A lot of people don’t understand the Camino.
When you tell them you’re voluntarily walking four hundred kilometres through Spain with all your possessions on your back, they don’t believe you at first.
Once you’ve convinced them that, yes, you’re serious – just like many thousands of other people from all over the world, who do the same thing each year – they look at you strangely.
To most, walking the Camino makes no sense. But thankfully a huge number of people do get it.
They understand why you want to wake up at 6am in a top bunk surrounded by other snoring figures; to don hiking boots and a backpack every day for a month; to face the prospect of aches, pains and blisters in every body part, all for the sake of walking.
To walk the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route through Spain which people have been following since the 6th century, is to enter a world unlike any other I’ve encountered on my travels; a world filled with camaraderie, freedom, endless coffees and entirely too much bread.
I have way too much to say about the Camino, but these are some of the first things I think of now I’m no longer in that environment. A word of warning, though: if you’re a fellow pilgrim, you might want to ready yourself for a flood of familiarity.
You know you’ve walked the Camino when…
Stone markers, shells, yellow arrows and piles of stones are all significant.
I didn’t carry a map or a compass with me on the Camino. Part of the beauty of this walk is Spain’s commitment to showing us ‘The Way’ through every method possible – and it’s safe to say that the vast majority of pilgrims are only able to stay on the right track because of it.
There are stone markers nestled in the undergrowth every kilometre, which denote the remaining distance left to reach Santiago; yellow arrows painted on walls, doors, and fences, pointing the right direction; shell designs in the metal railings and pavements underfoot, just to ensure us that we’re in the right place.
My favourite element of these markers, however, was realising that many of them had been created by other pilgrims. Presumably when they hadn’t been entirely sure of the correct route, either – but had wanted to make sure the people behind them were given more direction on their way.
Your feet are the most important part of your body.
Whether you’re massaging them as soon as you wake up, bathing them in rivers, taking your boots and socks off at every opportunity, or even stopping in the middle of forests to meticulously re-apply your plasters and Vaseline, there’s no doubt that the upkeep of your feet is a constant focus in your Camino life.
Conversations at each rest stop, meal time and hostel will usually also involve a heated discussion about foot care – and might involve some annoying British woman crowing about the fact that she still doesn’t have a single blister.
Apologies for that. But I still don’t understand how that’s possible…
Any surface is preferable to asphalt when you’re walking all day.
Prior to the Camino, I naively assumed I’d be happy to walk on roads for hours at a time. It’s flatter, right? Easier than scrambling through stones or uneven ground?
My feet quickly developed a sixth sense for pre-empting what a walking surface would feel like, and the unforgiving, unyielding asphalt of Spanish highways sat smugly at the bottom of the preferred list. I began to notice the well-worn paths in every strip of grassy earth beside the roads, as countless pilgrims before me had tried to avoid the asphalt.
The other issue was these roads usually came with speeding cars, little shade and the dread of monotony. Usually, these were the moments when I hoped for a copse of trees and the bliss of a shadowy forest to materialise just around the corner.
Your body needs three liquids to function normally: water, cafe con leche and vino tinto.
I’ve always been a coffee junkie, but this reached whole new levels of necessity on the Camino. If I started my day’s walk without coffee, my body felt sluggish and my brain was slow, and I quietly begged for the first roadside cafe to appear en route within a couple of kilometres.
As soon as that first cafe con leche hit my bloodstream, though, I actively walked more quickly and felt much more energised.
Cue the mornings where friends and I would improvise caffeine-related songs of joy and praise.
Outside of coffee, water is of fundamental importance on the Camino – and I was one of the pilgrims who decided to fill up my bottle from the drinking fountains along The Way.
Much to the consternation of a few, more suspicious others.
Finally, there’s the utter joy of reaching your albergue in the afternoon and knowing there’s a bottle of red wine somewhere in town with your name on it.
Your food choices alter.
Bananas and cake at 6am in the darkness of an albergue kitchen. A bocadillo filled with tortilla at your ‘second breakfast’ stop – probably around 8 or 9am. Baskets of bread for every pilgrim menu, which you quickly get sick of. There’s no doubt that the way you eat will change while walking the Camino.
It took me a few days to understand how crucial it was to eat something little – but often – while I was walking. Luckily I have the snacking gene fully present in my usual freelancing lifestyle, so it wasn’t hard to grab for biscuits and chocolate bars every half hour in an effort to keep my energy levels up.
I’m also rather proud that I can now unzip the top of my pack, grab a banana, close the zip again and start eating – all without breaking stride. Achievements!
You have a new appreciation for Buffs, bumbags, zip off trousers and walking poles.
Aged eighteen, I packed horribly unflattering cargo shorts for my first volunteering trip to Kenya on a building project because I figured that’s Just What You Take To Volunteer – and I immediately realised upon arrival that I was never going to wear them.
