Pilgrimage to Santiago- the journey is the goal

Before I discovered hiking, it was the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, that fueled my outdoors dreams. For several years I had seen the pilgrims walking past my window or overtook them in my car, on the search for waves to surf. When one is comfortably sitting behind the wheel and making more kilometers in an hour than a pilgrim in a week, walking seems really tough. Sometimes
I felt pity for the tired people trudging alongside the road, with a heavy pack on their back. Still it always nagged me to see the roadsigns that contained information for the pilgrims, or a tiny path, leading fromt he national road into the forest, with an arrow or a scallop on it. It felt like a true adventure, like an undertaking that I couldn’t grasp without doing it myself.
I saw pilgrims on usy beaches, where they seemed out of place, wearing boots and fully clothed. I saw them fighting for their space on the serpentines of the mountaineous national road, being relentlessly overtaken by trucks. Yes, I pitied them – and still I was longing for this adventure.

 

In 2011 I finally decided to give it a try. As the starting day I chose my birthday, in late September. I was thrilled but equally anxious. What if I didn’t find the trail? What if I got lost?

Without having ever done something similar, I just couldn’t picture what was awaiting me. I took the train to Valença (not to mix up with Valencia) by the portuguese-spanish border and made my way from the train station to the albergue (the pilgrims hostel), where I was going to spend the night. Was I a pilgrim? I couldn’t really identify myself as a pilgrim. After all I hadn’t walked at all, yet. Walking through town with my backpack on was just really odd to me. A pilgrim belongs in the open landscape, I thought.
As I awoke the next morning, my phone showed it being 7am. Apparently everybody else I shared the dormitory with had already departed. I was gripped by a nervous sensation, packed up all my belongings in a hurry and left as fast as I could. I followed the yellow arrows through town and down to the estuary, where an old bridge, ressembling the style of the Eiffel Tower, crossed the river Minho, into Spain. So far it wasn’t too hard to follow the trail, I was content. Soon after I threw away all the papers I printed out at home, which described the path meticulously, meter by meter.
The sun started rising higher and it got warmer. Now I was in Galicia, the northwestern Province of Spain. A rush of happiness came over me: Now my adventure was really starting!

 

On this first day of my pilgrimage I walked 23 kilometers, through forests, over tiny old roads that were no longer in use and through the industrial outcrops of the small town O Porriño, which was my goal for the day. By the time I arrived in O Porriño I had no doubt when it came to identifying myself as a pilgrim. I was exhausted from the heat and the concrete under my feet. I checked in at the local albergue and stretched out on the bed for a while.
After a couple of hours and some lunch I already felt restless again and was wondering what was awaiting me tomorrow. This restlessness unfortunately became my companion for the rest of the trip. There was so much time to just relax and hang out, but I just couldn’t make use of it. I had a hard time falling asleep and even staying asleep during the nights. Every morning I woke up with a rush of adrenaline and felt driven to hurry up and away. And I didn’t even know why. Every day I was one of the first arriving at the next albergue, often even before it had opened it’s doors at 2pm.
Being by myself, I didn’t have to slow down for anyone, I took to few breaks and never even dat down for a lunch or a snack in one of the restaurants along the way.
Unsurprisingly I started hating the Camino de Santiago more and more.
It was like a nightmare to me, like a parallel world with no escape. Looking back, this perspective seems overly dramatic and exaggerated, especially when referring to a walk of merely 120km in easy terrains. The lack of sleep and the feeling of isolation made it feel very real though. In the end I was blind for the experience I was having and looking back I can say without a doubt that I simply had a panic attack. I honestly felt like I was drowning. I ended up in a hostel room by myself, unable to sleep or eat, throwing up and shaking all over. And this was only one day before arriving to Santiago. One day, or some twenty kilometers, but it felt so out of reach. As that point I didn’t even care about the pilgrimage anymore. In the end I got picked up by my then boyfriend, who drove me back home to Porto, where I finally got out of the vicious circle I felt trapped in.

 

 

After this experience I wasn’t to sure if I still liked the concept of a pilgrimage. It wasn’t the trails fault that things had gone wrong, it was my own.
Only a week later I went back and completed the last day of the Caminho Português into Santiago. Walking through the town, approaching the big square with the cathedral and holding the document that confirmed my pilgrimage in hands, certainly felt awesome. I had really earned this one.
But still I wasn’t too sure if I actually enjoyed this experience. Nine months laster I was back in Valença. where I had also started the year before, only this time with a friend of mine and less insecure. This trip became a much more positive one- our week was filled by conversations, rich meals in galician restaurants and exhausting days in rather hot weather.
Since all good things are three, I completed the same route one more time in march 2014, with my now husband. It was important to me to share all these impressions from my previous experiences, which are impossible to transmit just by telling stories about it.

We had a pleasant week with quite bad weather, as it can be expected in march and ended up even continuing to Fisterra, the westernmost point of continental Spain, 90km from Santiago. As that point I was already more familiar with hiking equipment, which made the walk a lot more comfortable. The company of a friend or partnet is a huge factor when going on a trip, a hike or apilgrimage, at least for me. Together with another person it is so easy to just live in the moment, sit down and relax. Small and big experiences want to be shared, there is an outlet for thoughts and feelings. A beautiful view or a taste meal are worth so much more when enjoyed in company.

 

I gave pilgrimage on my own another chance in late summer 2014, when I embarked on a stretch of Camino del Norte, the trail that leads along the Bay of Biscay. In the meanwhile I had gotten so familiar with hiking, spending a night in a bunk bed and living out of my backpack, that it didn’t seem like a big deal. To be honest I don’t even remember a so many details from this walk, because it didn’t really touch me that much.
I enjoyed walking by the sea, taking off my shoes and standign barefoot in the water, spending the afternoons hanging out and eating a lot of delicious spanish food.

At this point I felt ready for something more secluded, closer to nature and with proximity to the mountains. The Caminos are quite urban and one can never walk many hours without seeing or hearing cars or walking on concrete. Some might argue that the most important part of a pilgrimage is the spirituality. For my part I’m not a catholic and foreign to their rituals and believes. From my point of view, if there is a god or a bigger force, it clearly exists within nature. I don’t need to visit churches or walk on a trail that leads to a cathedral. Standing atop any mountain range I can appreciate how mighty and incredbly beautiful this earth is. In this way the Camino de Santiago has taught me a lot and I’m happy to have discovered how sublime nature is, superior to anything manmade.

A glimpse of some wilder landscape on the Camino was possible in January 2015, when we headed out to experience a bit of snow on O Cebreiro, one of the higher points of the Camino Francés. Of course the snow there never really lasts long, nor is it deep enough to go on skis or snowshoes, but just walking uphill with the trail hidden underneath a layer of snow and glittery white everywhere in the trees was magical. In the evening it became really windy and the snowflakes danced past the window of the albergue while we were sitting in the kitchen, having dinner. It was magical and truly stunning, even more because snow on the Iberian Peninsula is not all too common and therefore a real treat.
Even this winter, in February 2016, we had the chance to see one of the more wild and beautiful spots of all Caminos, the Collado Lepoeder, highest point of the Camino Francés, located in the Pyrenees.
This was my last Camino experience so far, but I will alway keep the adventures on these trails in memory, as the beginning of my discovery of the outdoors.

 

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