Could you tackle the 800km trek in Spain?

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You would think that as an Irishman – especially a northern Irishman – I would have been better prepared than most for the challenge of walking a traditional route.

After all, enough of my fellow countrymen had done it; and I, myself, had seen enough marches at close quarters – as ‘an observer’ – to know what would be required, hadn’t I?

Actually, no, I hadn’t. No amount of ‘rubber-necking’ at Apprentice Boys’ parades, or spectating at Orange marches could have prepared me for the rigours of walking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Even my regular Sunday forays – hours spent climbing the hills of Donegal – had failed to steel me for what lay ahead in what I thought was just a wee dander.

‘The Camino’ – or the Pilgrim’s Way, as it’s also known – has been trodden by ‘the faithful’ for more than a thousand years, as an extreme form of penance. You still find penitents following in their footsteps nowadays, but you are just as likely to meet restless souls, searching for the meaning of life; tourists looking for a cultural experience; and those – like me – simply yearning for a personal ‘challenge’ to mark significant milestones in their lives.

I say ‘simply’, but be under no illusion: there is nothing easy about walking the Way of Saint James.

Naturally, such an arduous trek exacts an enormous toll on the human body. I averaged about 32km a day (frequently wandering off course for some extra sight-seeing), and managed to lose two stone in weight and three inches off my waistline over the course of the month.

At times, though, the psychological challenge surpassed the physical one, especially on the Meseta – the long, barren, featureless flatland between Burgos and Fromista – where a walker could be left alone with his thoughts for hours on end. As if it wasn’t gruelling enough there, I caught a stomach bug, which meant an unscheduled, visit to hospital.

For me, the most breathtaking part of the Camino was the stretch from Villafranca del Bierzo to O’Celbreiro, in Galicia – harsh walking terrain but remarkably reminiscent of Glencolumcille in its rugged beauty.

While the scenery is , for the most part, bewitching, it is the people you meet en route who will live longest in the memory: like the petite, 81 year old Belgian woman, doing her third ‘Camino’, who told me, “I walk to live”; the 70 year old Italian, who offered to carry my back-pack on his ramshackle, improvised cart; the eccentric Russian – with the Bible and the Koran downloaded onto his iPod – striding off, looking for answers to the ‘big questions’; and the nonchalant, middle-aged Frenchman, in jeans and leather jacket, who could have been out for a Sunday stroll.

You’d meet such people by day on the road, or later over a communal supper – a ‘pilgrim meal‘ – from the Menu Peregrino in one of the many albergues which dot the route. One evening, I even had the pleasure of eating a vegetarian meal with a delightful Buddhist family in the hostel they run. Remarkably, in all the albergues I stayed in, we managed to overcome language barriers and communicate with one another, often to keep our spirits up, before eventually falling asleep in our bunk-beds in shared dormitories. The last leg of my Camino, from Sarria to Santiago and Finisterre, was in retrospect the most enjoyable. By this stage I was exhausted and blistered, and my spirits were flagging. But I was joined for the final 110 kilometres by Mark Roberts and thirteen other pilgrims, from Derry, Donegal, Ballymena, Limavady and Toome. They’d come, like me, to raise money for the Playtrail.

The camaraderie of my new colleagues restored my morale and put a spring back in my tired old legs, motivating me to complete my walk. The craic near ‘the finishing line’ was mighty: Paddy Nash and Diane Greer’s early morning warm-up sessions got us all fired up on those last few days; and the pair of them joined forces with Mickey Dobbins each evening to share some culture – Derry-Londonderry-Doire style – with their burgeoning new, Galician fan club.

My colleagues had a surprise in store for me, as we arrived in Santiago de Compostela. My wife Anne and my daughter Aine were waiting to celebrate my achievement, as I reached my destination.

Walking the Camino had long been an ambition of mine but strangely, on completing it, my main emotion was one of relief rather than achievement. At Finisterre, feeling emptied and sore – and by now sporting a new beard – I burned my boots and clothing, and then walked barefoot into the Atlantic, in a symbolic gesture of my own.

It had been a remarkable, intensely personal, journey of discovery. I had experienced emotional highs and lows all the way from the Pyrenees to the western coast of Spain; I had encountered snow in the mountains and searing heat in the flatlands; I ate my fill of culture and history along the way, and got to know so many new friends in the process. Ultimately, though, like so many who ‘do’ the Camino, I got to know one person best of all: myself.

Ola, y buen Camino.