I’ve hated taking trip-specific gear on my travels ever since, and buying zip-off trousers for the Camino was a really loaded decision. But it turns out that this is the kind of trip where you learn just how useful all those things actually are.
I wore a Buff on my head every day – it meant my hair was out of my face and kept the frizz at a minimum. My bumbag was an absolute godsend, keeping my passport, phone and wallet close to hand and immediately accessible.
I didn’t zip off my trousers that often but loved having the option on the days where it suddenly grew bizarrely hot in Galicia – and let’s not even question my decision to buy a walking pole.
Thanks to the sage advice of a Spanish pilgrim named Luis who I met in a tiny cafe near Cruz del Ferro in the pouring rain, I learned that there were two days of slippery descents on the horizon, and a stick would make my life infinitely easier.
Without hesitation, I paid six euros for a wooden stick that barely left my hand for three weeks. A wise decision.
Cornfields, kittens and cows are all instant mood improvers.
This isn’t just confined to the Camino, of course – I’m an unabashed cat lady, and proud of it – but throughout the Camino I found myself gravitating towards adorable animals.
Maybe because it was a worthy distraction from the walking and broke up the monotony?
I still can’t explain the cornfields, though.
Those babies always made me happy, and I have no idea why.
Stopping to smell the flowers becomes an actual thing.
Spending every day walking through a country means you start to notice the details of the landscape – be it the sound of birds, the mice in the hedgerows, or a stretch of lavender growing in the middle of a road barrier.
That’s when you’ll find yourself scurrying through traffic to pick long stems, tucking them into your bag straps and sniffing happily at it whenever you next pass a cow field. Because those guys are adorable, but they stink.
Foreign graffiti is worth deciphering
Pilgrims meet, talk and then split ways again – it’s one of the idiosyncrasies of the Camino that your friendships are often fleeting. But occasionally you’ll lose touch with someone who you really want to see again, and that’s when the Camino graffiti comes into play.
There can’t be many tiny Spanish villages that have messages in French, German, English and Japanese scribbled onto street signs and the sides of dumpsters. Depending on what you’re able to translate you’ll see every kind of message, from positive to thoughtful to the downright emotional.
When you see a church, you automatically go inside.
After my first week of walking, I realised I’d been in more churches in seven days than in the last year. I wasn’t on the Camino for any religious reasons but the first girl I walked with was, and she liked to say a quick prayer at each town’s church.
So I grew accustomed to stepping inside the cool, calm, warmly lit buildings and taking a moment to think.
Plus they usually had adorable elderly Spaniards sitting at wooden desks to stamp our passports, too.
You expect everyone you walk past to say ‘Buen Camino!’
Walking the Camino feels a bit like being part of a secret club, where you give sly smiles to anyone wearing Crocs or sitting outside a roadside cafe with a backpack beside them. And that’s just in Spanish towns and cities.
When you’re walking, it’s plainly evident that most other people around you are walking the Camino too. So we’re friendly. I know a lot of pilgrims I met got a little sick of saying a chirpy ‘buen camino’ to every single face they saw, but I always enjoyed doing it.
Maybe I just really want to be in a gang with a secret password.
The kindness of strangers is a real thing.
A handful of fresh figs from an old lady’s car in the midst of an approaching hailstorm. A bunch of grapes passed across the fence from a woman in her garden’s vineyard.
The utter, unbelievable joy that is a donativo stand in the middle of nowhere on a baking hot afternoon.
No matter what the media tries to present to the contrary, I do believe that people are inherently good. If you’ve ever doubted it, then get yourself to Spain and walk the Camino.
Every day, I was overwhelmed by people I’d never met who extended their generosity to me in so many little ways, and it was beautiful, inspiring and completely humbling.
You’re constantly in awe of people’s faith.
All along the way, you see photographs of loved ones propped up against little towers of stones; ribbons tied around chainlink fence; crosses made from sticks tucked neatly into barbed wire.
Some pilgrims carry objects with them to represent feelings and emotions they’ve held onto for long enough, and as they walk they part with them – both physically and hopefully mentally too.
It’s somewhat overwhelming when I actively looked at all these offerings, and realised that every single one represented a person and something monumental in their lives.
A death. A life. A struggle. A hope.
You’re already planning which Camino route to walk next.
For some pilgrims, walking the Camino gives them the gift of time. Removing themselves from their busy schedules to simply ‘be’. For others, it’s relishing in the simplicity of walking, or discovering hidden parts of Spain, or challenging their bodies to do something they’re unaccustomed to.
Often you won’t learn the reasons behind someone’s decision to walk. It’s a personal topic, and many won’t share why. But as I reached the end of my Camino, the most common topic of conversation was which Camino we thought we’d walk next.
People say that the Camino gets under your skin in more ways than one, and it’s totally true. I walked four hundred kilometres over three weeks and it simply wasn’t enough.
I know I’ll be back. It’s just a matter of when.