A Walk That Changes Lives

Biding my time at the train station, waiting at the border between France and Spain, increasingly impatient, I decide take a cab into Biarritz, France. While engaging the driver I notice two ladies approaching us. They inquire as to what I’m doing and I offer to split the cab ride 3 ways to which the happily agree.

Making our way into France I’m excited to chat with two Irish ladies fresh off the trail of Camino de Santiago. Literally within hours of completing their historic walk they are with me ready to share their adventure. I pretend not to know anything about this legendary pilgrimage in hopes of getting the whole scoop and nothing but the whole scoop so help me God.

The Way of St. James or St. James’ Way (Spanish: El Camino de Santiago, Galician: O Camiño de Santiago, French: Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, German: Jakobsweg, Basque: Done Jakue bidea) is the pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried.

The Camino de Santiago (The way of Saint James) is more than a thousand years old and is one of three Christian pilgrimages during which all sins are thought to be forgiven. Others look further back in time to Celtic legends that the walk was a fertility ritual or that Galicia was the gathering point where the dead would follow the sun across the ocean.
Many pilgrims walk the last 100 kilometers (62 miles), or 200 kilometers (124 miles) if by bicycle. Some even come on horseback.

Yellow signs mark the route to Compostela The pilgrims are issued a “passport” which allows them cheap lodging along the way at various hostels (“refugios”) and must be stamped at each one. This is then presented at the Pilgrims office in Santiago where they will receive a certificate of their journey.

I’m a big fan of walking but this is over the top. As one of the Irish ladies begins to unravel memories of her journey the other quietly reflects inwardly. I’m told the story surrounding Shirley McClain making a secret walk in disguise. Of the walking, the praying, the walking, the people along the way, the food and accommodations. This is serendipity travel on steroids.  After a few minutes its clear to me one of the ladies has just had a life changing experience.  Clearly religious she is the zone so to speak. Her informative talkative friend seems less so.

They slept in Albergues  4 to 10 Euro a night for a dorm bed. There are municipal ones and private ones. They might be in a room of 10 people or 50 – they never know for sure until they get there. Folks share bathroom/showers and a kitchen.

If you don’t mind sleeping with a crowd this seems the way to go, beats hauling camping equipment down the trail. There are Hotels along the trail for those seeking more privacy but it seems to me a bit odd.  I can’t imagine sleeping in a suite with room service and then spending the day being a pilgrim, it seems a bit contrived.

However waking up with back pain, knees etc. is to be expected. Weather aside, rain and mud can make things tricky it’s really an issue of endurance. Some folks pick up the trail for a day or two. Others make a 5 week adventure of it. Most have their luggage transported for them by a company dedicated to this service.

Most every village along the trail offers a Pilgrim Menu for 7 to 10 Euro. Pilgrim Menus are normally very simple with lots of carbs. Many choose to get food at the grocery store and cook themselves.

Arriving in Biarritz I bid farewell to the Irish ladies. If not for the fact I needed to stay focused on my photography I might well have spent more time with them. One gal had a transformational experience, life altering to be sure. The other seemed more like a good friend, she had her friends back.

Not sure that her friend really needed a guardian angel on this particular journey. Either way if you want to do something really unique, something that will test your serendipity muscle, something that could change you forever, this is it.

Popular Routes

Pilgrims on the Way of St. James walk for weeks or months to visit the city of Santiago de Compostela. They follow many routes (any path to Santiago is a pilgrim’s path) but the most popular route is Via Regia and its last part – the French Way (Camino Francés). Historically, most of the pilgrims came from France, from Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy and Arles and Saint Gilles, due to the Codex Calixtinus. These are today important starting points. The Spanish consider the Pyrenees a starting point. Common starting points along the French border are Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Somport on the French side of the Pyrenees and Roncesvalles or Jaca on the Spanish side. (The distance from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostella through León is about 800 km.). Another possibility is to do the Northern Routethat was first used by the pilgrims in order to avoid travelling through the territories occupied by the Muslims in the Middle Ages. The greatest attraction is its landscape, as a large part of the route runs along the coastline against a backdrop of mountains and overlooking the Cantabrian Sea.

However, many pilgrims begin further afield, in one of the four French towns which are common and traditional starting points: Paris, Vézelay, Arles and Le Puy. Cluny, site of the celebrated medieval abbey, was another important rallying point for pilgrims and, in 2002, it was integrated into the official European pilgrimage route linking Vézelay and Le Puy. Some pilgrims start from even further away, though their routes will often pass through one of the four French towns mentioned. Some Europeans begin their pilgrimage from the very doorstep of their homes just as their medieval counterparts did hundreds of years ago.

Another popular route is the 227 km long Central Portuguese Way, which starts at Sé Catedral in the city of Porto in the north of Portugal. There are two traditional routes from there, one inland (the Central Way) and the Coastal Way (Caminho da Costa). On the central route, Rates is considered the central site in the Portuguese Way.[11] The way has been used since the Middle Ages and the ancient monastery of Rates gained importance due to the legend of Saint Peter of Rates. The legend holds that Saint James ordained Peter as the first bishop of Braga in 44 AD. One of most tiring parts of the Portuguese Way is in the Labruja hills in Ponte de Lima, which are hard to cross. The camino winds its way inland until it reaches the Spanish border throw Valença. The Coastal Way gained importance since the 15th century due to the growing importance of the coastal towns. The route splits from the central way in the countryside of Vila do Conde and enters the town throw the Monastery of Santa Clara and the Matriz Church of Vila do Conde was built by king Manuel I of Portugal while in pilgrimage. The rising importance of Póvoa de Varzim imposed this new direction,[12] which also crosses Esposende, Viana do Castelo and Caminhabefore reaching the Spanish border.

Final Thoughts

The pilgrim route is a very good thing, but it is narrow. For the road which leads us to life is narrow; on the other hand, the road which leads to death is broad and spacious. The pilgrim route is for those who are good: it is the lack of vices, the thwarting of the body, the increase of virtues, pardon for sins, sorrow for the penitent, the road of the righteous, love of the saints, faith in the resurrection and the reward of the blessed, a separation from hell, the protection of the heavens. It takes us away from luscious foods, it makes gluttonous fatness vanish, it restrains voluptuousness, constrains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul, cleanses the spirit, leads us to contemplation, humbles the haughty, raises up the lowly, loves poverty. It hates the reproach of those fuelled by greed. It loves, on the other hand, the person who gives to the poor. It rewards those who live simply and do good works; And, on the other hand, it does not pluck those who are stingy and wicked from the claws of sin.

Codex Calixtinus


About Roger O'Keefe

My background is in education and finance. I'm a published author and photographer, former radio talk show host, and creative retirement planning expert. My work is a love of labor, I do not sell any products of any kind. I've appeared as a guest on more than 50 national and local television and radio shows. With a Masters in education, I'm a licensed educator and author of the “Future Bright Program” and the California State Department of Education “Teacher Appreciation Program.” I'm a member of the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Care Planning Council NCPC. I'm currently writing my second book and reside in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. My mission is to reshape retirement planning one person at a time. Please visit my website www.creativeretirementplanning.net and take advantage of the many complimentary online seminars, resources, and retirement planning tools.
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