Before I arrived here in Santiago, when they found out that I was coming here, people would often ask whether I was planning to walk any of the famous camino de Santiago. I would laugh nervously, slightly ashamed to admit that I knew next to nothing about the camino, and mumble a vague reply. It’s only since arriving here that I’ve realised just how big of a deal the pilgrimage trail is.
Camino de Santiago can refer to any of the routes that finish at the city’s Cathedral, supposedly the home of the remains of apostle St. James the Great. The tomb was discovered in around the year 800AD, and pilgrims have been completing the trails pretty much constantly ever since. Popular starting points include Lisbon, Porto, Arles, and Le Puy; along the way are cheap boarding houses, known as albergues, where walkers can settle down for the night for as little as €5. Traditionally, of course, spiritual enlightenment was the desired outcome; nowadays, tourists keen to say that they’ve done the camino seem to be the order of the day, and the number of pilgrims welcomed by the city rises year on year.
Being the destination of so many pilgrims, Santiago might as well have a license to print money: the zona vieja is crammed full of souvenir shops and the bars and restaurants must make a killing from all of the appetites worked up by walking.
I’m writing about this now because I transformed my room into an albergue (free, of course) over the weekend for a friend. I met Katie in France when she very bravely signed up to come to the château to work as an animatrice during the October stage. We didn’t get to know one another that well then, but year abroad friends are friends for life, and so when Matt told me that she was walking the camino from Porto I was very swift to message her offering up my bedroom floor. She accepted (because who turns down free accommodation, really?) and arrived in Santiago on Saturday after ten days of walking. We went to midday Pilgrim’s Mass and she introduced me to some of the friends she’d made along the way. We had the most fun-filled weekend ever, during the course of which we discovered that we have a scary amount of things in common. Highlights included numerous positive affirmations (Katie, if you’re reading this, remember that you don’t owe him anything), tinto de verano, octopus (which, despite being unwilling to try, Katie loved), and many hot drinks.
And it was clear that she’d had an absolute ball during the walk. She’d met a lot of interesting people from all over the world – most of whom we went for dinner with on Saturday night – and had spent a lot of time reflecting. She’s inspired me to seriously consider doing a bit of the camino before leaving Spain. I’m not religious at all, but I do enjoy a good walk and I would definitely be very glad to have done it. From Santiago, there’s a route to Finisterre encompassing 90km and three days (at least) of walking; I could do it from Friday to Sunday. Check back for more updates on this probably overly spontaneous, still-to-be properly thought-through plan.
This weekend, one of my closest school friends is coming to stay, and I’m hoping that the weather forecast (which is looking good at the moment) will stay positive enough for us to go to the Islas Cíes for a day. After two false starts, I might finally make it to this mystical paradise. I’ll be sure to let you know.