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Buen Camino

By the Revd Phil Wales

A little while ago I arrived in La Coruña, northwest Spain, to join a diverse group of people, for the most part from Britain but also from as far away as Canada and Australia. We were there to walk the Camino de Santiago (‘The Way of St James’). Our destination was the awe-inspiring basilica of St James the Great at Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral dates from the 9th century and the imposing Romanesque building has been extensively developed and modified over the years. It is one of a small number of churches built over an Apostle’s tomb. Consequently, it has been a destination for countless Christian pilgrims for well over a thousand years. The town and region are drenched in centuries-old myths and legends about Santiago (Saint James), one of the patron saints of Spain.

Our small band of hikers was to travel along part of one of the most popular routes, the Camino Francés, starting at Samos, about 130km to the east of Santiago. The tranquility of our rural surroundings gave us the opportunity to get to know one another before we made tracks. We were also able to acclimatise and try out our “pilgrims’ legs” without being immediately caught up in the surge of travellers we were told to expect once we got closer to the Saint’s tomb.

Samos had also been chosen for tactical reasons. To obtain a personalised ‘Compostela’ (a certificate of completion of a pilgrimage), pilgrims must walk at least the last 100km along one of the dozen or so official routes. Recognising how many of us might only have one opportunity to obtain a Compostela, more than the minimum required number of kilometres had been factored in. The idea was that this extra distance would help us nurture our group flow and team spirit in readiness for what lay ahead.

I had long anticipated the start of my own Camino, gradually getting ready for it over the preceding months. A few trial hikes had been undertaken, replacement boots bought and broken in, day wear, hats, and other bits and pieces had been checked and repairs made where needed. When I returned home afterward, it surprised me just how much my preparations had also involved stuffing my luggage with creams, lotions, potions, and other assorted medicaments ‘just in case.’

Several TV programmes also helped me gain a deeper insight into the long history of the Camino and its spiritual and emotional significance for people, whether they identified as Christian or not. The route to Santiago (and beyond it to Finisterre) had been the pilgrimage of choice for many pagan seekers after God long before it became ‘El Camino’ as we now know it. One documentary was especially memorable because it included a variety of stories from individual travellers who shared their reasons for undertaking the adventure. One, an extremely lean Catalonian, told an interviewer how he had hiked the same route year after year. From his home in Barcelona, he had clocked up tens of thousands of kilometres.

The filmmaker asked why he kept doing it. “Was there a religious impulse or motivation which could explain this remarkable feat of endurance?” she asked. “Oh no, no, no, no!” he exclaimed. “Certainly not for religious reasons, no! You see, I’m an atheist; thank God!”

As I discovered, not all of my fellow travellers were undertaking their Camino for spiritual or religious reasons either, or at least not publicly stated ones. We were, no doubt, each carrying our own private burdens and challenges, which inevitably lay outside the sphere of the time-limited camaraderie we had cultivated. Yet I sensed that each of us had come with a hope that, through sharing a common purpose, the experience would reshape us, whether or not our hopes were directed consciously Godwards.

It’s often said that a person’s true Camino begins once they have arrived at Santiago de Compostela. I wonder? Might that be so for those of us who set out together one fine spring day.

Buen Camino: A Pilgrim’s Acrostic

Beginning as strangers 
Untold stories within 
Each life full of wonder 
None more valued than one 

Carrying burdens in backpacks 
“All the way to St James?” 
Making ‘walk talk’ loads lighten 
In days of our goal. 
Now here; has the pilgrim’s task ended?
Or just only begun?