Today we begin an adventure of a lifetime. We land in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France to begin the “El Camino de Santiago” or “The Way of St. James”. I have always dreamed about conquering the El Camino since I first stepped foot in Spain more than twelve years ago. Brett and I had several discussions over the years about the 800 kilometer ancient walk across Spain. After traveling for almost nine months (throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe), we’ve become quite exhausted from hopping around countries. Short visits make it difficult to fully embrace any one culture or gain much spiritual enlightenment. Walking the Camino gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves into Spanish culture, while delving deep into our souls.
Our decision to do the walk was solidified by watching the film “The Way” directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father Martin Sheen. The film depicts the thirty day pilgrimage across Northern Spain through a tragic father and son story. The father embarks on the Camino in memory of his son who died during the first day in the Pyrenees Mountains. Estevez incorporates a collection of true stories from pilgrims who have taken the journey over the years. The film is indeed inspiring and within the first thirty minutes Brett and I made the final decision to embark on our own Camino.
History of the Camino
The thousand year old Camino de Santiago is a 500 mile (800 km) pilgrimage route. It starts near the French border in the Pyrenees and ends in Santiago de Compostela within Spain’s Galicia region. Check out the map. It commemorates Santiago, meaning St. James, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles who valiantly attempted to spread the word of Christianity throughout the Iberian peninsula. After an unsuccessful venture, he returned to Jerusalem in 44 CE where he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. His death was a result of his ties to Jesus and Christianity. Legends say his followers carried his body miraculously by sea in a stone boat with no sails, all the way to the Galician coast of northwestern Spain. St. James’ remains were buried and forgotten for nearly 800 years until a Christian hermit discovered mysterious bones. Soon thereafter the bones were declared those of St. James. The King of Asturias built a chapel for his tomb and proclaimed St. James the Patron Saint of Spain.
In the centuries that followed, twenty-two miracles were attributed to St. James and many believe it’s his guiding spirit that saved the Spanish Christians from Moorish rule. Pilgrims began visiting the site and the town Compostela sprouted up. Compostela means “Campo de las Estrellas” or “Field of the Stars”. The Camino route is believed to be situated directly under the Milky Way following ley lines that reflect energy from the stars above. Many believe the Camino has the power to transform through its spiritual energy. The number of visitors each year kept increasing, as did the traffic and prosperity to the monasteries and villages along the route.
Traditionally, pilgrims set out on the El Camino to visit the remains of St. James at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. They were usually repenting for their sins or proclaiming their faith as Christians. Today, people partake in the pilgrimage for a variety of reasons. Some for religious and others for spiritual, health and fitness. Many people are going through a transitional period in their life, such as graduating from college, in between jobs, marriages, or retirement. The number of pilgrims has dramatically increased in recent years. In 2001, 61,418 pilgrims received the Compostella certificate. Just 10 years later in 2011, the number tripled to 179,919 pilgrims. The majority of pilgrims are Europeans (92%), Spaniards making up nearly 50%. Only 3% of North Americans make the trek. We suppose this has to do with the limited two week vacation allottment in the United States. Interestingly, most pilgrims are over the age of 35, with a vast majority…..
El Camino de Santiago is a unique experience that Brett and I have dreamed about accomplishing during our lifetime. It was an easy decision given that we are currently traveling for an extended period of time. And, we do not know when this rare opportunity to escape from the world for one month will arise again. Embarking on this spiritual journey together will be a beautiful end to our year of travel. Walking twenty-five kilometers a day for one month will indeed give us the time to reflect on our experiences this year, as well as contemplate our future when we return to San Francisco. Physically, we are excited to strengthen our bodies and lose some travelers’ weight.
Preparation & Packing
There are several pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela. These include the French Way, the Northern Route, the Portuguese Route, and the Southern Route. We decided to take the French Way as it is the most traditional route with no shortage of accommodation and amenities. Additionally, it crosses through Spain’s popular wine regions, La Rioja and La Navarra. And, we just love Spanish wine! Although the entire route from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain is 800 kilometers….. it’s only compulsory to complete the final 100 kilometers. This “smaller” task will earn you the official Camino certificate of completion. Therefore, pilgrims begin from a variety of starting points along the route depending on how much time they can devote to the trek. Some people do the Camino in parts from year to year. The majority of pilgrims walk the Camino, however there are others who bike, horseback ride or drive to Compostela. It’s also common for people to hire a service to transport their backpacks/gear from village to village for $5/day. It is important for us to accomplish the full 800 km route with our packs by our side. We want to experience this special journey as those pilgrims did the past twelve centuries. I am somewhat concerned about my history with foot problems, particularly plantar faciitis and sprained ankles. Nonetheless, it’s extremely important for me to make this journey by foot while taking all the necessary precautions.
Preparing our backpacks was quite easy since we’ve been traveling for the past year and already went through the stages of getting rid of unnecessary items. Check out our essential packing list.
Read our daily journal
We will choose a new destination town each day for rest and relaxation. After our afternoon foot siesta, we plan to ponder and share the day’s experiences with our friends, family and followers. The idea is to post a journal entry on culturecats.com, detailing our contact with other pilgrims, the landscape, villages, Spanish traditions and legends of the Camino.
See our Photo Album:
Our Camino de Santiago Begins