of her toe plasters, a tiny tube that you slot of your toes to separate them. As she demonstrated how to put them on I noticed her legs were hairier than mine. It was the first time I’d ever seen such hairy legs on a women and I was impressed and full of admiration. She’d earned that hair.
More than that, I realised that the Camino had desensitised me to the foibles of the human body. Hearing people on the crapper, snoring, spitting and coughing up all sorts of gunk… it didn’t both me like it normally would.
The Camino is a reminder that we are all the same, us humans, and that there’s really nothing to be embarrassed about.
“Actually, I met an older couple a few days ago and they told me to double sock,” Jane went on. “And they say the best thing to use are women’s tights, under your normal socks.”
I hadn’t heard this but I was more than happy to try it.
“I bought a pack actually but I never used them. You’re more than welcome to try a pair. They’re socks, but made with the material of tights.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, stuffing a pair into my pocket. “I’ll try them tomorrow.”
Jane would be walking the last of the Camino the next day.
“Thirty-something km seems like nothing now. I can do anything after this,” she laughed.
I felt exactly the same way.
Day 5 ~ 28 km (plus accidental 4 km), Arzúa to Pedrouzo
I couldn’t tell if the route was easier or if I was just used to it, but I did 28 km without any real difficulty, then accidentally walked an extra 4 km on top.
I was totally in the rhythm now and loved the routine of it all: get up early, lube and wrap up feet, eat breakfast, hike for 5/6 hours, drink beer, shower, eat, sleep, repeat.
The women’s tights felt silky and soft in my shoes and there was a noticeable difference. I remembered what Jane had said: “It’s basically sock rubbing against sock, not skin rubbing against boot.”
I was walking almost as normal and the pain was reduced by more than half. It gave me a new lease of life and I felt sad that the hike was nearly over.
I hoped I would bump into Jane along the way so I could say thank you, but I never did see her again.
I immersed myself in each stage, stopping to study the texture of trees and soak in the views.
The sign posts, which are located all along the Camino, had messages written on them: “You’re nearly there!” and “Your destiny is waiting for you.”
I felt connected to the people who’d written these messages and knew that if I were ever to meet them we would have all of this in common.
I missed the turn off sign for Pedrouzo, where I was supposed to go and walked 2 km before the hiker in front of me turned around and started walking back.
He’d missed the turning too, and as I started walking back I bumped into Kasia from my group, who had also missed it.
We retraced the 2 km back through a eucalyptus forest, the sun illuminating the canopy above and dappling the path. We’d stop from time to time to take photos and fill our lungs with the menthol scented air.
I didn’t mind the extra 4 km. It simply meant I got to spend more time in the forest.
Fairwell Mass in Pedrouzo
We went to mass in Pedrouzo. There were many familiar faces, the Irish lads, the Italian group, couples and solo hikers.
The mass was held in English, Spanish and Italian and there was a girl playing a guitar and singing songs that everyone else seemed to know.
At the end, we “gave the peace”, and this time I knew what to do. I shook hands with the people around me, all of us making sure to make eye contact as we did so. It was incredibly powerful.
Day 6 ~ 20km, Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela
It was raining torrents and the temperature was the lowest it had been, but spirits were sky high. Today was the last day of the Camino – we had almost done it.
I hiked the whole 20km in one go, stopping only briefly to stamp my pilgrim passport and top up on water, which I was happy to do in the toilets of the cafes along the way.
I loved every rain-sodden second and revelled in the fact that my feet didn’t hurt at all, which was strange considering the state of them.
On the hill of Monte de Gozo I caught my first glimpse of Santiago de Compostela.
I stopped to take photos of the giant pilgrim statues that point towards the cathedral of Santiago, which I could see illuminated by a beam of sunshine piercing the clouds in the distance.
I felt both ecstatically happy and quietly sad that it was almost over. It was like getting off a rollercoaster and being told that you’re not allowed to run back around to the line to do it again.
I took my first steps into the city and it felt odd to be surrounded by “normal” people and busy roads.
The heavens opened and I hid under a shop canopy. I had been lucky I hadn’t seen more of Galicia’s notorious rain.
Between showers, I joined other my fellow pilgrims toward the city. Many whooped and hollered with excitement as we caught a glimpse of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, others, limping and hobbling along, just seemed happy it would all be over soon. I wondered if Canadian Carol had finished yet and tried to imagine how she might be feeling.
I was the first of my group to arrive, but as always Isabella turned up soon after. We explored the Cathedral, its gothic towers looming over the buildings like a something from a comic book. Inside it was all gold and intricate paintings, where pilgrims prayed on the cold wooden benches.
In the line to get my certification (they wrote my name in Latin, no less), I noted that many had walked much farther than I had, some for over 30 days, covering many hundreds of km. These people were more than twice my age and seemed in a much better way.
Old Friends and Goodbyes
In the cathedral I bumped into Timo and Sarah, the German couple who I’d met on my first night in Sarria.
“We’ve been here for two days! We were looking for you!” they said.
“How was the rest of your Camino?” I asked.
They grinned at each other coyly.
“Actually, we had a lot of pain on our fourth day. Maybe our boots were the wrong fit, we don’t know. But we got the bus straight here and we are staying at a hotel!”
I had heard that many pilgrims don’t finish. I’d seen enough taxi phone numbers pinned to signposts along the way to know there must be some kind of demand for transport.
I laughed, totally understanding why Timo and Sarah had opted for comfort instead of more pain. It turned out they were staying in a five-star hotel.
They joined our group for one last dinner, which was accompanied by the sounds of a local singer and guitar player who belted out Janis Joplin numbers while we devoured our final “menu peregrino” and polished off our last bottles of cheap plonk.
I will always feel connected to these people, to this place, and I hope they will look back on the experience as fondly as I will.
Did the Camino change me?
I wrote this on the plane back to Barcelona from Santiago de Compostela.
It feels peculiar not having anywhere to walk to, knowing that I won’t spend tomorrow on the trail. I got up quietly in my hotel room this morning and tiptoed to the bathroom without turning on the light, forgetting that I was no longer in an albergue.
I felt lonely and sad that they weren’t all there, rubbing Vaseline on their feet, meticulously packing their backpacks and wishing me a “Buen Camino!” as they left.
I already miss the sense of community, the one-for-all togetherness.
Am I changed? I think so. It’s given me strength and confidence, a renewed vigor and lust for just getting out there and exploring. The world really is out there waiting for us. It gives me such a strong sense of comfort to know that all you need is a backpack and a decent pair of shoes (and a pair of women’s tights), and that there are people out there from all walks of life that will help you make it happen.
Apparently Jacob runs a longer cycling tour of the Camino that starts in Porto, Portugal. I’m definitely going to sign up. Just a soon as my toenails grow back.
Make it Happen
Click your way over to TraveltheWay.com to see Jacob’s various tours and book your Camino.
Jacob’s tours are perfect for inexperienced hikers/travellers and he takes care of everything from accommodation to food and transporting your luggage, so you can focus fully enjoying your walk.